Fighting 'Arabization' or solving housing shortage?

Negev, Galilee, leaders debate new haredi enclaves in the periphery.

January 24, 2010 11:09
4 minute read.
Fighting 'Arabization' or solving housing shortage?

negev 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On Tuesday, the National Planning Council subcommittee responsible for general planning principles recommended that the National Planning Council authorize the construction of Kasif, a new haredi city in the Negev, 10 km. west of Arad. The move was met with criticism from environmental organizations for its effect on open spaces, but also from local leaders.

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Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev said his municipality had opposed the initiative from the start, when it first came up for debate two-and-a-half years ago.

"We think it is a huge mistake in principle and that the decision goes against the state's main planning objections of dispersing the population," he said.

Bar-Lev is also concerned that the new city will cut into regional budgets and mostly at the expense of Arad.

"Instead of investing in a neighborhood for officers who will serve in the Negev's new instructional base, the funds will go towards a haredi-only city that will draw on the resources," said Bar-Lev. "It is a mistake for the state to create segregated cities, no matter for which population. Instead of promoting integration it is creating an insular society."

Bar-Lev, who was previously the director-general for the Ministry of Interior, said that the project, entailing 10,000 housing units and all the auxiliary structures and institutions that go with a brand new city, would cost the tax-payers billions of shekels.

"Instead of spreading the costs over the whole country and installing infrastructure where it is needed, the state will spends millions of shekels on brand new infrastructures in a remote location. The cost will be unprecedented," he said.

MK Menahem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism), chairman of the Knesset Lobby for Housing Solutions for Young Couples, defended heavy state subsidies for new, haredi-only housing in the Negev and in the Galilee.

"No other population in Israel is willing to move en masse to outlying areas such as the Negev and the North where the Jewish population is dwindling and the Arab population is on the rise," said Moses.

"It is a national interest to encourage Jews to move to these places and haredim are the only ones ready to do it. If other segments of the population are willing to, they should get subsidies also."

Moses said the subsidies would be used to lower contractors' development costs.

In addition to Kasif in the Negev and Harish near Hadera, which are still in preliminary stages of planning, there is another haredi-only project planned for a neighborhood of Upper Nazareth called Har Yona.

The city's mayor, Shimon Gapso, has made numerous public statements expressing interest in bringing haredi or religious-Zionist populations to a future neighborhood that would be called Har Yona Gimmel.

Gapso is interested in using the haredim to fight the "Arabization" of Upper Nazareth taking place in recent years as Jews leave and residents of neighboring Arab villages move in.

Moses said that since infrastructure and roads were already in place, the prospects of building in the near future were better than for any other major haredi building project. The new neighborhood would have 12,000 housing units, he said.

Moses, a Viznitz hassid, said that 3,000 haredi families was the minimum needed to create the "critical mass" for the success of a self-contained haredi city.

A source within Viznitz hassidism doubted that members of his movement would agree to move to a place like Har Yona.

"I believe that Viznitz leadership will first want to concentrate on building up existing centers such as El Ad, Betar Illit, and Ashdod before directing people to a new community," he said.

Although the haredi community is looked at as monolithic, it is made up of many diverse groups that might not be willing to come together to form a new town. This could complicate plans for the creation of a new haredi city. Hassidic groups tend to stay together, with Gur, Belz, Viznitz and other movements' members living in homogeneous neighborhoods. For instance, the Boyan hassidic movement, as part of a leadership-level decision, is planning to create a new enclave in Kiryat Gat.

Lithuanian haredim also tend to live together in homogeneous neighborhoods.

It is unclear whether enough haredim from different groups can be brought together to populate Har Yona.

The source from Viznitz added that many in the haredi population might be turned off by the large Arab population in the Nazareth area.

Nevertheless, housing shortages in established haredi community are acute. High fertility rates among haredi families for several decades have kept housing demand high.

In parallel, two Shas cabinet ministers are in key positions to influence building policy for the haredi public. Ariel Attias on the national level as construction and housing minister and Eli Yishai on the municipal level as interior minister can work together to push through projects.

The minister of the Galilee and the Negev, Silvan Shalom, rejected the notion that the haredi cities were the state's way to "Jewishize" the periphery.

"Kasif provides a solution for haredim who have nowhere to live. Some went to El Ad and some are going to the Negev. People can live where they want," said Shalom.

Populating the Negev was a vision as old as the state and the construction of new towns and settlements there was a top government priority, he said.

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