Cityfront: Reluctant ‘settlers’

The recent Israel-US clash took Ramat Shlomo residents by surprise. Once politically aligned not far from Left, the all-haredi population now finds itself in ‘occupied territory’.

ramat shlomo chabad lubavitch home 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ramat shlomo chabad lubavitch home 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ramat Shlomo, the first exclusively haredi neighborhood built beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, was originally slated to be the site for a 50,000-seat stadium. But Teddy Kollek, then serving as mayor, realized that to keep the haredi community from taking over the north of the city, he would have to bring in an overtly secular project.
What better than a soccer stadium? The project included a country club, tennis courts and other athletic facilities geared toward the secular and national-religious communities Kollek wanted to see in the northern part of the capital.
It was the deputy housing and construction minister, the late Menachem Porush, who begged prime minister Menachem Begin to block the decision, fearing that massive Shabbat desecration so close to some of the most religious neighborhoods would lead to tension and rioting. Begin managed to persuade Kollek to move the project to Malha and the stadium that went up there, Teddy Stadium, was eventually named after him.
A few years later, the city’s haredi leaders began to promote the idea of using the location for a new neighborhood that would offer haredi residents a higher quality of life. Originally to be called Reches Shuafat (“Shuafat Ridge”) because it bordered the Palestinian refugee camp there, the new neighborhood was soon renamed Ramat Shlomo, after the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
In the early ’90s, an administrative bureau was founded, headed by Chabad representative Rabbi Ya’acov Snur (later a city council member), and a tender was issued inviting organizations representing all the major streams of haredi society to submit bids.
“We had Sha’arei Zion, Degel Hatorah, Shas, Kollel Shomrei Hahomot and of course Chabad, led by myself,” recalls Snur. “Since the first houses were built in 1995, the neighborhood has become a big success, and now boasts between 25,000 and 28,000 residents. It also has the highest birthrate.”
The recent political incident between Barack Obama and the Israeli government regarding the construction plans in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood has caused a great stir of interest among residents.
“This thing with Vice President [Joe] Biden has struck all of us here,” says Meir Panim founder and media personality Dudi Zilbershlag, who moved to Ramat Shlomo 13 years ago. “What can I tell you? Thanks to President Obama, after years as a ‘leftist’ inside the haredi community, now I’ve won the privilege of being called a settler,” says Zilbershlag with a chuckle. “It’s not only me, of course. All of us here woke up one morning and discovered we’ve become settlers. Nobody understands how some 3,000 haredi families, who are generally fairly dovish, are suddenly considered right-wing settlers who jeopardize regional peace,” he adds, warning that this incident could lead to a shift in haredi political views.
“Most of us here joke about this a lot, but I wouldn’t disregard the impact it might have: despite the fact that for years the haredi position was much closer to that of the Israeli Left, things are moving and changing. Because most of the left-wing activists also battle against Jewish issues that matter so much to us, a large segment of haredim – and I’m not speaking of Chabad – who initially leaned toward right-wing positions, are drifting closer to hardal [haredi nationalist] positions and communities. And this thing, accusing us of acting like settlers on occupied territories, is not helping matters, to say the least.”
“Ramat Shlomo is not beyond the Green Line,” says Snur. “There are maps from the end of the War of Independence showing clearly that this was no-man’s land. This isn’t Pisgat Ze’ev. We’re close to Ramot, in no-man’s land, and not any occupied territories.”
The neighborhood borders Ramot to the west, Har Hotzvim to the south and the Shuafat refugee camp to the east; in some places Shuafat lies just a few hundred meters from Jewish homes.
“We all came here because for the first time we were offered some quality of life at a reasonable and affordable price,” says Zilbershlag. “And we can see that it works: the neighborhood is clean and well kept, we have a broad range of community services and it fits our needs and lifestyle. It has been successful because we were given a modern, clean and good neighborhood, and unlike what happens in other haredi neighborhoods, we manage to keep it that way: once we are given minimum conditions, people pay attention to their surroundings – it’s that simple.”
But the clash between Israel and the Obama  administration disturbs Ramat Shlomo residents most for reasons that have nothing to do with international politics.
“We need housing for our children,” says Snur simply but dramatically.“All the projects are waiting for approval, and are now stopped becauseof this political thing. Speaking personally, two of my sons rent atoutrageous prices – little hole-in-the-wall apartments – and arewaiting for the construction to get started. This is not theterritories or Pisgat Ze’ev. We’re in no-man’s land and there shouldn’tbe any problem.
“We just can’t understand this. And you know what the outcome will be?Haredi families will try to rent or buy homes in Kiryat Hayovel. Gotell President Obama that as a result of his demand there will be moretension, perhaps even riots, in Jerusalem – not between Arabs and Jews,but between secular and haredi Jews.
“That’s why all the representatives at the district committee voted forthe construction project. All the members understood that if we don’thave anywhere to live in our neighborhoods, we’ll have no choice but tofind homes in non-haredi neighborhoods.”