Haredim in the Negev

Israelis cannot willfully wish their haredi compatriots away, no matter how aggrieved they feel.

Israel's first prime minister would doubtlesslyhave been pleased by the preliminary approval accorded this week to anew city in the Negev - one which would already in its first phasebecome home to 50,000 residents. David Ben-Gurion was Israel's foremostNegev promoter and population-dispersal advocate. As a fulfillment ofhis Zionist vision, he tirelessly campaigned for Jewish settlement inwhat is still the state's largest land reserve.

Tothat end, he surely would not have minded that Kasif, the blueprintedcity near the Tel Arad National Park, would be earmarked for harediresidents.

Indeed, anything which moves any Jews from the densely packedCoastal Plain to underdeveloped parts of the country should, inprinciple, be considered a boon for Israeli society in general.

With that in mind, some of the objections to a haredi influxthat have been sounded in the Kasif debate were particularlydiscordant. They should be most offensive to liberal ears, to those whomost ardently engage in human rights discourse and are first to condemnwhat they perceive as bigotry. Yet there was no audible outrage whenheads of Negev local authorities warned that "a haredi concentrationwould deter higher-quality populations from moving to the region."

Some of these figures openly said they did not wantharedi communities in their own towns because of likely frictionbetween clashing lifestyles and the disincentive they would constitutefor the sort of residents whom the mayors hope to attract.

There is nothing wrong with preferring a culturally homogeneousand therefore potentially more harmonious population-blend in any givenurban setting. But how an argument is made sometimes makes all thedifference. Labeling an entire component of Israel's citizenry asundesirable is at the very least insensitive and deeply divisive. Weshudder to think what the reaction would have been were such languageused to reject other sectors of the population. Charges of racism wouldsurely be leveled.

At thesame time a variety of environmental organizations may rightly fearthat a new city - with planned low-slung residences, educationalcenters, commercial zones and employment complexes - would despoil theregion's pristine desert vistas and impede the movement of wildlife.Green activists want the haredim absorbed in existing Negev cities -the very ones which vehemently rebuff the notion of a large harediinflux.

The haredim thus are turned into veritable footballs, kickedback and forth by cities which don't want them and environmentalistswho fear their impact.

The bottom line is a situation in which a very large segment ofour society is stigmatized as unwanted anywhere, while there physicallyremains no room for it in jam-packed concentrations like Bnei Brak andJerusalem.

NO GROUP in this country should be thus treated, although nosmall proportion of the blame can be ascribed to often shameless harediabuses of the system at the expense of taxpayers. Organizedmass-draft-dodging and inordinate reliance on handouts from the publiccoffers fuel resentment. Failure to integrate into originally secularsurroundings (with the happy exception of central Tel Aviv) andsometimes aggressive attempts to impose restrictions on neighbors breedantagonism.

Thus cities which cry out for a transfusion of new residents -such as Lod - worry that planned haredi neighborhoods will only makethese already poor municipalities much poorer and inflict upon themoversized families who consume services but don't contributesufficiently in revenue.

Justifiably or not, haredim have earned the reputation ofshying away from gainful employment. If this is untrue, then there is agood deal of income undeclared in order to avoid taxation and/orremoval from welfare rolls.

About 80 percent of Kasif's homes will be subsidized, owing tothe presumed financial hardship of most prospective dwellers. Housingsubsidies are not unusual in Israel, especially in remote locales, butthis again is sure to generate ill will.

All that said, Kasif - first decided upon in 2007 - isindispensable. There are an estimated 700,000 haredim in the countryand a shortage of 100,000 housing units. All current plans - includingthe new town of Harish east of Hadera - will only offer some 30,000units.

Israelis cannot willfully wish their haredi compatriots away,no matter how aggrieved they feel. We mustn't lose sight of genuineneed and plight.