Any religious institution that seeks to open its doors outside of an exclusively religious neighborhood in Israel can count on facing a concerted campaign to prevent it from doing so. Employing the same scare tactics as blockbusters in racially mixed neighborhoods, secular zealots warned that the neighborhoods will soon be filled with black-hatted chareidim, yeshivas, and kollelim, and that property values will plummet. These campaigns are typically organized by national organizations like Am Hofshi (A Free People), or the anti-religious political parties, Meretz and Shinui.
Three years ago, a small first-grade of 25 or so students opened up in Tzoran, a bucolic residential community of 1,500 young families near Netanya. Before the school even opened its doors, a local organizer threatened violence to block the establishment of a religious school in Tzoran.
That turned out to be no idle threat. On the first day of classes, the young students and their teachers found themselves facing a screaming mob of 60 or so hecklers, some of them accompanied by attack dogs. The first graders had to run the gauntlet of verbal abuse and physical menace just to enter their classroom. The same scene was repeated every day for a month.
Not content with terrifying six-year-old students, opponents of the school repeatedly vandalized the building throughout the year, smearing tar on the walls, breaking locks and smashing furniture.
Meretz leader Yossi Sarid traveled to Tzoran to rally the troops, announcing a battle to expel the forces of darkness from Tzoran. Under the banner of "freedom from religious coercion," Meretz sought to prevent twenty parents from providing their children with a religious education.
It did not work. Within two years, the school had moved to nearby Kadima where today more than 300 students are enrolled, some of them children of the original protesters.
In 1999, Am Hofshi, together with activists in Shinui and Meretz, embarked on a national campaign to oppose the opening of any religious institution in religiously mixed neighborhoods. The next front in the war was Rechovot. There Am Hofshi organized protests against the building of a Habad educational complex on land that had been allocated for the purpose a full five years earlier and on which building had commenced three years earlier.
The proposed complex was to serve 500 children, who were then learning in makeshift facilities five-minutes away. Those children all lived within a ten minute walk of the planned new school complex. The complex, then, was to be a local school for local children.
At one protest meeting organized by Am Hofshi, in which demonstrators were bused in from around the country, one of the speakers proclaimed, "This is war on all fronts; the battleground is everywhere." Another speaker told the crowd that charedim fly around the country in helicopters targeting vulnerable neighborhoods for their incursions. A Meretz MK demanded that the land be used for discos and sport facilities rather than for "such things" as religious schools.
In a house-to-house campaign, residents in nearby neighborhoods (separated by a four-lane boulevard from the proposed site) were told that the value of their homes would shrink drastically, that the planned dormitory would house 1,000 students (160 is the actual number) and that the complex would include 70 classrooms (as opposed to the actual number of 22).
As in Tzoran, the building site was vandalized.
Am Hofshi took its opposition to the Supreme Court. In the preliminary hearings before the Court, Justice Strasbourg-Cohen took judicial notice of the fact that religious and non-religious cannot live together, conveniently ignoring the fact that they have been doing so for 100 years in Rechovot and that all the city’s neighborhoods are religiously mixed.
The Court then proceeded to issue a temporary injunction against further building, without even requiring a bond from the party seeking the injunction, as is standard procedure, and ignoring the nearly one million shekels already invested in the site by Habad.
As it turned out, the Supreme Court was only warming up for further interference in the land allocation decisions of the Rechovot municipality. After Rechovot allocated a plot of land for the building of a new Lev L’Achim outreach site, Am Hofshi, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and 18 residents of a nearby neighborhood rushed to the Supreme Court to overturn the municipality’s decision.
The Court twice returned the case to the city for reconsideration of its original decision, and each time the Rechovot municipality, including even the Meretz members, reaffirmed its decision, by large majorities. The final vote was 17-3, with three abstentions.
The members of the Rechovot city council have an intimate knowledge of the city and its needs. Most of them personally know Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz, director of Lev L’Achim in Rechovot, who has been teaching Torah in the city for 30 years. Over 1,000 people a week in Rechovot and the immediate environs attend shiurim under his auspicies. All the city representatives visited Lev L’achim’s present site prior to voting in favor of the allocation, and they had all the objections of neighborhood residents before them in writing. (More residents of the neighborhood closest to the site signed petitions in favor of the outreach center than signed petitions opposing it.)
The Supreme Court chose to substitute its judgment for Rechovot’s elected representatives, however, on the apparent grounds that no non-religious person should ever suffer the indignity of seeing a religious person in their neighborhood. As for the $300,000 already invested in the building: Tough luck.
The burgeoning system of SHUVU schools for children from Russian-speaking homes has also been a frequent target. Last year, the Mayor of Yerucham simply refused to recognize the existence of a new SHUVU school in the town. He withheld money designated for the school by the Education Minister and refused to issue a building permit for a fence around the schoolyard – an abandoned Histadrut building on Yerucham’s main thoroughfare. Since the Education Ministry requires a fence around school premises, SHUVU had no choice but to invest $10,000 in building a fence. The mayor promptly ordered the fence razed.
The most recent confrontation point for SHUVU is Holon, where SHUVU recently rented a building from the Kibbutz Artzi movement and has begun renovations on the site. Currently all the 150 SHUVU students from Holon are being bused to a SHUVU school in Tel Aviv, and the new school building would allow them to attend school far closer to home.
Since SHUVU started renovations on the building, it has been subject to the same type of opposition that faced other religious institutions in Tzoran and Rechovot. The local newspaper, owned by Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest daily, ran a hysterical article about the fears of local property owners that the SHUVU school would lower real estate prices in the neighborhood. The article quotes one resident as complaining that the new school "negates our identity as secular Jews. SHUVU will change the area’s social environment and will have a negative impact on our quality of life. . . . It can’t be that such people will push themselves into an affluent street such as ours, on which there is not a single chareidi family."
Another resident is quoted as saying, "We are positive that they will make our lives impossible. It’s going to be war. We are fighting for our lives here, for our way of life. Besides, real estate prices are liable to go down."
Meanwhile the vice-mayor, whose is from Meretz, has sought an injunction against any further renovations on the grounds that the property is residential. In fact, the property was clearly not designated for residential use. It is listed on the municipal registry as a youth club and for over thirty years has been used as such. The building contains a large basketball court indicating that it was always intended as a public building for a school or related use.
The claim that property values will drop because of SHUVU’s presence is equally spurious. The youth club included a disco and a bar, neither of which could be expected to contribute to the peace and quiet of a residential neighborhood. In recent years, the building has fallen into disuse, and the graffiti sprayed on the building and other materials found at the site indicate that it had become a gathering place for unsavory characters.
Hopefully the misrepresentations about the SHUVU school and hysterical claims of some neighbors will be exposed in the upcoming court proceedings.
In the meantime, what should concern us all is the ease with which secular Israelis speak about religious Jews as if we were a modern version of the bubonic plague, spreading death and destruction in our wake, and how uncritically such views are presented in the press. Worse, those views have been endorsed and legitimized by both elected officials, as in Holon and Yerucham, and by the Israeli Supreme Court in the two cases from Rechovot.