Haredim support 'tent city' protests, but won't join in

ByJONAH MANDEL
July 19, 2011 21:23

Permanent haredi presence at Tel Aviv housing protest would kill it by turning secular media against it, United Torah Judaism MK says.

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UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler visits TA housing protest

Yisrael Eichler 311. (photo credit:Haim Rabinowitz)

A permanent haredi presence at the Tel Aviv housing protest would kill the cause by turning the secular media against it, a United Torah Judaism MK said on Tuesday. Speaking just a few hours before a planned visit to the site, Yisrael Eichler had no doubt that current public support of the protest, that would benefit all Israelis including the ultra-Orthodox, would flip if haredim became visible in it.

An outsider picking up an average haredi newspaper might be initially surprised to see the focus given to the real estate market, alongside the expected religious and political affairs.

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But that media attention accurately reflects what is perhaps the biggest problem facing the haredi sector: the housing crisis. Haredi Mks, from both Shas and United Torah Judaism, focus much of their legislation on ways to ease the predicament of high housing costs to a largely impoverished sector, in which a dowry can include an apartment, and living walking distance from your rabbi is a must.

The secular media aside, still, there is little chance of seeing among the tents members of the haredi sector for reasons pertaining to their lifestyle.

“What is happening now in Tel Aviv is a protest very a-typical of the haredi public,” said Yehonatan Steinberger, a 28-year-old father of three who is renting an apartment in Jerusalem. “For a haredi, to go out on to the public realm and streets is not simple, we keep our privacy.”

The protest itself will no doubt only benefit the haredi sector, many of whom do not work, and buckle under the rising living costs in Israel.

To haredim, there are certain values that are worth paying almost any price for, such as education and living near one’s rabbis, Steinberger explained.

“It’s very important for me to be nearby my spiritual center, which is 10 minutes away from where I live by foot,” he said. The Steinbergers, who live on the border of the haredi neighborhood on one side and Rehov Yaffo on the other, recently decided to relocate in Jerusalem to the entirely haredi area of Shmuel Hanavi. The move will boost their rent from NIS 2,500 to NIS 4,500, a hefty sum that they see no choice but to pay, due to their concerns over the influence the mixed secular-haredi area might have on their children.

“Our oldest daughter is six, and where we live now is not an area to raise children,” Steinberger said. “We are adding a monthly 2,000 shekels expense for the education of our children.”

Eichler couldn’t quantify the breadth of the housing crisis in the haredi sector, but he noted how acute a problem it is, that only now – thanks to the fact that it is not perceived as a haredi issue – it is being addressed.

“All of the edicts the Finance Ministry made against haredim regarding housing were legitimate, so long the Israeli public thought it was a haredi problem,” Eichler said. “Haredim don’t have civil rights in this country, and get them only when they are given to Arabs... Now the protest has spread to the streets, to Tel Aviv, Kiryat Shmona, Beersheba,” he said.

To Eichler, the problem of high housing costs is due to the fact that the Israel Land Administration currently has no criteria for lot prices, besides the highest bid.

“For years we warned the prime minister, we said it’s not just a haredi problem, but also that of young couples and senior citizens.

We told him the cause of it was the profiteering of the Israel Land Administration.

In the past, the administration would set a price table in the Housing Ministry of how much it wants for the land it allocates for apartment construction in each and every area. In the past two years, they changed the system and now they sell land to the highest bidder, which caused the prices of all the plots in the country to leap by 40 percent.”

While the solution would be simple – to regulate the prices on lots and determine criteria, such as location, the speed and quality of construction – there remain staunch and powerful opponents to such an option, Eichler said.

“The Finance Ministry is against changing the system, since in the year 2010 alone they raked in NIS 14 billion, compared to NIS 3 billion in years before the change, at the expense of the simple Israeli citizens.”

Later on Tuesday night, Eichler was scheduled to pay a visit to the Tel Aviv protest area. But his brief presence is anything but an indication that haredi families might join the protest of which they are a silent part.

“Once the organizers informed me and the Knesset’s Economic Committee that this is an all-Israeli protest, and not one solely of extreme-Left and anti-religious groups, I told them – we’re with you,” he said.

“But as a media person,” continued Eichler, who for years was a journalist and columnist in haredi newspapers and hosted a weekly radio show, “I told them it would be against their best interest to have haredim as part of the protest, since that would cause the media to shift sides away from its current support. If the haredim will be in favor, the media will be opposed to it. For years we have been trying to raise this protest, and nobody cared.”

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