Lipman vs the mayor

Dov Lipman was catapulted to national prominence on the back of Beit Shemesh’s sectarian violence. Now he has started a new political party to unify the disparate ethnic groups in the city.

Dov Lipman at Beit Shemesh 521 (photo credit: Michael Lipkin)
Dov Lipman at Beit Shemesh 521
(photo credit: Michael Lipkin)
In 2011, the entire world descended on Beit Shemesh as a drama played out on the border between two neighborhoods, one populated by the national-religious and the other by haredim.
As the world watched, extremist elements from within the ultra-Orthodox community called the Sicarii spat on, yelled at and harassed young girls attending a newly built religious school on the seam between the two neighborhoods. The violence in Beit Shemesh was quickly seized upon by the media as emblematic of the hot-button issue of haredi gender discrimination and religious coercion, causing a local spat to become a national, even international, issue.
One of the major players in this controversy was American-born rabbi and community activist Dov Lipman. Coming from a haredi background himself, Lipman campaigned for the rights of national-religious and secular Jews, as well as for the positions of moderate haredim, in the face of the attacks by the extremists.
Being at once an idealist and a relentless self-promoter, he used his experiences in Beit Shemesh and the resultant media coverage to his advantage. Joining the nascent Am Shalem party of renegade Shas MK Haim Amsalem, Lipman entered national politics as the party director for Anglo affairs.
Now a newspaper columnist and much sought after talking head, Lipman, who recently left the Am Shalem party, has entered into a new project, a political party to unite the disparate social and ethnic groups in Beit Shemesh against Mayor Moshe Abutbol of Shas.
Abutbol is increasingly unpopular among both secular and religious Beit Shemesh residents for his handling of last year’s violence, and Lipman believes that he can capitalize on this widespread antipathy to marshal support for his new party, Shemesh Hadasha.
Beit Shemesh comprises several ethnic and religious groups, including sizable populations of Moroccans, Russians, Ethiopians, Americans, Frenchmen and haredim.
Among the activists and communal leaders that Lipman has recruited to his new party are Emanuel Hadane and Tatiana Iluz. Hadane, like the other members of Shemesh Hadasha leadership, is not a professional politician. An attorney and businessman, he is one of the leaders of the city’s Ethiopian community and the brother of Israel’s Ethiopian Chief Rabbi Yosef Hadane, and has been active for years on behalf of his community. Iluz, a Russian immigrant, is a banker and activist who is well regarded among the city’s sizable Russian-speaking community, and recently worked to prevent the mayor from closing down a secular school in the city.
Joining this group are Ra’anan Amsalem, a representative of the mostly traditional and Moroccan “old Beit Shemesh,” and Alisa Coleman, a British immigrant and personal trainer who got involved in communal issues during last year’s dustups.
Speaking from his home in an exclusive interview to announce the formation of his party, Lipman stated that he has no intention of running for mayor during the fall 2013 municipal elections, and that Shemesh Hadasha is currently “not officially running a mayoral candidate.
“We want to look at all the options,” he says. “If we see somebody we feel is worthy for it, we will throw our weight behind that person. If not, then maybe at some point we have to consider it – but it’s not our plan.”
What he wants, he says, is to dislodge the haredi Degel Hatorah faction from its position of influence on the city council. “We want to be the movers and shakers on the council. Right now Degel Hatorah [of] United Torah Judaism has five seats [out of 19]. We are looking beyond that.”
The issue bringing together the various factions that he hopes will be united by his party, Lipman continues, is that of citizens taking back their city from a professional political class that he believes is only out for itself. Both Labor and Likud, he says, as well as Shas, have ruled for the advantage of their politicians rather than considering the good of the entire city.
“Citizens have been watching this happen and have become very cynical, not about making the city better, but about the leadership – and Israel is notorious for recycling leaders. The same names over and over again. The same names are involved in the political system here and a group of concerned citizens from across the spectrum have come together and have said we are not going to sit back and hope that these leaders who have been in the system all along are going to save us and make things better. We, as citizens, without specific political aspirations, without specific self-interests except that we want to make our city better, have united together and we are going to try and be the moving force in the city council in the next term.”
While extremely critical of Abutbol, Lipman is careful to put his criticisms in context. “The problems in Beit Shemesh go back before even the haredi mayor [who was elected in November 2008]. There is a culture going back at least 20 years of corruption, of self-interests, of people who are not in public office because their main goal is not to make their city better, but [rather] to make themselves better,” he complains. “The current mayor is not responsible for all the problems that are in Beit Shemesh.
He is not responsible for the extremists, all the lack of planning in Beit Shemesh. He is responsible for continuing a lot of the problems that previous leadership were interested in.”
These problems, he continues, include ignoring proper city planning and turning a blind eye to illegal construction and the regular presence of illegal workers from the West Bank.
The specific makeup of the party’s electoral list is still to be determined, he says, saying “We will figure that out” later. The party leaders “are not people who, if the final decision is ‘I’m No. 3, I’m No. 4,’ that they don’t feel that they are being smacked in the face.”
Among his party’s planks are a push for better education, including more schools for both the haredi and secular populations; more recreational facilities, including parks, bowling alleys and youth clubs for the city’s children; and better urban planning.
One issue that has come up since the influx of haredi Jews into the city, Lipman says, and that he pledges to deal with, is the rabbinic opposition to the opening of recreational facilities.
This goes hand in hand with what Lipman sees as a critical issue for Beit Shemesh: the lack of infrastructure to support all of the new residents who will be entering the city under the mayor’s building plans. When Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel is completed, Lipman says, there will be a severe lack of infrastructure.
This, he says, is due to haredi politicians wanting to make a name for themselves as able to obtain housing for their constituents, but not caring about ensuring that the new neighborhoods are adequately provided for.
Coleman, sitting next to Lipman, speaks up, saying that there is another issue that the citizens of Beit Shemesh wish to see dealt with, that of religious extremism and the municipality’s alleged capitulation.
“Why has Beit Shemesh become the focus of news?” Coleman asks. “Because it has given in to the extremists.
For them it’s okay for signs to be up telling women how to dress. It’s not okay and its illegal and they should be taken down. I have a lot of friends who don’t want to go to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet because they are scared of these crazies.”
Abutbol promised security cameras, she concludes, explaining her decision to seek to unseat him. “Where are they?”