Turf war in Mea She'arim

Lack of housing for haredim has led to violence among those who consider themselves the city's most devout Jews.

Mea Shearim 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mea Shearim 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Even the most cynical observers of the haredi zealots of Mea She’arim were astonished to learn that, in the framework of the internal struggles in the neighborhood, a woman and her daughter were almost set on fire, and a man was so severely wounded that he had to be hospitalized for more than two weeks. The two incidents occurred recently, and this time it had nothing to do with the “Shabbat wars” against the municipality.
According to sources within the haredi community, the onset of violence is yet another result of the intense conflict between the largest hassidic sect, the Ger Hassidim, and the various parties of the Eda Haredit on almost every issue one can imagine, from suspected collaboration with the Zionist establishment (e.g. participation in the elections) to heavy financial issues. On one matter, however, most parties agree: The police are not active or involved enough to prevent further escalation of the situation.
A long-standing internal battle between two sectors of the various groups living in Mea She’arim is threatening to turn some houses – and perhaps even some people – into ashes. This is not a war of ideology but of prestige – control over wealth and real estate.
Despite their rundown appearance, the properties in the old neighborhood are quite valuable, now more than ever due to the lack of construction for haredim in the city. Batei Varsha (Warsaw) and Kollel Polin, two of the oldest neighborhoods in the haredi area, are at the center of the current incidents.
As their names indicate, these two small neighborhoods were built by and for haredim from different parts of Poland. Due to World War II, some of the anticipated tenants never came, so a number of the apartments were given to other people. The term “apartment” may be an exaggeration. Each consists mainly of two tiny rooms divided in the middle by a narrow corridor, at the end of which is a tiny kitchen and a small shower and bathroom. For this the tenants pay very low rent – until recently, about NIS 100 a month. The elderly are allowed to stay there until their deaths, after which the apartments re returned to the community and then handed over to other families of former Polish Jews.
This is more or less the way almost all the housing in the neighborhood is allocated, in addition to a growing number of key-money rentals, which are also based on very low sums for the deposit and monthly rent.
The two communities of Kollel Polin and Batei Varsha never had good relations, but as my source Avraham (not his real name) explained to me, life was still bearable between the parties until a few years ago “mostly because they all had the same conditions and were united in our fight against the municipality and the Zionist state.”
What has changed is the real estate reality in the city and the feeling within the Ger community that they are strong enough and large enough to deserve a big part of the pie – i.e., the real estate of the community. Due to the shortage of new housing in haredi neighborhoods, even the tiny, old, uncomfortable community apartments have become attractive, and control over as many of them as possible has become a serious objective.
“On top of this,” adds Avraham, “the Ger Hassidim, whose violence is all too well-known here, began to show interest in this property, arguing that after all, they also originated from Poland, not to mention that they also suffer from a terrible shortage of houses, and the two areas are very close to the center of their hassidut. So it was clear that at some point they would go after their part.”
Within a few months, the two parties closed ranks. “The Ger Hassidim have their army, they are well organized; and on the opposite side came the Sikarikim (Netorei Karta), also well prepared. It was just a matter of time until we witnessed real street fighting between the Kollel and the Batei people,” continues Avraham.
And that is exactly what happened. The first outbreak of violence occurred in November 2010, with riots between the two parties that included setting garbage bins on fire and blocking the main streets. The police did intervene then, and one man from the Sikarikim side was arrested, and later released. But according to Avraham, the police and security forces were more focused on the Palestinians because of the days of wrath and anger they launched at the time, and this allowed the two parties to continue the violence.
Two weeks ago, things reached a new peak. This time two (suspected) members of the Ger Hassidim threw gasoline at a woman and her daughter and tried to set them on fire. Immediately following was an attack on a member of the Kollel Polin that was so violent, the man was hospitalized for more than two weeks.
Yoel Krauss, the field leader of the Eda Haredit (which is partly involved in the struggle over the apartments) has declared that he is not taking sides but opposes the violence. But Yehuda Meshi- Zahav, once a resident of the neighborhood and chief of operations of the Eda Haredit against the Zionists and today the president of Zaka and far less opposed to the state’s Zionist institutions, says that both sides are equally irresponsible and dangerous.
“The guys from Ger – well, we all know what they are capable of. They are the largest hassidic sect, they are tough and have their ways; but the others, the Sikarikim, are no saints either.
And it has nothing to do with modesty or fear of God. This is all about money, control and real estate – nothing else. They won’t stop as long as the police do not interfere, but so far, the police aren’t doing much. We all feel that nobody really cares, since it’s all haredim against haredim, but that, of course, is very dangerous,” says Meshi-Zahav.
In an official response, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said that a special investigation team, which is looking into both sides’ claims, was established when the violence began.
“So far, nine claims have been investigated and some of them have been submitted to the prosecution department with a recommendation for indictment,” he adds. “The police emphasize that the claims [of the two sides against each other] are groundless, and respond that forces operating in the area have arrested several people, some of whom have been ordered to leave the neighborhood by the court and some of whom will be indicted for disturbing the peace and assaulting police officers. • “The investigation is coming to an end and the police believe it will lead to results.”