BEIT SHEMESH: Fight to the finish

The Beit Shemesh elections promise to be one of the most closely watched municipal contests.

A demonstration in support of Orot Banot elementary school (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A demonstration in support of Orot Banot elementary school
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The upcoming mayoral vote in Beit Shemesh is widely considered a watershed event in a city with a population of more than 90,000, divided almost equally between haredim and non-haredim – and it is gaining a reputation as one of the dirtiest mayoral races in the country.
Many in the non-haredi sectors say that the October 22 election will be the last opportunity to “save” the city from falling completely under haredi control with the continued mayorship of Shas candidate Moshe Abutbol.
His main opponent, Eli Cohen – who held senior management positions in the Jewish Agency and has since joined the top management of national water company Mekorot – promises to “return Beit Shemesh to its residents,” according to his Hebrew campaign slogan.
The city gained notoriety two years ago following international coverage of violence that a small minority of ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist extremists perpetrated because they opposed having Orot Banot, a religious Zionist elementary school for girls, bordering their neighborhood. As the election draws nearer, the violence and defamation in the city have grown more outrageous by the day.
Rather than sticking mainly to policy, the contest is filled with character assassination, vandalism and occasional physical attacks.
Last weekend, a double-spread advertisement in the local haredi weekly Hadash included, among other things, a photo of young boys in kippot crying against a stone wall behind a barbed-wire fence, and an appeal to women to join a prayer circle to help prevent – “God-forbid” – the election of Eli Cohen.
Two weeks ago, Abutbol supporters threw stones at Avraham Leventhal, who is running for a city council seat in the moderate haredi Tov party and had endorsed Cohen.
Last Friday, local attorney Rena Hollander, a Cohen supporter, said she was horrified to see young schoolchildren stomping on Cohen’s election posters, which incidentally included endorsements by non-haredi rabbis. According to Hollander, the children said their own rabbis had told them that the Cohen posters were “anti- Semitic,” and she said she was appalled by the “hatred in their eyes.” Other observers of the scene echoed her sentiments.
IN THE vicinity of the attractive, relatively new outdoor Ne’imi mall in the Migdal Hamayim neighborhood, where the municipality recently moved, one can see a diverse population shopping and enjoying themselves at restaurants and cafes.
At the entrance to the city, off Highway 38, a new indoor mall with a variety of stores, restaurants and play areas for children is another welcome addition that appeals to people across the spectrum, from ultra-Orthodox to secular.
However, in other areas of the city, there are signs telling women to dress in accordance with Orthodox standards, and streets are littered with trash and shards of glass.
In an interview at his office, Abutbol insists that he intends to provide equal services for all sectors, which he claims he has already been doing as mayor for the past five years.
But his opponents say he has been favoring the haredi community by designating new neighborhoods for its members and by stifling culture in the city – something the mayor denies.
Cohen, meanwhile, insists that religiosity is not the main issue of these elections.
“The struggle in Beit Shemesh is about what kind of community we will have here,” he says in an interview at his campaign headquarters. “It’s not about haredim and non-haredim. It’s not a religious fight, because 98-99 percent [of the population] is traditional or religious. The non-haredim opened their hearts to the haredim [when they began moving in during the last two decades]…. I grew up in Beit Shemesh, studied here, live here with my wife and three children. I feel this is the last chance we have to keep Beit Shemesh as a modern, developed city, a clean city, with a good quality of life and respect for one another.”
To be sure, there are some non-observant residents living in the old Beit Shemesh neighborhoods who will vote for the current mayor, and a significant number of haredim are rooting for Cohen.
According to the latter group, the city has not been run properly nor managed professionally under Abutbol’s leadership, and these voters are demanding good government for all citizens, irrespective of religious observance and affiliation.
Among the elements in Abutbol’s campaign have been warnings that Cohen intends to instate public transportation in the city on Shabbat.
Speaking to this reporter, the mayor stands by that claim: In an interview with Walla News, according to Abutbol, Cohen said that secular people should be able to participate in recreational activities on Shabbat, something that necessitates not only programming, but transportation as well, he pointed out.
Rafi Goldmeier, a volunteer for Cohen’s campaign, says the statement was taken “out of context,” which Cohen confirmed.
“Eli Cohen has said numerous times that there will be no open hilul Shabbat [desecration of Shabbat] in Beit Shemesh,” says Goldmeier. “Beit Shemesh is a city that is traditional and tolerant.”
In the Walla interview, Goldmeier explains, Cohen discussed the possibility of cooperation with the Judea Regional Council to find a solution for secular youth in the surrounding communities.
Cohen, who identifies as a traditional Jew, says that under his leadership, Beit Shemesh would “continue to be a traditional Jewish city and continue to respect Jewish tradition and the different communities, including the ultra- Orthodox. I’m calling again for Mr. Abutbol to stop creating a war among the public, and to stop the lies against me.”
This past summer, advocates for change were scheduled to participate in a poll to determine who would be the best candidate to run against Abutbol – Cohen or then-contender Aliza Bloch.
With the Beit Shemesh population so evenly split between haredim and the so-called “Zionist” camp, it became obvious that having more than one candidate running against the incumbent would destroy any chances for victory. Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett had urged Bloch to enter the race and endorsed her as representing his party, but when it seemed that Cohen was more popular, he switched loyalties. In the middle of the poll, Bennett stopped it, and Bloch dropped out of the race.
Since then, a number of her devotees have said that they will vote for Abutbol solely because they are upset with Cohen – who, for his part, insists that he had nothing to do with this fiasco and was equally surprised by the turn of events.
This seemingly ugly political maneuver undermined many local religious Zionists’ trust in Bennett. In fact, Cohen has since been downplaying his connection to Bayit Yehudi.
“Bennett is making a huge effort to prevent me from continuing as mayor,” says Abutbol, adding that “everyone is angry that he took out Aliza Bloch. Many of her supporters are now coming to me.”
He adds that Bennett’s move contributed to the exclusion of women from the public sphere.
Bennett should stick to national politics, Abutbol says, “and not Beit Shemesh. Also, he did many things against Torah, and it isn’t just I who says it, but many rabbis from his own camp. It’s not his business who the people [in Beit Shemesh] elect….
We want a quiet, respectable city.”
The mayor proudly displays a copy of a slim, hardcover book in Hebrew, published by the Beit Shemesh Municipality, titled The Women of Beit Shemesh: Tasteful Stories. The book includes colorful photos and descriptions of veteran Beit Shemesh women, along with recipes that each one has contributed. This, he says, is the right way to honor women.
As examples of culture in the city, the mayor cites a classical-music series and movie screenings that take place every other Saturday night at a local community center. As for bringing in a regular movie theater, he says, “If the people demand it, they’ll get it, with pleasure.” The problem, he explains, is a lack of profitability.
Of the recently completed Route 10, he says, “others spoke of it before, but Moshe Abutbol made it happen.”
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol (Atara Beck)Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol (Atara Beck)
He notes that there is also a new police academy in Beit Shemesh.“Who built it? Moshe Abutbol,” the mayor declares. “They talk, and I act. I build for everyone – haredim, national religious, traditional and secular. Secular people can live here peacefully.
They can get into their cars [on Shabbat] and go wherever they want.”
Cohen, meanwhile, contends that “planning for the malls started before Abutbol, but I’m happy they’re here.”
Nonetheless, he continues, “you can see a lot of shops are closed, and I’m very concerned that if we don’t increase the population, they will become empty.”
The first item on Cohen’s agenda is “to clean the city and to deal with the broken infrastructure.”
Other stated goals are housing for all sectors, special education for children, special - needs programming, and professional and technical training for young adults.
Most importantly, he plans to change the branding of Beit Shemesh, which is “now negative.
Non-haredim do not want to come here, and our children are leaving,” he says. “We need to bring in young couples from across the country.”
Cohen “hopes to achieve all of the above” by generating income through the expansion of industry and building a technological park.
Meanwhile, there is a third contender for mayor.
Deputy Mayor Meir Balayish of Dor Aher, a secular party running for city council, is officially in the race and purportedly has a small but loyal following. His campaign is quiet; his ads in Tmura, a local paper, consist of a blank orange page with his logo and no words.
The Jerusalem Post attempted to reach him several times for an interview, but the response was always the same: His message box was full. While it is therefore difficult to discuss his policy or his reasons for running, rumor has it that he is acting as a spoiler, hoping to achieve a second term at city council – although this supposition could not be verified.
RABBINICAL ENDORSEMENT has played a strong role in the campaign process.
Several religious Zionist spiritual leaders have participated in local advertisements supporting Cohen, including prominent educator Rabbi Haim Druckman, who won the 2012 Israel Prize.
Abutbol’s campaign, meanwhile, has been placing advertisements in local newspapers, with the message that many leading haredi rabbis not only endorse the current mayor, but also state that every God-fearing Jew, “without exception,” is “obligated” to vote for him and for the ultra-Orthodox Chen party (for city council). Hadash features many such ads, as well as editorials stressing that it would be a “sin” to vote for anyone other than Abutbol.
Cohen says he paid in advance for an ad in that paper, hoping to present his side of the story, but the paper refused to publish it.
Another constituency that Abutbol is targeting is the English-speaking sector. Dr. Ephraim Rosenbaum, an American-born resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and a specialist in pediatric and adolescent medicine, is one of four respected medical professionals expressing support for Abutbol in several advertisements that appear in local newspapers and on posters. Their slogan is, “United forces to make a municipality that (finally) speaks your language!” – a reference to Abutbol’s latest promise to hire English-speaking staff and to upgrade the municipal website and telephone system to accommodate the large Anglo community.
Abutbol does not speak English, though Cohen and many on his staff are fluent.
“Over the last five years, I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in many aspects – infrastructure, roads, malls, schools, commerce and parks,” Rosenbaum says in a telephone interview, adding that the mayor “wants to do more now to make himself available to Anglos.”
Rosenbaum says that “people don’t remember what things were like five years ago. Every Saturday night, people were demonstrating in [ultra-Orthodox] Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on the street and starting fires. There were maybe 100-150 extremists.”
Under Abutbol’s management, he says, the infrastructure has improved, and things have calmed down considerably since the violence surrounding the girls’ school in 2011.
“Abutbol initiated a roundtable discussion” with leaders of various sectors, he says, contending that allegations against him “have been blown out of proportion. He is interested in serving all sectors.”
But Dr. Eve Finkelstein, a religiously observant dermatologist and community activist who lives and works in Beit Shemesh, disagrees.
“I have had close contact with many people at City Hall over the years, and I’ve been shocked that they don’t respect the law of the land. I don’t want to live in a city that is run by extremist, anti-Zionist rabbis whom nobody has voted for. I want to live in a city that is run responsibly and without the influence of rabbis with specific interests,” she says.
“We are not talking theoretically here,” she continues. “Just walk around old Beit Shemesh; it looks like India, with broken sidewalks and raw sewage running in the street every time it rains. There are no haredi neighborhoods that look like that.”
She alleges that the municipality is wasting millions of shekels annually by renting office space at Ne’imi Mall instead of building its own offices. According to Finkelstein, the original plan several years ago was to construct a municipal building in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, but Abutbol acceded to the demands of haredi rabbis to cancel the project in order to keep non-religious clients away from a neighborhood that he had earmarked as ultra-Orthodox.
City council member Shalom Lerner confirms Finkelstein’s accusations.
“I know, because I’m there,” he says. About a year and a half ago, he continues, another alternative was presented: to build a municipal office center near the community center in the more diverse neighborhood of Migdal Hamayim.
“Then again, there were problems,” he says. “So now they’re spending NIS 4.2 million a year on rent. I expect there will be real financial difficulties.”
Finkelstein also expresses discontent with some of Abutbol’s campaign practices. The advertisements featuring the doctors include the names of the health funds with which each is affiliated, and Finkelstein believes it is “unethical” for Abutbol’s campaign to do this. She adds that it is equally wrong for rabbis to use their positions to publicly endorse candidates, whether in support of Cohen or of Abutbol.
According to Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, “the issue we had with Abutbol was not that he is haredi. The issue was extremism.”
Lipman, a moderate haredi rabbi and Beit Shemesh resident who became well-known as a prime activist in the fight against religious coercion, says that “most people don’t know that Abutbol’s No. 1 adviser is a person who stays away from the cameras and is very close to the extremists” – a claim that Finkelstein has made as well.
“The Orot Banot school was not the only incident where we saw this play out tangibly,” the Yesh Atid MK continues. “There is funding for cameras to be placed where the violent extremists have assaulted women and girls, and the mayor has not put those cameras up despite the police telling me that cameras would enable them to identify the criminals and arrest them. Funding has been available for a cultural center, but the mayor gave in to extremists who claimed there were ancient Jewish graves at the site, and the center was not built. A neighborhood was designated to be housing for police officials who would staff a police academy nearby, and one of the mayor’s first acts was to abolish that plan and build a haredi neighborhood instead.”
The police officials will reportedly be living in nearby moshavim.
Lipman stresses that “this election is not about haredi versus non-haredi,” adding that “thousands of haredim will be voting for Eli Cohen.”
But judging by conversations with several residents across the religious spectrum, it is clear that religious affiliation will influence a great many votes. Many in religious circles have said they will vote for Abutbol solely because they prefer to vote for a religious candidate. Similarly, many non-religious voters fear having a haredi mayor and will vote for Cohen for that reason alone.
Another point of contention is the expansion of housing construction on sites with natural beauty and archeological significance. One of Cohen’s campaign promises is to preserve those areas and build a national park.
A demonstration titled “Who will save our homes?” protesting the “destructive building” is scheduled for this Friday (October 18) at the Big Fashion mall off Highway 38. Most of the demonstrators have no say in the Beit Shemesh elections, as they hail from the nearby Kibbutz Halamed Heh and other surrounding areas. But they await the results with great anticipation, aware that the outcome will likely impact their future as well.
A sign cautioning women to dress modestly hangs on building (Reuters)A sign cautioning women to dress modestly hangs on building (Reuters)