Opting out

In Ramot, without clear cut neighborhood divisions for the haredi and non-haredi populations, it is unlikely the elections for the two separate councils will take place next week.

Ramot 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ramot 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It was supposed to be a victory with a capital “V” for the secular and national religious residents and their representatives on the city council. Following a city council decision made last month, elections for the Ramot community council were supposed to be held on December 13 for two separate councils – one haredi and one non-haredi for the secular and national religious communities.
We say “supposed to,” since the decision to hold these elections seems more like a farce or at least an embarrassing moment that everyone is trying to forget. In fact, despite a statement from the municipal spokesman asserting that the elections in Ramot will take place as planned, officials at Safra Square admit there is no chance this will happen.
The reason is that no one at the municipality or at the Israel Association of Community Councils and Centers knows how separate elections for different communities in the same neighborhood should be conducted.
It has been 25 years since elections were held for Jerusalem’s largest northern community council which, with its 48,000 residents, is considered by the municipality as a “city within the city.” For the past decade, the haredi and the secular communities in Ramot have attempted to hold such an election, but with no success.
The reason is simple. The haredim, who have become the majority in the neighborhood over the years, want to have one election for one local community council, while the secular and the national religious residents, fearing a haredi hegemony, are requesting separate elections for two separate local councils. At present, there is one council in Ramot, with a separate branch for haredim.
But the main issue between these two branches of one local council is the huge difference in the budgets allocated. While the secular part receives a budget of NIS 9 million, the haredi branch gets only NIS 1.5m. (figures released by Mayor Nir Barkat at the city council meeting last month).
As a result of the strong positions of both sides, no elections have been held, and the two communities are at a stalemate. The haredim claim they do not receive what they deserve as residents, while the secular and national religious feel that the haredim are pushing them into a corner and want to overpower them.
But now, despite heavy pressure from the haredi coalition members on the city council, last month Barkat succeeded in obtaining a vote in favor of separate elections, and the procedure was launched with a lot of fanfare.
About a month has passed. At a joint press conference, Yossi Sharabi, director of the Administration for Culture, Social and Leisure Activities of the Jerusalem Municipality; and Yuli Ben-Lavi, head of the Israel Association of Community Centers, announced the elections in Ramot (and five other neighborhoods) for December 13. But now it seems that Ramot will once again have to wait for the democratic process to arrive.
Hard to believe, but true. The decision to hold separate elections is impossible to apply from practical and logistical standpoints, with legal implications and even some non-politically correct aspects. While Ramot Alef has become totally inhabited by haredi families, most of the other parts of the neighborhood have heterogeneous populations – haredi, secular and national religious – and nobody knows how to ensure that haredi residents will vote only for the haredi candidates for the haredi council and the secular will vote only for the secular candidates of the secular council.
When the organizers from the municipality and the Association of Community Centers realized the magnitude of the problem, a committee was quickly designated to provide legal and practical solutions. But for reasons that remain unclear, no solution has yet been provided.
RAMOT WAS established in 1974 as an attractive answer for relatively well-to-do young families, offering them the best facilities and services available in the city. It provided a large network of good schools and kindergartens, various activities at the community center, including a swimming pool, many public parks and green spaces and well-designed streets and public buildings. Ramot has the advantage of being far from the noisy, polluted downtown area but still part of the city. Within a relatively short time, it became a success story and attracted a large number of secular and national religious families.
The trouble began quite early on, first with the fierce opposition of the haredi residents of Sanhedria and Mattersdorf to the construction of roads leading from the city to Ramot, passing through Bar-Ilan Street. However, not long after, haredi families began to move to Ramot, attracted by the then relatively low real-estate prices and its proximity to the older haredi neighborhoods.
It didn’t take long before this change began to create tension and raise suspicion, and eventually caused many secular families to leave the neighborhood.
“When we moved here 25 years ago,” recalls Miriam Scheffer, “we were happy to be part of something new and highly promising for families with young children. But today I feel that we have almost no place here anymore.”
Scheffer, a national religious woman in her late 50s who teaches Bible studies at a high school in Ramot, lives in what is considered the “mixed” part of the neighborhood. But she says that the heavy presence of the haredi families is such that despite being religious, she and her family feel totally alienated from her observant neighbors.
“Of course, I’d feel much better not to see cars violating Shabbat, and I’d rather not see people smoking on Shabbat next to me.” she adds, “But when a little four-year-old old boy next door tells me, when I come back from the synagogue on a Shabbat morning, that my dress is not modest because the sleeves are made of lace and one can see my skin under them, I feel I have no choice but to be part of the secular community in Ramot. I am a religious woman, but today I am totally part of the secular residents’ struggle here,” she says.
Scheffer’s concerns are shared by Ze’ev Landner. Landner is a lawyer who has been the chairman of the Ramot community council for the past 15 years, but he is not planning to run for another term – whenever the elections are held. “Ramot’s biggest problem is not so much the haredi-secular tension but the neighborhood’s image as one that is undergoing haredization,” he explains.
Landner, one of the most outspoken voices against the haredization of Ramot, is national religious. For years he has been at the forefront of the struggle against handing over emptying secular or national religious public schools in the neighborhood – due to the changing demographics – to haredi institutions. Whether in the struggle over the gender-segregated hours at the swimming pool and other community center facilities or any other issue in which the two populations are opposed, Landner has always been openly cautious to preserve the status quo, though he is very careful to say that “we should not prevent them [haredim] from obtaining their legitimate rights.”
But first and foremost, Landner has been at the head of the election struggle, stating that if elections are required, they must be for two separate councils or should not be permitted at all.
LAST MONTH’S city council decision to hold separate elections was an important achievement for him, but he is also one of the first to admit that nobody knows how to conduct such elections without breaking the rules of equality.
“These elections are a precedent,” he explains, “so we don’t know how to conduct them. How can we make residents vote according to their religious affiliations, even if they live in a mixed part of the neighborhood? There is no precedent of asking people to vote according to their religious beliefs – how can we do that? Are we going to check if a haredi votes according to what we expect? And how exactly shall we do this?”
Asked why nobody thought about this aspect in all these years that he and the secular and national religious residents were pushing for two separate councils in the neighborhood, Landner replies that he is opposed to the elections altogether.
“This whole concept of elections to the boards of the community councils is a default, out of a deep misunderstanding of what such a board is,” he states.
Landner says that those who want elections simply do not understand what local councils are about.
“I’ve been active on this neighborhood council for almost two decades, and I can tell you that it’s the same everywhere, not only in Ramot. A maximum of 2 or 3 percent of the residents are really involved in community affairs. But according to the rules established by the municipality, any resident in the neighborhood can run and be elected. Tell me why someone who hasn’t done anything for the neighborhood, hasn’t invested time, effort or even sometimes his own money should be elected at all. If we should have elections, then it should be like in any association [local councils are, in fact, associations], where only registered members can vote and be elected. But that is not the situation at present,” he says.
Sharabi, who is coordinating the election process in all the community councils, admits that in the case of the Ramot elections, some mistakes have been made. However, he believes that the most important issue is having two separate councils for the different communities “and that it is a fact that nobody today, including the haredi representatives, is challenging anymore.”
But is that really so? City councillor Rahel Azaria, who used to hold the portfolio for the community councils and center, believes the fact that the two councils in Ramot will share an urban planner could create a conflict of interest.
“The same urban planner for the two councils means that one side will be given preference at the expense of the other,” she warned at the city council meeting. “Since we all know that today the haredi population is the largest in Ramot, it is obvious that they will succeed in pulling to their side most of the projects and with them the budgets required, at the expense of the shrinking secular and national religious population.”
But despite Azaria’s warnings, the decision to have only one planner for the neighborhood remained unchanged, and Landner and Sharabi admit that this is not going to help the situation.
“What is going to happen in reality,” says an employee of the planning and construction department at the municipality, “is that the two communities are going to be in constant tension. Each side will try to thwart the other side’s projects, budgets will be frozen until clarifications are made at each step – nothing good will come out of this.”
BUT HOW do the haredi representatives see it? Deputy Mayor Eli Simhayof (Shas) is a resident of Ramot. He says he’s been trying for years to prevent the two-council solution, arguing that it is not democratic. “For years we called for elections, but the secular members at the head of the Ramot council managed to prevent it. But now there’s a mayor who believes in democratic processes, and we have already had five neighborhoods going through elections, so we went to him to ask for elections in Ramot.”
Simhayof says that at first the answer was evasive, but finally Barkat agreed – on one condition: that there would be separate elections for the two populations. “We still believe it’s wrong and unfair, but we finally agreed, and we also had conditions. For example, one construction planner for the neighborhood in order to have all the budgets freely accessible for us as well,” he adds.
According to Simhayof and other haredi municipal employees who live in Ramot, their situation has become unbearable. For instance, since all the enrichment and leisure activities at the community center are managed by the secular, the haredi rabbis have forbidden their community to participate.
“How can we go to any activity in a place that is so opposed to our customs and modesty requirements?” asks Simhayof. “So despite the fact that we are the majority here – 70% haredi and 30% secular and national religious – we cannot enjoy most of the activities that are financed by our taxes, too.”
The rabbis, consulted on the issue of the separate elections, finally agreed. Now, says Simhayoff, they have even obtained an agreement that as soon as the elections are held, the administration of the day-care centers for toddlers – there are 200 centers, about 90% of them in the haredi part – will be put in the hands of the haredi local council. “We didn’t want that solution,” says Simhayof. “It has been forced on us, but at least we want to obtain our rights. That’s how democracy works, doesn’t it?”
Sharabi admits that even when the committee designed to establish the rules of voting separately submits its conclusions and the rules required, things will still be problematic as a result of the splitting decision. “There is also a financial aspect, and we haven’t given it enough attention,” he says.
Sharabi adds that the current modest branch of the haredi residents has to become an independent council and community center, with a separate budget that has to be fixed and approved first by the finance committee of the city council and then by the plenum of the city council, within the debates on the city’s general budget. All this hasn’t even started to be done, and the city’s budget is to be presented and voted on by the end of this month. “It is clear that in light of this situation, there is no way we can run these separate elections next week in Ramot,” he concludes.
In regard to the special committee that will draw up the specific rules for the separate elections, its members will have to decide, regardless of the budget issue, how Ramot residents will vote.
“It’s all about the how,” explains Sharabi. “How are we going to prevent double votes? How are we going to find the people and register them according to their community? How do you find out if a resident is haredi or not? Are we going to ask them how they dress? Of course not. So we have to come up with serious, reliable and non-prejudiced ways. One way could be according to the educational institutions their children attend. That’s good, but it won’t work for residents whose children are grown up. So it’s not an easy issue, but we’re working on it.”
Among other ideas, one that seems to be getting support from the committee is to work in close collaboration with the religious personalities and to convince the rabbis in Ramot’s haredi community to vote only for the haredi branch.
“That’s nice,” says a high-ranking employee at Safra Square, “but the problem is the high degree of defiance and distrust between the two communities. It is no secret that the haredim didn’t want the solution of separate councils. They say – and it is based on figures – that democracy cannot vary according to one side’s interest. Today, the haredim are the majority in Ramot.
Why wasn’t it important to have two separate councils when they were a small number?” Landner vehemently rejects that remark. “I have in my hand a copy of the Ramot community center’s journal from 1994. There’s an editorial I wrote there, stating that these are two different communities, which therefore should have two separate local councils and centers. Haredim were not a majority then, but I always thought there were too many differences to be bridged, and I declared that only two separate councils and community centers would prevent tension and hatred. Nothing has changed since then.”