Suburbs of Israel
Even in Israel, Suburbs Hold the Key
Lawrence C. Levy
Tuesday January 30, 2001
MODI'IN, Israel-Outside, the harsh light slashed off the rocky hillside only miles from where Jesus walked and a spear-toss from where the Jewish Maccabees beat the Greek army in the first known fight for religious freedom.
Inside, in front of the picture window in Israel's newest suburban city, Shlomi Kroizer was complaining on his cell phone Friday about the poor picture on a television he had bought on the Internet. His wife, Rinat, three years younger at 36, was preparing for Sabbath dinner in a few hours and to pick up her two children at gymnastics and soccer before putting the car away until dusk Saturday.
That is Modi'in. Halfway between Israel's secular center of Tel Aviv and the multi-religious capital in Jerusalem, it is a place where the ancient meets the modern every day. In a country that all too often seems driven by extremes, it is a refuge in the middle. It is true socially and religiously. And it is true politically, a week before Israel holds what many commentators say is its most critical election in its 52 years of statehood-the seemingly one-sided contest between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
Modi'in is a center for the so-called "floating voter." Not unlike the independent suburbanites who now decide U.S. elections, Israel's increasing numbers of floaters have no special loyalty to any of Israel's many fractious political parties or ideological movements. Many of them remain undecided, almost enough to give Barak at least a sliver of hope. But many others, who last voted for him, are leaning toward the challenger. Above all, however, they don't seem to like ei-ther man. "No matter who I choose," said Monica Gorodetzer, one of her four kids in tow and a soccer ball under her arm, "I am going to be nauseous on election day."
The Kroizers keep kosher and on Sabbath shut off the phone and television. They decided not to remain in the sub-urban-like Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv because it had become too crowded and expensive and too secular for raising their children.
They also rejected Jerusalem, where Shlomi was born, because of the choking traffic and high rents that drive many people from cities everywhere. But in picking a community on undisputed lands inside Israel's borders before the 1967 war, and not even one of the large suburbanized settlements on the West Bank, they also sought some distance from tensions with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. And, they avoided the more observant Jews in black hats and long coats who are trying to control more of the country's everyday life.
"Between the Arabs and the haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews), it's very complicated there," said Rinat Kroizer, who is a substitute teacher in one of the new schools that seem to be crowded the day they open. "Modi'in is new and more tolerant and much simpler to live in."
Now, like many of their neighbors whose Israeli version of flight to the suburbs has pushed the population of Modi'in from literally nothing to 30,000 in four years, the Kroizers and the Gorodetzers have found they cannot run away from the nation's problems. Intifada II has brought shooting attacks from Palestinians on Jewish drivers on a nearby highway that crosses into the Palestinian territory less than a mile away. It is often closed at night and avoided by day. The incidents have meant bulldozers are cutting notches by the highway for heavy weapons rather than clearing another hillside for more terraces of apartments for the 200,000 expected by the end of the decade.
"I moved from Jerusalem because I wanted to live somewhere safe and now there are tanks here," said Orrit David, who still commutes there in a roundabout way to avoid danger. "I feel like there's nowhere to run to."
This fear has radicalized many. And it is one of the reasons Barak is in trouble in Modi'in, where he won nearly 65 percent of the vote in 1999 compared with 56 percent nationwide. Deputy Mayor Yaron Ran believes Barak will be lucky to break even with the young-moderates who had so much hope for him not only to bring peace but to improve education and other social programs for their parents and children. "He did nothing for the schools, for old people," said Rinat Kroizer. "He spent all his time on peace and forgot the rest of the country."
Many here and elsewhere are disappointed in Barak for what they see as his inept failure to forge a national consen-sus on his dramatic peace initiative. More than ever, they distrust Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as someone who can make and keep a bargain. But they also distrust Barak for his willingness to concede too much to the Palestinians, espe-cially holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, such as the Temple Mount, considered sacred to both Muslims and Jews. "We may have to divide the Old City if we want peace," said Kroizer, "but giving up the Temple Mount and the [West-ern] Wall are too much. We are in Israel because of these places."
Mostly, they are disappointed-you hear the word again and again-that this former general could not contain the vio-lence. And while they fear Barak will not be able to maintain the peace, they also fear that Sharon-the architect of the misguided invasion of Lebanon and the defense minister who sat by while Christian militia allies slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians-will lead their children to war.
As important as this race is, Modi'in shows little sign of intense campaigning; even the banners ubiquitous in many cities and more remote villages are hard to find.
"Because they want to live together peacefully, they avoid political fractures," said Prof. Daphna Carmeli, a profes-sor at Haifa University who has written a book on Israel's emerging suburban culture. They put most of their energy toward improving their economic lot, in ways their more socialist parents didn't care about. And they save their growing clout for local causes-Israeli NIMBY actions such as the Ramat Aviv neighborhood's efforts to block a cemetery.
This year, Carmeli observed, the undecideds may stay that way-and in a country that prides itself in voter turnouts routinely exceeding 80 percent, they may stay home in record numbers or cast "blank" protest ballots. Since fewer of Sharon's potential supporters are undecided, a lower turnout or higher number of blanks would mean the end of Barak's short, controversial test of the nation's patience, possibly even its character and courage. Then it would be up to Sharon to hold the middle without resorting to the political rallying tactic of instigating a military operation.
"I want my children to go to school and get a good job," said Carmeli, holding her young son. "I don't want him to die fighting a war that could have been avoided, defending fanatics on land that isn't ours."