A strong man at Jerusalem's Safra Square

Eliezer Rauchberger seems to be the new strongman at the Jerusalem municipality, the first haredi to amass such power in recent memory.

DEPUTY MAYOR Eliezer Rauchberger, head of the powerful local planning and construction committee.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
DEPUTY MAYOR Eliezer Rauchberger, head of the powerful local planning and construction committee.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eliezer Rauchberger seems to be the new strongman at the Jerusalem municipality, the first haredi to amass such power in recent memory. Rauchberger is soft-spoken, and sounds eager to convince that while he – as representative of the Lithuanian haredis – refuses to apologize for caring about his constituency’s interests, he does not disregard other sectors’ interests and needs.
In his office on the sixth floor at Safra Square overlooking the Old City, Rauchberger had just gone through an ordeal, as he decided to abruptly cancel a visit to Petra in Jordan after the Jordanians refused to let in religious visitors wearing tzizit and kippot. “I was already on the Jordanian side when they began to make people take their tzizit and kippot off, but I decided in an act of Jewish solidarity to leave, and I came back to the Israel,” he recalled.
Rauchberger was a spokesman for Degel Hatorah in the Knesset, and worked as a journalist for Yated Ne’eman. Since 2013, he has served as a member of the city council as part of the of the haredi list.
As a member of Mayor Moshe Lion’s coalition, Rauchberger became deputy mayor and was made the head of the city’s prestigious local planning and constructing committee.
Looking back after a year in the position, do you feel you managed to fulfill your plans? Did you have a clear idea about what you wished to achieve?
“We are doing great things in Jerusalem. I can say that we are in an unprecedented period of development in the city. Most projects aren’t fully appreciated at the moment, as Jerusalemites mostly just see the cranes and construction work. However, I have no doubt that we are living through a new and exciting period in terms of development and construction in the city.”
Indeed, for the moment, residents feel they have moved overnight into a giant construction site. We can all understand that there is some inconvenience in construction. The question is, can we be sure that it’s under control?
“Yes, I would say it is a kind of low-point for the sake of reaching new heights. We had a few years of stoppage – for many reasons, I do not wish to go into this now – but the former mayor, as a policy, almost exclusively encouraged construction for hotels.
Meanwhile, so many people leave the city simply because they can’t find a house. I know that there is also an issue of high cost for apartments, but even those who can afford them leave because there isn’t any construction for new housing. We are changing this now for the better. The shortage of housing, public buildings, kindergartens and schools – all of that is included.
“Of course, the biggest problem is the haredi sector, but we are planning and constructing for the benefit of all sectors in the city.”
How do you navigate between the various sectors’ interests and needs? You probably are aware that being a representative of the haredi sector raises some concern among non-haredim.
“First of all, decisions are only made following the professional-level instructions. I am not sure the non-haredi sectors are worried. Perhaps Ofer Berkovitch is worried, but that’s his job as opposition.”
This concern is real, and it comes from many parts, not only the opposition in the city council.
“Maybe, and maybe not. I know what we are doing here, and I know that we see all parts and sectors of the city. I go everywhere in the city – including neighborhoods that are clearly not haredi – and see it for myself.”
Are you in favor of mixed neighborhoods, or, if it was totally in your hands, would you prefer separated neighborhoods for the haredi residents?
“My answer is yes, unequivocally yes. I am totally in favor of constructing neighborhoods specifically for haredim, but what about those families who live in mixed neighborhoods? Don’t they deserve decent housing, kindergartens, schools and any public building just like any other sector? It’s my duty to provide it, as I do for all the sectors.
“I discussed this issue a few years ago with then-mayor Nir Barkat. I asked him, ‘What do you think? That we hold secret meetings with our rabbis and decide which neighborhood we are going to take over just for us? That we plan ahead where our next occupation and takeover will take place? We just need to live somewhere!’ The last time a neighborhood was built for haredim was Ramot Shlomo, and that was 25 years ago.
“As for your remark on my position raising concern and suspicion among non-haredim, I ask you, who approved the construction in Reches Lavan – which is absolutely not for haredim? Not only did I approve it, I am now promoting an addition of more than a thousand of houses there, all for pluralist residents.”
So where will haredim live if they prefer to live separately from pluralist residents?
“For haredim, I have recently approved new construction projects on the slopes of Neve Yaakov, and we will add new housing units to Ramot Shlomo.”
What about the Arab sector? How come there are only small and private projects submitted? How comes there are no large construction projects in their neighborhoods?
“That is true, we approve a lot of such small projects at every committee meeting. But there are no initiatives to build large public and housing projects. I don’t know why, but there are no such projects from the Arab sector submitted to the committee, and I can’t do it for them. Sometimes, approved projects don’t ever materialize, and this can be for several reasons – usually for lack of funds. But yes, we do approve many construction projects in the Arab sector.”
What can you tell us about the interaction between haredim and other demographics in the city? For a short period, it seemed that things were on the right track. But now, concerns, accusations and tensions are everywhere: the First Station, the Mifletzet Pub, the Warburg site in Kiryat Hayovel and more. Where is all this leading?
“I’m afraid these are waves initiated by the opposition, and don’t reflect reality on the ground. There is no crisis, and there is no more tension than in the past. The Warburg site is intended for educational institutions. In order to use it for another purpose, you must submit a request for such a change.
“Now, tell me, a lot of haredim live in close proximity to the site, why would they agree to give up the kindergartens and schools they are entitled to? Those who want to promote the Warburg project insist that there shouldn’t be haredi education institution there, but why?”
Why wouldn’t you make a compromise so that it could be both? The project for the secular sectors and kindergartens for haredim nearby?
“There wasn’t anyone to talk to about it on the other side. Whoever says that there will be no construction projects for public use for haredim in Kiryat Hayovel cannot expect that I will help. No way.”
There are rumors that your goal is to become the next mayor, in 2025 or the term after. Is it true? Can Jerusalem have a haredi mayor again?
“Frankly, no. I guess that could be a rumor among journalists, but the answer is no.”