The eyes of Israel on Beit Shemesh

I want my own children to build their home and family in Beit Shemesh, and of course housing will be available for the haredi communities as well.

Beit Shemesh mayor candidate Eli Cohen 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Shemesh mayor candidate Eli Cohen 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The eyes of Israel are on the mayoral election in Beit Shemesh. Over the past five years our city has suffered a series of crises, each time bringing our reputation to a new low. Yet Beit Shemesh has all the potential to transform from its current low point and become a role model for respect between diverse communities, and for professional city management and progress suitable for the 21st century.
Perhaps this is why this election is of such interest to wider Israel. In my mind there are two parallel issues which have combined, creating a microcosm of Israeli society in Beit Shemesh, making it fascinating for other Israelis.
On the one hand, we have very diverse communities living in very close contact.
Secular, traditional, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews live alongside communities originating from Morocco and other North African communities, Russia, Ethiopia, the United States and other Western countries, some having arrived in Israel recently, while others founded the city in 1950.
On the other hand, the accelerated growth transforming Beit Shemesh from a backwater but intimate town of 15,000 residents to a crowded city approaching 100,000 residents has not been underpinned by long-term planning and strategic thinking. This has created serious problems: budgetary, environmental, infrastructure, educational, social and others. Unfortunately, just as this acceleration reached its peak the current mayor was elected, without the skills and leadership to cope with these challenges.
The combination of these two issues has created a problem uniquely hard to solve.
Opaque criteria for the allocation of scarce city resources, whether land for public buildings or budget constraints to support the essential services required by all the city’s residents, have created rising intercommunal tensions.
The mayor proudly tells us that he received prizes for city management, although it turns out that the same award was given to about 80 percent of the city halls in the country. At the same time the State Comptroller published a damning report in 2011 in which the City Planning Department was blasted for incompetence and nepotism, with a recommendation for their authority for planning decisions to be removed completely.
This is just one example of many areas of mismanagement where the city leadership in general and the mayor in particular have abrogated their basic responsibility to the residents – all the residents. The other result of this mayor’s tenure is extremists filling the leadership vacuum left by him. This was most keenly felt during the Orot Banot crisis, during which the mayor did not once accompany the girls to or from school, nor did he take a public stand against the extremism during the weeks that they were being attacked. A more recent example was the violence over alleged Jewish graves in the Golovenchitch construction project. Whatever the policy rights and wrongs of the Orot saga itself, the mayor failed to show leadership against the violence of an extremist minority.
During my tenure as mayor I intend to focus on exactly these two issues. The election in Beit Shemesh is not about orthodox vs secular, and all the attempts to portray me personally as someone who will break the special Jewish character of a city I have lived in for over 50 years will not succeed.
Nobody asked whether or how I observed Shabbat when I pulled the bodies of Jewish victims out the rubble of the terror attack in Argentina and nobody asked which kashrut I adhered to when I led many secret missions bringing Jews to Israel as CEO of aliya at the Jewish Agency, and nobody will question my Jewish identity as a qualification for being mayor of Beit Shemesh.
No, this election is about changing the management culture of city hall on the one hand, and re-establishing positive relations among the diverse communities within the city, on the other.
On the question of reforming city hall I will bring to bear my 30 years of managing people, infrastructure and budgets to rewrite the priorities and rebuild the service to the residents.
I will make planning and execution according to plans with measurable parameters the basis of my management style.
The first and most obvious change needs to be in the way the city is maintained and cleaned. We also must plan and build additional sources of revenue, so as not to be dependent on central government funding.
This will primarily be achieved by expanding business and tourism. Of course, the planning and building of new neighborhoods is a critical question, and these will be planned and marketed in a way that will attract people from all backgrounds.
I want my own children to build their home and family in Beit Shemesh, and of course housing will be available for the haredi communities as well. One principle upon which there will be no compromise is that no new neighborhoods will be populated until all of the basic infrastructure is complete.
Whether that means synagogues, schools, retail areas or mikvaot, we will not repeat the mistakes of the past five years, during which the most basic tenets of planning were all too often ignored.
So far as recreating a warm and friendly atmosphere and the type of respect between communities that I grew up with, I will need to combine my own leadership and respect of Jewish values and diversity with the talent that exists in the form of the amazing people of Beit Shemesh.
Our secret weapon is a reserve of outstanding community leaders. We will build on existing initiatives between communities and leverage and extend them to create a meaningful change in the city’s atmosphere.
A fair allocation of resources and a belief that the city leadership acts with transparency in all of its decision making will reduce the constant belief, often correct, that someone else in the city is benefiting at your expense.
All of Israel is waiting for the outcome of the election in Beit Shemesh, as in many ways the challenge of building a successful society at ease with itself and sharing many Jewish values while managed according to the highest standards of governance and professionalism is the challenge of wider Israeli society today.
I am excited about the prospect of being mayor and meeting the challenges above, with the support of the people of Beit Shemesh – and I mean all the people of Beit Shemesh.The author is vice president of the Mekorot Water Company and a candidate for mayor of Beit Shemesh.