Jerusalem neighborhood religious battle focuses on vacant lot

Warburg Lot has become ground zero for many Jerusalemites and politicians from both parties in the city’s religious tug-of- war between the non-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Warburg Lot 370 (photo credit: Emil Salman)
Warburg Lot 370
(photo credit: Emil Salman)
Residents of Kiryat Yovel were joined Wednesday evening by politicians from the Labor and Meretz parties for a barbeque to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the beginning of the High Holidays, and to voice support in what has become a focal point in the capital’s religious wars.
Warburg Lot – a roughly seven-dunam vacant area in the largely secular neighborhood – has become ground zero for many Jerusalemites and politicians from both parties in the city’s religious tug-of- war between the non-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
While the haredim element of the community wants to construct an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten there, secular residents and leading politicians from the aforementioned parties, have united to demand a pluralistic cultural center or school be built instead.
“The location for tonight’s barbecue is not a coincidence,” said Uriel Russ, spokesperson for the Municipality of Jerusalem Labor Party. “Right now in the municipality there’s a fight about what’s going on here.
He added that “Labor and Meretz have joined together to support the secular part of this neighborhood.”
Kiryat Yovel was established in the early 1950s, primarily for new immigrants of varying backgrounds. However, as the haredi element of the neighborhood has increased over the years, so have tensions between them and secular residents.
Those tensions piqued five years ago after plans for a center for the dramatic arts and music – to be surrounded by a park and scheduled to be built in the lot – were replaced by the municipality in lieu of a haredim kindergarten.
Dina Azriel, an architect and neighborhood activist who lives adjacent to the lot, said the construction plans were replaced illegally, adding that she is resolutely against the ultra-Orthodox kindergarten.
“Five years ago, we woke up one morning and we saw bulldozers [clear the area] and were told they were going to build a kindergarten for an ultra- Orthodox organization, which meant that no secular Jews could use it for their kids,” said Azriel. “So, we decided not to let that happen.”
Indeed, Azriel said the neighborhood coalition has gone so far as to block off the entrances to the lot to prevent the construction of the school. Additionally, the group has held regular cultural events in the vacant lot to ensure it remains open to the public.
“We are dedicated to one principal cause: maintaining an inclusive society in Kiryat Yovel. We want to make sure everyone can [create] a home in our neighborhood – regardless of their ways of life and beliefs.”
Estee Kirmayer, head of the District of Jerusalem Labor Party, who organized the event, said the lot is symbolic of the future of the city.
“This place is the symbol of the secular Jerusalemite – people who came and said ‘we love our city and we’ll stick with this place,’” she said. “This community was built on this struggle – of secular identity.”
“We have an agenda,” Kirmayer continued. “We want a secular yeshiva here because we have Jerusalem’s values and our own way to view and practice Judaism. This is what Jerusalem needs and what the State of Israel needs, and that is why this place is so important.”
Rabbi Ehud Bandel, former president of the Conservative Masorti Movement in Israel, said he hopes to stop the “haredization” of Jerusalem.
“Tonight I’m wearing my political kippa because Meretz and Labor together are creating a bloc that will stop the haredization of the city,” said Bandel.
“I think this is the most important political development in the city.”
Bandel said the evening’s event was important to counterbalance mayoral candidates Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion, who he claimed are actively “competing over who will give more to the haredim.”
“It’s very important for the City Council to have a major bloc that will stand against this process of the haredim taking more control of funds and land – to make sure this sight remains aligned with the nature of this neighborhood,” he said.
Bandel emphasized that the activists are not condemning the haredim, but rather encouraging pluralism.
“We are not against the haredim,” he said. “They are part of this city and deserve their rights, but we hope to make sure the open and pluralistic nature of this neighborhood remains the same.”
Bandel continued, “We are here to support an open and free Jerusalem and making sure that we stand up for the rights of the secular community, which is afraid of losing their status and ability to practice their way of life and values.”
Neighborhood activist Nir Yanovski Dagan summed up the lot as the “front line” in the clash over the community’s – and country’s – future.
“This is the front line of the clash between the haredim and secular in Jerusalem,” he said. “In some ways, it might represent what will happen in other parts of Israel in the future.”