Battle for Beit Shemesh

Opposing narratives separate ultra-Orthodox and secular in the rapidly expanding former development town.

Battle for Beit Shemesh (photo credit: FLASH 90)
Battle for Beit Shemesh
(photo credit: FLASH 90)
Even by the heated standards of Israeli politics, the country has rarely seen a campaign like the recent one for the mayor of Beit Shemesh, a small city 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem.
Incumbent Moshe Abutbul published ads employing Holocaust imagery to suggest that challenger Eli Cohen would lock haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children in concentration camps, while community rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh declared Orthodox supporters of Cohen to be “useful idiots,” and Cohen himself to be an “enemy” of the Jewish People.
But according to Rabbi Shmuel Eidensohn, principal of four Talmud Torahs (haredi elementary schools) and a resident of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef neighborhood for more than a decade, the fraught campaign was not indicative of the real face of life in Beit Shemesh. Yes, he admits the ads were extreme, but they were nothing more than the result of the “natural tensions” that accompany all election cycles. On a day-to-day basis, he says, Beit Shemesh is a sterling example of Israeli life, a place where haredi, modern Orthodox and secular Jews live together, care for one another and respect the cultural norms of other communities.
“I don’t deny that there are some extremists in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, just like there are extremists in the national religious community. But a couple of teenage hotheads absolutely do not represent the reality of day-to-day life in Beit Shemesh,” Eidensohn recalls on a rainy day in December, speaking to The Jerusalem Report several days before the Jerusalem District Court is due to rule on an appeal by the Cohen campaign. (Abutbul won the election in November. Cohen asked the court to declare the result invalid because his supporters believe the result was corrupted by false voting patterns in the haredi sector.) Eidensohn acknowledges that “some” haredi extremists have attacked non-haredi elements in the city, primarily women and little girls.
But he stresses that those people do not enjoy the support of the majority of haredim, and that they do not set the tone of life in Beit Shemesh.
“I was one of the first residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, and I can tell you that I have never, ever heard of people being spat at or shouted at, certainly not in our neighborhood.
It may make for good newspaper headlines, but it just isn’t the reality we live with in Beit Shemesh. People get along well. We shop together. National religious synagogues exist next door to haredi yeshivas, and nonprofit charity organizations serve the needs of all Beit Shemesh residents, regardless of their religious outlook or level of religious practice.
If we ignored the extremists, we would all be much happier.”
Around the corner from Eidensohn’s home, life in Beit Shemesh appears somewhat different to David Morris, a native of England who, with his wife and five children, moved to the city around the same time as Eidensohn.
Morris tells The Report that even in the initial stages of the then-emerging community, it was clear that the ultra-Orthodox elements in town would try hard to control the tenor of life there.
“Soon after we arrived, haredi men began picketing the national religious elementary school for girls on a near-daily basis,” Morris recalls. “They blew shofars and shouted at the girls. So intimidation of non-haredi elements in Beit Shemesh has been a regular part of life here since the very beginning.”Equally significant, says Morris, were his attempts to volunteer with a start-up charity organization in town soon after he moved to Beit Shemesh. As a veteran nonprofit worker (a year earlier, he had helped to set up the Yad Layadid organization in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood), he offered his services to the nascent Yad Rama organization. But he was rebuffed for one reason: He wears a knitted kippa.
“It’s true that haredi organizations provide service to anybody who walks through the door, but it’s critical to many of them that the people providing the services are haredi too,” Morris notes. “Controlling the charity organizations gives their community a certain amount of control and influence, and they weren’t willing to compromise that by having a non-haredi volunteer on staff.”
Today’s Beit Shemesh bears little resemblance to the development town that author Amos Oz described as a city of “a few stone houses, a few cinder-block houses on concrete pillars... neglected yards, dry weeds and many empty lots between the buildings.”(“In the Land of Israel”, 1983) The city today could hardly look any different.
For one thing, the population has quintupled over the past 20 years, from around 20,000 in 1993 to more than 100,000 today. To the south, construction in the primarily-Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, established in the massive southward expansion that began in the late 1990s, continues unabated; and by 2025, the city’s total population is expected to increase to 250,000. For another, there were few private cars on the streets of Beit Shemesh in the 1980s, and the bus service to the city was infrequent. Today, in contrast, a majority of the city’s residents own cars, and an efficient transportation system of buses, private and shared taxis and trains links Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Beit Shemesh's development is most clearly seen from the eastern approach to the city from Jerusalem, on the windy road leading down the Judean Hills from Moshav Nes Harim. Whereas once upon a time, the bird’s-eye view showed little more than a neglected development town amidst the sparse hills for as far as the eye could see, the area glistens today with white stone high-rise apartment buildings.
In some important ways, the growth has benefited residents of neighborhoods both old and new in Beit Shemesh. For example, Beit Shemesh municipal officials say that more than 300 residents of the original town now work as taxi drivers in and around Beit Shemesh.
But that growth has also brought with it a bevy of deep-seated tensions. Part of this can be attributed to economic disparity: From the onset, housing prices in Ramat Beit Shemesh were higher than those in the original section of town, and plans included several areas designed for wealthy Orthodox immigrants, mainly from the United States.
But it is impossible to ignore the religious tensions that plague the city too. Despite protestations by Eidensohn and ultra- Orthodox municipal officials that Beit Shemesh is a “model of Israeli heterogeneity and coexistence,” it is impossible to find a nonharedi resident anywhere in Beit Shemesh who agrees with that statement. Old-timers here say the city has been “stolen” from them; more recent arrivals say a delicate balance has been breached in recent years, resulting in tensions throughout the city.
“For most of the time we’ve lived here, there were clearly defined neighborhoods – haredi residents here, knitted kippa wearers there, seculars over there,” say Yehuda and Yal Kossowsky, married 18-year residents of the national religious Nofei Aviv section of old Beit Shemesh.
“That separation allowed people to come together outside their residential neighborhoods, giving the city a nice, heterogeneous feel, while at the same time affording each group the space it needed to define its social mores and customs closer to home,” Yal notes to The Report.
“But about five years ago,” she continues, “groups of ultra-Orthodox began buying up entire apartment blocks in non-haredi areas.
The day after they moved in, they put up signs warning women not to enter the area in ‘inappropriate’ dress. Coming out of Nofei Aviv I’ve had my car stoned. And a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a crosswalk to let a couple of haredi boys cross the road. They ‘thanked’ me by spitting at the car and callingme a shiksa.”
Despite these stories, haredi officials in the Beit Shemesh Municipality insist that the negative stereotypes of the city are little more than an attempt by biased media outlets to cash in on anti-haredi sentiment in the country. They claim the incessant images in print and broadcast media of a violent, tensionfilled city are the result of an attitude that has determined the haredi world to be a “threat” and has embarked on a quest to demonize the ultra-Orthodox.
“The media has a clear agenda; they don’t even hide it – to show how ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards’ ultra-Orthodox are,” says municipal spokesman Matti Rosenzweig, a senior aide to Mayor Abutbul.
“I’ll give you an example,” he continues.
“Two weeks ago, Channel 2 aired a documentary about haredi attempts to intimidate secular Israelis around the country, in towns like Arad, Afula, Ashdod, Tiberias and Beit Shemesh. The report showed residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet throwing an egg at the reporters. But what the report somehow forgot to mention was that they were here for two full days before that attack. They didn’t get anything ‘good’ for their documentary, so they came back the next day with the female reporter in a skimpy top and wandered into a haredi neighborhood.
“Even then, it took hours – hours! – until someone threw an egg and shouted at them.
So they went, tried to be as provocative as possible, but instead of reporting the reality as it was for most of the time they were here, they cut out the 30 seconds of film that suited their needs and that’s all the viewers saw,” Rosenzweig asserts.
In contrast to the views of every non-haredi individual interviewed for this story, all of whom expressed strong views that incumbent Mayor Abutbul has abandoned old Beit Shemesh in favor of building and providing services for haredi neighborhoods in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rosenzweig says the facts of Abutbul’s tenure clearly show him to have focused on a variety of projects to benefit all residents of the city – haredi and non-haredi alike.
To support his claim, Rosenzweig reels off a list of accomplishments, including several infrastructure projects: Construction is now underway to repair Route 38, the main access route to Beit Shemesh from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and one of the country’s most dangerous stretches of road; and work is being done too on Route 3855, a poorly constructed service road running along the eastern border of Beit Shemesh that has been the site of several horrific traffic accidents.
The latter example is a particular example of Abutbul’s leadership, Rosenzweig claims.
Because the road is located on the border between the city of Beit Shemesh and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, the two jurisdictions had argued for years about which council was responsible for financing its upkeep. To solve the issue of a road that is used daily by thousands of Beit Shemesh residents, Abutbul agreed to shoulder the costs for the reconstructed road.
Rosenzweig points to other examples of the mayor’s attention to general Beit Shemesh issues: Abutbul’s term in office has seen the city receive a good governance award from the Finance and Interior ministries, he notes; and Beit Shemesh is now home to two new malls.
Furthermore, he says, construction has started on a 32-million-shekel municipal arts center and a third mall is also under construction.
None of these, Rosenzweig points out, is exactly a stronghold of the haredi population.
Most importantly, both haredi residents and officials insist they are not trying to “take over” Beit Shemesh. “We came to Beit Shemesh precisely because it wasn’t Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim,” says haredi Dr. Efraim Rosenbaum, a native of Boston who has lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh for 11 years. “Yes, we wanted to live in an observant community with a wide range of educational options for our children, and we certainly got that here. But we also wanted to live amongst a good mix of people – native Israelis, new immigrants, Sephardis, Ashkenazis and secular Israelis. That’s what Beit Shemesh is, and I don’t think there are many people here who would want to change that reality.”
On the surface, Rosenbaum appears to be correct. Walking around old Beit Shemesh on an overcast Monday in mid-December, one gets the impression of a vibrant microcosm of Israeli society. At the sparkling new Na’imi Mall, which also houses the Beit Shemesh Municipality while the city council makes plans to build a new city hall, ultra-Orthodox men with hats and long coats mix easily with secular women in short skirts with tight leggings. Down the hill to the north, the same is true on the platform of the Beit Shemesh train station, and to a lesser degree at the Big Fashion mall adjacent to the train station.
Even in the heart of old Beit Shemesh – the modest shopping center that appears to date back to about 1970 – it is hard to see where tensions might erupt with the ultra-Orthodox population. To the unknowing visitor, Ramat Beit Shemesh could be light years away, as secular teenagers enjoy their lunch break, and there is nary a black hat or haredi-dressed woman to be seen.
But in private conversation, secular locals say they certainly feel the haredi influence on the city directly impacts their lives in a variety of ways. They are angry – and not merely due to the fact that the only housing built in Beit Shemesh since the turn of the century has been in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Shop owners are frustrated that they pay 2,000 shekels in city taxes per month (including homes and store fronts), only to see a large percentage of haredi residents receive exemptions from paying tax at all because they are too poor.(According to Rosenzweig, fewer than 10 percent of haredi residents in Beit Shemesh receive tax exemptions.)
Even Rosenzweig’s claim that the municipality is seeking alternative sites for the Beit Shemesh Arts Center is seen as little more than a weak attempt by municipal officials to deflect criticism from angrysecular residents.
“The theater isn’t happening for one reason only: The ultra-Orthodox didn’t want it,” says one shop owner who has lived in Beit Shemesh since making aliya from Tunisia with his family in 1962 and asks to remain anonymous. “That’s why there isn’t a movie theater in the Big center; it’s why there isn’t a swimming pool here – and many other things as well. Buses that go from here to Ramat Beit Shemesh are totally segregated, even in our part of town. If you try to sit with your wife, in the best-case scenario the driver will simply refuse to move the bus. And that’s if you’re lucky: The ultra-Orthodox have certainly been known to get violent.”
The shop owner also challenges Rosenbaum’s declaration that the ultra- Orthodox are not looking to “take over” secular parts of the city. He says there was at least one attempt by a haredi group to take over a parking lot adjacent to the old shopping center to turn it into a yeshiva. “That’s all it would take – they’d make a yeshiva here, and a year later they’d start buying up all the property here, and before you know it, that’s the end of this section of Beit Shemesh,” he says.
Also unnerving was the experience of the owner of a clothing store, who began to feel the impact of Abutbul’s mayoralty almost immediately: About a month after Abutbul was elected in mid-2008, she says, a young woman entered her store to try on a dress she had seen in the window. Without the correct size inside the store, she took the dress off the mannequin in the window, handed it to the woman, and left the unclothed mannequin in the window front in order to deal with her customers.
Less than an hour later, she was astounded when a haredi city inspector arrived at her shop with a polite, yet firm, request: If she wouldn’t mind, could she please either put some clothes on the mannequin, or take it out of the window? City Hall had received some complaints.
“I was absolutely in shock,” recalls the clothes store owner, who asks to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want to “mix it up” with City Hall. “It was a doll, for crying out loud. Has their society really regressed that far that they see a mannequin as a sexual object?” Significantly, both store owners agreed to speak to The Report on condition of anonymity out of fear of potential retribution by City Hall for speaking to the media.
But the owner of the clothing store says the incident is made more upsetting because she believes it indicates the institutionalization of ultra-Orthodox norms at the Beit Shemesh Municipality and worries it could be an indication of a first step towards the imposition of haredi cultural norms on the city’s stronghold of Sephardi families, many of whom are traditional or even observant, but decidedly not haredi.
“I have no problem at all with the ultra- Orthodox,” she says. “I have tremendous respect for their values and convictions. But I don’t choose to live that way, and I don’t want to feel like I have to live that way. They should have the freedom to live the lives they want to.
But I don’t want them to impose that on me.”
Despite Rosenbaum’s insistence that haredi communities are not seeking to “take over” Beit Shemesh, residents will be focused on the Jerusalem District Court’s imminent decision either to validate Abutbul’s election victory, or to call new elections, probably sometime before Passover.
But in Beit Shemesh, the decision is not likely to change much. Haredi religious leaders seem unwilling to use their authority to rein in extremist behavior, municipal officials are unlikely to deal with an issue that they say doesn’t exist at all, and secular residents say they will continue their fight to build their city.
“You’ve got to understand, there is a reason that we non-haredim are fighting for Beit Shemesh, and that is that regular day-to-day life here is terrific for everybody – the haredi, modern Orthodox and secular Israelis alike,” says David Morris. “Yes, the flare-ups that occur when groups with competing values clash over territory are very often painful, so it all creates a very mixed picture. But you can’t deny that Beit Shemesh is a terrific place to live and to raise children. That’s why nobody is throwing in the towel.”