Are haredi, secular Israelis set to clash in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel?

Sources at Safra Square say that this issue will probably become one of the most important issues in the upcoming elections campaign, if not the most important.

 PROTESTING THE Lady Davis hand-over: Sign reads, ‘Amal school – war to save home.’  (photo credit: Yossi Havilio’s Office)
PROTESTING THE Lady Davis hand-over: Sign reads, ‘Amal school – war to save home.’
(photo credit: Yossi Havilio’s Office)

Is Kiryat Yovel in turmoil again over the struggles between the secular and haredi communities?

Based on the highly charged reactions following the municipality’s decision to hand over the Lady Davis school building from the Amal network to the ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya’akov chain, it would appear that trouble is brewing once again.

With less than 10 months to go before the next mayoral and council elections, the “liberal” wing in Mayor Moshe Lion’s coalition is up against strong opposition that may threaten its continued existence. 

Fighting over a school building and haredi control

Last week, Yossi Havilio and Laura Wharton, two members of the coalition’s non-haredi wing, met with the mayor in an attempt to convince him not to approve the transfer of the building to the haredi public. Thus far, they have not succeeded.

For the time being, this contentious issue is, in the main, being resolved quietly through residents’ meetings. Preparations are also being made for the future. In addition to Havilio and Wharton, those involved in the struggle are board members of the neighborhood’s local council administration, as well as activists who have been fighting for years against what they see as the neighborhood’s trend of haredization.

 YOSSI HAVILIO, deputy mayor and city councilor in the coalition’s non-haredi wing.  (credit: ISRAEL COHEN) YOSSI HAVILIO, deputy mayor and city councilor in the coalition’s non-haredi wing. (credit: ISRAEL COHEN)

However, it is unlikely that the network’s owners, the Histadrut labor federation, will join in the campaign. Meanwhile, the director of the Lady Davis school – which is much more than just a regular school, as it provides a real home for boys and girls who have dropped out of other schools – expressed his opposition to the move. 

But as far as the heads of the Histadrut labor federation in the Jerusalem district are concerned, as long as there is no harm done to their workers, they will not interfere in the municipality’s decision-making process.

“It is a hard struggle,” says Moshe, a resident of the neighborhood in his early 40s, “because I, for example, am not against haredim. There are haredim in my own family; I know I can live with them in good neighborly relations. But handing over Lady Davis to a haredi girls’ seminary means opening the neighborhood to students who do not live in Kiryat Yovel, and that is a shame, in my opinion.”

Tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and secular communities in the neighborhood are nothing new. In fact, tensions between the two communities have been ongoing in Kiryat Yovel for several years.

The current situation has, once again, been inflamed by the repeated attempts of representatives from the haredi community on the city council to take over educational facilities used by secular residents and convert them into haredi educational institutions.

The most contentious issues revolve around the question of whether public buildings used for cultural purposes will operate on Shabbat. Examples include the Mifletzet pub, the municipal swimming pool, and the Warburg complex, which was planned to meet the cultural and recreational needs of the non-Orthodox residents of the neighborhood. 

But now the focus has turned to educational facilities. Many residents believe that the mayor’s decision to overlook the rights of the non-Orthodox residents stems from his desire to accede to the demands of the strongest part of his coalition – the ultra-religious – who comprise more than half of the council members.

There are a number of reasons why these tensions are plaguing Kiryat Yovel. First, this is a neighborhood that still offers affordable housing, with the largest number of housing solutions among the city’s neighborhoods. Kiryat Yovel also attracts ultra-Orthodox communities because it is relatively close to two haredi neighborhoods –  Bayit Vagan and Har Nof.

At the end of his term, the previous mayor, MK Nir Barkat, submitted a plan that he believed would regulate the distribution of educational real estate among the city’s sectors on a permanent basis. The crux of his plan was to open kindergartens in each neighborhood according to the needs of the community. Haredi kindergartens would be opened in predominantly secular neighborhoods if there were enough ultra-Orthodox children there, while ultra-Orthodox schools would only be opened in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. 

In response to the transfer of the Lady Davis school, Havilio and Wharton declared, “The transfer of the Lady Davis school building in Kiryat Yovel to the Beit Ya’akov seminary chain is a blatant violation of the plan, the main principles of which are also signed by the current coalition.” They pledged not to give up in this struggle.

“There are serious problems in the way of making the decision, of your intention to evacuate the Lady Davis school (of the Amal network) in Kiryat Yovel for the benefit of Beit Jacob’s school, such as the non-participation of the school administration, the parents and students, and a completely improper process of securing a place not through the local allocations committee as required by law. Furthermore, the unfortunate decision must be reversed, as several months ago I raised the matter with you, and you told me that it was only the use of part of a house, that the school would not be evacuated.”

Laura Wharton

In a letter to Lion, Wharton wrote, “There are serious problems in the way of making the decision, of your intention to evacuate the Lady Davis school (of the Amal network) in Kiryat Yovel for the benefit of Beit Jacob’s school, such as the non-participation of the school administration, the parents and students, and a completely improper process of securing a place not through the local allocations committee as required by law. Furthermore, the unfortunate decision must be reversed, as several months ago I raised the matter with you, and you told me that it was only the use of part of a house, that the school would not be evacuated”.

Havilio and Wharton point out that this decision would damage the character of the neighborhoods across the city. Removing 120 secular and religious students, along with staff members, and replacing them with ultra-Orthodox students and their teams would dramatically change the nature of the neighborhoods and harm residents.

This current struggle is being led by Havilio, Wharton, members of the local council community administration, and the parents’ committee, as well as the secretary of the Labor Party in Jerusalem and the Yesh Atid representative in Jerusalem. Facing them are 13 haredi representatives, headed by Deputy Mayor and president of the planning and construction committee, Eliezer Rauchberger (United Torah Judaism). 

Sources at Safra Square say that this issue will probably become one of the most important issues in the upcoming elections campaign, if not the most important.

Havilio admits that Lion promised Rauchberger a hand-over of the Lady Davis institution “and has already done PR in the haredi media on this move.” He adds that this is probably “the price he has to pay to the ultra-Orthodox ‘in return’ for their green light for the renovation of the experimental Argentina. But this is crushing the status quo and the coalition agreements.”

On the next steps to be taken, Havilio and Wharton are cautious, but close sources say that residents and activists are seriously considering a petition to the court and a request for a restraining order. 

As for the medium to longer term, Wharton suggests “defining Kiryat Yovel as a Zionist and pluralistic neighborhood and canceling Lion’s decision.” In support, Havilio pledges to fight against the decision “with all our might.” ❖