There is a certain calm after the storm of the Beit Shemesh municipal election which produced perhaps the upset of the entire country when two-term incumbent haredi mayor Moshe Abutbul was ousted by his challenger from the religious-Zionist community, Aliza Bloch.
Election paraphernalia can still be seen strewn around the city – bedraggled posters of candidates still cling to some walls, while bright yellow bunting hung across the streets of a radical neighborhood still waves their message in the wind that “the holy Torah forbids participation in elections.”
Despite this rather dire warning, some 43,000 residents of the city, just under 50% of whom were haredi (ultra-Orthodox), still turned out to vote – and turned the politics of the troubled city on its head by electing Bloch as mayor.
Driven by internecine political and social struggles in recent years between the haredi and non-haredi communities, many now hope that Bloch will be able to allay the fears of the now minority non-haredi population and provide better management for a city which has been battered by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Without a doubt, the key factor and most notable aspect of the elections in Beit Shemesh was that several thousand haredi voters
, as many as 4,000, voted for Bloch, while many who had voted for Abutbul in 2013 stayed at home.
In recent years, the city has become mostly haredi, with, according to some activists, 8,000 more haredi voters than non-haredi.
As such, it was vital for Bloch to attract some haredi voters, without whom she would simply not have been able to pull off her surprising victory.
Data for votes cast in individual polling booths is still not available, but the mixed haredi and religious-Zionist neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef has a bit of the diversity which in part helped topple Abutbul.
Mainstream haredi families alongside more modern ones, including those from the US and UK, rub shoulders with religious-Zionist neighbors, many of whom are also from Anglo countries.
SPEAKING TO passers-by on Thursday, a definite sense of dissatisfaction could be felt with the way the city has been run, even among those who had voted for Abutbul.
One young haredi woman, Hami, said she had voted for the incumbent mayor because she “listens to the voices of the rabbis,” a reference to the instructions of the leading haredi rabbis during elections to vote for the haredi political parties and their candidates.
“He is also the devil, I know; I know who he is and what he is, and I don’t know who Aliza is or what she has been,” she said.
Asked whether or not she is satisfied with the way the city is run, she said “there are things which need to be improved,” pointing in particular to “behavior in the municipal authority” which she said is “full of workers who don’t do their jobs.”
“The city could be [further] developed in all aspects, culturally, aesthetically,” she continued, but said Abutbul had done things “which no one else before him had done.”
Asked, however, if her children’s kindergartens were in buildings or prefabricated “caravillas,” a common problem in the city, she acknowledged that they were indeed in the prefabricated structures, which she said bothered her but was something she had become accustomed to.
When she was asked about haredi residents who voted for Abutbul, Hami said that everyone has their own path, but noted that in recent years, a characteristic of haredi society has been “breaking through boundaries” in which “people don’t automatically listen to what their told, but develop their own opinion,” which she said was “not necessarily a bad thing.”
Perhaps one such person was Miriam, not her real name, who said she and her husband are very much in the mainstream of haredi society, but had deliberately not gone to vote because they were disappointed with Abutbul.
Miriam, who was wearing a wig to cover her hair and whose husband studies full-time in yeshiva, said that they had both voted for Abutbul in the 2013 elections and the 2014 repeat elections, but were very dissatisfied with the current state of the city.
She listed a litany of complaints against the mayor and the municipal council, saying that no one is looking after delinquent youth in the city, and noting that she and her husband donate to an individual trying by himself to help such youths. She also complained about poor practice relating to construction in the city and adherence to building regulations, railed against the lack of adequate rubbish collection and said that there was “no school anywhere which is accessible for disabled children.”
Despite her clear dissatisfaction with the former municipal administration, she had still “not felt comfortable” voting for Bloch, but said that staying home and not voting was “a type of vote as well.”
INDEED IT WAS, and political activists in the city believe that the many residents who voted in 2014 for Abutbul but who did not turn up to vote this time were also critical in his narrow defeat.
Asked why she had not voted for Abutbul when all the leading haredi rabbis had issued instructions to go and vote for him, she expressed surprising skepticism toward the actual instructions and knowledge of the rabbis who constitute the only real legitimacy for the haredi political parties.
“Did you hear them say, ‘vote for Abutbul?’ I didn’t,” she said forcefully, noting that the rabbis do not say in person and in public to vote for any candidate, but that only statements in the haredi newspapers and public notices in their names actually bear instructions of who to vote for.
Even if they did indeed issue such instructions, Miriam questioned the information the rabbis are provided with by their coterie of assistants and advisers, and implied that they were not aware of the real problems facing people in the city.
“Anyway, doing what a public notice says is not the way of the Torah. Finding the truth, deciding for yourself: that is the path of the Torah,” she insisted.
The dissatisfaction in the city is clearly apparent from a not inconsiderable number of haredi Beit Shemesh residents, even if many of them did not feel able to vote against their sectoral, cultural and religious principles.
What is clear, however, is that the haredi vote, especially among the younger generations, can no longer be taken for granted by the haredi rabbinic leadership and moreover by the community’s political leaders.
It appears that the rabbis’ commands, and the imprecations uttered by the political leadership for failure to adhere to those commands, have lost something of their aura in the 2018 Beit Shemesh municipal election.
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