The 70,000-plus residents of Modi'in, Israel's young, rapidly-growing "City of the Future," are a bourgeois bunch who care everything about "quality of life" and seemingly very little about politics. But in this city midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there is one political passion, one cause that stirs residents from Right to Left: keeping out the haredim.
Over the years, anytime a news item appeared that some haredi developer or politician wanted to build a neighborhood for his community in Modi'in, the municipality's rapid response team would publish a poll showing that 123 percent of the residents would flee the city if such a thing occurred, and the developer or politician would know to look elsewhere. In the city's first election in 1998, an upstart party called "Ir Hofshit" ("Free City") ran a scare campaign warning that the haredim were coming, the haredim were coming, they were plotting to invade Modi'in like they'd done in nearby Lod, and Ir Hofshit outpolled every other party.
Today, Modi'in has a substantial minority of modern Orthodox, but still no haredim, which is one reason it is such a great magnet for people leaving Jerusalem - and one way in which it earns its nickname "City of the Future." Across the country, people commonly consider the haredim's growing numbers to be a "demographic threat," no less, supposedly, than that of Israel's Arab citizens. The weekly Shabbat riots at Jerusalem's Carta parking lot, which often lead the Saturday night TV news that starts off the new week, reinforce this fear, as do lurid sagas like the one involving the martyr of Mea She'arim - an emotionally disturbed woman now on trial for allegedly starving her son nearly to death. Thus, for much of the public, the haredim have become pariahs.
WHETHER ISRAELIS like it or not, though, this population is growing very, very fast. The average haredi family has seven children. The proportion of haredim in the population is generally estimated at 7 percent to 11%; Bar-Ilan University professor Menachem Friedman, considered the country's leading expert on the community, puts it at "more than 10%."
The consequences of haredi demographics have been thoroughly discussed: increased poverty for the community, a growing strain on the economy and social services, especially education, and deepening resentment among mainstream Israelis who have to shoulder the military and most of the taxpaying burden for a draft-exempt, largely nonworking minority that, because of its growing numbers, amasses more and more political power.
"A high birthrate is a sign of optimism in a society, not primitivism," says Hebrew University professor Sergio Della Pergola, the country's leading demographer. "The haredim in Israel get huge subsidies from the state; they don't have to work; it's easier for them here than anywhere else. There are haredim in the United States, too, but there they work; [President Barack] Obama isn't subsidizing them or building neighborhoods and cities for them. Israel is an ideal place for this community. The system enables them to have very large families, much larger than haredim in America have."
But if mainstream Israelis' fear is that haredim are going to move into their cities, the No. 1 problem for the members of this community, says Friedman, is finding a place to live. The haredim are outgrowing their old neighborhoods; their young families don't have the money to buy apartments in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak near their parents; haredi settlements such as Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit and Elad can't absorb all the newcomers, so they're spreading little by little into poorer, non-haredi neighborhoods around the country. And the result, often, is tension.
"The haredim look for cheap neighborhoods to move into. When secular people in a poor neighborhood find the means to move out, haredim move in. This, in turn, drives more secular people out and brings the property values further down, allowing more haredim to move in," says Friedman. He compares it to the "white flight" from America's inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s.
It's changing the face of the country, he says. One place to see it happening, naturally, is in Jerusalem.
"They've moved into every building; every day you see them looking for apartments here," says a woman of about 60 standing at a bus stop near her home on Rehov Stern in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. "That's all we need, for the haredim to take over the neighborhood, close the street on Shabbat and drag us back from the 21st century." she says, insisting on anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The apartment buildings on Rehov Stern are peeling and shabby, there's trash at the edges of the street; this is the residential bottom of Kiryat Hayovel, a traditionally working-class neighborhood that, in recent years, has absorbed a haredi minority in the process that Friedman describes. Recently the street was the focal point of a Jerusalem culture clash as haredi groups sought to purchase two mid-rise apartment buildings owned by the Hebrew University, with the intention of bringing in haredi tenants. Opposition from HU students and local secular politicians led the university to cancel the tender for the buildings; they are now slated to be used as student dorms.
"I read that the haredim wanted to buy these buildings because there was a rumor going around that the messiah was going to appear on Rehov Stern," the woman at the bus stop says. A secular neighbor tells the same story. I ask the woman if she has any problems with the haredim in her building or on the street, if they object, for instance, to the sound of the television coming out of her apartment on Shabbat. "No, so far there's been no problem. We don't say a word to each other."
I SPOKE separately to four yeshiva students living on Rehov Stern, and none mentioned any problems with the veteran residents, nor had any heard the rumor about the messiah's itinerary. "Of course I would like it if there were more haredim here, then it would make sense to close the street on Shabbat. But now? Most of the people aren't haredim, so it's not an issue."
Another student said that for all the opposition from HU students and local secular politicians to the sale of the two buildings to haredi interests, the residents of Rehov Stern were not part of that opposition. "Most of the people here are Sephardim, traditional Jews; they're not really what you call 'secular,' they're not like in North Tel Aviv. In general, the Jews of Jerusalem, the ones who aren't haredi, are different from the Jews in the rest of the country."
Another said he was planning on returning to Rehovot after his year of yeshiva study in the nearby Bayit Vegan neighborhood was up. "It's too expensive here," he noted.
Harel "Jackie" Ben-Moshe, who handles the haredi sector for Anglo-Saxon Real Estate's Jerusalem branch, says Kiryat Hayovel is an exception to the pattern of haredi expansion in the capital. "In Kiryat Hayovel you had some haredi businessmen who wanted to make a business deal by buying a couple of buildings. But in the rest of Jerusalem, what you see is haredim moving into neighborhoods right next to their old ones, like moving from Mea She'arim to Geula. Haredim don't like to move beyond walking distance, so they've stayed mainly on the north side of the city, which is why, for instance, you'll see a few haredi families living in Gilo [on the capital's southern edge], but I don't see Gilo becoming a predominantly haredi neighborhood," says Ben-Moshe.
However, Friedman traces a history of haredi expansion dating from before 1948 that went far beyond walking distance from the old neighborhood. They sought low-cost housing - either individually or as a community led by their rabbi - and as haredim gradually replaced the secular, traditional or crocheted-kippa Jews in a neighborhood, the neighborhood became transformed into a haredi enclave, he says.
THROUGH THE early years of the state, there was a sizable haredi community near Rehov Sheinkin in Tel Aviv; to this day, black-garbed holdovers can be seen alongside the gaudily dressed young people who frequent this nerve center of hip consumerism. But most of Tel Aviv's haredim moved to Bnei Brak, attracted by the religious networks led by legendary rabbis such as the Hazon Ish and Eliezer Schach. "While Jerusalem is called the 'holy city,' Bnei Brak is called the 'city of Torah," says Friedman, adding that it also drew many haredim from Petah Tikva (the premier haredi city outside Jerusalem until the end of British Mandate).
"There used to be a large number of secular people in Bnei Brak, but they eventually left. The city even had a movie theater, the Ora, but it closed down in the 1960s. It couldn't last there," he says.
Safed used to have a large secular population of artists and others drawn by the dramatic, gorgeous setting, but in the 1970s and 1980s, they began moving out as the Chabad, Breslav and Shas movements, which include large proportions of hozrim b'tshuva, the newly religious, moved in, along with more "stable" haredi orders such as the Vizhnitz Hassidim. "Today Safed has a large haredi majority. There's hardly any tourism left, because tourism means nightlife, and that doesn't go together with the haredi lifestyle," says Friedman.
The populous Gur Hassidim have pioneered haredi communities in Hatzor Haglilit, Arad, Ashkelon and, largest of all, in the Gimmel neighborhood of Ashdod. In Haifa, the Gur have come to dominate the local haredi community once led by followers of Agudat Yisrael. Other haredi pockets include Rechasim, which grew out of the yeshiva in the neighboring moshav, Kfar Hassidim; the Klausenberg order in Netanya that founded Laniado Medical Center; and the mainly Sephardi haredim of Netivot who revere the late Baba Sali and the current favorite, Rabbi Yitzhak Ifergan, known as "the X-ray" for his supposed powers to "read" one's fate.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as the haredi population snowballed along with the community's political power, governments began building West Bank settlements to offer cheap housing. The first was Emanuel, later came Modi'in Illit (originally Kiryat Sefer), Betar Illit and Elad, the last three located a short, safe distance from the Green Line, which probably explains their ongoing, dynamic growth in comparison to Emanuel, which is located deep inside Samaria.
The government also built a town for haredim next to Beit Shemesh, called Ramat Beit Shemesh. One of the town's neighborhoods has become a satellite of the radical, violent Toldot Aharon sect from Mea She'arim, which imposes a reign of terror on any neighbor passing through their turf who doesn't meet the strictest standards of modesty. Along with Mea She'arim, Ramat Beit Shemesh has become a code word for the haredi "demographic threat."
HOWEVER, HAREDI expansion doesn't always mean turf wars. In Zichron Ya'acov, the haredi community in the Ramat Zvi neighborhood has spread over the years, with "a few dozen haredi families moving into the non-haredi section," says a source familiar with local housing. "There's no tension here."
The dividing line in Ramat Zvi is Derech Sara. The old tenements, which used to house only working-class secular and traditional Jews, now have many haredi tenants as well. The newer, more expensive apartment buildings and duplexes are top-heavy with mainstream Jews, but a few well-situated haredim have moved in.
"They're not fanatics, though," says Yehuda Danino, a semi-traditional Jew ("I work on Shabbat, but I don't barbecue") who has lived in the neighborhood for all of his 53 years. He's shopping in the fruit-and-vegetable market just off Derech Sara, where haredim and non-haredim pass each other in the aisles.
Pointing to his duplex across the street, Danino says, "My neighbor is haredi, and I have another neighbor who barbecues on Shabbat, and nobody says anything to anybody."
Pointing to various three- and four-story apartment buildings, he says "there are two haredi families in there... four or five in there... you see that house? That's where their rabbi lives. Next door, where the car is parked, the guy isn't religious at all. I park my truck in the lot across from their synagogue, I work on Shabbat and they don't say anything. Everybody gets along."
Shopping at the market, Shlomo Ankonina, 37, who's studying law in hopes of becoming an advocate in the religious courts, says he moved into Ramat Zvi 11 years ago while attending yeshiva in the city. There are about 400 haredi families in the neighborhood. Although most of them look Sephardi, leading to the assumption that they're followers of Shas, Ankonina says the community's leaders are Ashkenazi - locally Rabbi Shalom Yungerman, who was sent there by Bnei Brak rabbi Ya'acov Poizen.
"Of course I'd be more comfortable if this were a haredi neighborhood and nobody drove on Shabbat, but this isn't Jerusalem," he says. "Jerusalem is holy to Israel; it has to operate according to Judaism. But Zichron belongs to the secular, we're marginal here."
The haredi community of Ramat Zvi isn't growing, he adds. "Most of our young people leave. The price of housing here hasn't gone up; it's about $100,000 or a little more for an apartment. If I could afford it, I'd move to Jerusalem," he says.
Outside Zichron Ya'acov, though, haredi expansion is much more dynamic, says Friedman. However, he does not see the haredim "taking over" another city like they did Jerusalem and Safed. "They can't, because the price of housing in the cities is too high," he says. What he predicts is "a whole lot more of the same" - an ever more rapidly growing haredi presence in the poorer parts of the country, which over time will displace more and more veteran, mainstream residents of these communities.
On the surface, then, it's probably an exaggeration to speak of a haredi "demographic threat." Just below, however, in the effect of haredi demographics on the economy, education, politics, military and social fabric, it could be a different story.