The Tov party, which represents an emerging moderate faction of the ultra-Orthodox community, announced its endorsement of opposition candidate Eli Cohen for mayor of Beit Shemesh late Sunday.
Tov’s choice of the opposition candidate, who represents a coalition of national-religious and secular parties, over haredi incumbent Rabbi Moshe Abutbol of Shas, came just over a week after a senior haredi rabbinic leader condemned members of the Orthodox community who support Cohen.
“If a secular mayor will be elected in Beit Shemesh, then it will be a desecration of God’s name,” Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman – the leading rabbinic authority among the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” stream of ultra-Orthodoxy – said during a lecture to yeshiva students just over a week ago.
While Beit Shemesh has come to be known in the media for the actions of its extremists, there also exists a significant number of moderate haredim, especially in the English-speaking immigrant neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph.
Tov is unique among ultra- Orthodox parties in that while it consults with rabbinic authorities, it does not allow such rabbis to set the party’s agenda or choose candidates.
“We are against wheeling and dealing from above that dictates to us what to do,” Aharon Salomon, the head of the party’s Beit Shemesh branch, told The Jerusalem Post after his primary win last month.
Speaking with the Post on Monday, Salomon said that he believes the “good of the residents is more important than anything,” and this consideration led him to throw his support behind Cohen.
After meeting with all of the candidates, he said, Tov chose to endorse Cohen due to his track record as a manager, both as an executive at the Mekorot water company and as a former Jewish Agency official.
“We sat with everybody, with all of the candidates,” he told the Post. “For five years we suffered from Moshe Abutbol.”
In a statement to the press, Salomon critiqued Abutbol over what he called the “inappropriate distribution of public land” and said that Beit Shemesh must be raised “out of [it’s] low ranking on the socioeconomic scale.”
Tov expects to receive at least two seats on the city council in October, Salomon said.
While Tov received only one mandate in the last elections, the first in which it presented a list of candidates, there is significant sympathy growing for the group’s ideology among mainstream haredim, according to some researchers.
The party’s support of working haredim resonates with “thousands of people,” the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Haim Zicherman stated last year during an interview with the Post about the so-called new haredim, a socio-economic group commonly associated with Tov.
However, the party’s support for Cohen following Rabbi Shteinman’s comments may hurt the movement’s chances of growth with some undecided voters in the ultra-Orthodox community, who feel uncomfortable with going against the wishes of such a senior rabbi.
The decision to support Cohen “is good for the residents, not so much for the Tov movement itself,” Salomon told the Post.
Speaking to Post, Deputy Mayor and member of the Beit Shemesh Municipal Council Shmuel Greenberg of United Torah Judaism claimed that people from the haredi community who were thinking about voting for Tov in the elections for the municipal council are now reconsidering their stance.
“I think it’s a bad decision by this party, and it would have been more natural for them to join with the haredi sector,” Greenberg said.
“Now that they’ve taken this step, a lot of haredim who I’ve spoken to say they won’t vote for them in the elections for the council.”
Greenberg insisted that UTJ was working to provide solutions for concerns regarding education in the city in the haredi sector, and criticized Tov saying that “they have not obtained one significant achievement in the time their representative has been on the council.”
Speaking to supporters Sunday evening, Cohen called Tov “the key to the haredi world” and said that together “we will build a city that is appropriate for haredim, modern Orthodox, traditional and secular residents.”
Tov’s endorsement of Cohen indicates that “that these elections are not haredim versus hilonim [secular],” MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Beit Shemesh resident, told the Post. “There is nothing anti-haredi about our side.”
“Hopefully, this will give the stamp of approval to thousands of haredim who reject Abutbol’s performance as mayor and want a new direction for the city,” he said, calling Tov the party for those who “believe that one can be haredi while also receiving a general education, serving the country, and joining the workforce.”
Abutbul’s office said in response that the mayor had worked hard during his term to address the concerns of Tov voters, including on issues relating to education, synagogues and “empowering youth,” and that he would continue to do so in the coming term despite the decision of the party’s Beit Shemesh leadership.
“In the test of the elections, most of Tov’s voters from the haredi sector will support Moshe Abutbul at the voting booth, because the community knows that the election of Abutbul for another term will benefit all sectors of the haredi public, while the election of a mayor with a separate agenda will put an end to the flourishing of the Torah communities in Bet Shemesh,” the mayor’s office said following Tov’s announcement.
The mayor’s staff added that it had established a campaign aimed at the Anglo-Saxon community in the city and that “it is a great shame that the Tov party will not be partners with the victorious camp.”