MODI’IN, Israel – Relations between this Tel Aviv suburb and ultra-Orthodox neighbors in Kiryat Sefer (Modi’in Ilit) are heating up quickly and it seems that only the city’s two mayors can stop the escalation before it is too late.

Tensions increased dramatically this week after the city of Modi’in announced it would be closing its largest park over the coming holiday of Sukkot to non-residents of Modi’in. The move, which is designed to keep out large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews visiting from Kiryat Sefer, has divided the city and further unsettled relations between residents. Reminiscent of troubles that plagued Beit Shemesh last year, when a dispute over a school led to disturbing protests and international media attention, now is the time for the elected mayors to stand down from their exchange of threats and find a peaceful resolution before true trouble erupts.

How has Israel’s “city of the future” and home to high-tech professionals become the center of a clash with ultra-Orthodox Jews from the town next door? The story revolves around Park Anabe, the jewel in the crown of Modi’in’s many public spaces. After opening in March of 2010, the park soon attracted ultra-Orthodox families from Kiryat Sefer whose own city sorely lacks public spaces. The park, which took years to build, and significant financial resources, became especially crowded around holidays and school vacations as residents of Modi’in and Kiryat Sefer both made use of the vast space, paddling lake, and impressive climbing frames. But Modi’in residents began complaining about the crowded condition created by non-residents and the discomfort felt from the large presence of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A panoramic view of Anabe Park and Modi'in (photo credit: Jorge Novominsky/Flash 90)

A panoramic view of Anabe Park and Modi’in (photo credit: Jorge Novominsky/Flash 90)

People felt threatened by this ultra-Orthodox presence, and I must admit that some of the complaints were downright embarrassing. Posts on Modi’in email lists have gone around over the last few months, and if the same comments were made about people from another religion, race or nationality we would consider such words racism. But somehow when speaking about a fellow Jew, especially one who is “more religious,” it’s suddenly fine to attack.

At this stage the Modi’in municipality kept quiet, despite pressure from a handful of vocal residents demanding the park be closed to outsiders. But when the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Kiryat Sefer threatened to close an archeological park in his city to outsiders if Modi’in closed its park, things took a turn for the worse. Since then, Modi’in has been working diligently to research the legalities of closing its park to non-residents, and took the necessary steps to do so. A few days ago the municipality made its public announcement that the park will officially be closed to non-residents over the Sukkot festival. And here is where the tragedy sits.

In virtually every generation since the Jewish people were thrown out of this precious land we have been excluded. From professions, universities, schools, neighborhoods and, yes, even public spaces. What do we do now that we have the privilege of defining our own destiny? We exclude each other. The policy in isolation may be economical, legal and sound. But the methodology and messaging is just wrong.

I am not ignoring the problem of overcrowding or added expenses due to Modi’in’s influx of guests over the holiday season. But if the cost of hahnasat orhim (hospitality) is too high then at least use a gentler way to limit the park’s attendance. And more importantly, this is only the first round in what will be an ongoing set of growing pains encompassing the two cities. No one knows what the next source of tension will be, but now is the time for our elected mayors to stand up and display true leadership: the sort of leadership that has been sorely lacking in Israeli politics for a long time.

A dearth of public spaces. Ultra-Orthodox girls cross the street on their way to school in Kiryat Sefer (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A dearth of public spaces. Ultra-Orthodox girls cross the street on their way to school in Kiryat Sefer (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

After troubles erupted in Beit Shemesh last year, a roundtable forum was created to bridge the divide between various communities living the city and resolve their differences. The meetings were initially met with skepticism before proving extremely successful in calming the situation and building ties between communities that were previously at odds. But the success didn’t stop there: The roundtable forum also helped prevent two further outbursts before it was too late, and the group continues to meet.

The mayors of Modi’in and Kiryat Sefer should stand down from negative one-upmanship and convene a similar forum to address their issues in a more civilized way. Instead of excluding one another’s residents, they should display the courage of co-existence. Or these two mayors can make a statement that is eagerly sought by the masses: our government unites us as a people and shuts down the calls of bigoted extremists. It is crucial that our two young leaders step forward and show that a different model can succeed.

Over the coming days, Israeli society will face an important test. Can its Jewish community – this time in Modi’in and Kiryat Sefer – hold itself together or will we allow our differences to tear us apart. Ironically, the challenge comes during a festival that teaches of the protection granted to our people as a whole on their journey to Israel. Today we are fortunate enough to live in that land, but let’s hope the mayors of Modi’in and Kiryat Sefer can have the foresight to begin the dialogue now before it’s too late.

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