Keeping Israel’s Cities Pluralistic and Free

16 November 2017
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Which of these stories was told at Shatil’s Free Cities Forum?

After 20 years of having one chief rabbi, the Rehovoth municipality decided to fund two chief rabbis at a cost of half a million shekels each at a time when, residents say, the city has no funds for subsidized after-school programs.

300 nationalist ultra-Orthodox families moved in as a group to secular Ramat Hasharon and separated older boys and girls in the city’s only religious school, despite the objections of the entire city council.

Religious-secular tensions in Arad have led to violent confrontations between ultra-Orthodox and secular residents.

In downtown Jerusalem, gangs of ultra-Orthodox men regularly disrupt customers eating at cafes and restaurants on Shabbat.

The answer is that all of these troubling stories were shared at a November gathering of Shatil’s Free Cities Forum, a platform for activists and organizations to coordinate strategy, share best practices, and learn from each other’s experiences in their efforts to keep their cities pluralistic and free.

The gathering was the opening shot of the forum’s work for the year ahead of the 2018 municipal elections and was organized by Shatil in partnership with Be Free Israel, the Secular Forum, the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism, and the Masorti Movement’s Jewish Pluralism Watch.

One hundred fifty activists from such diverse cities as Rehovoth, Arad, and Jerusalem spoke about the challenges they face — religious coercion, corruption in the powerful local religious councils, the exclusion of women from public events and ceremonies, and the growth of “Torah communities” who move in to cities in large groups to shift the demographic character of these communities in a more religiously conservative, ultra-nationalist, and rigid fashion.

“The Torah communities are emissaries of (settler-aligned Jewish Home Education Minister) Naftali Bennett,” said Nurit Matz, an author who has put her work on hold in order to devote time to activism before the municipal elections. “They are funded by the ministries of education and agriculture. They use our tax dollars to try to change the nature of our city, to take away my home as I know it.” Matz leads weekly demonstrations in front of the community head’s home.

According to Ha’aretz, Israel has seen a marked increase in government-funded Torah communities. The State Comptroller has criticized Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel for diverting funds intended for the disadvantaged periphery to Torah communities that have moved into wealthy urban centers.

“These groups are everywhere,” said Matz, who feels that her way of life and that of her city is under threat. “They want to change the character of the country…People don’t understand how dangerous this is.”

She says she has garnered strength from Shatil and the Free Cities Forum.

“The gathering was wonderful. I was between despair and hope and to hear from others who are fighting for their place, their values of democracy, equality, human rights, their home – it was a real shot in the arm.

“I get so much information, guidance and help from Shatil,” she adds. “And the Free Cities Forum gives us support, knowledge and opportunities for collaborations.”

In the coming year, Shatil will train activists, offer expert strategic guidance and support the forum in running a public campaign on keeping Israel’s cities free.

“Our goal is to fight religious coercion and to ensure a just distribution of municipal resources,” Shatil’s Religious Freedom coordinator, Yael Yechieli, told the crowd. “Many of the stories we heard tonight are deeply disturbing, but this gathering demonstrates our ability to work together to ensure our cities as open and welcoming places for all of us.”

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