Head to Head / Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Why Are the ultra-Orthodox and Religious Staying Away From the Housing Protest?

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and the president of the hesder yeshiva there, is one of the most important leaders of the national religious sector today, with an impact on many circles.

There is a large religious population in the cities that is active in social causes. They are part of the struggling middle class, but at least until now, the presence of modern Orthodox people (as well as the ultra-Orthodox ) in the housing protests has been negligible. The protests which began two weeks ago are the focus of a growing debate within the national-religious community. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and the president of the hesder yeshiva there, is one of the most important leaders of the national religious sector today, with an impact on many circles.

He issues a challenge to rabbis who are younger than him, and usually considered more liberal and social-minded, but have so far not called on their flocks to join the protest. The interview with him was first set up to discuss the conference that took place this week in Jerusalem, under the auspices of Tzohar, a prominent organization of Zionist rabbis, of which Rabbi Ariel is the president, but the conversation shifted to more current events.

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel
Nir Kafri

Rabbi Ariel, do you expect the religious public to protest?

The housing protest is everyone's protest. This morning a student at a national religious yeshiva consulted me and asked if it is permissible for him to protest. I said yes, clearly, this is the protest of all of us - it is a social problem that affects the entire public.

What exactly should be protested?

I say we have to protest against the policy of the government, of the governments. There is no right and left here. All of the governments privatized, stopped building public housing, and abandoned the young couples. I wrote a letter to the minister of housing 20 years ago; I wrote about it in several places. The national religious leadership did not do what the ultra-Orthodox did; they caused coalition crises over housing issues. Pressure should have been exerted; government crises should have been created.

They mocked me when I said that housing issues justify a coalition crisis. It is inconceivable that young couples not have a right to live somewhere. What the prime minister promised this week is just the beginning of the road to correcting the situation. Therefore, people should go out and protest. I am not saying to go to a tent camp or what exactly should be done. The public must protest the policy of not ensuring suitable housing for young couples, and not seeing to the development of the periphery.

What is the root of the problem?

As one looking at the problem from above in a very general way, the biggest shortcoming of the entire Jewish people for decades was focusing all the effort on housing in the Dan region. Why did Israeli governments through the generations not develop the Negev and Galilee? Why only now are the rail lines being developed? I lived in the Negev for 25 years - I know what I'm talking about. The state did not take care of developing the periphery.

To the credit of the national religions and ultra-Orthodox sector, let it be said that they went to live in the periphery, and that includes Judea and Samaria. That prevented a lot of housing pressure in Jerusalem. Successive Israeli governments abandoned the periphery and built in Tel Aviv what Ben-Gurion referred to as 'Nineveh.' Why do buildings sprout there? Why is the business sector and academia here? This is why the prices are soaring here. There is better air in the Negev.

Why are the religious and ultra-Orthodox staying away from the protest? The ultra-Orthodox never take part in protests, especially in a place where the people and the dress are inappropriate for them. You will not see them at a protest anywhere in the world because they maintain their ways. Even the national religious have a similar problem, although to a lesser extent; they cannot just go to any tent camp where there may possibly be problems relating to modesty, and unfortunately, they also could not attend the protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, because it was scheduled for 30 minutes after the end of Shabbat. Religious people could not get there, and therefore it is difficult to cite such things as proof that the religious are not taking part. Shabbat ends at 8:30 and by the time they get organized and go, no observant Jew has a chance of getting to any protest before 10:00.

But the public is stirred up, the entire public is stirred up. I don't see the distinction. The fact is that in Ramat Gan as well, next to our yeshiva, a tent camp was set up. Just this morning, I saw a student from our yeshiva, whose landlord is demanding a 20 percent increase in rent. This is a person who is studying and his wife is also a student, and they have very low income. Raising the rent by 20 percent? This is a problem.

Could it be that there is isolationism among the religious public, which is reflected both in the communities and the separate neighborhoods? On the contrary, the religious sector is in the cities and knows the problems. They are the ones who dare to go to tough places. To the religious public's credit it should be noted that in recent years they have been setting up the Torah-oriented nucleus group. It is a large group and the best example of this is in Lod. Do you know how many religious families live in Lod? There are hundreds. This is a city with rampant drugs and other problems. A religious group went there with a pioneering goal, built up a large, Torah-oriented seed group. Now the contractors are coming in and also building apartments for this segment, but they are not worried about difficult places. They suffer twice, because when they first arrive, the housing prices they are charged increase dramatically.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva (which combines religious studies and military service ), came out against the housing protest and referred to it as populism. According to him, this is not a social protest, because "genuine protest on issues involving justice and law is when people fight for the rights of others, and not when they fight for their desire for a solution to their own problems." How do you feel about this argument?

I read his article and there is a certain degree of truth to his argument; some of the protesters are worrying about themselves. He claims that social protest should focus on others. Nice, but on the contrary, I am asking why don't those who have housing go out and protest on behalf of those who do not have housing? On the contrary; I agree that those who don't have housing appear to be worrying about themselves; but, firstly, what's wrong with that? And secondly, why don't those who do have housing also go out to help those who don't?

This should be a social protest. That is why I say that even those who have, must encourage the others to protest. I, who have my own home, but am aware of the severity of the situation, I feel the severity of this issue. I could not buy an apartment in the center of the country for all of my children. I don't have such an option, but thank God, each one bought in a place that suited them, thank God, they are taken care of, and even so, I say that I know people who are not set up and they have to be helped. We must protest. It is indeed a serious social problem.

What is the situation like in Ramat Gan?

Ramat Gan is ostensibly seen as a wealthy city, but there too there are difficult, problematic neighborhoods. I live next to Ramat Amidar. Also an interesting example; Ramat Amidar was considered a neighborhood with a bad reputation; go see what's happening here. They set up a hesder yeshiva; students live here although some are also studying at Bar-Ilan University.Two hundred young families of different religious levels, some of them live in the yeshiva, some are in the career army, some are in university, and they are living in Ramat Amidar. Here an interesting problem arose because the neighborhood improved, and the price of housing increased due to the pressure from the people looking to live in Ramat Amidar. They came to help and improve the neighborhood which was floundering. It's a double-edged sword - there they charge them higher prices. How was this demand generated? The demand was generated by the nucleus group that came here. But if there was convenient, quick transportation, then it would be a possibility.

Is there a chance that a large religious group will indeed go to the tent camps despite its fear of the involvement of leftist elements?

I'm no prophet or anything like that; this social protest is good although truth be told, part of it is being spurred by others and therefore care must be taken to differentiate between the positive and negative elements of it. It is possible that the protest has had an effect and that the government reacted accordingly. We have to remain alert. Everyone realizes that the implementation of the promises will not take place overnight. After all, years of shortcomings will not be resolved in a matter of days.