Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Kislev 5765 - December 8, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Stubbornness Pays Off in Beit Shemesh — Contracts with Chareidim Must be Honored

by Betzalel Kahn

On November 15, 2000, just over four years ago, dozens of families were stunned when the Israel Land Administration Auction Committee announced that it was nullifying the results of an auction it had held for building lots in the Shachar neighborhood of Beit Shemesh and canceling the contracts it had signed — after discovering that the majority of the successful bidders were chareidim. The various authorities involved—the Housing Ministry, the Land Authority and the City of Beit Shemesh — wanted to designate the new neighborhood for secular Israelis, in order to halt the spread of the city's chareidi population.

The decision by the Auction Committee, with its accompanying pretexts and deceitful arguments, greatly angered the winning bidders, some of whom had even already signed leasing and development contracts with the Israel Land Administration (ILA - Minhal Mekarka'ei Yisrael). Shortly thereafter, a petition was filed and soon rejected by the Magistrates' Court.

However on appeal, the High Court found the cancellation of the contracts illegal. The case was then sent back to Magistrates' Court, which recently determined that the auction was valid and that the State must uphold the contracts. Neither did the court spare the State a tongue- lashing for discriminating against chareidim, in a ruling jurists consider a precedent regarding State-sponsored discrimination against the chareidi sector.

The final decision was handed down on November 15, 2004, exactly four years after the Auction Committee's original, shameful decision.

While for projects of this scale a developer typically conducts market surveys before launching anything, in this case the Land Administration failed to do so and the chareidi public, which is expanding quickly in Beit Shemesh, responded to the offer despite the government's intention to settle the area as a secular neighborhood.

Based on the trend of recent years, the secular public will not be coming to live in Beit Shemesh in the future, either.

Chareidim Ready and Willing to Buy

Upon completion, Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel is slated to include 2,300 residential units (out of 15,000 planned for the entire development area) and has even been given the name "Ramat HaNevi'im" (the streets in the neighborhood were named after Jewish prophets). 2,300 is a large neighborhood — about the size of Ramat Shlomo-Shuafat in Yerushalayim.

The new neighborhood was placed on the market four-and-a-half years ago by the Ministry of Housing and the City of Beit Shemesh and a portion was offered to the general population under the Bnei Beitcha program. Ninety-four lots zoned for the construction of 103 residential units were put up for bid. The Bnei Beitcha program offers an opportunity to own a free-standing home that the successful bidder builds himself.

The advertising campaign preceding the auction for the new suburb was waged "to enhance the image of the neighborhoods slated for construction," explained Housing Ministry officials, and attempted to conceal the fact that the project was in Beit Shemesh, which had already acquired a reputation as a chareidi city, particularly the new neighborhoods.

Eight years ago (that is, four years prior to the auction in Ramat Beis Shemesh Gimmel) the Housing Ministry originally wanted to market Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef (Ramat HaNechalim) to the secular and national-religious sectors, setting aside a smaller neighborhood known as Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit (Ramat HaTana'im), for the chareidi sector. When those efforts to market Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef failed, enterprising chareidim stepped into the picture and met great success in marketing the neighborhood to the chareidi public, which now comprises over 60 percent of its residents.

The chareidi entrepreneurs said the Shachar neighborhood was destined for the same sort of failure, from the outset, since the general public had already demonstrated its lack of interest in Beit Shemesh when Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef went on the market.

The two neighborhoods, Ramat HaNechalim and Ramat HaTana'im (Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and Beit), increased the area of the city of Beit Shemesh by thousands of acres and by tens of thousands of new residents. Shachar, the new neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel (Ramat HaNevi'im), is located at the southern entrance to Ramat HaNechalim. Thousands of units are slated for construction, along with extensive green areas. According to Housing Ministry long-range plans, if the project succeeds, up to 30,000 apartments may be built on the site, which has plenty of land reserves available. That is a development the size of Ramot, and approaching the size of Bnei Brak.

Gedolei Hador Bless the Enterprise

When the prospective buyers in the Shachar neighborhood turned out to be mostly chareidim, Housing Ministry officials were caught by surprise. A Yediot Achronot article accused the chareidim of attempting "to take over" the entire project. "Chareidim know that two or three lots of black-clad chareidi families are enough to chase away secular Jews once and for all. Dozens of chareidi buyers have already expressed an interest in purchasing lots to build homes at the entrance to the Shachar neighborhood."

Somehow the media and the Housing Ministry seem to have forgotten the concept of a auction: whoever submits the highest bid wins.

The first chareidi figure to realize the potential of Shachar and Ramat HaNevi'im was Rabbi Moshe Wislowsky, head of the Nachalas Shlomo Association, which was named after Maran HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, with his son HaRav Shmuel Auerbach ylct"a as president. Rabbi Wislowsky also works for HaRav Shmuel's yeshiva, Maalos HaTorah.

After the majority of apartment units in Ramat HaNechalim were sold to chareidi buyers, many chareidim became interested in Shachar, which held out the possibility of building a spacious, free-standing, single-family home for about the same price as a standard apartment in Jerusalem. Gedolei Yisroel backed the initiative.

Like previous projects, the majority of the bidders were chareidim. "The collective purchase of several projects by chareidi families has given the city a chareidi label," wrote Mrs. Zamir, who served as district director for the Housing Ministry for many years, during which she unsuccessfully tried to hamper/hinder/impede the chareidi public. Mrs. Zamir is the wife of former Israeli High Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir, which one might have expected would heighten her sense of fairness.

"It was not a chareidi takeover of the auction," says Rabbi Wislowsky. "It was a golden opportunity to receive a free gift from the State."

While the Housing Ministry only advertised in the secular press, Rabbi Wislowsky privately placed ads in the chareidi press, both in Eretz Yisroel and abroad, to draw a large number of chareidim to the housing lot auction.

"The Housing Ministry openly tried to stop the chareidim. I say this based on personal knowledge of what really happened. They did everything in their power to stop the chareidim. They were afraid of what they called `the chareidi takeover.' "

Two days before the bidding for the Shachar neighborhood was closed, Beit Shemesh Councilman Eliezer Greenbaum of Degel HaTorah paid a visit to HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman to ask for his blessing. He gave it. "May HaKodosh Boruch Hu help the community of chareidim ledevar Hashem in Beit Shemesh go forward and grow. They say, `Pen yirbeh, and ruach hakodesh says, `Kein yirbeh,' and may there be brochoh and hatzlochoh."

Majority of Winners Chareidim

The Israel Land Administration auction closed well ahead of its original schedule, to prevent more chareidim from submitting bids.

A total of 158 bids were submitted for Bnei Beitcha lots, even though no bids were submitted for 31 of the 103 lots. The Auctions Committee convened at the end of September 2000 and accepted 72 bids. The winners received written notice including the lot number they had won, along with a request that they contact the Land Administration to arrange all of the matters in the list of conditions, pay development costs and the price of the land itself—several hundred thousand shekels—and sign the development agreement.

One month later, a meeting was held between the auction winners and representatives of the Housing Ministry. There was no mention of any problem with the results of the auction by the Housing Ministry reps. Some of the winners signed development contracts with the State and others paid large sums based on the commitments they had undertaken as stipulated in the auction. Some of them also took out mortgage loans.

The Housing Ministry had claimed the majority of the winners were secular Jews. Ministry Spokesman Kobi Bleich had even released an official statement after the auction saying, "A chareidi attempt to take over the Shachar neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which the Housing Ministry designated for the secular and national-religious public, failed. Of the 80 winners in the Bnei Beitcha auction, chareidim won only 16 lots."

After seeing the winning bidders face-to-face, the high- ranking Housing Ministry officials at the meeting were in shock: of the 72 winners, 50 were chareidim and only 20 were not religious.

High Court Accepts Petition

Upon discovering that most of the winning bidders were chareidim, Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu, then director-general of the Housing Ministry, asked the Auctions Committee to annul the auction, after receiving an opinion from then Attorney General Eliakim Rubinstein. Later, the court learned that Ben- Eliyahu told Rubinstein and the Auctions Committee that the winners had not yet signed contracts. Based on Ben-Eliyahu's misrepresentation, with lightning speed—just a single day's time—the committee decided to cancel the auction.

The following day, letters were sent to the winners, explaining that the decision to cancel was made, "in light of the State's inability to recover the development costs that have been invested and are to be invested at the site, and in light of anticipated marketing difficulties. This is based on the professional opinion of the Ministry of Construction and Housing."

A few weeks later, a letter was sent to the auction winners with an unequivocal notice that the agreements had been cancelled. The Housing Ministry also suggested that the auction winners accept other lots in Ramat Nechalim, but 11 of them insisted on retaining the lots that were being taken away from them.

Lacking other recourse, they contacted Attorney Rabbi Mordechai Green (who was later appointed director of Betzedek, an organization founded by the American Agudath Yisroel and charged with fighting legal battles against anti- chareidi discrimination). Together with Attorney Yehoshua Nanner, Attorney Green petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrates' Court, demanding that the cancellation be declared unjust. Judge Tzvi Cohen rejected the petition, claiming that the auction had been annulled fairly.

Rather than conceding, Rabbi Green filed a High Court appeal in the name of the 11 petitioners. The panel of judges, headed by High Court President Aharon Barak, accepted the appeal, saying that contracts signed with the petitioners could not be cancelled. Still, it returned the case to the Magistrates' Court to consider the matter of the petitioners who had not yet signed contracts but had been in advanced stages of negotiations with the Housing Ministry.

The State Must Honor Contracts

In her ruling, Judge Tzur, who received the case from the High Court, wrote that the Housing Ministry and the Land Administration failed to convincingly demonstrate that the cancellation of the contracts was justifiable.

The State claimed that the decision to cancel the auction was made based on two vital interests: economic damage and a desire to keep the State's limited land reserves, especially in the Jerusalem area, until a suitable time to make use of them. But the judge was unmoved by these arguments, and in a long decision she attacked the Housing Ministry and the Land Administration for annulling the auction for the simple reason, the winners were chareidim, stressing that the law prohibits canceling lawfully-signed contracts.

"The release law cannot be used to allow the government authority to release itself from an agreement merely because it discovered that continuing to honor it is not worthwhile from an economic standpoint," wrote Judge Tzur in her decision. "As a rule, the government authority should not be permitted to reverse its commitments, based on considerations of economic prudence, except in extreme cases of criminal negligence in handling public funds in a manner inconsistent with the principles of proper government and public propriety . . . In order for a government authority to produce a rationale to discharge itself from the contract, it must prove that a vital public interest is liable to be harmed as a result of upholding the contract. Inconvenience or economic imprudence does not constitute a reason to begin a release action."

According to the ruling, the auction had been an invitation to the public at large to lease land on which to build homes. "This is a commercial contract in every way, and in order to be released from a commitment of this type, the government authority had to demonstrate the existence of a clear, vital, public interest that supersedes the fundamental rule that contracts must be honored. This applies in general and in the case of the government authority contracts specifically."

Government Must Abide by Principle of Equality

During the course of the court proceedings, the State said that since only a small number of people won in the auction, it would harm the State's ability to sell the lots and to recover its development outlays, but the judge rejected this argument. "It is inadequate to serve as grounds for the annulment of the auction, and certainly not to be released from a binding agreement. Had the government authority wanted to stipulate in advance that the auction would be executed only if there were a sufficient number of bidders and winners, it should have written this clearly in the auction conditions."

Yet no such condition was stated. "In fact the auction directives states that the bidders were required to keep to all of the payment conditions of purchasing the lots," she notes. "Indeed, the petitioners fulfilled this condition; some of them sold their apartments, took out mortgage loans, and as a rule made major commitments based on the assumption and legitimate expectation that the respondents would honor the agreement they had committed to. From a factual standpoint as well, it was not proven that the number of winners of lots was small compared to the number of lots offered for sale, and certainly did not constitute sufficient reason for the cancellation of agreements with the successful bidders."

The court also noted that it found the State's conduct disturbing, for when the government supposedly learned of the small number of winners it did not take any action towards canceling the auction in the early stages, before the petitioners made hefty financial outlays. The State claimed that the 158 bids submitted fell far short of the 1,000 bids it anticipated receiving.

"This shows the respondents knew before the envelopes were opened and the winners declared that there was a problem with the auction. If so, why did they continue with the auction proceedings?" wonders the judge, noting that the cancellation proceedings immediately followed the Housing Ministry meeting to which the winners were invited.

The court also rejected the Housing Ministry's and the Israel Land Administration's claim that the development was designed only for the general (non-religious) population and that the advertising specifically targeted this sector. "The auction itself," writes the judge, "makes no stipulation, certainly not a clear stipulation, that the project is designated for the general population — and for good reason. The respondents, as the State authority and delegate, are subject to the principles of equality and the avoidance of discrimination, and on the basis of these principles, clearly this type of project should be open to all. Members of the public cannot be prevented from participating in it based on religious affiliation. Even if the respondents determined that the auction was designated for a certain segment of the population, others cannot be prevented from taking part in the auction. In other words, not only may an auction not be designated only for the general population, but from the time that the auction was launched, a particular participant cannot be prevented from taking part."

Minority Group vs. Majority Group

The judge writes two fundamental sentences that will invariably be cited in many future petitions on the topic of anti-chareidi discrimination: "For good reason it was not written in the auction that it was intended only for the general population. While it is considered acceptable to build residential neighborhoods designated for a sector with a special way of life and a special character or set of needs, it is not acceptable to build a residential neighborhood and, by saying that it is designated solely for the general population (which does not include chareidim), to prevent someone from the public from participating in the auction."

On the Housing Ministry's intention to discriminate against the chareidi public in the auction for the new neighborhood by placing ads of a pointedly secular nature, the judge writes, "The legal constraint against placing media advertisements that discriminate against a certain sector of the population by removing them from the target group for a neighborhood stems from the principle of equality. However, the prohibition certainly is not limited to such advertisements. Obviously, the same reasons that prevent placing a discriminatory advertisement, prevent one from acting in a discriminatory manner in practice by preventing members of the chareidi sector from purchasing housing units in a neighborhood designated for the general population."

She also writes that the general demand for separation (that is, for neighborhoods that are exclusively chareidi and built to the same standards as other developments of the Ministry of Housing) that is made by a certain sector, such as the chareidi sector, "cannot be made by the majority group, in seeking to block the rights of the members of the other group seeking to integrate with and to adjust to the way of life of the general community without harming its character.

"However, in the case where the demand for separation is made by the members of a group seeking to preserve its culture and protect itself from alien elements that do not want to integrate into it, it appears one should accept [that demand] due to the harm liable to be caused to the unique community [from not accepting the demand]. Nevertheless, any form of discrimination should be totally rejected, including discrimination in housing on an individual basis. The difference in personal characteristics is insufficient to warrant different treatment.

"Therefore, there is an essential difference between allocating land for a chareidi neighborhood on the one hand, and disallowing individual chareidim to purchase land in a neighborhood designated for the general population. However, it is of course understood that if a secular individual wishes to purchase a housing unit in a neighborhood designated for the chareidi population, this should not be denied to him."

Neighborhood Did Not Have a Chareidi Image

The State also claimed that because a significant number of auction winners were chareidim that gave the neighborhood a chareidi image, generating concerns that this would put an end to the sale of the remaining lots to the general public on the one hand, and that not enough chareidim would be found to buy them all on the other.

"The respondents did not present a sufficient factual basis for their claims regarding the chareidi image of the neighborhood supposedly formed and of any inability to sell it in the future. On the one hand, the respondents claimed there are only a small number of chareidim who were successful in the auction. On the other hand, it remains unclear how a small number of chareidi winners could determine a chareidi character for such a large neighborhood. Even if there were a majority of chareidi winners it would not justify the cancellation of the auction and the respondents' release from the contract that they struck with the petitioners. In fact it appears that there was an administrative attempt to interfere with a legitimate social process. The respondents made a full commitment to the agreement and [the State] would have had to present a substantive public reason to justify its release from the agreement."

To support its claim that the chareidi public would have been unable to populate the whole site, the State presented the court with a survey of chareidi apartment purchasers in Ramat Beit Shemesh, to shed light on the demand for housing in the chareidi sector. Attorney Green said the surveys were dated, pointing out that while it indicated the chareidi sector purchased 200 apartment per year in Ramat Beit Shemesh, in fact nearly 1,300 apartments were purchased.

"The State did not submit the surveys to the court in an orderly fashion," writes Judge Tzur. "The court received an assortment of documents, some of which were unclear, and without a professional, detailed and clear analysis of the data as a whole and its ramifications for the neighborhood, which is the subject of the petition. It should be kept in mind that the issue was a decision by a public entity arrogating to itself the exceptional right to release itself from a binding contract. As such, it was incumbent upon the respondents to present the court with a detailed, evidential, current and persuasive foundation. The respondents did not meet this incumbency."

Unfounded Assumptions

The judge discussed at length the surveys submitted by the Housing Ministry according to which it said that only 200 apartments are purchased annually by the chareidi sector in Ramat Beit Shemesh. An analysis of the actual data submitted reveals that the average is in fact much higher. Seven years ago, 430 units were purchased, and based on growth figures, in 2005 that number will reach 545. Thus the judge disputed the claim of inadequate demand from chareidi home-buyers.

Judge Tzur cites the Central Bureau for Statistics survey of Beit Shemesh, which shows sharp increases in the population of Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh in particular, especially in 2002. "To the overall population growth of the city of Beit Shemesh over the past several years a great contribution was made by the settling of the new neighborhood Ramat Beit Shemesh, where the majority of the population is chareidi and religious," reads the CBS report. Therefore, the judge concluded, the surveys submitted by the State in defense of its position in the Shachar neighborhood are out of date and do not give grounds for any specific inferences about the new neighborhood in question.

In its brief, the State also claimed that the high percentage of chareidi auction winners would compromise its ability to market the neighborhood to the secular sector. "These fundamental assumptions are ungrounded," writes Judge Tzur. "[Therefore] this type of assumption is not sufficient to justify a step as extreme and unusual on the part of the State as releasing itself from an agreement."

She also quotes a letter by the then Housing Ministry Director-General, Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu, to the Auctions Committee asking it to cancel the signed contracts. In the letter, he expresses concerns that the neighborhood would not be marketable because the large supply of apartments in [the chareidi neighborhood of] Ramat Nechalim had not been sold due to a lack of demand from the chareidi sector (even though the facts were to the contrary, that there was a big demand from the chareidi community) and [on the other hand] prospective secular purchasers would not want to buy in a neighborhood with a chareidi image. Ben-Eliyahu also sought to restrict the area of settlement of the chareidim in Eretz Yisroel, noting "several towns were built for the chareidi sector in recent years: Beitar Illit, Tel Tzion, Modi'in Illit and Elad."

But the judge remained unconvinced, saying there was no support for the claim that the small number of chareidim who won in the auction would translate into a chareidi image for the whole neighborhood "and even if a `chareidi' image was created there is no evidence that the non-chareidi population would avoid purchasing apartments in the Shachar neighborhood."

Auction Cancelled, Development Work Continued

As another argument in favor of its canceling the contracts, the State said that it had invested enormous sums in developing the new neighborhood even before actual construction began—including NIS 15 million to lay an access road to the site, NIS 40 million for development work—and that the total cost of development would come to NIS 220 million. The Housing Ministry also claimed that in any case it has no intentions of selling the lots and building anything there in the coming years.

Yet the petitioners presented photographs demonstrating that even two-and-a-half years after the contract was cancelled and the court petition was filed, the Housing Ministry continued to perform development work such as laying a road, building a sewage system, laying electrical and phone lines, providing drainage and building stairs and supporting walls. The judge said that this laid the onus of proof on the State that it did not intend to develop the area.

Regarding the State's claim that the work had continued due to "previous commitments" and not because it truly intends to build there, Judge Tzur writes, "It is unclear how this can be consistent with the argument that money went to waste as a result of continuing development work. If the development has no purpose and there is no intention of building a neighborhood in the area, why should `previous commitments,' whose nature was not made clear, justify development work in vain, for which all of the financial investment will go to waste?"

Judge Tzur found another instance of misrepresentation by Housing Ministry officials. In his letter to the Auctions Committee, Ben-Eliyahu writes that NIS 500 million had been spent on development, infrastructures and institutions. "Attributing these to the auction led the Auctions Committee to the mistaken impression these costs applied to the Shachar neighborhood alone. This assumption was erroneous since this figure applied to the total development costs for all of Beit Shemesh."

The Letter From the Mayor

During the proceedings, the State claimed circumstances had changed since the contracts were signed with the winning bidders, making the project difficult to execute. As proof, the State presented a letter from Beit Shemesh Mayor Danny Vaknin saying, "The marketing of the housing construction will not be promoted until the wheels of the MBC [Main Business Center] are set into motion and actual work is underway. The factor that will accelerate the intelligent development of the lands under construction surrounding the MBC is affected by the progress of the MBC. In light of the above, I would be glad to hear from [contractors] to execute the development and infrastructure work before the construction surrounding the MBC is marketed." (For more about the MBC, see sidebar.)

Nevertheless, Judge Tzur rejected the letter that seems to have been instigated by the Housing Ministry, saying it contradicts another letter by the City Planner saying the Shachar project was approved by all of the relevant committees as far back as mid-1999. "It seems totally irrelevant to make the construction of the Shachar neighborhood contingent on the construction of a city center that has no connection to the neighborhood. On the contrary, based on the letter from the City Engineer of Beit Shemesh, it clearly emerges that the decisions regarding the designated time to put the Shachar neighborhood on the market is in the hands of the State."

She also points out that despite the Mayor's demand to continue "rolling the wheels of the MBC," according to the City Planner's letter "the wheels of the MBC" continue to roll forward and the project will take a decade to reach completion.

In her conclusion, Tzur determined that the Auctions Committee's decision to cancel the auction and the contracts was illegal and the agreements signed between the petitioners and the State must be enforced according to a new six-month timetable for the execution of the contracts.

A Precedent

"This is a precedent-setting decision in matters related to allocating land for distinctive groups," says Attorney Mordechai Green, who filed the case four years ago, before the organization he now heads, Betzedek, was founded. "Of course, land allocated for the chareidi population is based on its needs. According to the law, a secular individual can come to live in a chareidi neighborhood, but in the converse situation, the judge has determined, land cannot be allocated for the general population while preventing a certain population from living there."

The judge also determined that the State may only release itself from a contract signed with a body or individual under very extreme circumstances, says Attorney Green. "The court determined that the Housing Ministry did not prove the basis for its claims on canceling the auction," he explains. "They tried to claim that if chareidim won the auction, the neighborhood could not be sold to secular buyers and that also the buying power of the chareidi public would not allow the sale of all of the apartments planned to be built. They relied on dated statistical findings while we proved in court, using current findings, that the buying power of the chareidi public in Beit Shemesh is enormous, with tremendous potential. It also came to light during the proceedings that despite the State's claims of hundreds of millions in losses, these claims could not be proven. The State was unable to produce any of the documents the court requested."

The ruling also found that the Housing Ministry lied to the Auctions Committee by claiming the contracts had not been signed when it requested the cancellation of the results. "None of the State officials examined during the case managed to provide precise details. They were unable to prove any of their claims, because they did not have evidence. This was because the real reason for the annulment of the auction was not the reasons that they gave, but rather just to keep the chareidim from coming there to live," says Attorney Green.

The State is unlikely to appeal the decision, he adds, since it is based on a very clear ruling and on facts the Housing Ministry was unable to challenge during the years of the proceedings. Attorney Green says the case also proved, "Stubbornness pays off. The Housing Ministry was sure it could treat the chareidi public lightly and infringe on its rights. But to its surprise, the chareidim showed they know how to fight for their rights—and win."

Wheels Stuck in the Mud

Two years ago, Beit Shemesh was up in arms. The municipality and the Housing Ministry decided to promote the construction of an enormous project called the Main Business Center slated to include entertainment and cultural centers and institutions, playhouses and movie theaters, a university with student dorms, a huge amphitheater, a large swimming pool, a municipality building, a library, an auditorium, a college, large playing fields, playing courts and other sports facilities, two retirement hostels and an enormous open area for fairs, ceremonies and shows.

The designated site for the MBC is the entrance to Ramat Beit Shemesh, in between Ramat Hanechalim and Ramat Hanevi'im, near the Shachar neighborhood. The building plans extend over hundreds of dunams—an area of a kilometer-and-a-half square. Perhaps the framers of the grandiose plan did not take the residents of Ramat Hanechalim into account, not bothering to ask them if they are willing to see such a gigantic center built alongside the neighborhood.

The enormous center poses an enormous spiritual threat to the thousands of chareidi and religious residents living in the neighborhoods nearby. If built, thousands of people might come to the city every day for entertainment and shopping. Furthermore the hostels and dorms would not house observant residents. This could seriously harm the tone of the chareidi neighborhoods, particularly Ramat Hanechalim. Some are concerned that the entertainment spots and malls would even be open on Shabbos, and would damage public modesty in the city's chareidi neighborhoods, which are home to a large number of chareidim who enjoy a Torah-based environment filled with Torah schools and institutions, botei medrash and botei knesses.

Mayor Danny Vaknin, the municipality, and the Housing Ministry, have done everything in their power to promote the plan, in order to halt the "chareidi spread" southward towards the lands designated for the future Ramat Hanevi'im. Thousands of current chareidi residents submitted objections to the Regional Committee based on instructions from maranan verabonon and local rabbonim.

At present, the plan has received approval despite opposition from the majority of Ramat Beit Shemesh residents. But its execution remains uncertain. "One thing is clear: the current plans for the MBC would destroy the chareidi neighborhoods," says Councilman Rabbi Moshe Montag of Degel HaTorah. "It is also clear that building it in accordance with the original plans would be a realization of the Mayor's aspirations to halt the spread of the chareidim to Ramat Hanevi'im. This is also clear from Vaknin's letter about `rolling the wheels of the MBC,' in which he claimed that only after the plan is approved and built will it be possible to sell Ramat Hanevi'im."

But Rabbi Montag says that a very different picture is taking shape. "The court's decision to approve the construction of the Shachar neighborhood against the State's opinion and to allow the chareidi winners of the auctions to make use of their [right to build] will lead, sooner or later, to the construction of thousands of residential units in the new neighborhood. In that case, presumably, no entrepreneur would be willing to put his money into building grandiose cultural and entertainment facilities near and inside a chareidi neighborhood, because the buildings might remain empty, and the investment of tens or even hundreds of millions would go to waste."

For now the wheels of the MBC are stuck and it does not appear the Mayor will be able to get it rolling in the foreseeable future. Hopefully the next elections will bring a change in the city government. Beit Shemesh overall is considered a religious city, and it does not deserve a mayor who wars with the chareidi community.


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