'We are not settlers. We are Jews'

Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit's haredim make up 23% of W. Bank's Jewish population.

modiin ilit 224 88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
modiin ilit 224 88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
At 35, Yitschak Pindrus is the youngest mayor in Israel, but above the average age for a resident of his West Bank city of Betar Illit, whose population is increasing at four times the pace of the country. Betar Illit is one of the fastest-growing communities in Israel, ballooning 70 percent between 2000 and 2005. This kind of record would make any settler leader proud. But with his black hat, black shoes and haredi beliefs, Pindrus doesn't fit the stereotype of the rugged, sandal-clad settler with a rifle strapped across his back. "I don't own a pair of sandals," he joked as he sat behind the desk in his office. He said that a pistol-shaped cigarette lighter was the closest thing to a gun he owned. Many of Betar Illit's 29,355 residents consider terms like "the Green Line" and "settler" meaningless, he said. Their primary allegiance is to their haredi beliefs, even though they live in the third-largest Jewish settlement in the West bank. In Modi'in Illit, the largest West Bank settlement and one whose haredi population is growing six times as fast that of Israel as a whole, a woman at a municipal office didn't even seem to be aware that she lives over the Green Line. "What are you talking about? We're not settlers," she insisted. In 1980, the notion of a haredi settler was an anomaly. In 2006, according to the Interior Ministry, haredim in Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit alone numbered 63,869 and made up 23% of the West Bank's Jewish population. In Modi'in Illit, which was established in the mid-1990s, the population numbered 34,514 in 2006. Between 2000 and 2005, it registered an 86% growth rate. Together, these two haredi communities were responsible for 46% of the total growth in the number of settlers in Judea and Samaria in 2006, according to data provided by the Interior Ministry. Still, many of the residents interviewed for the article said they did not see themselves as part of the settler movement. Some of the confusion stems from the fact that both settlements hug the Green Line - Modi'in Illit is only 600 meters over the line and Betar Illit is a scant 400 meters beyond it. "The Green Line is something that exists in the US State Department, but not in the eyes of many Israelis, who don't even know exactly where it lies," said Pindrus. But the haredi disassociation from the settler movement is more ideological than geographical. Their religious beliefs, not the settler movement, are paramount in their lives, many of those interviewed for the article explained. "The Green Line is a non-Torah concept invented by British mapmakers and has been adopted as some kind of a theological principle. There is no such thing. There is all of Eretz Israel and we have a right to every part it," said Betar Illit resident Aryeh Zelasko. "The Torah community doesn't see itself as defined by the political fantasies of the nonreligious community," he said. Zelasko moved to Betar Illit seven years ago because it was a haredi community with affordable housing. The Chicago immigrant had previously lived in Tekoa, another settlement in the Etzion Bloc, but said he wouldn't use the term "settler," a notion he called a failed concept of the national religious movement. "We are not settlers. We are Jews, if anything, reclaiming that which is ours. You do not talk about resettling your home," Zelasko said. Sitting behind the cash register in a corner grocery store, French immigrant Dorit Briton said she chose Betar Illit for the same reasons Zelasko did. She agreed that her alienation from the word "settler" was illogical, given that she does live over the Green Line and has to pass through a checkpoint when driving from Jerusalem. "In my mind, settlers are people who live in Kiryat Arba, and not here," she said. Abigail Neckameyer said that before her family moved to Betar Illit from Los Angeles, the Israeli consul assured the skeptical shipping company that their new home was not over the Green Line. "We are settlers in the same way that the people who live in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Ramat Eshkol are settlers," Neckameyer said. She and her husband chose the city because her sister lived there. "It is very clean, very nice and very tranquil. It was an affordable place that is pretty and close to Jerusalem," she said. With a faded orange ribbon attached to her car, Esther Gur said she is among a minority of people in Betar Illit who would claim the term "settler." "We are part of the [settlement area] geographically, but politically we are not," Gur said. "We have no connection to [nearby] Efrat or any of the other settlements." Her only hesitation with the label "settler," she said, is that she doesn't feel like she deserves the title. Her life is not at risk as are those of the settlers in Hebron, she said. Gur said her views had changed since she came to Betar Illit from Vancouver in 1996. Today, Gur has become much more ideologically driven. She is proud that during Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, she had sons in yeshivot in three of the evacuated communities - one in Gaza and two in northern Samaria. Sitting in his office, Pindrus said it was no accident that he lived over the Green 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 had been a member of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip since he was elected mayor in 2001. Betar Illit, Pindrus said, was first conceived in the 1970s as part of the Allon Plan to create a ring of large cities around Jerusalem. The city was officially founded in 1985, but only populated starting around 1990, Pindrus said. When he moved to Betar Illit, there were only some 30 homes, but from its inception, it was meant to be a large haredi city. Even in the early 1990s, when there were only a few thousand people living there, then-mayor Moshe Lebowitz would say he represented a city of 100,000. Pindrus said the city grew slowly at first. But the opening of the tunnel road in 1995 made the trip to Jerusalem only a 10-kilometer drive. After that, growth accelerated. "It's a very young city," he said. Most adults in Betar Illit were between the ages of 22 and 34, while 62% of the residents are under 18, and 32% under the age of five, Pindrus added. Pindrus said he believed the city could grow beyond Lebowitz's projected 100,000, despite building restrictions set by the government for political reasons. Within four years, he plans to build 2,000 apartment units on top of the existing 6,000. He said he was also working to expand the number of allowable housing 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 sat in conferences in nice hotels in Geneva. Most days, his concern is not the Palestinians but municipal planning. "A haredi city doesn't have to be something disgusting and filthy," he said. It can be beautiful and financially sound, Pindrus said. He was proud, he said, of his record on these scores and that when people come they do so for the same reasons that people choose a home anywhere in the world. So he spends his time running his city well, he said. If there is a stereotype that he wants to break, it is not the question of what constitutes a "settler," but what it means to be haredi.