Since its founding by religious settlers a century ago, Rehovot has been characterized by peaceful relations between religious and non-observant residents. Rabbi Simha Kook, chief rabbi of the city for 27 years, is one of the best-known figures in the city, and is invariably invited to give a dvar Torah at any major event in the city.
Religious and non-religious Jews have always lived in close proximity to one another. There are no completely religious or completely secular neighborhoods in the city. Traffic flows freely on Shabbat past the main shuls. Rabbi Kook himself lives in a building in which half the residents are observant and half are not. A Scout troop meets a hundred meters from his entrance every Shabbat.
Three months ago, Rehovot's air of peaceful coexistence was shattered when Am Hofshi mounted a determined campaign to prevent the construction of a Habad educational complex in the southeastern section of the city. A group of residents of the city's Yovel neighborhood, consisting mostly of recently built high-rises separated from the proposed construction site by a four-lane boulevard, protested that they had known nothing of the intended construction.
Yet a groundbreaking ceremony for two pre-schools took place at the site in 1994, and two years later, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the entire complex, with the interior minister and the mayor of Rehovot in attendance.
Opponents of the complex describe it as an attempt to thrust a haredi institution into the middle of a completely secular neighborhood. That is patently false. The complex is surrounded on two-sides by four-lane boulevards and on a third by the religious high school of Kiryat David, one of the most religious neighborhoods in the city.
Moreover, the Habad complex will serve a fully local population. It is a five-minute walk from the Denya neighborhood, where over 500 children are currently studying in makeshift classrooms in the Habad shul and an adjacent building. Even Meretz city council member Dov Chafetz approved the building of new schools after viewing the existing conditions.
All those 500 children live within five to 10 minutes walking distance of the proposed complex. The planned school buildings are thus local schools for local children.
Am Hofshi, headed by Shinui MK Yosef Paritzky and Meretz's Ornan Yekutieli, has embarked on a nationwide policy of opposing the opening of any religious institution in a neighborhood that is not exclusively religious. Religious Jews are to be confined to their Bantustans in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, where only those tourists whose curiosity is piqued will ever have to come in contact with them.
At a rally organized by Am Hofshi to protest the Habad center, singer Shimrit Or declared, 'This is war on all fronts; the battlefront is everywhere.' Another speaker brought in for the occasion told the audience that haredim fly around the country in helicopters, licking their lips at the sight of vulnerable neighborhoods. Meretz MK Ilan Gilon expressed astonishment that public lands could be allocated for 'such things' as religious schools, and demanded rock and roll clubs and sports facilities instead.
Following its strategy of national war, Am Hofshi bussed in demonstrators from around the country. Using the techniques so successfully employed by blockbusters in the United States whenever a black family moves into a previously all-white neighborhood, organizers warned darkly of rapidly declining property values and a haredi takeover. Residents were told that a planned dormitory would house 1,000 yeshiva students. The actual number is 160. They were told that 70 classrooms will be built, not 22 as is actually the case.
Nor did opponents confine themselves to scare tactics and lies. One night a dozen or so were videotaped ripping down the fence around the construction site and, in a frenzy, stomping on the fence and trying to rip beams from their place.
Appalled by the threat to Rehovot's hundred year history of religious coexistence, Mayor Shuki Forer, who is not religious, labeled the opposition to the Habad center pure antisemitism.
Typically, Am Hofshi also financed a suit to the Supreme Court to stop the building at the site, into which Habad had already poured almost NIS 1 million. The absurdity of the Supreme Court acting as a court of first instance in a zoning dispute and of three justices, who might never have been in Rehovot, substituting their judgment for that of the elected mayor and city council, did not occur to the court.
Even worse, Justice Strassburg-Cohen took 'judicial notice' from the bench of the fact religious and secular Jews cannot live in proximity to one another (something Habad emissaries do in hundreds of places around the world). Thus those who vandalized the site effectively bolstered their case by demonstrating their own intense animosity.
The court issued a temporary injunction against further building, without even requiring the posting of bond, as is standard procedure in such cases.
And, in its capacity as solver of all national problems, it referred the case for arbitration.
As Mayor Forer noted in his answer to the court, this case starkly poses the question: Is it now the legal doctrine of the Jewish state that religious and non-religious Jews must be confined to separate ghettos, forbidden to live in proximity to one another?