'What example would I be setting by saying I’m too afraid?'

Play center in Harish becomes unlikely battleground for Haredi and secular residents

Fast-growing and diverse, the city that started out as an army outpost is seen as a test case for coexistence, after an altercation over Shabbat observance makes national news

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Tirtza Carmi, a resident of Harish, and a friend wear t-shirts reading, 'Freedom fighter' to a demonstration against religious coercion in Harish, Israel, on May 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Tirtza Carmi, a resident of Harish, and a friend wear t-shirts reading, 'Freedom fighter' to a demonstration against religious coercion in Harish, Israel, on May 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

To enter her son’s favorite play center, Idit Beilinson leads him past five armed police officers and two burly security guards wearing bodycams standing in a semi-circle around the entrance.

The security arrangements may seem out of place for the venue, a small underground play center, whose main attraction is a frantic egg hunt for children aged 3-14 in a room full of white plastic balls.

But this is part of a new reality in Harish, an emerging city between Netanya and Haifa that — despite being one of Israel’s fastest-growing and diverse urban projects — has become a flashpoint in the ongoing conflict between some secular Jews and some ultra-Orthodox ones over the observance of Shabbat in public.

The scene on Saturday outside the White Pool play center in Harish was the result of an altercation the previous weekend, where several dozens of extremist Haredi Jews protested the fact that the newly established business is open on Shabbat. One woman said that a Haredi man kicked her, after she turned on a speaker to counter their protest. She said another man made her trip and fall.

“I know there’s a chance for unpleasantness here, but my son wanted to come here and, really, what kind of example would I be setting by saying I’m too afraid?” said Beilinson, a mother of four who works as a teacher. The play gym was already at capacity, with a long line of parents lined up at the cash register.

The previous week’s altercation was mild compared to some of the countless disputes among Israelis over religion. But the incident became national news due to the place — a middle-class city’s children’s venue — and timing, during a wave of protests driven by left and center-leaning leaders against the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and five religious parties.

Police arrived at the scene in advance on Saturday to prevent violence. Dozens of locals and out-of-towners also came to make a stand for their rights to carry out everyday activities during the Jewish day of rest.

Demonstrators hold a Yiddish-language sign that reads: ‘No games on Shabbat, you won’t want to pray on Shabbat’ at a demonstration against religious coercion in Harish, Israel on May 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The demonstrators, many of them wearing t-shirts with slogans from recent protest rallies against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul and other controversial policies, picnicked on a square outside the play center for hours. They played loud techno-pop music on a large speaker, as local families, many of them religious Shabbat observers, walked past the square in silence.

“I don’t like Toldot Aharon as a phenomenon either, although some of their followers are good people and neighbors,” said Ran Azoulay, a religious resident and father of four, referring to an isolationist and extremely devout Hasidic sect. “But this sort of rally on Shabbat, with music blasting, is not a good response because they lose me and other observant Jews as supporters.”

It soon emerged that the secular protesters would be unopposed on Saturday: None of the hundreds of members of the local Toldot Aharon community, whose members staged the May 20 protest that resulted in an altercation, showed up. Many of them had left town for the Shavuot holiday, traveling to Jerusalem, where the sect has its strongest presence. As a rule, the sect does not speak to media outlets, and attempts to contact their followers in Harish have been unsuccessful.

Even in their absence, the presence of dozens of secular protesters – including at least one radical activist who used hateful language against Haredi Jews – showed that the conflict in Harish is rooted in a deep ideological divide that increasingly is turning many Israeli Jews against one another, across the country.

Moshe Suhami, center, stands with others who traveled from Ramat Hashaon to attend a demonstration against religious coercion in Harish, Israel on May 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Moshe Suhami, a 56-year-old lawyer and father of three from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon traveled to Harish — which he called “a microcosm of Israel as it rapidly deteriorates into a backward theocracy” — along with several fellow activists after reading in the media about the previous week’s altercation.

“If you ask me, they should be pointing those speakers at the synagogues, demonstrating at the synagogues,” he told The Times of Israel, adding that at his home, he regularly plays loud music on Shabbat to harass a nearby synagogue.

In an interview with The Times of Israel and in talks with interlocutors at the protest, Suhami advocated using murderous violence at synagogues and against Haredi worshipers, whom he described in dehumanizing terms.

To some residents, part of the beauty of Harish is exactly in the mix of populations, which persists despite the growing popularity of cantonization, which is already reshaping some parts of Israel.

“We all live in this city and we all have our place. We need to respect one another to enjoy the experience together,” one self-described proud Harish resident, Tal Aizenman, wrote in a 2019 column on the news site Harish24 about his experience at a  local movie screening where religious couples were seated separately, and secular couples had their own mixed section.

Police and security officers stand at the entrance to the White Pool play center in Harish, Israel on May 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

None of those present at the rally, organized by HaLiberalim, a center-left faction on Harish’s city council, protested Suhami’s hate speech, which he vocalized loudly in earshot of multiple individuals. But none of the other protesters interviewed by The Times of Israel expressed such vitriol, either.

“I don’t think they’re motivated by the Shabbat business,” said Shani Greenberg, a member of HaLiberalim and a deputy mayor of Harish, about Toldot Aharon. “What they want is to drive us, the strong, liberal, secular population, out of here and we won’t let them. We’re here to stay. If anyone’s uncomfortable with that, there’s the door. Go right ahead and leave,” said Greenberg, a mother of two who moved to Harish seven years ago.

The city, nestled between the forested hills overlooking the Narbeta and Iron seasonal streams, began in the 1980s as an army outpost sandwiched between Baqa al-Gharbiya, and Kafr Qara, two large Arab towns in Israel’s so-called Triangle, a strategically-significant area bordering on the West Bank.

In the 1990s it was briefly earmarked to become a city for Haredi and religious Israelis, but that plan was shelved as the city experienced massive growth fueled by cheap prices, proximity to the center and scenic location, which appealed to hundreds of Jewish families of all denominations.

Construction of new residential buildings in the northern Israeli city of Harish, on January 15, 2019. (Flash90)

Housing prices are still relatively affordable, but have doubled and in some cases even tripled in Harish, where now half of about 35,000 residents are religious and 20 percent are Haredi.

It has a practical design, with school and kindergarten clusters and two malls on opposite ends of town, which makes up for the uninspiring uniformity of the city’s many apartment buildings, which resemble those in the Tel Aviv suburb, Modiin.

Harish adds about 9,000 new residents each year and is expected to have 100,000 residents by 2035. By then, it is expected to boast a train station along the Eastern Rail, making it extra attractive to commuters working in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and even Jerusalem.

A bird’s eye view of Harish in November 2021. (Eldar Eldadi/Wikimedia Commons)

“It has huge potential and plenty of pluses and its minuses,” said Tzipi Brayer Sharabi, the woman who said she was assaulted on May 20. “The pluses are in the community and the comfortable living, both of which are on display here,” she said, gesturing at the protest on the square.

“The minuses you also see,” she said, gesturing at her bandaged arm, which she said she hurt because one of the ultra-Orthodox protesters made her trip.

Brayer Sharabi said her husband now insists that she walk around with pepper spray, especially after the incident. “Me, I’m not afraid and have never been afraid. Even the Haredi radicals here, they’re usually not violent. Maybe one or two of them are,” she added.

Like several locals at the protest, she is undecided on whether to stay in the city. The local elections in November will be crucial, she said. She is not pleased with the current mayor, Yitzhak Keshet, who is religious and who last year was threatened by a resident over his authorization for some businesses to stay open on Shabbat.

Keshet, whose office did not immediately reply to a request for an interview for this article, condemned the alleged assault on May 20.

“But it doesn’t feel like he has our backs,” Brayer Sharabi said. Despite some friction in the past over businesses operating on Shabbat, “generally you don’t feel the tension around religion on the street. Haredi and secular [Jews] live and get along in the same buildings. It’s only around the public spaces that things get dicey,” she added.

Brayer Sharabi expects to make up her mind on Harish in the coming two years.

“Right now, the city’s character is still forming, including the balance of power and areas of consensus between the Haredi and secular [populations],” she said. “By 2025, I think we’ll know where all of this is headed.”

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