Beit Shemesh mayor Abutbol: ‘It is easier to manage Tel Aviv than this town’

In upcoming city election Abutbol representing Shas is facing off against Eli Cohen a traditionalist Sephardi.

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September 23, 2013 04:15
3 minute read.
HAREDIM STAND on a sidewalk in Ramat Beit Shemesh

haredim in beit shemesh. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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“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 Saturday evening.

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.

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Both 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.”

Abutbol boasted 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.”



On 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 anywhere.”

“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.”

“We want all types here,” the mayor said, adding that secular residents of the city are free to live as they wish in their neighborhoods.

Addressing the 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.

He 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.

Moreover, he 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 situation.

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 sects.

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.

Cohen stated 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.

“Beit 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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