As municipal elections approach again in Beit Shemesh, tensions are once more rising to boiling point in the troubled city Posters in the haredi neighborhoods tell residents that to defend their lives they must vote on March 11 for the haredi candidate, and current mayor, Moshe Abutbul, while his opponents campaign vigorously against renewed ultra-Orthodox control of the city.
In the midst of this maelstrom is Eli Cohen, the independent candidate who contested the original elections results and won the right for a second bite at the cherry after the courts annuled the result of last October’s poll due to voter fraud.
In conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Cohen insisted, as he has so often, that the intercommunal problems experienced in the city have been generated by haredi politicians seeking control, and not by a deeper inability for coexistence between haredi and non-haredi communities.
“The radicalization in the city is political, and it has been spawned by political groups who aren’t interested in the good of the community but simply want to accumulate political capital,” says Cohen.
And he pulls no punches when ascribing specific responsibility for the radicalization.
“Moshe Abutbul is an extremist, he serves the extremists, and this is why Beit Shemesh has reached the situation it is in now,” says Cohen, pointing to what the Jerusalem District Court, and then the Supreme Court, describe systematic fraud to influence the outcome of the election in favor of Abutbul.
But the hostility and anger generated within the haredi community by the appeal against the election results and the decision to annul them is undeniable.
Haredi politicians and communal leaders in Beit Shemesh and around the country have railed against the decision and roused their public by claiming that Cohen and his supporters, along with state institutions, are simply prejudiced against haredim and afraid of their growing demographic power.
The challenge this intense antipathy presents for anyone wanting to govern Beit Shemesh and the future cohesiveness of the city will not be easy to overcome.
But Cohen again denies that he is responsible for the situation.
“We came with clean hands to these elections, and it was the coterie of haredi interest groups that tried to take control by force.
“Let’s not ignore the fact that they were the ones who tried to steal the elections.
And now they’re saying there’s tension. Who created the tension? It wasn’t the non-haredi community.”
At the heart of Beit Shemesh’s problems is the demographic balance which, due to the haredi community’s inclination to coalesce around a single political candidate, at least for mayor, gives rise to the concern among the secular and Modern Orthodox public that the city will remain permanently in the hands of the haredi parties.
Because of this, concerns regarding the planning and building of new neighborhoods in the city are particularly sensitive.
Non-haredi city activists claim that some of the recently built neighborhoods are planned in a way that makes them undesirable to secular and Modern Orthodox residents, due to a tendency to build tightly packed apartment blocks without zoning for recreational areas, cultural institutions and other amenities apart from those of a religious nature.
Greater residential density cheapens property and rent prices, which is an important factor in the haredi community as a result of its low socioeconomic status and lack of spending power.
Such claims have been made in particular about Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2, a new neighborhood which is virtually complete and has begun to be populated.
Similar accusations have also been made about plans for new neighborhoods Ramat Beit Shemesh Daled and Hey, although they are as yet unbuilt.
Cohen says that, should he be elected, he would not change the planning and construction for Gimmel at this time, citing democratic principles that would preclude such an action.
But he says that Daled and Hey should be rethought and replanned so that “all communities can continue to live and expand in Beit Shemesh.”
Additionally, Cohen also emphasizes the importance of preserving a nature reserve abutting Beit Shemesh, including parts of the renowned Elah Valley, where some of the new neighborhoods are planned.
And he insists that quality- of-life considerations be taken into account when planning new construction.
“The problem the city faces is that it has a population of 100,000 people with services fit for 50,000. So before we run to bring in more people to the city, we need to provide quality of life to those living here already, which means for haredim and non-haredim.”
Cohen argues that construction which takes into consideration quality-of-life necessities, such as parks, recreational areas, cultural centers and youth clubs, is desired by all and in the interests of all.
But there is no doubt that it is the secular and Modern Orthodox public which is more interested in such amenities, while the haredi community is more interested in zoning for synagogues, mikvaot and large numbers of schools to deal with the universal requirement within the sector for gender-separate education.
Still, Cohen says he will consider the needs of all Beit Shemesh’s residents should he be elected, and points to his promise to build 100 new classrooms for the haredi education system in the city, which is sorely lacking in permanent infrastructure at the moment.
And he insists that he is not afraid of a haredi majority in the city.
“There is no issue here of majority and minority. I am opposed to making this division, which has simply been generated for political interests,” says Cohen, while reiterating his opposition to “haredi political groups who came here to take and to conquer.”
Because of this delicate demographic balance, as well as a generally higher national voter motivation on the part of haredim on election day, voter turnout will be key in deciding the reelection.
In a rally held by Cohen earlier this month, a stream of local and national politicians took to the stage to implore the small crowd to encourage and persuade as many of their family, friends and acquaintances as possible to vote on election day.
Cohen says he appreciates the danger of voter apathy ahead of the poll, but expresses confidence that his constituency will not remain at home on election day.
“What happened after the first elections was that the public rose up and demanded justice. What gave me the strength to fight against the fraud was that the public said ‘We do not accept an election that was stolen.
“We have new elections but we’re only halfway to the goal, so we have hundreds of volunteers who are talking to one person after the other in order to get the votes we need.”
And the mayoral candidate also addressed another possible electoral problem, which is Shas’s efforts to gain votes in the traditional but not religious neighborhoods of Old Beit Shemesh, which are home to the large Sephardi community that has been part of the city since it was founded.
In launching Abutbul’s campaign last week, Shas chairman MK Arye Deri accused Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett of stirring up animosity in the city and agitating for new elections.
Bayit Yehudi officially endorsed Cohen in the previous campaign and ran on a joint list with Cohen’s Beit Shemesh Returns party, instead of fielding its own mayoral candidate.
“They caught a ride on Beit Shemesh in order to discriminate against Sephardim who are not connected to their ‘Alliance of Brothers,’” Deri claimed.
Cohen criticized these comments and said that the Shas leader’s “efforts to create ethnic strife is utterly unwanted.”
“Deri should leave the city alone. He should deal with what he needs to take care of in the Knesset. There’s nothing for him here,” he said, while also pointing to his own Sephardi heritage and that of the candidates on his electoral list for city council.”
As to the needs of the city and the priorities he will set should he be elected, Cohen says that he would “put the residents back at center stage” on the list of political concerns.
“The needs of the residents, haredi and non haredi, have been ignored. Haredi children learn in caravans; the city is dirty; and the community remains dissatisfied with municipal services in general.
“We need to clean the city up, provide educational facilities for all, including special- needs children, provide cultural centers, a football field, sport facilities, and also market Beit Shemesh properly, because the city’s image has been harmed by what has happened here in the last five years.”
And he points specifically to the need to attract more businesses to Beit Shemesh, in order to drive up tax receipts for the municipality, provide job opportunities and improve the socioeconomic status of the city.
With the elections less than two weeks away, Cohen sounds bullish about his prospects and expresses a clear vision of the future he wants for Beit Shemesh.
But two large obstacles nevertheless remain in his way of achieving it. The first is the small matter of the election itself. Although the demographics still favor the non-haredi public, the extremely tight election last time around testifies to the greater ability of haredi leaders to galvanize their public and bring them to the polling stations.
The second problem, should he be elected, will be sewing the city back together once the elections are over and healing the rift between the communities.
March 11 is the fateful day for Beit Shemesh, but the city’s travails will likely persist long after that date.