Rising Haredi Population Put a Jerusalem Scout Den in the Crossfire

Activists say that in the context of heightened polarization between Haredim and other communities, the Ramot neighborhood could be a prototype for coexistence.

In the middle of the night between February 13 and 14, firefighters were dispatched to extinguish a blaze at an Israeli Scouts den in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood. Although five fire companies responded, the fire had already consumed the building's contents and the wooden support columns holding up the roof, which collapsed. The police and firefighters judged the cause to be arson, not the first time that unknown perpetrators had acted against the den.

The assumption in Ramot is that ultra-Orthodox extremists who want the secular scouting den out of the increasingly Haredi neighborhood were behind the fire. But demographics are doing what the fire did not: Scouting Association officials in the capital are considering the future of the den, which may close in the next school year due to low enrollment.

Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood - Michal Fattal - February 2012
Michal Fattal

However, secular and religious-Zionist neighborhood activists say the move would damage efforts to replace Ramot's "haredizing" image with one of diversity. They say that precisely in the context of heightened polarization between Haredim and other communities, Ramot could be a prototype for coexistence.

In the city's vocabulary, Ramot is synonymous with "haredization." It was built in the 1970s as a secular neighborhood, but over the years ultra-Orthodox families increasingly moved in and members of the "general population" - nonobservant and religious-Zionist Jews - moved out, at an average rate of 450 a year. The neighborhood's population swelled to 49,000. In the 2008 local election, 49.5 percent of Ramot voters chose the secular - and winning - candidate, Nir Barkat, while 50.5 percent voted for the Haredi candidate, Meir Porush.

The assumption was that Ramot's non-Haredi population was about to lose its majority, putting the neighborhood on the final road to haredization. School enrollment figures reflected the trend; two years ago the first-grade class of Ramot's nonreligious elementary school had just 19 students. But the trend was reversed: In the past year, 70 secular and religious-Zionist families have moved in, and this year there were 31 students in the same first-grade class.

Secular residents say that despite the increasing presence of Haredim, roads were not closed on Shabbat and the athletic center and swimming pool remained open. There are no images of scantily-dressed women in the local mall, but there are images of women, and non-Haredi women work in the stores. The optimists in the pluralist camp say Ramot can serve as a unique model of neighborly relations between Haredi and secular Jews. The pessimists say it's only a pause in the drive for Ramot's total haredization.

The pluralists' main achievement so far was the division of the neighborhood's community council into two councils. They knew that a single council would necessarily be controlled by Haredim, who vote in much greater numbers than their non-Haredi counterparts. After a prolonged battle, Barkat and Haredi city council members agreed to the measure, which eventually won the support of some Haredi residents of Ramot.

That development proved that many of Ramot's Haredim do not fit the stereotype of an extremist, separatist community.

"Haredization stopped for two reasons: The secular public realized it had no place else to go, and the Haredi public opened up," an important neighborhood figure said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Ramot has been becoming Haredi for 25 years," Ramot Council chairman Ze'ev Landner said. "The facts prove that when there's a public that can stand up for its principles, it's possible to stop the process and learn to live together.

"That's the future of this neighborhood, this city and of the state," Landner said, adding, "They live here because they don't want to live in a Haredi neighborhood. The relevant question isn't how many Haredim and how many secular people live in the neighborhood, but rather how many want the neighborhood to be pluralistic and how many want it to be Haredi. On that question, you get to 85 percent in favor of a pluralistic neighborhood - that's the right calculation," Landner said.

"The situation is half and half, there's a potential for war or for coexistence," said Shmulik Hanoch, the head of the Ramot Council. He said that when Haredim complained about the lack of modesty at the swimming pool, a hedge was put up to conceal the area. "For the nonreligious person, it's more green; for the religious person it's more modest," Hanoch said, adding, "You can find the recipe for coexistence."

Yerach Toker, a Haredi journalist who is also spokesman for MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ), related that the woman whose home in the neighborhood he bought eight years ago told him she was leaving because of the rising Haredi population there. "I said to myself that within a year or two it would be totally Haredi, but it's been eight years and the situation is static. Secular people aren't leaving and no one has demanded that the road be closed on Shabbat," Toker said. "I moved to a mixed area, I knew I wouldn't make any special demands. On Thursday there was a party here until 1 A.M.; I don't have a problem with that."

The Jerusalem municipality said in a response that it supported and will continue to support the scout troop for as long as it is in the neighborhood, and that it cooperates with the Israel Scouts administration throughout the city, adding, "The decision to have two councils is part of a policy of maintaining the status quo, in which de facto two community councils serve the needs of both major communities living in the neighborhood - one Haredi and the other general."