Reporter's Notebook: Incivility in Beit Shemesh taints campaign

Voters have allowed sectarian affiliations to desensitize them to humanity of their political opponents.

Moshe Abutbul poster Beit Shemesh 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Moshe Abutbul poster Beit Shemesh 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
As Beit Shemesh nears Tuesday’s municipal elections, the ratcheting-up of tensions have brought a corresponding decrease in civility by voters who have allowed their sectarian affiliations to desensitize them to the humanity of their political opponents.
On Friday, I was walking in the main shopping center of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef neighborhood, wading through the sea of discarded propaganda posters and flyers littering the ground, when a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children began running after me and calling out for my attention.
“Who are you voting for?” one of the children demanded.
“[Mayor] Moshe Abutbul?” I started to explain that I felt it was inappropriate for a child to interrogate his elders on their electoral preferences, whereupon the boy yelled that I must be “voting for [challenger] Eli Cohen” and spat.
In recent weeks, a candidate for city council from the moderate haredi Tov party claimed that Abutbul campaign workers had assaulted him, and a spokesman for the mayor accused him of fabricating the incident. Following that were accusations by the Abutbul camp that someone from the Cohen campaign had attacked two people hanging their campaign signs, pelting them with ceramic tiles and rocks.
If true, these reports highlight a growing sense of alienation between the two sides that has allowed people to believe that physical attacks are justified; if false, they indicate that accusations of misdemeanors are now considered acceptable parts of the political discourse.
Advertisements in local newspapers and signs hung around the city by supporters of the mayor have declared their political rivals “wicked” men who seek to “uproot the Torah,” and that voting for the incumbent is a religious duty. On the other hand, one resident recently complained of the horrible things that “have been said to me up here when I say I am not voting for Cohen.”
One woman called me to say that she had chased children out of her yard multiple times during attempts to vandalize her campaign banners, and that upon calling the father of one of the children to complain, she had been taunted with the response, “so what are you going to do about it?” Another resident bemoaned that he had not had the chance to chase vandals out of his yard, and that his signs had been repeatedly torn down.
On Friday evening, a young man of my acquaintance told me that he was told he was “not Jewish,” and neither was his preferred candidate.
In a widely spread open letter, a local rabbi told city residents that if they did not vote for the mayor they were “useful idiots” who lacked gratitude and intelligence.
One of my neighbors complained that during a parade of cars supporting Eli Cohen that was driving through Ramat Beit Shemesh, “kids were pounding on cars, screaming goy, Nazi, etc.”
On the other hand, one resident of a largely national religious community has stated that among “kids on the street... anti-haredi sentiment in my neck of the woods is getting worse.”
Many residents on both sides of the political fence and from all the various religious factions in the city have stated that they are sick of the elections and just wish they were over. While both sides have called for calm, it seems in short supply.