According to a new report published by the National Economic Council, the number of ultra-Orthodox people living in Israel’s northern and southern peripheral regions is expected to increase significantly over the next several decades. The ultra-Orthodox community’s two primary cities, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem — both located in Israel’s social and political center — are the seats of this community’s spiritual and organizational leadership. As such, the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox community throughout Israel revolves around an axis: one that links these cities’ inability to accommodate this population increase with their ongoing commitment to the communities that originated there but have moved on.
Therefore, the government must prepare for the migration of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox people all across Israel. For this process to proceed successfully, an appropriate employment framework must be created, together with a transportation infrastructure that enables travel to Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. In addition, customized urban planning that includes the provision of religious services and the construction of community institutions is a step in the right direction. Accordingly, it is necessary to plan more ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods that take into account the differences in construction patterns that exist in comparison to secular neighborhoods. Such preparations will make the establishment of ultra-Orthodox cities easier — even in the more far-flung peripheral regions.
But this equation of convenience, cost, and creating an ultra-Orthodox environment on the periphery contains one more significant variable: the need for the state to integrate the ultra-Orthodox community into the job market, centers of decision-making, and academia. In short, there is today a growing need to integrate increasingly large groups within the ultra-Orthodox community into Israeli society as a whole.
For this reason, we should work to ensure that even relatively strong cities that do not yet have high concentrations of ultra-Orthodox residents to establish ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, in order to absorb members of this community in the future. Such an approach is feasible since these cities are capable of absorbing a low-income population without harming residents who already live there. While this may cause friction between populations in the short term, it will also bring people together and create understanding of the other. Moreover, such a policy is certainly more appropriate than sending members of the ultra-Orthodox community to cities that are economically weak.
Regarding existing cities on the periphery, it is fine to build ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in such areas as long as there is a unique and defined relationship between the existing community and the newcomers. Such a connection will enable everyone to live alongside one another in relative peace.
The bottom line is that this is a wake-up call to the State of Israel to come up with appropriate solutions for the various streams within ultra-Orthodox society. The modern members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who are part of the workforce and can live comfortably with the secular community, can be integrated in large cities in the center and on the periphery. Meanwhile, more conservative communities can also be integrated by using the “neighborhood within the city” model, such as the Sanz community in Netanya and the Seret-Vizhnitz community in Haifa. Such a solution is realistic as long as the shifting demographics do not endanger the city’s character.
In order to create such solutions, we need to immediately start communicating with mayors and local-council heads, build a round table of government ministries to deal with this issue, and start a discussion among contractors, planning committees, and anyone else involved in shaping Israel’s character as it pertains to housing and job markets over the coming decades.
To surmount the difficulties in places where natural growth will lead to greater interaction between the ultra-Orthodox community and the secular and religious populations, mediation methods need to be instituted: in the school system, workplaces, and among the local leadership. Reasonable rules need to be implemented — for example, that members of the ultra-Orthodox community who live in secular cities will refrain from blocking roads on the Sabbath, and secular people will not demonstrate against the construction of each new mikveh in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Although building this sort of infrastructure is a long and exhausting process, both physically and mentally, it is one we cannot afford to neglect. In light of the anticipated situation, we would do well to start addressing these issues immediately.
Dr. Lee Cahaner is a researcher in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute and the head of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at Oranim Academic College of Education.