(photo credit: none)
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.
that end, he surely would not have minded that Kasif, the blueprinted
city near the Tel Arad National Park, would be earmarked for haredi
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
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
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
Israelis cannot willfully wish their haredi compatriots away,
no matter how aggrieved they feel. We mustn't lose sight of genuine
need and plight.