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Israeli settlement intended for ultra-Orthodox draws new residents

After years of failure to attract ultra-Orthodox residents, the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel is starting to interest middle-class families.
A partial view of the Israeli settlement of Ariel, near the West Bank city of Nablus, Jan. 25, 2017.

Emmanuel is hardly the first name that comes to mind when discussing predominantly ultra-Orthodox Israeli population centers. Far from it. While a recent survey by the research firm Askaria indicated that most ultra-Orthodox Jews prefer to live in homogeneous cities populated by their own kind, or at least in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of mixed cities, Emmanuel does not feature in the responses of those polled. Some 43% of the respondents live in the cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and others in Beitar Illit, Modi'in Illit and Beit Shemesh.

Although established almost 40 years ago, only about 800 families live in Emmanuel, fewer than in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of mixed cities such as Ashdod and Kiryat Gat (3,000 families). In fact, Emmanuel has fewer residents than does the newly developing ultra-Orthodox community in Nof HaGalil (formerly Upper Nazareth).

Emmanuel is a West Bank settlement that lies to the north of the settlement town of Ariel. It was founded in the early 1980s by an entrepreneur named Pinhas Eliyahu Ehrenreich, who recruited his British investor friend Yosl Margaliot.

Its marketing campaign is to this day considered an anomaly in the ultra-Orthodox landscape — gimmicks such as throwing stickers from helicopters into the hearts of ultra-Orthodox cities with the inscription, “Moishi, have you been to Emmanuel yet?” The success was immediate.

In the minds of many, the planned town with its green spaces and spacious apartments was about to become the Switzerland of Israel. Private vehicles would be banned, but an internal train would connect the neighborhoods, enabling the children to play all around town. But by far the biggest draw was to be the cheap housing for young families who cannot afford the far higher prices in more established towns and neighborhoods, one of the perpetual problems afflicting this fast-growing community that constitutes 12%-13% of the population.

Ehrenreich was said to have invested a fortune in the campaign, in renting offices (including one in Brooklyn) and in salaries, but the project faltered and the Kokhav Hashomron company that established the city went bankrupt. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox families who had wanted to move out of crowded neighborhoods inside the Green Line were left with a promise in hand but without a roof over their heads.

The Emmanuel trauma has overshadowed every ultra-Orthodox housing project ever since. Even the two ultra-Orthodox cities that were subsequently established beyond the Green Line (although right next to the line, so that from the point of view of the ultra-Orthodox public, these are actually Israeli villages), Modi'in Illit and Beitar Illit, initially found it very difficult to gain the trust of homebuyers. Emmanuel itself was unable to recover, despite efforts by various influential ultra-Orthodox figures to infuse it with new life.

It was almost 20 years before the newly elected chair of the local council, Issachar Frankenthal, succeeded in moving the city forward. He invested in creating jobs, building schools and seminaries and even a swimming pool — a revolutionary concept for an ultra-Orthodox city. He also invested in ties with influential leaders of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Ze'ev Hever and others who pulled strings and helped him raise funds from government ministries. The city, it seemed, was finally on track.

But it was quickly derailed. In 2001, terrorists attacked a bus upon its arrival in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Seven residents of Emmanuel who were among the passengers were killed. A year later, 10 residents were killed in another terrorist attack. Frankenthal himself left in 2003 to manage the Bnei Brak municipality. Many families followed, among them the city's chief rabbi. Those who remained did so mainly because they could not afford housing in another ultra-Orthodox community in the country’s center.

Emmanuel underwent another major upheaval in 2009, when an ultra-Orthodox school for girls placed a partition in the facility in order to separate girls from Ashkenazi (European) origin and Sephardi (Middle East and North African) origin. The institution's management initially claimed that the division was not based on ethnicity, but rather on the lacking religious adherence of some of the families.

The Supreme Court, responding to a petition against the discrimination, ruled that the arrangement was illegal. Nonetheless, the parents of the Ashkenazi girls refused to allow the partition to be removed. They were taken to prison on an ornate bus, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who came to support their cause. That event was one of many points of friction between the ultra-Orthodox public and the Supreme Court over the years.

"The city was the biggest loser in that affair," an Emmanuel council member told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity, "because in the end, the message seemed to be that the education system in Emmanuel was so poor that the teachers could not even protect students from the influence of marginalized families who had infiltrated the community. And in order to correct this impression, it takes years of investment and resources, which we do not have."

About five years ago, a young ultra-Orthodox man named Eliyahu Gafni took the reins of the local council. Gafni is highly regarded despite his young age — he was appointed to his position when he was not even 40. He appears well able to navigate the council, which is made up of representatives of diverse ultra-Orthodox groups. Under his leadership, the industrial zones that provide an economic anchor for the settlement were expanded. In addition, buildings that stood empty were completed and construction of new apartments began after he managed to attract developers who again promised cheap apartments for young couples.

The cheap prices, about 600,000 Israeli shekels ($180,000) for a new apartment, drew members of several Hasidic groups, which enhanced its image. However, the settlement’s development still lags far behind.

"The bottom line," the council member said, "is that while it has been proven that the ultra-Orthodox public may be ideologically supportive of settlements beyond the Green Line, it will in no way take an active part in the realization of this ideal. Although Emmanuel currently offers apartments at cheaper prices than in the other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods located in the rest of the country, it has still failed to draw a significant number of families. If we succeed this year in bringing another 100 new families to the city, it will be a success, despite the fact that thousands of couples marry every year and settle in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh and even in Nof HaGalil and Safed. In the end, with all the promises, Emmanuel is still somewhere at the bottom of the list."

A prevailing belief among the ultra-Orthodox public holds that if and when residents of communities built across the Green Line are evacuated in accordance with some future peace deal with the Palestinians, battalions of soldiers will not be required to evict residents of Emmanuel, as long as residents are offered alternative housing within the Green Line. At most, one traffic policeman will be needed to direct the outgoing traffic.

"This is the truth," our interlocutor said. "The ultra-Orthodox public did not come to Emmanuel out of ideology, but out of a desire to improve housing for large families living in close confines or as a solution for those who cannot afford to buy an apartment in another locality. They clearly came out of housing constraints, not from choice. They see the city as a stopover on the way to buying an apartment in a more successful place, in the center of the country. And when these are the facts, it is very difficult to achieve growth and prosperity."

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