Shifting the balance

Independent mayoral candidate Eli Cohen wants to take Beit Shemesh back from haredi control

A protest against Internet use in Beit Shemesh521 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
A protest against Internet use in Beit Shemesh521
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
The upcoming mayoral elections in Beit Shemesh are drawing attention far beyond what one would expect of such a provincial political race. Beit Shemesh isn’t a very large city nor is it any kind of financial, cultural or industrial center. With fewer than 100,000 residents, it mostly flew beneath the radar of most Israelis for decades.
A city of immigrants, Beit Shemesh has welcomed newcomers from Morocco, Ethiopia, Russia and the United States. It is the most recent influx, however, that has put Beit Shemesh on the map both domestically and internationally: the haredim.
Many of the residents believe that October’s elections will mark the point of no return for their city. Given the booming haredi population and the high voter turnout among the ultra-Orthodox, if Mayor Moshe Abutbol of Shas is not defeated now it may be too late to win the city back.
Only minutes away from the “shtetl” feel of the haredi neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and Bet, where signs calling for women to dress modestly and panning the Internet can be seen hanging from balconies, Eli Cohen, the opposition front-runner, leans back and sips his Coca-Cola and lemon.
Beit Shemesh, he says, must become a “multicultural city” that is neither haredi nor non-haredi. In the long term, that may be a tall order.
Beit Shemesh’s ultra-Orthodox population has exploded in recent years, with haredim now comprising almost 40 percent of the city’s residents. In 2011, just as the issue of equality of military service began to replace the Arab-Israeli conflict as the central focus of national politics, a series of incidents involving haredim in Beit Shemesh caused the city to take center stage in the debate over the role of the ultra-Orthodox within Israeli society.
The violence started on the border between the hassidic Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the national-religious, mostly English-speaking neighborhood of Sheinfeld. Two years ago, a group of radical haredim from Mea She’arim, who had moved into several newly constructed buildings across the road from the older Anglo neighborhood, began daily protests over “immodest” schoolgirls attending classes at the Orot Banot School.
The school, which had been planned for some time, was an affront to the extremists, who claimed that it was on haredi territory and that the girls, some as young as six, were dressed immodestly. The girls were forced to run a gauntlet of yelling, cursing and spitting men in black hats and caftans. One of the girls, eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese, became the poster child for the beleaguered locals after she was shown crying on national television.
Aside from the men spitting and yelling, women were being told to sit at the back of buses, and signs calling for segregation of the sexes were going up around the city.
Something had to give.
FOLLOWING A media blitz by local activists such as Maryland-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, who would be elected to the Knesset on the strength of his activities, Beit Shemesh became emblematic of the issues facing an increasingly Balkanized Israeli population.
Abutbol became a figure of derision among many of the non-haredi residents of the city for what activists like Lipman called his inadequate response to the violence.
During an interview with this reporter following the violence, Abutbol defended his handling of the crisis but did say that Beit Shemesh did not need a Giuliani, referring to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, known for his tough stance on crime.
Abutbol’s comments expressing anger at being called a “Zionist collaborator” by local extremists was offensive to many in the Zionist community of Beit Shemesh.
“I can forgive them for the [verbal] abuses hurled at me and for not letting me speak. But one thing I cannot forgive is that they called me a Zionist,” he was reported as saying.
However, several residents of the Dolev section of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, a bastion of the nationalreligious within an increasingly black-and-white neighborhood, recently told The Jerusalem Post that they do not believe there is much hope for releasing Shas’s grip on the mayoralty.
For one thing, they stated resignedly, the field is split among multiple opposition candidates; and for another, there is support for Abutbol among some residents of old Beit Shemesh, traditional Jews who support Shas.
ELI COHEN does not seem daunted.
People create facts, he says, and “the fact today is that there is a majority of non-haredim. Out of 95,000 people, we are the majority.”
He seems to have at least some support from the haredi community as well. As he speaks, an assistant, his long beard and black garb standing in distinct contrast to Cohen’s bare head and casual clothing, takes notes, writing down his comments for future reference.
Cohen also says that he has reached out to the city’s population of ultra-Orthodox moderates, including the Americans and the so-called “new haredim,” who are represented by Tov, a local haredi party.
Cohen, an independent, may be the front-runner, but Aliza Bloch is not far behind. The principal of a local school, Bloch has been endorsed by the Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, Likud and Hatnua factions and is rapidly gaining ground.
Bloch says that she believes that Cohen will not be able to effectively unify the disparate groups in Beit Shemesh to stand against Abutbol and that she is better suited for the job. An educator by trade, she is focusing on improving the local schools and promoting the construction of housing for young couples in order to change the demographics of the city, something Cohen has also said is important to him.
Cohen views Bloch as a spoiler, having launched her candidacy several months after his and, he says, splitting the vote.
He says that he appreciates Bloch as an educator, but “Bayit Yehudi is a... spoiler.”
“What happened after Aliza became part of the political process in Beit Shemesh, the [local] Bayit Yehudi divided,” he says. “There are a lot of members of the Bayit Yehudi who support me.”
As the deputy director of Mekorot, the national water company, and a former official at the Jewish Agency, Cohen says he has the management skills necessary to run the city. Bloch, he alleges, does not. Or, as he puts it, “The knowledge to administrate is what you need to change Beit Shemesh.”
In response, Bloch says she could not in good conscience begin campaigning until the end of the school year and that in either case she believes she has the best chance of beating Abutbol. As proof, she refers to the support that the major coalition parties have given her, with ministers such as Uri Ariel and Naftali Bennett going to the city to bolster her candidacy.
Both candidates have agreed to abide by an agreement whereby the winner of an upcoming poll will gain the support of the other, who will then drop out of the race.
CONSTRUCTION IS a contentious issue in Beit Shemesh.
With shopping centers operating out of underground parking garages, additions being made to homes willy nilly and congregations praying in synagogues still under construction, an argument is being made by the mayor’s opposition that he has not done enough to curb the illegal building boom.
At the same time, Cohen lambastes Abutbol for building the new Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimel neighborhood for haredim without first planning proper infrastructure to support the new residents.
“We are facing unprofessional behavior and unprofessional management in the city,” he says. “If we are talking about education, we see for example there is no building. If we are talking about infrastructure, you can see Beit Shemesh is really terrible. The parks are inadequate, and it’s not nice to be there,” says Cohen, recalling a recent Shabbat in Ramat Beit Shemesh when he patrolled the parks with a parents’ group. He recalls seeing teenagers with nothing to do hanging out, drinking vodka and beer and leaving glass fragments along the pathways near playgrounds.
Beit Shemesh needs cultural centers, investment in local youth movements and the establishment of cinemas, pools and other activities for children.
Asked about a newly completed mall, Cohen says that the planning actually began under Abutbol’s predecessor.
He praises him for finishing the work but says, “The question isn’t the new mall. The problem is whether we will have enough citizens who can use these services. I’m afraid that because it is only people with low incomes who are moving to Beit Shemesh, we will have a lot of beautiful buildings” full of stores that people can’t afford to shop in.
The city must attract new hi-tech businesses and factories to stay afloat, he says, suggesting that a technological park be built and incentives be provided to lure new companies to the city and the educated workers that would follow.
A national police academy slated to be built in Beit Shemesh could also create jobs, he says, but little has been done thus far to lay the groundwork to capitalize on this development.
Abutbol “made a lot of mistakes. I can’t say good things about him,” Cohen states harshly. He “divided the city” when he protested being called a Zionist. “He is [only] satisfying the haredi residents,” he says.
“Beit Shemesh is not anti-religious. It is very traditional and respects the religious. Beit Shemesh is very Zionist.
This can be a paradise of meeting together, but he put [the debate in terms of] them or us. I can say he is a nice guy. I appreciate him as a person, but I think he is making a lot of mistakes and is not giving us the results we need,” he asserts Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimel is symptomatic of the rot that Cohen and Bloch say is typical of Abutbol’s administration.
Abutbol wants to “change the demographics of Beit Shemesh,” Cohen says. “That is his goal. He said Beit Shemesh will be like... Bnei Brak.”
Beit Shemesh under Shas will no longer be multicultural and thus will not be a “strong society,” he continues. By building a new neighborhood that is to be marketed to haredim without first planning all the necessary infrastructure, he says, Abutbol is not ensuring that the incoming haredi residents will have what they need.
Asked about his chances of winning the election, especially given the fact that he is competing against multiple candidates and the high voter turnout among haredim, Cohen is optimistic.
When the candidates fall in behind the front-runner in the polls, he says, it will cut down Abutbol’s support among non-haredim to 10%, and many people will come out to vote him out of office.
“There are more and more haredim that we call ‘haredi light,’ the American haredim and the people who support the Tov party, the new haredim who no longer accept the administration of Moshe Abutbol, and I am a good answer for them,” he says.
Meanwhile, Aliza Bloch believes that she can win the poll and bring out the vote.
She says there are two types of people she has met on the campaign trail: those who say there is no hope, and those who are still holding out for change. The key, she says, is allowing people to feel that change is possible.