Beit Shemesh, the Jerusalem bedroom community-turned-flashpoint of ultra-Orthodox-religious Zionist tensions, returns to the polls Tuesday morning after the results of its December mayoral election were spectacularly overturned.
Rabbi Moshe Abutbul, the ultra-Orthodox incumbent mayor who squeaked to victory last year only to have his win discredited when a police investigation found several of his supporters had voted multiple times, will face off against his original challenger, secular candidate Eli Cohen.
The re-vote, which was ordered by the Jerusalem District Court following widespread allegations of fraud, voters donning disguises and co-opted identity numbers, has riveted this already polarized city. Beit Shemesh, once a model of religious co-existence with secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox residents living side by side, has over the past decade found itself at the forefront of tensions between Israel’s burgeoning Haredi community and its more secular denizens.
Its community is now sharply divided, both geographically and politically, but ahead of Tuesday’s vote, many Beit Shemesh residents say they are more concerned about justice and democracy than stringency of religious observance.
“I love Beit Shemesh and I love its diversity, but the problem is that there is a loud minority within the Haredi camp who want to take over the city. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says Elie Klein, a 33-year-old father of two who is Modern Orthodox and plans to cast his vote for Eli Cohen. “If it was a large minority of secular Jews, I would also have a problem with that,” he adds. “So we’re putting our trust in one politician over another, but Eli Cohen’s track record says that as much we can trust a politician, we can trust him.”
It’s not just the more secular residents of Beit Shemesh who are voting for Cohen. Jonathan Stefansky, who defines himself as Hardal (Haredi nationalists who support the existence of the State of Israel) wrote on the Facebook page “We Are All Beit Shemesh” that he was tired of the inter-religious war taking place in his city and believed Cohen had a better chance of healing Beit Shemesh’s wounds.
“There is a great battle going on between the Haredi religious and national religious/non-religious in Israel, and folks see Beit Shemesh as a litmus test for the future of this country,” he wrote. “In consultation with my rabbi… I’m following his advice: Vote for whomever you feel will be the best mayor for all of Beit Shemesh. I believe that Eli represents and aligns with my interests in the city, a city for ALL of Beit Shemesh … someone who will ensure we continue to live in Beit Shemesh and not Bnei Brak.”
Yisrael Silverstein, a 36-year-old Haredi teacher, however, says that not only is Abutbul the right man for the job, but that his level of religious observance is the only reason the re-vote is happening at all.
“It’s very difficult today to be a Haredi in this country,” Silverstein says. “I’m sure if Mayor Abutbul were not Haredi, we wouldn’t be having elections today. That alone is a reason for me, being Haredi, to vote for Abutbul. I think he’s a wonderful person, he’s done a great job, and it’s against democracy to cancel the results of an election just because of the color of kippa a person is wearing.”
Like many Abutbul supporters, Silverstein points to the fact that police based their evidence on 40 fraudulent votes, and that Abutbul won by nearly 1,000. “There is no proof here,” he says. “It was just one decision by the lower court, enacted by the higher court, to cancel elections because Abutbul is Haredi.”
Despite a tendency within Israel’s ultra-religious spheres to shun civic action, Abutbul has galvanized much of the ultra-religious community. Reports in the religious press have said that rabbis who once forbade their followers from voting have now declared voting an act required by Jewish law.
Abutbul’s campaign managers did not return a request for comment.
Both Abutbul and Cohen have also been working the phones and organizing transportation so that Beit Shemesh residents who live beyond the city limits – soldiers, yeshiva students and young adults who grew up the city but have since left home – can be bused in tomorrow to cast their ballots.
“We worked in the neighborhoods, going house to house and street to street making sure that all the people who didn’t vote last time will the best opportunity to vote,” Eli Cohen told The Times of Israel. “Our goal in Beit Shemesh is to show that democracy can work properly … There is no religious war in Beit Shemesh, and no need for it.”
Shira Lichtman contributed to this report.