I was driving my son and his friend, who, by his color, features and last name, is at least half-Mizrahi. I asked him how long he and his family had been living in Modi'in. "About a year." "Where did you live before?" "Ramle." "Do you like it better here than in Ramle?" "Sure, what you think?" Good answer. What did I think, that he wouldn't like Modi'in more than Ramle? Look around - Modi'in is new, clean, safe, beautifully landscaped, with nice, big apartment buildings, good schools (between teachers' strikes), shiny shopping malls, and, above all, happy, confident kids and parents. The boy wouldn't have put it this way, but Modi'in is a middle-class paradise. And what, 25 km away, is Ramle? A gritty, old, rundown tenement city of poor-to-lower-middle-class Mizrahim, Arabs, and Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, with a good deal of crime and violence, and schools that are not known for achievement. Right next door is Lod, which is even worse, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden, most corrupt, most hopeless cities in the country. Do you like it better in Ramle/Lod, or in Modi'in? Dumb question. I was reminded of this dialog by an item in Haaretz this week headlined "SPNI [Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel]: Modi'in's success hurts Lod and Ramle." Hoping to stop Israel's fastest-growing city from gobbling up more green, rocky foothills for development, the SPNI repeated what environmentalists have been saying against Modi'in since it was founded a decade ago: The city eats up too much land, and weakens Ramle and Lod by attracting their upwardly mobile residents. If Israel wants to build new housing in the area, they argue, it should build highrises at the edges of Ramle and Lod, which would preserve the rugged land that Modi'in is tearing up while giving a badly-needed economic and social boost to those two poor, old, nearby cities. The environmentalists have a point, I think, about preserving the land. I personally don't see why Modi'in has to grow from its current population of 70,000 to a planned 200,000. I don't see what will be gained, and, after 10 years here, I am sick and tired of living in a construction site. Then again, I was happy they bulldozed the hill where my neighborhood was built; who am I to tell other people now to keep out because I need the scenery? But when Israeli environmentalists say the answer to the middle-class housing shortage in this region is to build new highrises in Lod and Ramle, I become fairly contemptuous of Israeli environmentalists. IN GENERAL, they are members of a demographic group known derisively as tzfonim, or northerners, a term that originally referred to residents of North Tel Aviv, but which has come to mean liberal, secular, Ashkenazi, college-educated, middle-to-upper-class Israelis wherever they live. By this definition, I am a tzfoni, and I would like to ask my fellow tsfonim in the SPNI: Would you like to live in Lod or Ramle? Would you like to raise your kids there? Would you like to send them to public school there? Believe me, they wouldn't. And here is something my fellow tzfonim may not know, but which I know from living in Modi'in: The upwardly-mobile Mizrahim and Russian immigrants in Lod and Ramle don't want to live there either, not if they can afford to move here or to some other nice middle-class town with good schools. And the great thing about Modi'in is that a lot of people in Lod and Ramle can afford to move here, and have done so. You can get a big three-bedroom apartment in this city for $200,000; the same apartment in a similar neighborhood in the Dan Region, Israel's center, would cost up to twice as much. Which is why Modi'in is not a tzfoni town, but rather a mix of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim so well and evenly mixed that I honestly couldn't guess which is the majority and which the minority. (There are also a lot of Russians here, but hardly any Ethiopians, and, as far as I know, no Arabs.) AS A liberal, I would like to believe, as I once believed, that the way to "raise up" the poor is by improving their neighborhoods and cities - building them new housing, improving their schools and public services, bringing in new industry. Today, while I think that all of this can help people living in poor areas, I also know that once any of those residents get enough money together to move up and out, they will. Another thing I've learned is that when poor neighborhoods are "gentrified" or "improved" with new, more expensive housing, it doesn't help the hard-up "veterans." Remaining hard-up, the veterans live separately from the richer newcomers, who send their kids to different, better schools. Urban renewal and new highrises, I'm afraid, are not the answer for Lod and Ramle. The answer is Modi'in, a bigger Modi'in - now that I think about it, a Modi'in that can fit 200,000 people. As for scenery, I guess I'll just have to find some new hills, and put up with these goddamn cranes and bulldozers. Life, as they say, is a trade-off.