Eli Cohen: We won’t allow a religious war in Beit Shemesh

“This is not the personal struggle of Eli Cohen; this is a communal struggle for democracy, justice and the rule of law."

Beit Shemesh mayor candiate Eli Cohen celebrates (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Beit Shemesh mayor candiate Eli Cohen celebrates
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Several hundred supporters of Beit Shemesh mayoral hopeful Eli Cohen gathered outside of the city’s municipality on Thursday evening to celebrate the court decision nullifying the recent electoral victory of haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul. Cohen had gone to court alleging that supporters of the mayor rigged the vote.
Police raided two apartments in the city on election day, uncovering a stash of state identification cards they believe were “going to be used in the election” in a fraudulent manner, a spokesman said. Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein pushed hard for Thursday’s decision, which he said was necessary due to “systematic, deliberate, organized and institutionalized criminal activity” on the part of supporters of the mayor.
October’s race quickly descended into a religious conflict pitting the so-called Zionist bloc, a coalition of national-religious, traditional and secular residents, against the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox population.
Cohen, who was called onstage as Beit Shemesh’s next mayor, called on members of the haredi community who support a diverse and peaceful city to come out and join his camp.
“There are many more of them than there are extremists,” he subsequently told The Jerusalem Post.
Cohen said Abutbul had called his Jewish identity into question and that he intended to sanctify God’s name, a veiled jab at Abutbul’s campaign literature, which asserted that the traditional but non-Orthodox opposition candidate had desecrated the name of God.
“We will teach [our opponents] how to honor each other and love each other,” Cohen told the crowd.
Calling on people to get out the vote, the mayoral hopeful said that “this is not the personal struggle of Eli Cohen or of members of the city council; this is a communal struggle for democracy and justice and the rule of law. The struggle for Beit Shemesh has just begun,” Cohen said.
“We will not allow Moshe Abutbul to create a religious war in Beit Shemesh,” he continued, elaborating that the city in which “people spit on girls” can be a moral beacon and an example of coexistence between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of society.
The last-minute victory rally garnered a sparse crowd of fewer than 300 Cohen supporters, a far cry from the thousands who came out to protest following the election, and while the tone of the speakers mostly reflected an effort to reach out to the haredi community, not everybody agreed with that message.
City Councilman and Labor Party local head Richard Peres took a less conciliatory tone, telling the crowd that the ultra-Orthodox have split Beit Shemesh into two cities, the multicultural old Beit Shemesh and the fervently Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh. While the two sides should live in harmony, there has to be an acknowledgment of the split, he said.
“The court today taught the haredim that the commandment ‘Do not steal’ that is engraved on the Tablets is still in force,” Peres told the Post.
Yehuda Moses, the son of ultra-Orthodox MK Menahem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism), came out to support Cohen. He said that while he has no problem with Abutbul winning the election, the ultra-Orthodox “have to win in a way that honors democracy.”
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), a local resident and vocal critic of the mayor, echoed Moses’s sentiments.
“Whoever wins, wins, and if Moshe Abutbul wins in pure elections, then he is the mayor and we will respect that,” he told the Post.
“I am so ecstatically happy that the courts ruled in favor” of new elections, American immigrant Reuven Ashenberg said.
However, there is an undercurrent of anger against both candidates, and one resident said he did not intend to support either Abutbul or Cohen.
“I’m not voting for either,” he said.