Jerusalem’s front line

The ongoing battle over the changing religious character of the capital is being fought on the ground – in Kiryat Hayovel.

Greater Kiryat Hayovel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Greater Kiryat Hayovel
At Kiryat Hayovel’s small commercial center last Thursday morning, a few people stepped out of the supermarket holding bags, while at the nearby Fresh coffee shop specializing in French (and delicious) pastry, some of the regular customers were already enjoying the unusually warm, sunny winter day by sitting outside and sipping coffee.
Beyond the shade of the small public garden facing Fresh, a young man in haredi garb, holding a small child by the hand, seemed in a hurry as he passed near two teenage girls seated on a bench, without apparently taking any notice of their revealing outfits. Asked if any minimarkets are open in the area on Shabbat, Fresh’s owner said, “You think it’s not complicated enough already here?” A few minimarkets in the city center and a decade-long struggle over the character of Kiryat Hayovel, a large neighborhood far from that city center, are at the focus of a new period of tension between secular and pluralistic residents, on the one hand, and the haredi sector and its representatives on the city council, on the other.
For the pluralistic side, including those who are not particularly fans of businesses staying open on Shabbat, what is at stake is much more than a minimarket selling alcohol or bread at outrageous prices while all the other groceries remain closed. What is at stake is the long, twisting, never-ending saga of who is going to decide Jerusalem’s character – the haredi or the pluralistic residents.
While, at least for the moment, Mayor Nir Barkat’s decision (recently approved by city council) to hold elections for the Kiryat Hayovel local council fits the basic democratic requirements to hold free elections once every four to five years, the minimarket issue seems to be doomed, at least for now.
That is, unless the High Court of Justice – at which this past Monday morning an appeal was submitted against the decision to shut the minimarkets down, set to be enforced from March 1 – intervenes. For the moment, advocate Yossi Havilio, who represents four out of the eight minimarket owners, believes the chances are good to cancel the mayor’s decision.
It is important to note that the city center minimarkets are just part of the problem in the eyes of the haredi representatives, who complain that there are many more cases of status-quo violations these last few years. Yet the minimarkets have become a symbol. Some of them sell non-kosher items, and some of them are located on the path taken by haredim on their way to the Western Wall on Shabbat mornings.
On the list right after them is the openon- Shabbat coffee shop in Independence Park and the restaurants at the First Station.
“Everybody says this is in accordance with the status quo,” complains city councilman Itzhak Pindrus of United Torah Judaism, “but the fact is this doesn’t look like respecting the status quo.”
As for the Yuvalim local council (representing Kiryat Hayovel, Ein Kerem, Ramat Sharett and Ramat Denya), they will have to get ready for elections to the board of their local council by the beginning of June – a relatively short time in the eyes of most of the activists on the pluralistic side.
FOR THOSE seeking to trace the history of the haredi-pluralistic battle in Kiryat Hayovel, the best place to start would be Stern Street. A long and winding street beginning at the upper side of one of Kiryat Hayovel’s main streets and snaking down to the Malha basketball stadium, it has become a bastion of young haredi families.
After years of holding drug addicts and dealers and being the home of the most underprivileged population of the city, followed by a short episode hosting many newcomers from the former Soviet Union, today the street – a small neighborhood in itself, with a separate branch of the local council and community center – has completely changed its atmosphere and character.
But what seems to be accepted by both the last few non-haredi residents on Stern Street and the rest of Kiryat Hayovel’s residents doesn’t work the same for the rest of the neighborhood, as tensions between haredi residents and the pluralistic and secular sector have reached new and alarming heights of late. The decision to hold elections in June might be a just solution, but it is causing anger and fear in both camps. There is a higher level of apprehension on the pluralistic side, as the haredim might win control of the local council.
“We [haredim] have no intention to rule over or control the entire Yuvalim board,” maintains Pindrus, “but this council is hostile toward us, and we want to change that. We just want to have our rights secured.”
Some 64,000 residents live in this council area, with about 1,000 haredi families.
“I am not afraid of open, free elections,” insists council chairman Roni Sharon, who is not a candidate for the June elections.
“I am myself religious, but I completely disagree with the haredi attitude – we have to acknowledge that there are other people living here, and they have rights.”
One of the issues at stake in these elections is the rules decided upon by the municipality, which oversees them. One possibility would be to institute a special paragraph (called 5.8) that limits the candidates to those who are already active in local council activities; another possibility is to open elections to all residents of the neighborhood.
For Elite Mazeh, the council’s deputy chairwoman, the use of the 5.8 provision sounds better: “That way, we can be sure not to be swayed by haredi residents – almost all the current activists are not haredi.”
Sharon says that on the contrary, he supports open-for-all elections. “There are only about 1,000 haredi residents who have the right to vote, against some 17,000 voters from the non-haredi sector, so why should I be afraid? Unless they register thousands of people as residents of Kiryat Hayovel, changing the picture – but I have | IN JERUSALEM 9 a solution even for that: We will rule that only people who have lived in Kiryat Hayovel for the past six months at least will have the right to vote or be candidates.”
KIRYAT HAYOVEL’S struggles are nothing new. Time and again, various issues at play in the city’s largest neighborhood have come up in several contexts.
This time, the trigger was the decision of the Yuvalim Community Center (part of the local neighborhood council) to screen movies on Shabbat at the area’s Isaac and Rose Taylor Community Center. “For us, it is no less than a declaration of war,” asserts Pindrus, hinting at the fact that the Taylor Hall was not an ingenuous choice, since it is located in the center of Zangwill Street, almost exclusively inhabited by haredi families.
The greater Kiryat Hayovel area, as represented through the Yuvalim council, is a mixture of relatively well-to-do residents (on Shmaryahu Levin and Warburg streets) and the blue-collar and veteran immigrants in the rest, with two enclaves of underprivileged populations – on Stern Street and in the Brazil-Olswanger compound.
This is also the only neighborhood in which construction was allowed in concrete (and not faced with stone, as the rule requires for Jerusalem as a whole), due to the emergency need for housing for the large waves of immigrants in the 1950s.
Most residents are secular or, at most, traditional.
The arrival of the first ultra-Orthodox families (or the process of becoming haredi among some of the residents) began in the late ’90s, with most of the newcomers attracted by affordable housing.
The first clash occurred some 10 years ago, when secular residents caught a group of haredim trying to install additional “glatt” eruv lines, arguing that the lines installed by the city’s religious council were not kosher enough for them.
“That was the first time we realized that the presence of haredim in Kiryat Hayovel was not negligible anymore, but that it was going to change things here,” Kobi Cohen, the former president of Yuvalim, explained a few years ago. Today, the eruv issue seems almost like a harmless folktale, compared to the current level of tension and apprehension felt on both sides.
“Today,” details Esti, a resident who did not wish to be further identified, “the struggle is not about adding [another haredi] kindergarten here or not – it’s the whole neighborhood’s character which is at stake.”
But there is more. Pindrus says the issue is more about the hostile attitude toward haredim. “We feel that they will do anything to usher us out of here, but where would we go? We are part of this city, too, you know. And besides, after 36 years of attempts to throw us out of the city without any success, isn’t it about time these people start to understand that we are here and will remain here?” Pindrus reveals that for more than a year he tried to move NIS 100,000 in funding from the municipality’s haredi education administration to Kiryat Hayovel, to be used for educational activities for haredi children, but this was systematically rejected. In addition, he says that the some 1,000 families scattered between Stern, Zangwill and Brazil-Olswanger streets have to rent tiny apartments for their kindergartens, since they cannot obtain such facilities in the other public buildings in the neighborhood.
Sharon rejects this assertion, saying that all the needs of haredi residents have been answered by the local council, in terms of kindergartens and afternoon activities in the community centers, including the request for gender-separate activities.
Mazeh adds that, generally speaking, the council does not approve such gender separations in the main community center, “but in the branches functioning in the haredi parts, we do enable it. Yet it is true that we want to preserve the character of the neighborhood as pluralistic and secular.”
Last week, city councilman Dov Kalmanovich (Bayit Yehudi), who is religious but not haredi, announced that in his view, no activities desecrating Shabbat should be allowed in the city. For the pluralistic and secular activists in Kiryat Hayovel, this is not good news, although it is not clear how seriously this statement could become a fact on the ground.
“The thing is that in Kiryat Hayovel, unlike in other parts of this city, residents have always been very militant – in regard to religious issues, social issues and the like; it’s not like in other neighborhoods where people just admit that the arrival of haredi residents changes the situation on the ground,” observes Sharon. “Here there has always been a strong opposition, and secular residents fight back.”
For the moment, the movie screenings on Friday evening have been stopped, but as Sharon explains, “It does not mean we are caving in. It was scheduled to stop in February, and we will resume the activity in March.”
And Pindrus? He believes that as long as haredim don’t have housing solutions in their neighborhoods, they will keep on coming to other neighborhoods and request, lawfully, their rights.
“There is an urgent need for regulations as to what a local neighborhood council can or cannot decide to do, without taking into consideration some of the residents’ rights – even if they are haredi,” he asserts