“It is easier to manage Tel Aviv than Beit Shemesh,” Mayor Moshe Abutbol told
community activists from the Jerusalem suburb during a roundtable discussion on
In attendance were more than a dozen representatives of
the various religious factions present in the city, evenly split between
national religious and ultra-Orthodox, and one representative of the secular
community. The group meets once a month as an informal back channel of
communication between factions that do not always see eye to eye.
Abutbol, the incumbent from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Eli
Cohen, a traditionalist Sephardi representing what has come to be known as the
“Zionist camp,” appeared before the roundtable in consecutive meetings aimed at
presenting each of the mayoral candidates as the best qualified to bring peace
to a city torn by religious strife.
“Beit Shemesh is a microcosm of all
of Israel,” Abutbol said, citing the presence of Russians, Ethiopians, national
religious, hassidim, “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox and other groups. He described
his first term as the “hardest five years of my life.”
that in his first term, he built shopping malls and parks and put plans on the
table for a large expansion of the city, including a renewal of a residential
neighborhood in the city center and a new national religious neighborhood on the
outskirts of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef.
“We are succeeding in advancing the
city and bringing in new people,” he said.
Responding to critiques that
he has been primarily advancing the interests of the haredi community in
building the new neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimel, Abutbol was adamant
that he had “succeeded in doing a lot of things” for the general population of
the city. “Whoever says I only did [things] for haredim is mistaken.”
the other hand, he asserted that the haredim have the right to move to the city,
and that not only will they not leave, but “they will come in great numbers, and
that is their right, just as it is the right of any Jew to move
“The city is open to all, and the mayor does not involve
himself in matters of real estate [sales],” he said. He reaffirmed the city’s
need to continue growing: “We are obligated to develop this city.”
want all types here,” the mayor said, adding that secular residents of the city
are free to live as they wish in their neighborhoods.
attacks on girls attending the Orot Banot school by haredi extremists in 2011,
Abutbol defended his handling of the situation, which was heavily criticized by
the city’s national religious and secular residents as insufficient.
responded to calls for greater assertiveness in the matter by arguing that Beit
Shemesh is “not the United States” in that the police do not answer directly to
the mayor. “They aren’t my workers,” he told the activists.
declared, he did “not sit in silence” when the incident happened, but held a
press conference with representatives of the international media to explain the
In a jab aimed squarely at Cohen, a senior official at the
Mekorot water company and the former head of aliya for the Jewish Agency,
Abutbol said that “a mayor doesn’t need a college degree or a graduate degree,”
but needs to be a “straight shooter.”
Speaking after Abutbol, Cohen laid
out his plans, blaming the mayor for what he termed “fiscal mismanagement” and
for poor handling of the spiraling religious tensions among the city’s various
After laying out his plan, Cohen called out certain elements in
the ultra-Orthodox community for engaging in what he believes to be a campaign
of delegitimization against him. He specifically addressed a statement by a
senior haredi rabbi, reported in a local newspaper supportive of Abutbol, that
Cohen is not qualified to be mayor because he is secular.
that he is traditional and not secular, but insisted that any criticism of his
candidacy should be addressed at him as an individual and should not dismiss him
on the grounds of his communal affiliation.
“I am not anti-haredi,” he
said, adding that those who criticize his level of religious observance do not
know what he does or does not do and have no way of knowing.
Shemesh is a traditional city,” he said, and promised that he only wants to make
sure that all sectors, whether religious or secular, get their fair share.
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