Marik Stern, Researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, PhD Student at Ben Gurion University
Eli Rozenfeld , Director, the French Hill Community Center
Avi Ehrentreu, Ultra-Orthodox resident of the French Hill
Yosef Atia, Arab resident of the French Hill
Naomi Vestfrid, secular resident of the French Hill
I will begin by presenting my research about the French Hill neighborhood. The data is in its early stages, but it will provide a framework for our discussion today. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, the Mount Scopus campus [of the Hebrew University] was reopened. A need arose to create a Jewish continuum between west Jerusalem and Mount Scopus, Thus, three neighborhoods were constructed: Ma’alot Dafna, Ramat Eshkol, and the French Hill. The French Hill is in close proximity to Arab neighborhoods, on both sides of the separation wall.
The French Hill was built as a satellite neighborhood for the university. Its initial residents were upper-middle class, many of them academics and hospital staff. Over the last decade, demographics have begun to shift. The old-timers have gradually moved out, while Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews have moved in. Concurrently, Issawiya residents have begun utilizing the neighborhood’s services. University students have always lived in the neighborhood, but they don’t play a significant role in neighborhood politics. A [Jewish] Conservative congregation has been active there for years, and is quite dominant. At the same time, there is also a group of national religious residents who are quite active.
Jerusalem is a city comprised of separate neighborhoods, with a high degree of segregation. In that sense, the French Hill is unique. The different sectors of Israeli society mix together there. The French Hill is a testing lab – its demographics are nearly identical to those of the country at large.
Those who move to Jerusalem are those who can afford to purchase an apartment here, and those who seek a somewhat westernized lifestyle. This holds true for both the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs who choose to live in the French Hill. I have identified a discrepancy between conflicts on the institutional level and conflicts in daily life. On an individual basis, people tend to cooperate with each other. Yet external forces meddle in politics, resulting in barriers being erected. On a whole, this is quite typical of Jerusalem.
Question from the audience
Why is the neighborhood called French Hill?
The origin of the name is a French monastery from the end of the Ottoman period, which is located on a forested hill there. The name stuck – French Hill.
I moved to Jerusalem to study here, and rented an apartment in the French Hill. I met my partner and we decided to stay. After having children, we discovered a community, a group of families with whom we enjoy sharing the public sphere. I find it difficult when people try to restrict our use of the public sphere – as women or as secular residents [on Shabbat].
I make use of the public sphere on Shabbat. In that past, there had been tension over playgrounds on Saturdays. We acted to change the situation. We can’t remove ourselves from places just because we live in proximity to other populations. We must be present. I think it worked, I haven’t encountered any disputes lately.
I was born and raised in England, where I lived for fifteen years. I moved to Israel alone, and today I live in Givat HaMivtar. I initially became involved with the community council to fight the landfill, and have remained involved, working on issues relating to the neighborhood’s diverse population.
In England, Jews, specifically ultra-Orthodox Jews, are a minority. You learn to get along with everyone. Israel is different. Here people fear the invasive “other.” There is hysteria and fear over the changing nature of the neighborhood.
There are fundamentalists, extreme liberals, and moderates in every group. It pains me to hear that residents of our neighborhood feel uncomfortable. I want every sector to be content and happy. Everyone.
We are different and we live by different principles. But I believe and hope that we are capable of sharing the playground.
The struggle against the landfill indeed brought the different sectors together.
Why do ultra-Orthodox residents decide to move to the French Hill? Is there anything that characterizes the new influx of residents?
Jerusalem is a desirable city to live in, but it’s also quite expensive. I think that ultra-Orthodox residents move to the French Hill because apartments are cheap, even if it means living in a secular neighborhood.
I grew up in Ramllah, and I have been living in the French Hill since 2001. Parenthetically, I will share my political views. I am a member of the Labor Party, and am a graduate of a Jewish high school in Tel Aviv – Shevach-Moffet. I don’t want to portray myself as a victim. Unfortunately, there is racism everywhere. I’m actively promoting a two-state solution, among both Israelis and Palestinians, to bring peace.
As for the French Hill, whenever I had to move I encountered opposition [from landlords]. The quality residents are moving out, by which I mean those willing to accept the “other,” who believe in “live and let live.” I truly love the neighborhood, but have a dilemma: should I stay or leave? You are always tagged.
So far we’ve heard the good side of things. Eli, you were elected by the secular population on the ticket of maintaining the neighborhood’s secular character. Could you talk about conflicts, allocation of resources, and the use of indoor spaces and parks? Who controls the neighborhood?
I grew up in Rehovot and came to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. I married a Jerusalemite and have remained in the city – because of my wife. Jerusalem is a difficult place to live, impossible at times. Everything is taken to the extreme, nothing comes easily. It is a hard mindset, everything takes on significance, regardless of what you are dealing with. The city lags behind, because the city itself is challenging.
When Jerusalem was rated 3 on the national socioeconomic ranking, everyone celebrated because it meant additional funding. But it also meant that the city was doing poorly. The city constantly runs a deficit. Resource never suffice, sometimes they barely exist.
Yet despite its lagging behind, Jerusalem is, in other ways, 15 years ahead of the country. Demographic shifts take place here first, before the rest of the country faces a new reality. Jerusalem is already managing these changes.
The situation is bleak, and this brings me back to the French Hill. Not a single community council board member had planned on running for office. Four years ago, the Young People’s Forum dragged us into the elections. The ultra-Orthodox had formed a coalition and were running a joint list of candidates. This created pressure. Elections polarize conflicts and don’t bode well for the community.
I was elected [director] by my colleagues on the board. The board now includes ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, and secular Jews, along with municipal representatives. When I heard President Rivlin’s speech about the “four tribes,” [religious, ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews and Arabs] I felt he was right-on, he described my day-to-day experiences. The “tribes” don’t communicate with each other and they squabble, often also among themselves. I constantly try to strike a balance, but I must also make decisions. Conflicts and disputes are never simple.
I initiated a resolution that passed, which declared the community center welcome all residents and be a home for everyone. Yet I haven’t observed much acceptance or dialogue between the communities, due to both their beliefs and a shortage in resources. The municipality doesn’t provide solutions. We must operate within this reality. The current situation fuels the extremists, while distancing people from whatever common denominators exist. The people seated here today represent different communities, but the extremists are not in this room. It’s not simple, but we are trying.
Democratic values include the protection of minorities. Secular spaces are allegedly everywhere, but these spaces are constantly under pressure to shrink. To what extent can you restrict secular spaces in order to protect others? The fourth “tribe,” the secular one, believes in “live and let live,” and this has become its problem.
I find it problematic when images of women are defaced in the city; I take issue when events at the community center are separated by gender. These are my core values, and I am offended when such things occur. Currently, I can’t live anywhere restriction-free – where I live, within the public space that is also mine.
The Jerusalem municipality doesn’t plan ahead, which only amplifies “tribal” conflicts. The indecision over the character of public areas means that residents must fight among themselves over these spaces, and the stronger groups [educated, well-off] move away. Our friends have left. They say, it is easier to live in Mevasseret [suburbs]. Nobody is trying to examine the situation broadly and reduce tensions, by making use of planning tools. So yes, we struggle over services and resource allocation, but the schism runs much deeper.
We will probably not succeed at changing municipal planning policies or the city’s demographics.
What can be done on the civic level? I read that French Hill residents rate the quality of life in their neighborhood highly. Give us some positive points. What does work in the neighborhood?
In England, the majority are Christians, and they respect everyone else. The ultra-Orthodox and Muslims received everything their communities needed. I believe everyone’s needs must be respected. Tolerance is lacking on both sides.
I want to talk about the ultra-Orthodox society, which I was unfamiliar with prior to becoming director of the community council. I have seen significant trends and changes throughout my four years in office. I see growth and change. There are undercurrents that foster a foundation for dialogue and cooperation.
At the end of the day, I can be optimistic. There isn’t any alternative. People meet, round-tables are held, and dialogue occurs. This panel is doing that, right here and right now – we’re working together.
I like the French Hill and feel comfortable in the neighborhood, even as it is today.
Question from the audience:
I live in the neighborhood. Why should secular residents have to compromise? Why can’t there be a theater performance for children at the community center on Saturday morning?
It’s complicated and legally sticky. The building belongs to the municipality. Our events are adapted to the different sectors who live in the neighborhood, in order to draw as wide an audience as possible. I want to maximize the number of people who come through our doors. It’s complicated.
Question from the audience
I am a resident of the French Hill and I think our location should enable more cooperation with Issawiya. In reality, the community council doesn’t do enough. Some people want to separate the populations, but I think we should bring them closer and foster respect.
I’m going to try to be careful with my words. There are extremist and violent elements in Issawiya, but there is also a significant population that we’re in touch with. The residents of Issawiya rely on the French Hill for all their services: post office, ATM, public transportation. Yet the municipality overlooks this [need for services].