Skip to main content

New ultra-Orthodox residents make Israel's Dimona nervous

Many secular residents of the southern town of Dimona are afraid that new residents, families from the Gur Hasidic community, will change the character of their town.

About 20 families from the Gur Hasidic sect, the largest and most powerful among the Hasidic sects, recently left the ultra-Orthodox communities where they lived and bought apartments in Dimona. Those familiar with the ultra-Orthodox way of life know that such a move is anything but trivial. Ultra-Orthodox families do not quit their communities without a good reason, and they certainly don't move to a town where there are no ultra-Orthodox education institutions.

One of the pressing problems for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel is an unmet need for housing.  

According to a study by the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, the ultra-Orthodox public, which has an especially high birthrate, will make up 14% of the population of Israel in 2025 and 18% in 2035. This growth rate will require no less than 200,000 housing units for the ultra-Orthodox community alone.

Among the options discussed in the community was building two new ultra-Orthodox cities, but other such plans have failed. Harish in the north has become a mixed city after secular Jews questioned the legality of marketing it solely to the ultra-Orthodox. The planned city of Kassif in the south is stuck in planning stages because of difficulty meeting planning authorities' requirements for workplaces for the ultra-Orthodox and keeping it from becoming another poor bedroom community.

The 20 families who moved from Arad to Dimona are seen as staking a claim in the city and preparing the area for several dozen other families. A nonprofit called "Help for Marriage" has acquired several dozen apartments and is in the process of acquiring more. These apartments will be available at affordable prices to young ultra-Orthodox couples and families. 

A ritual bath was established and food certified by the strict Gur Kosher certification is available at one of the markets in town. The sect is subsidizing rent for the families who move, at least temporarily, as well as providing free transportation to the sect’s schools in Arad.

Nagel Bonim, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community in Arad, told Al-Monitor that 1,300 Gur Hasidic families, who make up 20% of the population of Arad, live among secular and traditional residents with hardly any tension. He said the unique housing situation in Arad, which integrates the ultra-Orthodox among the rest of the population, has meant the character of the town has not been changed by attempts to block roads on the Sabbath or close non-kosher shops. 

According to Bonim, as apartments became hard to find in Arad, Dimona became another housing option with reasonable prices.

Contrary to Bonim’s claim, it must be noted that there is indeed some tension in Arad between ultra-Orthodox and secular residents. For instance, last October, when the ultra-Orthodox community faced criticism in Israel because of the high COVID infection rate and a lack of compliance with health guidance, a Gur Hasidim-owned store was burned. The ultra-Orthodox responded in a large demonstration. Knesset member Yaakov Litzman, who belongs to the sect, attended the demonstration and criticized Arad Mayor Nissan Ben-Hamo, saying he works against the community and prevents it from expanding. 

Reactions to the arrival of the Gur families have been mixed. Discussing the issue on social media, one resident wrote, “It’s not suitable. Dimona is a traditional town, with a good balance between traditional and secular Jews. An extreme group like this can only ruin it.” Another resident wrote, “Time to get out, they could throw stones at cars driving on the Sabbath and not allow women to walk on the street.” 

Other residents wrote, “Why this unjustified hatred? If a Bedouin tribe had moved here, there would have been much less grief, and they have the right like all of us, and a little tradition and religion won’t hurt in this town.” Another resident added, “If there’s something that really makes Dimona unique it’s the love and the open heart, and the knowledge that it doesn’t matter who you are — there will always be a hand extended to help.”

Dimona Mayor Benny Biton has spoken openly against the Gur Hasidim moving to the town. In a recent radio interview, he said that they should go elsewhere. A post in the “My Dimona” Facebook group read, “On the day the Gur Hasidim enter the city, Benny Biton’s next election will be decided. When such an extreme sect comes to throw off the character of a whole town, we have a problem.” 

City council member Yehuda Bezalel expressed concern, saying, “Dimona is an accepting town that never had tension between the ultra-Orthodox and secular. It has a country club that operates on the Sabbath and a synagogue 50 meters away.  Now it’s a different story: Dimona is heading toward a significant turning point and it’s too soon to know what will happen.”

Bonim says that fear is based on ignorance and unfounded. According to him, the Arad model that has been so successful in Arad, where the ultra-Orthodox are integrated throughout the town, could work even better in Dimona. “Dimona is a much more traditional and religious town than Arad, and most of its population has positive sentiments toward the ultra-Orthodox and religion in general.”

The Arad model, which is different from ultra-Orthodox housing throughout Israel, may signal a change in the ultra-Orthodox community and its desire to integrate with the general public. Most ultra-Orthodox communities prefer to live together and not mix with secular residents. The new model, in which most of the ultra-Orthodox work and are not a burden on the welfare system, offers something different. 

More from Danny Zaken