Residents Battle to Keep Northern Israel City Secular

Residents Karmiel's Meyasdim neighborhood want to reverse the transfer of a building to a yeshiva, which they say will turn the area into Haredi enclave.

Residents of Karmiel's Meyasdim neighborhood are furious over the transfer of an abandoned school compound to the Keren Or Yeshiva, which they see as a sign of ultra-Orthodox gaining a foothold in the area.

The residents would rather see the site made into a community center or a club for seniors.

Karmiel meeting - Hagai Frid - December 2011
Hagai Frid

The Palmah school, the city's oldest, was closed eight years ago for lack of students. The Keren Or Yeshiva is run by a non profit headed by the city's chief rabbi, Tzvi Margalit, and includes a house of study, dormitories and kollel for married men to study.

Eight months ago, an ad-hoc committee formed in the neighborhood, to coordinate activities to counter the yeshiva and Haredi encroachment in Karmiel. The group is currently circulating a petition, and is considering an application to join the Secular Cities Forum, which promotes cities maintaining a non-religious character.

Ze'ev Korcik, one of the heads of the group, convened a meeting of the activists in his home last month.

"[Mayor Adi Eldar's] decision to transfer the school compound to Rabbi Margalit is an electoral political move, because Eldar needed the votes of Margalit's allies. The mayor did not consider the needs of the neighborhood and the residents," he said.

A spokesman for the municipality rejected the charges and said the move was a cost saving measure and would not change the character of the city.

"The school compound stood empty for a period of time," the spokesperson said. "The Keren Or Yeshiva occupied a building in the industrial zone, and the Education Ministry saw fit to use the Palmah School building, instead of building another building at high cost. Karmiel is a city in which the status quo between the secular and the religious is preserved, and it is appropriate that this continue to be the case."

Thelma Hadasi, a former principal of the school and one of the first teachers in Karmiel rejected the argument that the committee's activity is driven by racial or anti-Haredi motives.

"It is they who have initiated the separatism and are trying to coerce a different lifestyle, not us. If anyone tried to do the opposite in Bnei Brak, no one would allow it to happen," she said.

Pinhas Siroka, the director of the Keren Or Yeshiva and an associate of Margalit's, rejected the charge that the yeshiva was transferred due to electoral motivations and said Haredim in the city did not try to force their lifestyle upon others.

"Everyone who comes to Karmiel, including Haredim, knows that the character of the city is secular, and everyone respects one another," he said. "I have secular neighbors who respect me and I respect them, so the allegation that we will work toward closing the streets and that we will force a Haredi lifestyle on the neighborhood is unfounded. The fact is that the yeshiva has already been around for seven years, and the sign on the gate still bears the name Palmah."

Gila Zeltzer, a former teacher in the school and one of the activists in the struggle, explains that it is not an individual struggle over the school's future, "but a struggle over the future of the neighborhood and the entire city, in which about 10 percent of the population is Haredi. Their strategy is clear - to move from one compound to the next and to put down roots. Interest is already being expressed by Haredi families in buying homes in the neighborhood, and anyone wanting to sell will be compelled to compromise on the price. That's how it is going to go, from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood."

Among those active in the campaign against change in the character of the city are traditional, skullcap-wearing Jews such as Pinhas Tzivoni. He does not rule out the possibility that he would act, along with his friends, to bring Karmiel into the Secular Cities Forum.

"I have no problem with it, because for me Judaism is also a matter of observing the law, and not openly violating the law," he said.

At the meeting held at Korcik's home, he brandished a thick binder that contains all the correspondence with city hall, as well as a petition to the Administrative Affairs Court in Haifa against construction carried out in the compound without a permit.

"What is happening is a gross violation of the law, and contempt for the law, and no one at the municipality is raising a finger," he said. "It is simply scandalous."

The municipality said "Building inspectors pay constant attention to what is done at the site, in order to ascertain that no construction against the law is carried out."