June 1, 2011
Ramat Aviv, a district in northern Tel Aviv, is known as an affluent, liberal-left neighbourhood. It is home to Tel Aviv University as well as to one of Israel’s swankiest shopping malls. It was the setting of a long-running soap opera, Ramat Aviv Gimel - Israel’s answer to Beverly Hills 90210 . Most Israelis would be surprised to find out that Ramat Aviv is slowly being infiltrated and taken over by ultra-orthodox Jews.
The claim of an ultra-orthodox takeover is being made by a group of self-avowed secular activists who are setting up the Forum of Secular Communities (FSC). On their website , called Hiloni (meaning ‘secular’), the community activists state that ultra-orthodox groups are invading neighbourhoods in Ramat Aviv and other districts and towns across Israel, taking over buildings and public areas, infiltrating the education system and luring young people into religious schools, sometimes with the help of sweets.
FSC’s founder, Ram Fruman, a Ramat Aviv native and the manager of a venture capitalist fund, explains to me that 95 per cent of Ramat Aviv’s 20,000 residents are secular but that the district has also long been home to a small community of Dati’im Leumim , nationalist religious Jews. They have lived in coexistence with their liberal and mostly left-leaning neighbours, says Fruman. However, this religious section of Israeli society has in recent years split, with the emergence of so-called Haredim Leumim , ultra-orthodox nationalist Jews. Along with the Haredim , anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jews, the Haredim Leumim have begun moving into secular areas around Israel with the intent of changing their character, say Fruman and his fellow pro-secular activist.
Fruman says his fight is against the latter two groups. He gives me a breakdown of their strategy. ‘First, the volunteer settlers come and prepare the ground. They are organised, they know how to raise money and how to push the municipalities to allow them to build the infrastructure that will allow for more and more of them to arrive.’ This includes synagogues, ritual baths, kindergartens and separate religious schools for men, women and born-again Jews. They have also successfully introduced religious programmes in secular schools, explains Fruman, managing Jewish Studies classes through a curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education.
‘Look at this building here.’ Fruman points to a box-shaped, concrete block. ‘It used to be a cinema. It was once the centre of Ramat Aviv. Now it’s a kolel , a religious school.’ In the window are notes advertising classes in ‘positive thinking’. Fruman believes that seculars are becoming a minority in Israel and that mainstream society here has been too complacent in the face of the growing and increasingly powerful religious sections. ‘Because of the way this country was built, with a secular Zionist leadership and outlook, and with minorities of Jewish religious people and Arabs, no one has focused on securing the rights of secular people.’ Fruman believes secular people now need to organise themselves because the orthodox are consciously trying to change secular society.
When Israel was established in 1948, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, made a pact with the then tiny and mostly anti-Zionist Haredi population. In return for supporting a secular state they would enjoy certain privileges, such as being exempt from the military draft and receiving subsidies for religious studies. At the time, the Haredis in Israel were in their hundreds. Today, estimates of their numbers range from 450,000 to 740,000. This means that what were once minority privileges today make up a vast network of state subsidies and benefits, a source of much bitterness among secular Israelis. It also means that a range of Haredi factions have formed, ranging from the explicitly anti-Zionist to those who are indifferent to Zionism and those who are strongly pro-Zionist.
Fruman tells me that most seculars are concerned with the privileges afforded to orthodox Jews, but that now the focus must also turn to orthodox Jews’ active efforts to transform the character of secular communities and to turn secular Jews, particularly young people, religious.
In light of Ramat Aviv residents’ attempts to resist the ‘invasion’ of religious people (some 800 protestors took to the streets there last year in an anti-religious protest), I ask Fruman what he makes of the new Acceptance Committee Law. It allows small residential communities in the Negev and Galilee regions of Israel to set up admission committees. Its introduction in April sparked heated debate, enraging many on the liberal left who saw it as a discriminatory law designed to close out Arab Israeli citizens. Would Fruman welcome it in Ramat Aviv, as a way of keeping out the wrong kind of orthodox Jews? ‘On the one hand, it would be a good tool. On the other hand, it’s a bit too much. If a religious person wants to come live here because he thinks it’s a good place to raise his children, I would welcome him – as long as he doesn’t have an agenda.’
Yet, backed up by law or not, the end result is the same. FSC is working to set up committees concerned with preserving a certain character - in this case secular, pluralist and liberal - of Israeli towns and neighbourhoods. Their message is effectively that anyone who does not adequately respect the secular way of life should be prevented from living among them or from having a say in how their community evolves.
Some have drawn parallels between the campaigns to keep secular communities secular and the group of rabbis in Safed , a city in northern Israel, who recently urged Jews to refrain from renting or selling flats to Arabs. This was after the city saw an increase in its Arab student population. Fruman insists that such comparisons are invalid. ‘In Safed there was no plan among Arabs to conquer the city. There is a clear line between xenophobia and stopping organised groups coming to a community from the outside and deliberately trying to change it.’ Yet while the fear of the Safed rabbis was that Arabs would change the Jewish character of the city, here the fear is that religious Jews will change the secular character of towns.
So how does Fruman explain orthodox people’s alleged growing interest in converting secular communities? ‘Many extreme settlers [in the West Bank] have realised that their fight is about to end. So they have initiated something called Garin Torani [a network of ultra-orthodox Zionists] and increasingly settle in mixed Arab-Jewish communities and in ultra-secular communities in Israel proper, within the Green Line. Now, suddenly, a school in the national religious neighbourhood here in Ramat Aviv has introduced separate boys and girls classes. But these people also have direct access to our kids, in secular schools, for instance through taking over Jewish Studies teaching.’ Fruman also says that the orthodox groom secular children, waiting by school gates to give out information about study groups. Another secular activist even claims that in Ramat Aviv, the orthodox ‘lurk among the trees and on benches for the teens, offering refreshments and sweet talk’.
Fruman says that since setting up the Hiloni website he has been contacted by people around the country who share his concerns: ‘I was shocked to see how widespread this phenomenon is.’ FSC’s 2,000 members come from places as far and wide as Kfar Vradim by the Lebanese border in the north to Omer in the Negev desert region in the south.
During our conversation, Fruman credits the successes of the ultra-orthodox ‘invasions’, spearheaded by movements like Garin Torani, Chabad-Lubavitch and Breslov (two branches of Hassidic Judaism), to several factors. The orthodox, he says, make use of a blend of ‘aggressive marketing’, corruption, financial support from abroad and an exploitation of fear among the authorities of denying orthodox Jews the freedom to practice their religion.
Yet it seems that secular Israelis who are anxious about the growing influence of religious people fail to recognise that mainstream society, for its part, has been unable to uphold and transmit the values that once defined it. The secular Zionist project, spearheaded by European settlers and upheld by the secular Israeli left, has all but been abandoned. The Israeli Labour party (formerly Mapai), which held power for 50 out of 63 years of Israel’s existence, has virtually disintegrated and no longer represents the core values of Zionism. The vanguard of the Zionist nation-building project was once drawn from the European-descended elites. Ramat Aviv itself was founded in the 1950s following an immigration wave from Eastern Europe and it houses a prime dedication to early Zionism, the Palmach Museum, which documents the activities of the fighting force of the pre-state underground Haganah paramilitary organisation, which was later integrated into the Israel Defense Forces.
Today, by contrast, you are more likely to find firebrand Zionists among the nationalist orthodox Israelis. The changing make-up of the Israel Defense Forces reveals in stark terms how this shift plays out. The officer corps of the so-called ‘people’s army’, once the centre of the Zionist project, was until recently composed mainly of leftist, secular Israelis. They have now largely been replaced by religious nationalists and there are active and successful efforts to incorporate orthodox Jews into the IDF – this at a time when draft-dodging among secular, liberal Israelis is on the rise.
FSC has many valid concerns about the dominance of the orthodox in civil matters and about authorities’ relative leniency when it comes to meeting religious people’s demands for building permissions and so on. Yet when secular people conceive of themselves as a put-upon group in need of protection, and tell dark tales of black-clad, side-curl adorned Hassidim lurking in the bushes, this is largely a displacement activity that comes at the cost of critically assessing the changing character of Israeli society at large or asking why, in post-Zionist Israel, no grand narrative has taken shape that can inspire a majority of Israelis to take on progressive values.