What does Jerusalem's top haredi lawmaker think of the city's struggles?

Eliezer Rauchberger is the second most powerful man in the Jerusalem Municipality. An ultra-Orthodox politician, here is what he thinks about the city and his role in it.

(photo credit: PEGGY CIDOR)

Eliezer Rauchberger, 54, deputy mayor and chairman of the Planning and Construction Committee, is considered the most powerful man in Safra Square, after the mayor. 

Rauchberger was born in Haifa but has been a Jerusalem resident since age 16. He is married, the father of five, as well as a grandfather, and lives in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. An ultra-Orthodox follower of the Lithuanian stream and a member of Degel HaTorah, he worked as a journalist in the past. He emphasizes that he serves everyone – secular, religious, and Arab residents in the eastern part of the city – and sees his primary role as correcting the injustices toward his public. 

In the present turbulent atmosphere, some refuse to consider the ultra-Orthodox as ‘brothers.’ How do you feel about that?

First of all, this has always been the case, with ideological struggles and a chasm between the parties. I really hope that these things will come together because the future of the people of Israel lies in the tradition and the heritage of Israel.

Do the ultra-Orthodox play a part in causing other Jews to move away from tradition?

I cannot absolve the ultra-Orthodox public and say that we haven’t made mistakes. But those who do not make mistakes, do nothing. We make mistakes, sometimes do things wrong. Everyone has to fumble in their actions and then improve.

How do you see your role, as a representative of the Lithuanian Orthodox in the municipality, in reducing the number of  Jerusalemites leaving the city because the ultra-Orthodox have taken over?

First of all, a lot of this is propaganda and hype from the media. There are many local politicians who, unfortunately, incite and make big headlines, which are not for the common good. People tell you that, because they are fed by what is reported in the local Jerusalem media, which is distorted to an unprecedented level. They almost never ask for a response from an ultra-Orthodox representative. I am the leader of the largest faction on the city council, but they never came to ask me for a comment on a kindergarten school that we are ‘taking over.’ 

 A CONSTRUCTION site in Jerusalem this week. (credit: CHAIM GOLDBEG/FLASH90)
A CONSTRUCTION site in Jerusalem this week. (credit: CHAIM GOLDBEG/FLASH90)

Take the mixed neighborhoods. I don’t see anyone demanding that those roads be closed on Shabbat; it’s just a public that wants to receive the services they deserve like every citizen – kindergarten, school, synagogue, activities – but the incitement makes people really afraid. This fear has no basis or foundation.

In your opinion, about a decade and a half after ultra-Orthodox families began moving into non-Orthodox neighborhoods – was this a wise move? Or would it be better to demand more construction in distinctly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods?

There was never a time when businessmen, rabbis, or ultra-Orthodox activists gathered and said, ‘Now we are entering neighborhood X.’ It’s all a question of supply and demand. When my son got married and wanted to stay in Jerusalem, which is his full right, he decided to go to a certain neighborhood where the price was reasonable for him. Out of my five children, only one son remained in the city, unfortunately. The others had to leave because they could not afford the crazy prices here. 

About 60% of those who leave the city every year are haredim, but most of the public does not know or have heard of this figure.

What is your forecast for housing prices? 

My assessment is that in the end, it will explode. What I have been doing in the five years as head of the local Planning and Construction Committee is to simply increase the supply because at the end of the day, it’s all about supply and demand.

But you flood the market with towers that disfigure the city and change its character.

That is a policy of the State of Israel, not the Jerusalem Municipality.

And you can do nothing about it? 

We don’t have many options. First of all, above me is the District Committee, of which I am indeed a member, but its decisions are in accordance with state policy. And this is happening mainly because of the pinui binui (evacuation/construction) projects in the city. There is nothing to be done about it. Today we have apartment buildings from the 1960s and 1970s, some even from the 1950s, and some are becoming public safety hazards.

So construction/evacuation then, but why build towers?

Let’s say you evacuate a building that has 50 housing units, and you want to build 50 units for those who lived there. You have to finance it, right? If the state is not ready to put in money, then you have to build 200 units in the same area. How do you do that? You build a tower.

Could the state have intervened and helped here, as a matter of principle?

Yes, the state could help. But since it’s not just in Jerusalem but all over the country, I don’t think the state budget can handle it.

Even for Jerusalem?

True, this is Jerusalem, but there is a similar situation in Kiryat Shmona, in Yeruham, and more.

And on a personal note? 

I am not satisfied. I say this in the clearest way, but it is necessary. Between the risk of these rickety housing estates with no bomb shelters, and the towers options – it’s very difficult for me, but there is no other way. When I’m asked what is my interest in encouraging the evacuation of a building, I answer that, God forbid, a disaster does not happen to you. That’s my answer. I will do everything I can to prevent more towers, but it is not always possible; it is not always economical. Without that, entrepreneurs will not come.

Can you tell the contractor-developers who win the tenders to build 200 apartments on 50 housing units areas to build small long-term rental apartments for young couples or adults who don’t want to live in a high-rise?

This is exactly what we are doing. Today it is standard. But it can take five to 10 years until occupancy. In every such project, the developer is required to make sure that 20% of the apartments are under 50 square meters. However, building apartments for rent is not worthwhile from an economic point of view.

But they already received a lot of building permits! Is there no limit to greed?

No, there is no limit. They come to the committee meetings and cry, so I give them a tissue and continue. Everyone complains. I want them to make a profit because without it, they would not be entrepreneurs. But we need to set a limit to it. In every project like this, we request kindergartens, daycare centers, synagogues, a library – everything necessary.

We have a great tool – Standard 21. That obligates all of us – municipality, District Committee, and everyone; it obligates cost calculation.

Is it difficult to attract entrepreneurs to Jerusalem?

It used to be very difficult. Today it is much easier.

Are you happy with this change? Because there are quite a few who miss the small, sleepy Jerusalem.

I won’t pretend that this is not on my mind, but what can we do? The world is progressing. In 2000, there were about 600,000 people in Jerusalem. Today, there are almost a million. We have grown by about 50%. At this rate, in 20 years we will be a million and a half. 

Even if it’s only a million and a quarter, that’s another 250,000 people – the size of a city. Where will it be built? Where will these people live? How do we make sure that our children can stay and live here? We must increase the supply. 

I work, by the way, more for the general public than for the ultra-Orthodox public. Because in terms of the space available to the general (non-Orthodox) public in Jerusalem, it is almost double. And also regarding the towers, the haredim do not get 30 or 40 floors, not even 25 floors. There is a maximum of 10, 12 stories for each building.

What is your position regarding the ongoing protests by the ultra-Orthodox public against the light rail on Bar-Ilan Street? They say that the construction of towers along the route will inevitably attract secular residents, and that will alter the character of the neighborhood.

They have no basis for this claim. Unfortunately, they are doing a lot of damage, and in my view, this is blasphemy and hurts the vast majority of Jerusalem’s residents, including the ultra-Orthodox. The train is not only intended for the secular public; it serves everyone. It is a vocal minority, and we must not forget that we are already working on the metro. 

What is your position regarding the ultra-Orthodox state education system?

My position is irrelevant. The elders decide, and they believe that it is not good and not suitable for the ultra-Orthodox public and we should not send our children to these schools. For me, the opinion of Israel’s elders is decisive. It’s not a very big demand. Don’t blow it out of proportion. Just a few percent. Even though there are over 100,000 ultra-Orthodox students in Jerusalem, they only make up 2% of the total residents.

We are getting close to the municipal elections. Are the haredim running all together or separately? 

We are not talking about it just now. At the moment, we are running separately as in the previous elections. Degel HaTorah ran alone last time, and we have six mandates. We are the largest ultra-Orthodox group, and I hope that this time we will increase our strength. 

We arrive crowned with extraordinary achievements. We brought the Ultra-Orthodox public what they deserve by law, and by right – synagogues, classrooms, kindergartens, along with budgets for activities, and  construction and allocation budgets for yeshivas. There is still much to do. To correct the distortions of 15 and 20 years necessitates more than a single term, and I hope that we will continue in the next term together with the mayor. We will grow and expand according to the strength of our public.

Will your list remain the same?

I don’t believe there will be changes. I believe it will stay the same. By Rosh Hashanah they will deal with it, but I believe there will be no changes.

Will you have women on this list?

No. There will be no women.

Without infringing on the right of the ultra-Orthodox public to receive everything they deserve, can you understand why there is a secular public in Jerusalem that feels threatened that there are about 17 seats on the city council in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox or Hardalim (Religious Zionists)? Can you understand their fear? 

First of all, I understand their feeling, but the haredi education system is completely different from the general education system. State or state religious schools are supported by the state and do not need allocations. Schools in the ultra-Orthodox sector need allocations because the state does not allocate buildings for them.

But you have been sitting in Israeli governments for about 40 years, why haven’t you changed that? 

We are not in the government now, we are in the Jerusalem Municipality. The municipality, in order to give a structure to the Beit Ya’akov network, needs to provide an allocation.

Is that what happened with the demand to hand over the Lady Davis building in Kiryat Yovel to Beit Ya’acov?

Yes, but why only Lady Davis? There are dozens of such cases, hundreds. It’s in the headlines now because someone wanted to make it a headline. 

Some representatives of the secular public, when they want to stir things up, say, ‘Look, there was an allocations committee, 80% of it is for the ultra-Orthodox public.’ But the law requires it in this way. They sell opium to the masses, say the ultra-Orthodox are looting the city. The state school does not need an allocation; it receives it automatically from the state. The public buys the lies because they don’t know the laws, the regulations. What is said is true – there are 80% allocations to the ultra-Orthodox public, but that’s only because there is no choice. But why would those secular representatives whose only goal is to accumulate political capital tell the truth? 

What will happen after the elections? Will you sit in a coalition with those public representatives who, according to you, convey incorrect information?

Yossi Havilio is in the coalition; Laura Wharton, Yehuda Ben Yosef and Fleur Hassan-Nahoum are all in the coalition. Elisha Peleg also. 

By the way, this coalition hardly harmed the secular public; perhaps the fringes of the fringes. Leave feelings aside – I’m talking about facts, to the point where the secular public is not harmed unless they come and say, ‘I want to throw the ultra-Orthodox into the sea,’ just like someone said they would throw the ultra-Orthodox into the garbage.

But here is an example. The local council wants to close the pool in Har Homa on Shabbat, although there are residents who want to use it then. This is no longer a feeling, it is already a message that you are the majority here, and you will dictate. This is how people experience such situations.

No matter what, this is a democratic country, and one must act according to the majority

Could you imagine saying, ‘It pains me, but I can’t force people to live like me.’ They also have rights. Where does this red line pass for you as a public leader?

There are pools and countless roads open on Shabbat. There is a street in Ramat Sharett that connects with Bayit Vagan. There was a debate whether this street would be open or closed on Shabbat. We came to the understanding that the road will physically remain open, but they put up signs asking to be considerate. As far as I know, only a few cars drive there on Saturday. That’s an approach we’ve come up with here.

In your vision, will Jerusalem ever no longer be the poorest city? 

Including the haredim in the ‘poverty’ category is an error. If according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, a family of five people needs an income of NIS 20,000 [per month], in the ultra-Orthodox sector, NIS 12,000-14,000 is enough. 

We have a concept of being content with little, we live much more modestly, so don’t measure us in terms of poverty according to the same criteria. 

The ultra-Orthodox are not that poor. There is poverty, but the measuring tools are different. I mean it’s a cultural matter, not a matter of mathematical calculations. If they use the ultra-Orthodox measuring tools, the picture will be completely different. And those who want to work have no problems.

 And what about working to earn a living if they don’t study any secular curriculum?

They don’t have to learn it from the age of eight; they can learn it at the age of 25. It is possible to learn according to the supply and demand of the market. So they don’t learn hi-tech, but they learn many other things that enable them to work. Those who want to make a living can make a living.

What kind of election campaign do you expect? 

First of all, I hope it will preserve democracy and be free of quarrels and slander and incitement, even though I am not optimistic because there are some who make a fortune out of it.

Do you want to continue in the same position?

Yes, I think I have proven myself during these five years, and I wouldn’t want others to cut the ribbons of what I planted. ❖