Haredi 'settlers' maintain they aren't

Two of the West Bank's largest cities don't consider themselves settlements.

At 35, Yitschak Pindrus is the youngest mayor in Israel, but above the average age for his West Bank city of Betar Illit, which is growing more than four times as fast as the rest of the country. It's a record that would make any settler politician proud, except that here, in the third largest city in the West Bank, that word sounds foreign to the residents, whose primary allegiance is to their haredi beliefs. "How am I a settler?" asked one surprised young mother, Sima Yarov, as she stood on the sidewalk and clutched a baby carriage. Betar Illit residents are not alone in their disassociation. In Modi'in Illit, the largest city in the West Bank and one whose population is growing six times as fast that of Israel as a whole, a woman at the municipal offices insists that the term doesn't even apply because after all, their community is not over the pre-1967 armistice line. In 1980, the notion of a haredi settler was an anomaly. In 2006, the residents of these two cities alone numbered 63,869 and made up 23 percent of the West Bank's Jewish population. Together they were responsible for 46% of the total growth in the number of settlers in Judea and Samaria in 2006. Part of the confusion among residents when it comes to a settler identity stems from the fact that both cities hug the pre-1967 border. Modi'in Illit is only 600 meters over the line and Betar Illit is a scant 400 meters beyond it. But the root of the disassociation is more ideological. Their haredi beliefs and not the settler movement is paramount in their lives. These residents moved to these cities because they sought affordable haredi communities. As a result, black hats and sidelocks are common, but the orange so symbolic to settlers is just one more color. Sitting behind the cash register in a corner grocery store, French immigrant Dorit Briton agreed that her alienation from the word is illogical, given that she does live over the Green Line and had to pass through a checkpoint when driving from Jerusalem. "I can't explain it, but in my mind, settlers are people who live in Kiryat Arba and not here," she said. Abigail Neckameyer said that before her family moved here from Los Angeles, the Israeli consul assured the skeptical shipping company that their new home was not over the pre-1967 border. "We are settlers in the same way that the people who live in Ramat Eshkol are settlers," Neckameyer said. She and her husband chose the city as their new home because her sister lived there. "We just loved it. It is very clean, very nice and very tranquil. It was an affordable place that is pretty and close to Jerusalem," she said. Pindrus pointed out that "The Green Line is something that exists in the US State Department but not in the eyes of many Israelis, who do not even know where it lies exactly." He added that he may be one of the few people in the city who considers himself to be a settler. Although he does pride himself on the fact that people move to his city for the same reasons that attract people to a locale anywhere in the world. "What does it mean to be a settler?" he asked. With his suit, tie and black shoes, he said he hardly fit the stereotype of the rugged looking settler with sandals and an Uzi strapped across his back. "I don't own a pair of sandals," he joked. Holding up a cigarette lighter in the shape of a pistol, he said that this was the closest he came to owning a gun. But all jokes aside, Pindrus said it was no accident that he lives over the pre-1967 armistice line. "I do feel that I am building Israel and protecting Jerusalem and the road to Hebron," he said. Pindrus added that if that meant he was a settler, "then you can call me one." Technically, he said, he was a member of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Betar Illit was first conceived in the 1970s as part of the Alon Plan to create a ring of large cities around Jerusalem. It was officially founded in 1985, but people only moved in around 1990, Pindrus said. When he moved to Betar Illit back then, there were only around 30 homes. From the beginning, it was designed as a haredi city. Even in the early 1990s, when there were only a few thousand people living there, the first mayor, Moshe Lebowitz, would say that he represented a city of 100,000 people. Still, said Pindrus, the city grew slowly at first. The opening of the tunnel road in 1995 changed the geography of the city, making it only a 10 kilometer trip to Jerusalem, said Pindrus. After that, growth accelerated, he said. Today, according to the Interior Ministry, 29,355 people live there. Pindrus said the city could grow beyond Lebowitz's projections, in spite of the building restrictions placed on it by the government. "It's a very young city, he said. Most adults are between 22 and 34. Sixty-two percent of the city is under the age of 18, and 32% under the age of five, Pindrus added. Last year, 2,000 children were born in Betar Illit. To accommodate the natural growth, he plans to build 2,000 apartment units, on top of the existing 6,000, within four years. According to existing city plans, Pindrus said, he can then build another 2,000 units, for a total of 10,000. He added that he was working to expand the number of allowable units to 15,000. He does not worry that his city would be given to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal. Such an idea, he said, existed only as the hypothetical musings of pundits who sit in conferences in nice hotels in Geneva. "I do not see something like that happening," he said. Haifa was more likely to become a Palestinian city, he said. Most of his time, he said, was devoted to running his city well, making it financially sound and beautifully planned. If there is a stereotype that he wants to break, it is not related to the question of who is a settler, but rather to the issue of what does it mean to be haredi. "A haredi city doesn't have to be something disgusting and filthy," he said.