With mayoral candidates, rabbis and politicians filling the airwaves with declarations and exhortations about the critical importance of the Beit Shemesh repeat elections, the residents of this storm-tossed city came out to vote in droves.
Record numbers turned out for one of the most fiercely and bitterly contested municipal elections in the country’s history, between haredi (ultra-Orthodox) incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul of Shas and his challenger Eli Cohen of the local Beit Shemesh is Returning party.
The tone of the rhetoric coming from haredi and non-haredi voters alike reflected the divisions and the arguments that had taken hold of the city.
“I’m voting and campaigning for Eli Cohen because he will treat everyone the same here,” said Gavriel Haluf, a volunteer for the Cohen campaign and a resident of Old Beit Shemesh.
Haluf focused on the critical issue of housing construction and decried Abutbul for failing to provide sufficient homes for the non-haredi sector.
“They’re only building for the haredim – in [the new and planned neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh] Gimmel, Dalet and Hey it’s all for haredim,” Haluf claimed. “Members of my family just can’t find anywhere to live and grow here.”
He also complained that Old Beit Shemesh had been neglected in terms of municipal amenities and the municipal tax breaks that many haredim receive, in Beit Shemesh as well as across the country.
David, a haredi activist for Abutbul, said a “war of religion” was being waged against the haredi community.
“Anyone with a head on their shoulders knows that the courts, the media and other state institutions have gotten together to fight against the haredi community in Beit Shemesh,” he said. “They don’t like that we have developed our community here and are doing so well, so they took a few fraudulent votes and created this situation of repeat elections.”
Shimon, a Belz hassid from the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, said that non-haredi residents had been subjected to incitement against the haredi community.
“They think we have something against them, that we want to take the city away from them, but this isn’t the case,” he said.
“We want to live here in peace, without arguments.
Maybe there is a small group of extremists, but in principle they too just want to be left alone. The idea that we threaten the non-haredi community comes from those with political interests,” said Shimon, pointing a finger at Cohen and his political supporters.
Shimon, like Haluf, complained of neglect in the municipal services provided in his neighborhood, saying that the non-haredi parts of the city were much more developed than the haredi areas.
He noted that the broader national picture, in which the haredi community feels its way of life is under siege, was influencing the atmosphere in the city.
“With everything that is going on, in particular with the actions of Yesh Atid [which has been pushing for universal conscription into military or national service], we feel like we need to save ourselves. This is why we are coming out in such high numbers to vote. But at the end of everything, we also want peace and love to take root here.”
Yael Strenger, 18, who was voting in the non-haredi side of town, said the repeat elections were critical because of the importance of the rule of law, and that the mayor must be elected in a just and legitimate manner.
But she also pointed to the issue of housing as a symbol of the wider problems in Beit Shemesh.
“The discrimination against the non-haredi sector in the city in terms of housing isn’t just, and there’s less room for members of the national-religious community to move in,” she said.
Strenger added, however, that despite negative sentiment in the city, there were points of positive relations between the haredi and non-haredi community.
She said she takes part in a dance workshop with haredi women, and that many people simply wanted to be able to live according to their own lifestyle without interfering with each other.