Living in Beit Shemesh post-elections

This suburban city’s woes are a microcosm of the country’s social issues.

Mayor Moshe Abutbul on the day of the revote (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Moshe Abutbul on the day of the revote
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Things have largely calmed down in Beit Shemesh.
After months of rising tensions, culminating in screaming matches in the streets, a fraudulent election and bitterly contested revote, and dueling propaganda campaigns, the city is quiet... for the most part.
During the height of the campaign season, which mostly pitted the “Zionist bloc” of secular and national-religious residents against the city’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community, tempers flared, signs and flyers declared political opponents wicked enemies of God, and residents were called Nazis in the streets.
Over the past several years, anger has been steadily growing at Mayor Moshe Abutbul and his backers over what many there perceive to be unequal housing development aimed at making Beit Shemesh a haredi city, and the authorities’ inability to bring local Sicarii extremists to heel.
Anger over the harassment of women joggers, spitting on schoolgirls, rock-throwing, garbage-burning and other manifestations of terror on the part of the extremists – as well as the concomitant lack of condemnation by many ultra-Orthodox leaders and neighborhood rabbis – boiled over into one of the bitterest campaigns in the city’s recent memory.
Abutbul and his supporters fought back, calling challenger Eli Cohen – a former top official at the Jewish Agency and a traditional Jew – an enemy of religion and a wicked man seeking to destroy Judaism in the city. In return, Cohen let fly barbs that Abutbul was in bed with the extremists and was seeking to turn the city’s largely peaceful ultra-Orthodox community against their coreligionists into a holy war.
After the courts ordered the balloting to take place again in response to fraudulent voting practices among some Abutbul supporters, things really got ugly. The two campaigns have begun to blur in my head, so I cannot, off the cuff, recall which of the following incidents occurred during the first campaign and which during the second, but at this point, that is immaterial.
The Abutbul campaign distributed a flyer falsely claiming the endorsement of leading national-religious rabbis.
Abutbul supporters called friends of mine “Nazis.”
A haredi youngster spat at me and screamed that since I appeared national- religious, I must be voting for Cohen.
A giant banner accusing Cohen of being Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s puppet went up around town.
One community rabbi wrote in a local newspaper that anyone who did not vote for Abutbul was a “useful idiot” who had no intelligence and did not display the requisite gratitude.
Political signs were torn down around town, even on Shabbat.
Haredi residents claimed that the first election was stolen from them and that there would have been no revote had the winner not been haredi.
There was a great deal of resentment and bitterness. The haredim are rapidly expanding their presence there, and they believe that their legitimate right to grow into a plurality and elect their own candidate has been challenged.
However, on a day-to-day basis, people do get along in Beit Shemesh, and the tensions of the election seem to have receded into an increasingly distant memory since Abutbul’s second win.
That is not to say that things are perfect. Many of my national-religious friends are looking to move, and several have already left.
People are tired.
But despite the private bitterness and public harmony, Beit Shemesh is not as black and white as many would imagine.
During one riot in my neighborhood organized by the extremists last year, local members of the ultra-Orthodox community screamed at them to leave, challenging them as regressive fundamentalists.
“I have a smartphone and am impure!” one yelled, holding his Galaxy S3 aloft. “Get away from me!” “I served in the army!” another haredi man screamed. “Get out of here.”
Things aren’t simple, and I have wonderful relationships with most of my neighbors, haredi and otherwise.
That being said, the fundamental issues that have divided the city remain and will continue to get worse.
Building disparity remains a hot-button issue, and so do the Sicarii.
Walla recently reported that a number of extremists affiliated with a local “modesty squad” destroyed the interior of a synagogue because they disapproved of teenagers on the fringes of the haredi community using the building as a sort of clubhouse, watching movies on laptops and using banned smartphones to access the Internet.
Beit Shemesh will continue to be a flashpoint for the country’s Kulturkampf and a microcosm of the nation’s social issues, but on a day-today basis, most of the residents are friendly and get along well.
Whether or not this state of affairs will continue remains to be seen.