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The struggle for Jerusalem

Clashing values alter a city's face

Thousands of less devout Jews move out each year, many frustrated by the growing clout of the ultra-Orthodox. The trend may leave Israelis with a painful choice.

June 05, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

Jerusalem — YEARS after Israel seized a hilltop artillery post from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and turned it into a Jewish neighborhood, a civic-minded resident launched a turf battle of her own.

Ruth Geva thought that Ramot Allon, a community originally built for secular Jews, needed a police station. But she had to campaign eight years for a place to put one. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, known to Israelis as haredim, were moving in and seeking space for synagogues and religious schools.

In 2004 the community got its station. Then last year Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor ordered it closed on a month's notice and handed the building to an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten.

Furious over the decision and weary of the demands of her devout neighbors, Geva is giving up and moving to Israel's Mediterranean coast.

"They get all the services and the city remains poor," said Geva, 59, a community safety consultant. "They take a little bite each time, and finally people like me no longer feel comfortable here."

Forty years ago, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and absorbed the Arab neighborhoods, it set out to maintain a large and sustainable Jewish majority in the city it was declaring its eternal and undivided capital. Instead, Jerusalem is gradually becoming more Palestinian and less Jewish.

Thousands of Jews leave the city each year, many of them alienated by an ascendant ultra-Orthodox minority that is asserting its socially conservative values and political power. Even as Jerusalem attracts a growing number of Palestinians, polls show that many less devout Jews are becoming estranged from it and are more willing to consider dividing it again.

Palestinians made up about a quarter of the city's residents after the 1967 war; today they account for more than a third of the population of 732,100. Demographers say that if current trends continue, Israelis sooner or later will face a painful choice: Give up parts of the city to the Palestinians, who aspire to make East Jerusalem the capital of their own state, or become a minority in a city of profound religious and historical significance.

Israel's postwar planners had every reason to believe they could maintain Jerusalem's solid majority of Jews after the 1967 war.

They began planting neighborhoods such as Ramot Allon on annexed West Bank land, some for devout Jews drawn to the city by the Western Wall and other holy sites taken from Jordan's control. Haredim, whose families on average have seven children, were the fastest-growing group in the city.

The ultra-Orthodox have enabled Jews to maintain an overall birthrate only slightly below that of Palestinians in the city. But the growing number of haredim also has fed the rise of a political movement with an agenda that has polarized the Jewish populace.

Mayor Uri Lupolianski and four of his five deputies are ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Since they were elected in 2003, their administration has channeled more municipal land and spending to their religious community, often over fierce objections by other Jews.

In interviews, Lupolianski and Deputy Mayor Uri Maklev argued that many of those who are leaving are seeking better jobs or more affordable housing. Maklev said the ultra-Orthodox have long suffered neglect and now expect "the minimal services they deserve in education, synagogues and playgrounds near their homes."

"Why," he asked, "should this cause dispute and polarization?"

Critics answer that it is not just a matter of providing services to the ultra-Orthodox where they live: City Hall also is encouraging them to move into less devout neighborhoods, where they often insist on strict observance of Jewish religious law.

"This process has been underway for years and serves as a catalyst for outward migration from the city," said Avi Kostelitz, a modern Orthodox Jew and opposition City Council member from Ramot Allon.

Intertwined conflicts

THOUGH outsiders tend to view Jerusalem as an Arab-Israeli tinderbox, the city is in fact fragmented into three adverse populations: Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox Jews and less devout Jews. Their conflicts are intertwined, and all are influenced by population trends.

Roughly 20% of the city is haredi, a Hebrew term that means "fearful" or one who fears God. Members of the community are distinguishable by their black frock coats and hats and long dresses. They follow complex and demanding rituals spelled out in Jewish law, which requires prayer and quiet on the Sabbath.

Drawn to pray at Jerusalem's holy sites, most haredi men are religious scholars who have large families, live in voluntary poverty and pay minimal taxes for the benefits they receive.

For Palestinians, 34% of the population, Jerusalem also is a magnet, offering more jobs than any city in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The remaining 46% are secular and modern Orthodox Jews, categories often lumped together by demographers even though their practices differ widely.

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