War on Religion in Maale Adumim

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Wars are waged for many reasons. Sometimes for power and money. Often hatred or religion are at the core. And sometimes, as is often the case in the Middle East, it could be hatred OF religion. Ultimately, war is a harsh word and should be used with caution.

Not every “battle” or conflict is a war. In military battles, Israel often defines war based on goals and time. In war, the full force of a side’s power is thrown against the other (often despite the consequences); and war is usually longer, more sustained. I have lived through at least four wars here in Israel. I will never use the term lightly and yet, what I write now is a war and like many wars, the casualties here are the children.

As I have often written, I live in a beautiful city precariously perched between desert and city; between left and right, between religious and secular, between Arab and Jew. Overall, thanks to many factors, the city has thrived and welcomed all.

Beit Shemesh

More and more lately, though, a war is being waged. It is a war of intolerance. A war very much like the one being fought in Beit Shemesh where a small minority of extreme Haredim seek to take over and rule the lives of countless others who really simply want to live in peace, raise their children in tolerance. This is what the Mayor and other city officials here in Maale Adumim would like you to believe. There, the guilty are clear and known to almost all. They dress differently, act differently, even speak differently.

There, we are reminded, the community dresses mostly in black; their language Yiddish. By and large, they keep themselves separate, don’t serve in the army or do sherut leumi. And yes, there you can see that many of them don’t honor the days we have set aside to show our love of our country. That is in Beit Shemesh, where the tolerant people have finally wrested the Mayor’s office into their hands.

Maale Adumim

Here in Maale Adumim, the tolerant people have not been so fortunate. The war is being waged from the opposite side and therefore goes largely unrecognized. It is the secular, and specifically the town’s leaders who wage this war. And they are the intolerant ones. Worse, some of the victims of this war stubbornly cling to the belief that the war is only against a tiny community and not against them.

As in Beit Shemesh, the good news is that the law is with those who are tolerant. In Beit Shemesh, this means that those who abuse women and girls in the streets should be arrested. And here in Maale Adumim, it means the tolerant ones will get their school eventually. The bottom line is that with anger and hatred, City Hall represents the intolerant ones. It continues to refuse to honor the instructions of the Ministry of Education of the State of Israel.

Decades ago, a small group of parents banded together to create a school that was closer to the level of religious observance they wanted to hand down to their children. The Mayor fought the school; but the parents won. Today, that school is thriving.

Filled to capacity despite the Mayor’s opposition, that school is now being used by the very Mayor who fought it, to try to stop another group of parents (and close to 200 children). They too deserve a building in which to provide the education they’ve created for their children. And such buildings already exist in the city, but are being denied to this community by the Mayor.

Carefully, over the last four years, the parents have worked with a nation-wide chain to meet each of the Ministry’s requirements. Today, finally, the school is recognized; its curriculum approved, its teachers hired, its students ready to learn.

The Comparison

But the Mayor is waging a war of religion against this small community and in a way, against religion as a whole. He does it with broad sweeps – condemnations of the community for things they have not done. Lies told about offers not made; insults given to children. This war has been waged quietly and politically for over 20 years from the time they wanted to open the Maale HaTorah school until today. No, the Mayor never offered this school place in Maale HaTorah; and no, the school at Yitzchaki is not the same as this one.

No, the parents have not asked the Mayor to do anything illegal (and anything illegal that he might be doing – such as authorizing/allowing the use of educational institutions of non-educational purposes) is completely on him.

Yes, the youngest victims of the Mayor’s actions are first graders. To children who asked him about a school building, as is their right according to the Ministry of Education, he responded that they should be careful of the flowers that surround the grassy area on which they protest every day.

Abuse of Children

For 32 days, these children have had no school (despite the Ministry of Education’s approval; despite the availability of funding). And all of the school days of this year, these children have sat outside City Hall to learn without desks, without chairs, without a playground, without walls.

Even without access to bathrooms or water. Children are told to walk five minutes away to use the bathrooms, rather than be allowed into the building, even one at a time, escorted by a parent.

Day after day, they sit. Because they are religious. Because the mayor refuses to give them a school, though many options are available, sitting empty for large portions of the day.

To a grandmother who asked a question about the school, the Mayor responded with shouts and ridicule. Parents who have lived in this city for over 30 years are denied the opportunity to speak to him; men who have served in the army are treated as parasites.

And in My Neighborhood

More than one City Official has referred to Beit Shemesh. And the truth is, the comparisons are accurate, but reversed. In Beit Shemesh, it is the secular and non-Haredi religious communities that are being abused by some of the Haredi community; and here in Maale Adumim, it is the secular community led by a once-religious; now-secular mayor against a Haredi community and a religious community that has never infringed on anyone’s rights.

But the war is not only being waged against the Haredi community. I live in Mitzpe Nevo, a community that is ardently Zionist and equally devoted to observing Jewish law. Long ago, it was decided that our neighborhood would be “closed” on Shabbat. A sign was placed requesting that on the Sabbath, people respect our neighborhood by not driving “into or in” it.

A few years ago, the sign was replaced with a watered down message – “The people in this community are Sabbath Observers. Please show them consideration.” But the Mayor’s war on religion took a new turn last week, when a new sign was posted.

While the other two signs were strategically placed to be innocuous and often unnoticed, this one was placed by the entrance to the neighborhood in the most conspicuous color and place possible and its message is clear.

A War on Religion

More, attempts to water-down the sign have been completed. There is nothing of the gentle request left. Once drivers were asked not to enter on the Sabbath, then they were asked to at least respect the fact that here live those who observe the Sabbath day. And now, the blaring YELLOW sign says simply: “WARNING: In this neighborhood, children are in the road on the Sabbath”.

What irresponsible parent allows their children to play in the road? That is perhaps the unspoken message. Gone is the idea that it is our neighborhood and for this one day a week, our children are free to play in the streets because there are no cars. Instead, rather than “please don’t drive here” the message is “WHEN” you drive here, please remember that there are children in the street.

The War on Religion in Maale Adumim is there in that sign. The intolerant ones are those who hold City Hall and the city hostage to their agenda. They have refused a small community a school. And now, they work against this small, neglected neighborhood to deny it the peace of the Sabbath day it once had.

Until now, our children have played in the streets because we live and breathe the Sabbath. Stores are closed within our community; the neighborhood quiet and peaceful. All week long, we work just as others do. And on the Sabbath, we bring the peace and the quiet not only into our homes, but into our streets.

Our Right, Our Tolerance

According to the law of the State of Israel, a neighborhood that is at least 75% religious, has the right to close its street, if that street is not a major thoroughfare. We are located at the farthest point from any city entrance and the neighborhood is a figure 8 with only one entrance. When it was decided that the neighborhood would be closed, it was also decided not to put physical barriers to separate us from our neighbors. Just a sign. A request for respect. We would not appear to be separatists, those who are intolerant. Those who drive in are not bothered, harassed, etc. as they would be in other neighborhoods. A simple request, until now.

But lately, more and more cars are driving into the neighborhood, endangering our children. And the Mayor is pushing a plan to attach our neighborhood to a major exit and a non-religious neighborhood that would see major traffic going through the heart of our area. Despite widespread opposition, the Mayor fully plans to drive a road through our quiet neighborhood and offers lip-service assurances that he will safeguard the religious neighborhood’s policy to be closed on Shabbat.

And yet, even without the road yet being built, he has already broken that promise with a simple sigh that all but says “when you drive into this neighborhood, be careful because parents let their children play in the streets on Saturdays.”

For 25 years, this man has been Mayor and has rammed his vision of what he wants “his” city to look like down the throats of anyone and everyone, in and out of the city. To his credit, it is his vision that has made Maale Adumim what it is today. With the music conservatory, the lake in the desert, the culture hall, the restaurants. And of course, the Mayor’s flowers that appear to be more important than our children.. But at what point does his dream take precedence over ours? At what point do the citizens become less important than the mayor? After 25 years, perhaps that point is now.

The City’s Intolerance

Yes, this sign should warn the drivers but it is also likely to damage the quality and reality of life here. And that, my friends, is the real intention of the city. Almost always the last to get the parks and roads fixed, our neighborhood has become accepting of the Mayor’s disdain, his lack of interest…except during election years. This sign is his latest salvo in a war against religion.

How insulting is it to be labeled irresponsible parents who allow their children to play in the streets. Streets that used to be closed and safe on Shabbat but thanks to this sign simply ask drivers to be careful as they violate our neighborhood, our peace. Isn’t this what others are accusing the Haredim of Beit Shemesh of doing? Violating the peace and freedom to observe (or not observe) freely? Of insulting, ridiculing, and throwing their power against others? Here in Maale Adumim, it is not the Haredim who abuse power, who ridicule, insult, and seek to change others.

Here in my neighborhood…as with the Haredi school here, it is the children likely to suffer from the war against religion that the Mayor has launched against us.

Ultimately, what my neighborhood has to realize is that this small school is the canary in the mine…the mine in which we too make our homes.

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