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Rain of challenges
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Rain of challenges

Resilient Arad debates politics, migrants, and the haredim next door

Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev, right, assisted by National Highway Authority director-general Alex Vishnitzer, cuts the ribbon on the new project to widen the highway that leads into the Negev town.
Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev, right, assisted by National Highway Authority director-general Alex Vishnitzer, cuts the ribbon on the new project to widen the highway that leads into the Negev town.

When you get to Arad, the first thing you see is a sign atop the city’s visitor center with the slogan: “Arad: There is magic in the air.”

The sign is not intended merely as a reminder of an arid desert climate many consider bracing or a sense of community that attracted residents to the Negev town, a sister city to the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey under the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program.

It is an attempt to inject a needed dose of positive thinking into a place that has long been down on its luck, to give residents an air of confidence amid the many challenges that Arad is facing, and provide them with hope in the face of an uncertain future.

Not far from the sign, residents sit and smoke on benches in front of the lottery kiosk near the town square. The square itself is a closed-off construction site whose workers have stopped working. These Arad residents have no shortage of complaints, which they prefer to offer anonymously.

They express concern about their town’s economic situation, its escalating unemployment, the Motorola plant that might close down, and plans to build a town nearby for haredi, or fervently Orthodox, Jews. They complain that an upcoming election was forced on Arad, and worry about the influx of migrant workers from Sudan and Eritrea who entered Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt.

“Everything is getting worse and worse,” complains ‘Avi.’ “Things used to be so good here. But they repeated the same mistake three times. They should have never accepted the Russians, the ultra-Orthodox, or the Sudanese, who have brought down the city. It’s no wonder that so few of the original, quality people remain here.”

Such xenophobic complaints are common among residents who resent changes brought on with the influx of residents from the Gerrer hasidic movement in the late 1980s, immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and somewhere between 800 and 1,300 African migrant workers over the last two years.

Arad’s population now stands at more than 27,000, not counting the migrant workers who are not citizens and have no official address. The number includes 2,500 haredim, more than 10,000 immigrants from the FSU, 500 from South America, a few hundred Ethiopians, and dozens from English-speaking countries.

While Arad still prides itself on the integration of its population, the sectors inevitably gripe more when there is less to go around. The city that boasted only 4.5 percent unemployment just three years ago has seen that rate double to close to 9 percent, while Israel’s national unemployment rate has fallen to only 7.4 percent.

The city of Arad would have had more income had former Mayor Moty Brill signed a tax revenue-sharing agreement with the neighboring Tamar region three years ago, but he held out for a better deal and then national political considerations delayed it. Arad lost some 18 million shekels (about $4.8 million) in the meantime.

In August 2007, then Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit of the Kadima Party fired Brill and disbanded his city council after Brill failed to pass the city’s budget. Two months later, Sheetrit appointed former Interior Ministry director-general and successful accountant Gideon Bar-Lev as mayor for a term that could have lasted up to 2013.

But Sheetrit’s successor, Eli Yishai of the Sephardi haredi Shas party, decided that after three years in a row of balanced budgets, Arad no longer required a government-appointed mayor. Yishai initiated an April 13 election in which five candidates are vying to replace Bar-Lev.

Bar-Lev has been very critical of Yishai’s decision, which was made without consulting him. In an interview at his office in Arad’s City Hall, Bar-Lev told NJJN that despite his initial protests, he had given up hope for the race to be called off.

“It was wrong to advance the election for political reasons when the work is not done here yet,” Bar-Lev said. “Yishai told a Knesset committee that Arad is being run terrifically. By that logic, if it wasn’t being run well, they would have the person running it badly continue. But because it is being run well, I am being replaced.”

The Interior Ministry’s regulations recommend that appointed mayors serve a minimum of three years and require that they be given a year’s notice when an election is initiated. Yishai’s spokesman Roy Lachmanovich responded that this did not apply to Bar-Lev, who was brought in to help the city economically and not due to corruption.

Bar-Lev has capitalized on his lack of political affiliation to obtain support from all the parties in the national government. He has earned residents’ respect for making a sincere effort to tackle the city’s problems.

Current projects include widening the treacherous road that leads into the city, building a new bus station and gymnasium, earmarking schools for students who excel in science and technology, improving early childhood centers, and upgrading streets and the city’s industrial zone.

“I hope all these projects continue,” Bar-Lev said. “We obtained funding for all of them, and I hope the new mayor doesn’t stop any of them. There is a lot in the city that is in the middle of getting done.”

Town and factory

Saving the Motorola factory is considered integral to the city’s future. The factory already cut half of its work force two years ago from 800 to 400, due to the international economic crisis and the weakness of the U.S. dollar.

Bar-Lev said that if Motorola did decide to leave, “it would be a severe blow to Arad,” but he is confident that another high-tech company would take over the factory.

Bar-Lev is also ready to fight the national government’s decision to build a new haredi town, called Kasif, just outside Arad’s city limits. The decision, which is still in the process of obtaining final approval, is intended to solve the country’s haredi housing shortage.

“There are people who have nowhere to live, and the prices in Kasif will be cheaper there than in Jerusalem or B’nei Brak,” Lachmanovich said. “We can’t build a city underneath B’nei Brak, so we will build one near Arad. If people want, they will come, and if they don’t, they won’t.”

Bar-Lev said Kasif would drain resources away from the neighborhood he wanted to build in Arad for military officers who would work at a large base being built in the Negev. He called Kasif “a horrible mistake” and a violation of the Interior Ministry policy he initiated that called for “stronger populations” — i.e., those with good economic prospects and varied job skills — to be sent to the Negev.

“I am against Kasif because it won’t help the Negev, and I am against forming ‘loner cities,’” Bar-Lev said. “I think cities should be together and not segregated. I’m against separate cities for ultra-Orthodox, religious, secular, blacks, whites, and Indians. Arad proves that we can all live together.”

To improve communal relations, one of the leaders of the Gerrer community, Rabbi Avraham Kaminer, has been reaching out to the non-haredi public. He is a member of a Partnership 2000 task force, hoping to create connections with NJ Jews, and is on a steering committee on demographic growth in Arad. Kaminer said he is committed to a multi-cultural Arad.

“I won’t say I oppose building Kasif because I believe Jews should live everywhere, but I don’t think it’s the smartest decision,” he said. “I believe in embarking on a national effort to bring thousands of Jews from all sectors to the Negev in general and Arad in particular.”

Kasif praised Bar-Lev’s stewardship, but also supported the election. “Bar-Lev did a great job, but it’s important to give people the right to elect a mayor,” he said. “I wish well to whoever wins the election. After the election, religious, secular, and all the sectors in Arad need to unite to ensure the new mayor’s success.”

A wave of foreigners

Bar-Lev speaks carefully when asked about the African migrant workers who work at Dead Sea hotels and tend to live in run-down apartments in Arad that the hotels rent for them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a lot less careful when he condemned the migrant workers in a speech to the Manufacturers Association two weeks ago.

“Anyone walking around Arad, Eilat, or even south Tel Aviv today can see this wave and the change it is creating with their own eyes,” Netanyahu said. “They are causing socioeconomic and cultural damage and threaten to take us back down to the level of the Third World. They take the jobs of the weakest Israelis.”

Bar-Lev accused the prime minister of exaggerating the problem in Arad: “Netanyahu wasn’t here, and I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.” But he praised the prime minister’s decision to build a fence along Israel’s border with Egypt to prevent more migrant workers from coming in.

“Israel doesn’t have the luxury to handle hundreds of people who get here illegally,” Bar-Lev said. “Israel cannot handle it demographically or economically. There are wealthier countries that should bear the burden of the foreign workers and not little Israel that has its own problems. But those refugees who are here must be sheltered and helped from a humanitarian point of view and a Jewish one.”

Arad has made a major investment in supporting the migrant workers and educating their children. The city even opened a kindergarten with teachers who speak their language.

But businessmen at Arad’s strip mall complained that the migrant workers do not contribute to the local economy. They said the workers “just buy beer in the supermarket and hang out in front of the store.”

The Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey has run programs in Arad to help the weakest sectors, including a youth center and a center for Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants. But the federation’s focus has shifted to encouraging entrepreneurs and skilled workers to come to Arad and to improving the quality of life in the city so they won’t leave.

“The city is dealing with very tough challenges and the government of Israel has not done enough to help,” said Tehila Nachalon, Central federation’s Israel representative. “But I am optimistic because young leadership is arising. People have decided to take responsibility and make a shift.”

Nachalon said she sees the different sectors of Arad’s population cooperating more than they did in the past for the betterment of all the residents. She noted that Arad’s Gerrer hasidim are more integrated into the general population than are haredim in other Israeli cities.

Danor Bumendi, the owner of the Kadim restaurant and nightclub in Arad’s visitors’ center, said that despite the city’s problems, he sees a bright future for Arad. Bumendi, who has lived here for 20 years, said he would not have invested so much of his own money to expand his business if he thought bleaker times were ahead.

“Things are getting better after they got worse for a long time,” Bumendi said. “People speak negatively about this place too much. Bad things happen in New Jersey and other places too, but when bad things happen here, reporters exaggerate it.

“I think Arad is a great place to live. After all, there is magic in the air over here.”

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