Tel Aviv leads ranking of Israel’s ‘freest’ cities, Bnei Brak is last

Report by religious pluralism group criticizes Haredi city for failing to offer secular funerals or restrict separate-gender events; Ramat Gan wins most-improved

Israelis enjoy the Tel Aviv beach on Election Day, September 17, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israelis enjoy the Tel Aviv beach on Election Day, September 17, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Tel Aviv is the most religiously “free” and pluralistic city in Israel, and Bnei Brak is the least, according to a report this week by the religious pluralism group Israel Hofsheet, or Israel Be Free.

The report, now in its second year, ranks 24 of the largest Israeli cities according to their attitudes about 10 social and religious questions, from their openness to non-Orthodox religious communities and the LGBT community, to the amount of city funds spent on religious services (the lower the better in the ranking) and the provision of secular burial and public transportation on Shabbat.

The cities were chosen for their size. They include the 20 largest cities by population nationwide, as well as the two largest in the north and the two largest in the south.

It offers a snapshot of the state of religious pluralism from the perspective of Israel’s liberal activists.

Illustrative: Thousands of Haredim holding a prayer rally in Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square in opposition to the government’s plan to start drafting yeshiva students into military and national service on June 25, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While some of the elements of the ranking, such as support for the LGBT community, are widely popular among secular and liberal Israelis, others might be more controversial, such as the demand not to permit separate-gender hours at municipal swimming pools.

The group insisted there was room for improvement even in the best cases. Tel Aviv, which placed No. 1, earned just 77 points in the report’s 100-point scale.

“The Tel Aviv municipality took active responsibility for expanding the freedom in the city for non-Orthodox communities, LGBT, and commerce and public transportation on Shabbat” in 2019, but still offers no secular burial and does not restrict separate-gender seating in city-funded events.

The unsurprising last-place finisher for the second year running is the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, which the report notes is just as religiously restrictive as its residents desire. “On the one hand, Bnei Brak reflects the character of the Haredi public which forms a majority of its residents. The city is closed on Shabbat and all public culture is religious culture, in accordance with the demands of most of the residents. With that, a city that does not also cater to its minorities cannot be free in the deepest sense of the word.”

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis attend a United Torah Judaism party rally in the city of Bnei Brak on March 11, 2015, less than a week before general elections. (Flash90)

Still, Israel Hofsheet isn’t above using Bnei Brak’s example to try to shame other municipalities into changing their policies.

“Even in a city that actively works to expel communities and residents who are not religious-Orthodox (sometimes with violence), there is a taxi line operating on Shabbat. Ostensibly liberal municipalities like Raanana and Kfar Saba should conduct some serious soul-searching over the fact that Bnei Brak has surpassed them in this element in the ranking.”

Bnei Brak got just seven points, all seven earned in the public transportation category.

People participate in the annual Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, on June 14, 2019 (Flash90)

Modiin, at second place, got 70 points. The report praises the Modiin municipality’s support for liberal religious communities and gay rights groups, as well as the secular burial option offered by the city.

Still, Modiin fell behind Tel Aviv (it was no. 1 in 2018) because of a “lack of a clear framework for supervising the activities of religious organizations in schools, and subsidies for separate-gender swimming in the city pools,” two issues the Israel Hofsheet disagrees with.

These very questions — subsidized separate-gender hours in city pools and the lack of an explicit policy denying city funding for separate-gender public events — keep Israel’s famously liberal tech hub Herzliya at third place with just 63 points.

The best news for Israel Hofsheet’s supporters lies in Ramat Gan, which shot up nine slots from last year’s ranking to take fourth place. The report notes a broad array of new policies introduced by its new mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen, a former Likud MK and Israeli ambassador to the OECD and UNESCO. After his election in 2018, Shama-Hacohen established city-funded Shabbat bus lines and restricted the entry of religious nonprofits into schools, the report enthuses.

Overall, 2019 saw a “dramatic turnaround” for religious freedom in Israel, the report argues, noting that several municipalities in and around Tel Aviv have launched a municipally funded Shabbat bus network, while liberal activist groups have become more vocal on questions of conversion, civil marriage and Shabbat commerce. It also noted with favor the fact that Israel’s current political deadlock is due at least in part to a fight among right-wing factions, between the secularists of Yisrael Beytenu and the religiously conservative Haredi parties, over questions of religious pluralism.

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