Haredim in the Negev

With 700,000 haredim in the country and a shortage of 100,000 housing units, we mustn't lose sight of genuine need and plight.

January 21, 2010 11:07
3 minute read.

haredim 58. (photo credit: none)


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Israel's first prime minister would doubtlessly have been pleased by the preliminary approval accorded this week to a new city in the Negev - one which would already in its first phase become home to 50,000 residents. David Ben-Gurion was Israel's foremost Negev promoter and population-dispersal advocate. As a fulfillment of his Zionist vision, he tirelessly campaigned for Jewish settlement in what is still the state's largest land reserve.

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To that end, he surely would not have minded that Kasif, the blueprinted city near the Tel Arad National Park, would be earmarked for haredi residents.

Indeed, anything which moves any Jews from the densely packed Coastal Plain to underdeveloped parts of the country should, in principle, be considered a boon for Israeli society in general.

With that in mind, some of the objections to a haredi influx that have been sounded in the Kasif debate were particularly discordant. They should be most offensive to liberal ears, to those who most ardently engage in human rights discourse and are first to condemn what they perceive as bigotry. Yet there was no audible outrage when heads of Negev local authorities warned that "a haredi concentration would deter higher-quality populations from moving to the region."

Some of these figures openly said they did not want haredi communities in their own towns because of likely friction between clashing lifestyles and the disincentive they would constitute for the sort of residents whom the mayors hope to attract.

There is nothing wrong with preferring a culturally homogeneous and therefore potentially more harmonious population-blend in any given urban setting. But how an argument is made sometimes makes all the difference. Labeling an entire component of Israel's citizenry as undesirable is at the very least insensitive and deeply divisive. We shudder to think what the reaction would have been were such language used to reject other sectors of the population. Charges of racism would surely be leveled.


At the same time a variety of environmental organizations may rightly fear that a new city - with planned low-slung residences, educational centers, commercial zones and employment complexes - would despoil the region's pristine desert vistas and impede the movement of wildlife. Green activists want the haredim absorbed in existing Negev cities - the very ones which vehemently rebuff the notion of a large haredi influx.

The haredim thus are turned into veritable footballs, kicked back and forth by cities which don't want them and environmentalists who fear their impact.

The bottom line is a situation in which a very large segment of our society is stigmatized as unwanted anywhere, while there physically remains no room for it in jam-packed concentrations like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

NO GROUP in this country should be thus treated, although no small proportion of the blame can be ascribed to often shameless haredi abuses of the system at the expense of taxpayers. Organized mass-draft-dodging and inordinate reliance on handouts from the public coffers fuel resentment. Failure to integrate into originally secular surroundings (with the happy exception of central Tel Aviv) and sometimes aggressive attempts to impose restrictions on neighbors breed antagonism.

Thus cities which cry out for a transfusion of new residents - such as Lod - worry that planned haredi neighborhoods will only make these already poor municipalities much poorer and inflict upon them oversized families who consume services but don't contribute sufficiently in revenue.

Justifiably or not, haredim have earned the reputation of shying away from gainful employment. If this is untrue, then there is a good deal of income undeclared in order to avoid taxation and/or removal from welfare rolls.

About 80 percent of Kasif's homes will be subsidized, owing to the presumed financial hardship of most prospective dwellers. Housing subsidies are not unusual in Israel, especially in remote locales, but this again is sure to generate ill will.

All that said, Kasif - first decided upon in 2007 - is indispensable. There are an estimated 700,000 haredim in the country and a shortage of 100,000 housing units. All current plans - including the new town of Harish east of Hadera - will only offer some 30,000 units.

Israelis cannot willfully wish their haredi compatriots away, no matter how aggrieved they feel. We mustn't lose sight of genuine need and plight.

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