The plot tickens

The allocation of two plots of land angered secular residents

Bayit Vagan  homes apartments palm tree 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Bayit Vagan homes apartments palm tree 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For those who have some basic understanding of the machinations in the political arena, what happened last week at the city council meeting should not have been a surprise. In fact, for a few sharp observers of the tense haredi-secular status quo in the city, it was even somewhat expected.
The seeds of the decision to allocate two plots of land in Ramat Sharett to build a large haredi education compound were sown a few months ago when the city council voted to have two separate local neighborhood councils in the Ramat Sharett and Bayit Vagan area, as the haredi representatives had requested, instead of one shared council and community center.
Ramat Sharett, a largely secular neighborhood, borders Bayit Vagan, which was once a national religious community and is now almost exclusively haredi. Officially, the two neighborhoods are considered one entity in regard to community issues and services, with one community center and local council.
However, when it came time for Ramat Sharett to vote for a new local council board, many in both camps realized that this could lead to a majority of haredi representatives, who would take over the council.
The “Gevalt!” battle cry of the non-haredi residents reached Mayor Nir Barkat’s ears and, as a result, a proposal was submitted to the city council to approve two separate elections for two separate local councils – one secular for Ramat Sharett and one haredi for Bayit Vagan.
Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) expressed, in very harsh and cynical terms, the sudden lack of a democratic attitude on the part of the residents and city hall when it came to what he called “the need to preserve secular privileges at the expense of our [haredi] rights.”
Pindrus and Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitch (UTJ) protested, but to no avail. The proposal was approved by the majority, and a new local council was established – for Bayit Vagan.
“They will make us all pay for it. It won’t take long,” said then city councillor Meir Turgeman, and right he was. The two last plots of public property, located between the last buildings of secular Ramat Sharett and haredi Bayit Vagan, sat waiting for a municipal decision to make good public use of them.
According to the law, public property (land or buildings) can be granted only through official organizations.
In that sphere, the haredi community has no competitors. Before any secular representative or resident realized what was at stake, a request to grant the two plots to an educational organization was submitted, in keeping with all the regulations, and was presented for the council’s approval. Only then was the “Gevalt!” flag deployed again – but it was too late. Since the haredi organization that had asked for the plots fit the criteria, there was no way to reject their request, and so one morning the secular residents of Ramat Sharett, more specifically those living on David Meretz Street, woke up to a new reality. They thought they were part of a secular middle-class neighborhood but found that they had become a forward position on the frontlines of the ongoing haredi-secular battle in Jerusalem.
The city council meeting was one of the most tumultuous ever recorded during Barkat’s term. The frustration was exacerbated by a certain degree of suspicion among the secular contingent that Barkat was perhaps already beginning his election campaign by giving a nod to the haredim to convince them that he was still their best choice for the next mayor. So many residents of Ramat Sharett attended the meeting, that a lot of them had to remain outside for lack of room.
Meretz – still members of the coalition – voted against the proposal. Rachel Azaria and Meir Turgeman – from the opposition benches – voted against it. And then came the surprises.
Hilik Bar, a member of Barkat’s party, voted against (he probably didn’t feel he owed him anything anymore. Last week, he became a Knesset member). And even Elisha Peleg (Likud), also a member of the coalition, dared to abstain. But all these votes were not enough, and the decision was passed.
The, early last week, a proposal was made by Hitorerut representative Merav Cohen to split the plot in two and use one half for a haredi institution and the other for a community venue for Ramat Sharett. As of print time, it appears the proposal was accepted, and a crisis was averted.