Beit Shemesh elections show limit of haredi rabbinic power

The mayoral election in the city is, at press time, very delicately balanced between incumbent haredi mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) and his religious-Zionist challenger Aliza Bloch.

Aliza Bloch 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aliza Bloch 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It seems that there is a limit to rabbinical influence and perhaps even an erosion of their authority, if what has happened in Beit Shemesh in the municipal election can be used as a barometer of such things.
Aliza Bloch, a religious-Zionist former school principal, defeated incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul by a razor-thin majority of just over 500 votes, and with the apparent backing of several thousand haredi votes in a city which has been deeply divided on communal lines between the haredi and non-haredi communities.
And it appears that there are many more who, despite the instructions of the rabbis to go out and vote for Abutbul, either stayed at home or voted only for the municipal council and not for mayor.
This phenomenon is somewhat surprising and almost unprecedented given that the incumbent mayor was endorsed by the entire spectrum of haredi rabbinic leaders, Sephardi, non-hassidic, and hassidic alike.
Political activists in the city are pointing in particular to the Ramat Beit Shemsh Gimmel neighborhood, which is overwhelmingly haredi but populated with large numbers of working haredim, for the source of this failure to adhere to the instructions of the rabbinic leadership.
The neighborhood is very new, but lacks communal infrastructure including synagogues, mikvas (ritual baths) kindergartens, schools, and bus lines, which has upset many residents, especially given the financial investment they put into their properties.
Although polling booth data is not yet available, it is possible that Abutbul’s fragile lead/defeat was in part due to a protest vote by these residents against his poor management and planning of this neighborhood.
In addition, corruption allegations, reports of rampant nepotism, and poor financial management within the municipal council have meant that many other haredim in other Beit Shemesh neighborhoods have grown weary of the Abutbul administration.
In addition, non-haredi voters for Abutbul in Beit Shemesh’s Old City seem to have deserted him in large numbers having given him significant backing in 2013.
According to one activist many hundreds of haredim voted for Bloch, while Bloch’s adviser for the haredi community Yaakov Amar said that as many as 4,000 haredim could have voted for her, which would amount to a staggering 10 percent of all votes cast in the city.
What explains the apparent fact that many haredim in Beit Shemesh defied the instructions of the leading haredi rabbis, especially when considering that in all other major cities the haredi community largely adhered to their instructions?
It seems that the limit of rabbinical power may be the hard reality of sincere, real-life difficulties of people leading normal lives who also happen to be haredi.
When such people weigh up the instructions of rabbis to vote for an ineffective mayor who has had a detrimental affect on their lives, against their desire for normative, effective and uncorrupt municipal administration it appears that many have elected for the latter.
Such people are less dependent on the rabbis and the various forms of financial support the haredi parties guarantee for those not in work, and have more of a stake-hold in their city if they own their property, as many in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel do.
A similar phenomenon could be the failed battle of the haredi rabbinic leadership against the internet and smartphones.
At first an all out war was waged against these developments, but the inescapable necessity of electronic communications in today’s world meant that the rabbis could not hold back their flock from going online and obtaining smartphones.
Reality confronted rabbinic authority and the latter lost.
Why then did haredim in so many other cities vote in accordance with what their rabbis told them, such as in Haifa where Degel Hatorah and its rabbis even backed a woman, Einat Kalisch Rotem.
Largely, it would seem, because the issues in most other cities are far less immediate, or there is no experience of mismanagement by the candidate endorsed by the rabbinic leadership.
When the issues are whether or not shops and restaurants open in non-haredi neighborhoods, or if, as in a mixed city like Jerusalem run by a non-haredi mayor, haredi residents feel discriminated against in mixed neighborhoods, then it is a much easier choice to vote for the rabbinically endorsed candidate.
So what has happened in Beit Shemesh does not presage any massive rebellion against the authority of the haredi leadership; it is still alive and well.
But it does show the limits of this power, in particular when sectors of the haredi population who are more integrated into Israeli life, and in particular the work force, are involved.