A turf war heats up in Tel Aviv

Some residents of the mostly secular Ramat Aviv district, alarmed by the increasing presence and proselytizing of ultra-Orthodox Haredim, are trying to drive them out.

The Los Angeles Times/August 6, 2009

Reporting from Tel Aviv - It's a hot, sticky Friday night in one of Tel Aviv's swankiest neighborhoods and a battle over the community's soul is about to erupt.

On one side is a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in black coats and hats, celebrating the Sabbath by singing, praying and drinking wine in a public courtyard. Attracted by the revelry, and the wine, about two dozen teenagers and young men join in.

At the other end of the plaza is a squad of concerned parents, alarmed by what they see as an extremist religious group trying to get a foothold in their secular neighborhood. They try to persuade the teenagers to stay away from the partying ultra-Orthodox.

The situation escalates. Shouting turns into shoving. By midnight police arrive to restore the peace.

Another Sabbath, a time intended for rest and religious reflection, almost triggers a brawl in Ramat Aviv.

Clashes between secular and religious Israelis are nothing new. In Jerusalem, shifting demographics have led to an uneasy coexistence between the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community, known as Haredim, and Jerusalem's secular population. As Haredi protesters rioted in June over plans to open a city parking lot on the Sabbath, gay marchers held their eighth annual pride parade through central Jerusalem.

Now, however, these tensions are shifting to other parts of the country as Haredi families move into urban, secular areas such as Ramat Aviv.

On Saturday, tensions between the religious and secular communities of Tel Aviv reached new highs when a gunman killed two people at a community center serving gay youth (the shooting did not take place in Ramat Aviv).

Though no arrests have been announced or evidence released suggesting a link, some civic leaders and gay activists are blaming ultra-Orthodox political parties, contending their history of anti-gay rhetoric might have been a motivating factor in the attack.

The friction is partly a matter of demographics. With birthrates nearly two or three times the national average, Israel's ultra-Orthodox community is expected to grow from 16% of the population to 23% by 2025, according to figures from the American-Israel Demographic Research Group.

But in Ramat Aviv, one of the more expensive parts of Tel Aviv, some residents say the arrival of the Haredim isn't about expanding populations in search of affordable housing, but is rooted in a political and religious agenda not unlike that of Jewish settlers moving to the West Bank.

"They're not coming here just to live," said David Shulman, who is helping to lead a neighborhood group opposed to the Haredi expansion. "They are here to take over the neighborhood."

He said Ramat Aviv was targeted because it is known as a bastion of secularism. "If they can conquer Ramat Aviv, it would be like a jewel in the crown," he said.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders in Ramat Aviv dismiss such fears as unfounded and paranoid. Yehuda Sheleg, who serves as a rabbi in a new synagogue in the area, says the controversy has been exaggerated by a handful of residents "who are bothered by anything Jewish."

Haredi residents defend their right to live anywhere in Israel and say they are the ones who have been subjected to harassment and discrimination by the secular majority.

When Sheleg moved to Ramat Aviv nine years ago, his was the only Haredi family in his apartment complex. The reception from other tenants was frosty, he said. "At first there was distance and alienation," he said. But gradually most residents came to embrace the ultra-Orthodox presence, Sheleg said.

In the last two years, however, tensions have heightened as Haredi organizations expanded their public presence and their leaders began pushing for stricter religious observations on the Sabbath. First the indoor shopping mall was pressured to close its doors on Saturdays. A movie theater was converted into a Haredi religious center. A kindergarten began offering "Redemption" day camp.

Shulman, a father of two, said parents objected to what they considered "recruitment" of their children.

"Kids are easy targets," he said. "Imagine if Muslims camped outside a school here and tried to talk to students. They'd be arrested in a minute."

Butcher Rafi Aharonowiz, who has been selling pork, seafood and other non-kosher foods from his Ramat Aviv shop for a decade, said friction was growing as Haredim became more aggressive.

Haredi leaders opened a religious school a few yards from his shop and its students sometimes spit on his front stoop as they pass. He started receiving anonymous phone calls asking why he sells non-kosher goods.

Haredim set up booths and tables in front of his and other stores to spread their message. At one such table, Haredi student Rotem Hadad, 25, invited shoppers to stop and pray, persistently pursuing some of those who brushed him off to a sleek mall, where some stopped for a quick prayer or free Sabbath candles.

To Hadad, there is no harm in reaching out to other Jews. Like many of the Haredim in Ramat Aviv, he is part of an ultra-Orthodox sect known as Chabad.

Unlike most other branches of Judaism, Chabad followers are known for their missionary-like practices directed at other Jews.

"We are trying to spread Judaism outside the synagogue," Hadad said. "Jews need to be awakened. It's like awakening someone from a sleep. Sometimes that person wakes up a bit grumpy at first."

Secular leaders in Ramat Aviv say they are more than a little grumpy. They've organized a campaign to drive the Haredim out. In addition to sending teams of parents to confront the Friday night gatherings, they've filed zoning complaints about the Haredi kindergarten and other establishments. And they've taken to filming the Friday night activities and sharing the footage with TV stations and the police.

"There's a lot of heat now coming from our side," Shulman said. "The more extreme they've become, the more extreme the population is becoming.

"We have been the majority here for 45 years," he said. "I'm sorry, but we're not going to allow this to continue."

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