There has been much strife in Beit Shemesh between the extreme-ultra- Orthodox community and virtually everyone else. Matters are set to reach a boiling point on Tuesday, when the mayoral revote takes place.
Its haredi mayor over the past five years, Moshe Abutbul of Shas, has seen much of the conflict happen on his watch.
The municipal elections in October saw a zenith in the arguments and divisions about the future of the city, in a bitterly contested battle between Abutbul and his rival, Eli Cohen, who ran at the head of the Beit Shemesh is Returning party.
Although Abutbul emerged victorious by some 956 votes, authorities discovered systemic voter fraud by haredi activists who tried to skew the election in favor of Abutbul. That evidence compelled the Jerusalem District Court – and later the Supreme Court – to cancel the results and call for a new vote.
Emotions are once again reaching their peak, and Abutbul and Cohen are again vying vociferously for every vote they can get.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post last week, Abutbul argued that despite the accusations of his detractors, he has tried to work for all sectors of Beit Shemesh’s population in terms of housing construction and municipal services.
He argued that the responsibility for divisive rhetoric in the city did not fall on one side alone and that battles waged by national politicians were to blame as well.
The recent elections in Beit Shemesh have generated harsh tones and bitter feelings.
The rhetoric from the haredi side against Cohen and his political allies, both local and national, has been especially incendiary.
In the past two weeks, anonymous signs have gone up in haredi neighborhoods exhorting voters to “gather together and fight for their lives.” This phrase, taken from a verse in the Book of Esther when the Jewish people was forced to fight against a planned genocide, was used to describe the possible fate of the haredi community should it not come out to vote for Abutbul.
And the mayor’s campaign has used inflammatory slogans in official campaign posters. One such poster that outraged many called on women to recite psalms for the reelection of Abutbul and depicted two haredi children behind barbed wire.
A slogan on campaign materials has Abutbul’s name on a yellow voting slip alongside the words “The Jewish answer to Lapid-Bennett and Eli Cohen.”
Abutbul shrugged off criticism of these negative campaign tactics and said the slogan was directed toward Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett because they were unnecessarily bringing national politics and the debate surrounding haredi conscription and participation in the workforce to Beit Shemesh.
“We’re talking about who will make Beit Shemesh more religious, and who will respect everyone,” said Abutbul.
“If they don’t want a religious war, why did Bennett come here and start speaking about haredim, and getting them into the workforce,” he asked, referring to a recent rally held by Cohen in which Bennett, and other national politicians, took part.
“If he [Cohen] wants to bring these arguments here then we know how to answer him.”
While Abutbul admitted that the posters quoting the Book of Esther were “a bit harsh,” he maintained that Cohen campaign posters where he vowed to “wage war on the extremists” were equally problematic and that he was compelled to respond in kind.
“What we need to think about is who will clean the city, who will bring playgrounds and shopping centers, and large municipal budgets,” said Abutbul, citing his achievements during his five-year term.
“Those who are destroying efforts to bring people to this city are those people who insist on making a huge noise about Beit Shemesh. Yes, it is the extremists, but it is also those who are generate the media noise around incidents here,” he claimed.
“It’s clear to me that they want to get rid of me only because I am haredi,” he said.
The mayor is still clearly angry with the Jerusalem District Court and Supreme Court’s decision to annul the October election results, said the courts had not sufficiently investigated the matter.
“There was an effort to get rid of a mayor without any reason, because everyone has benefited from the development that has happened here during my term. We have respected everyone and helped everyone. I have distributed stipends to higher education students for BA and MA degrees, we’re distributing computers to every teacher and to every pupil, and we’re undertaking really fantastic, amazing projects that never occurred in Beit Shemesh before now,” Abutbul said.
In talking about efforts to get out the vote on the haredi side, the mayor said his campaign team is making strenuous efforts, going house to house to drum up support and increase voter turnout.
He denied, however, that he has turned to the anti-Zionist radicals in the city, who may number several thousands eligible voters, but who do not vote on ideological grounds, to turn out on polling day and cast their ballots for him.
Abutbul has a notable adviser, Yaakov Kopshitz, from the hard-line anti-Zionist Eda Haredit community; he said that his advisers fulfill an advisory role and are not designated to bring in votes.
One of the central complaints from non-haredi activists is that the large planned new neighborhoods, including Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 1, which is almost complete, as well as Gimmel 2, Dalet and Hey, which are in the planning stages, have been planned and designed for haredi communities alone.
According to anti-Abutbul campaigners, the layout and planning will force non-haredi sectors to find housing outside of Beit Shemesh.
Specifically, they claim that the new neighborhoods are zoned for large numbers of small synagogues, fitting haredi requirements where each individual community prays alone, instead of building larger synagogues preferred by modern-Orthodox and traditional Jews.
Additionally, closely constructed apartment buildings, a lack of green and open spaces, and zoning for large numbers of educational institutions to accommodate the different communities and the separation of the sexes, all indicate that these neighborhoods will cater to the haredi community.
Abutbul denied such claims and said he has built for all population sectors, citing developments for several neighborhoods designated for the national-religious community, as well as a housing reconstruction project in Old Beit Shemesh.
However, non-haredi activists claim that these developments are very small in comparison to the new neighborhoods being constructed, amounting to just 500 housing units out of the 11,000 planned.
Abutbul also insisted that plans for the new neighborhoods include parks, playgrounds and the requisite municipal amenities for leisure and cultural activities. “We have not built a new Mea She’arim here,” he quipped.
The mayor’s opponents again say that such claims are exaggerated.
Abutbul insists that “market forces” are responsible for the influx of haredi families and communities into Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 1.
“Whoever sits down with the contractors to organize a group purchase can come and live, like in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef where there are national- religious, haredi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, communities living together like a microcosm of the whole country,” he said.
“But you need to arrange the money for the contractors, so if 100 families, for instance, come who want to live in an area, they can go to the contractor who won a tender from the Housing Ministry and sit with him and tell him what they want.
“People who want to come and do business like this are welcome. People who came and made deals with those contractors succeeded. I know of one Sephardi yeshiva dean who wanted to bring his students here, so he went to the contractor, agreed on a number of apartments, and now the yeshiva is moving there. If people didn’t come and organize these arrangements, then that’s their problem,” he said.
Abutbul insisted that the tenders for construction are made public by the Housing Ministry and it is up to it and whoever approaches it with a proposal to determine what kind of housing units to build.
But campaigners say this is an illegitimate model for city construction.
They argue that the city council, not the market, should determine neighborhood construction needs, and it should cater to all sectors of the population.
Additionally, they argue, the model for buying in large groups is one that fits the haredi community but is not feasible for others.
To support his claim that he is a mayor for all residents, Abutbul said he plans to construct a broad municipal coalition from all the city’s political factions, including Cohen’s Beit Shemesh is Returning party, and will embark on a re-branding campaign for the city to address the negative press it has suffered in recent years.
For whoever wins the upcoming election it is certain that this, and the broader and more difficult task of maintaining the cohesion of Beit Shemesh, will be a tough and challenging proposition.
It will be the voters who turn out on this Tuesday, as well as those who do not, who will ultimately decide the city’s future.