Beit Shemesh residents push for plan to split city

After ultra-Orthodox incumbent mayor trumps secular-backed challenger, old initiative to divide municipality revives

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative photo of ultra-Orthodox residents in Beit Shemesh (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of ultra-Orthodox residents in Beit Shemesh (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

In the wake of bitterly contested elections Tuesday in which the ultra-Orthodox incumbent beat trumped the candidate backed by the modern-Orthodox and secular communities, the defeated side has reportedly begun pushing a plan to divide the city of Beit Shemesh in two.

Residents of the older sections of town, where the non-Haredi populations live, have rekindled an old initiative to secede from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, Channel 10 reported Wednesday.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar will evaluate the request in the near future, after the plan is presented to him, the report said. The plan had gained momentum in the past, but never made it to the stage of serious consideration.

Beit Shemesh mayoral challenger Eli Cohen lost to Haredi Rabbi Moshe Abutbul by less than a thousand votes. After conceding defeat, Cohen lamented that the race had taken on religious overtones, telling Army Radio that he, too, was a “traditional” Jew.

Cohen’s campaign had worked hard to warn Beit Shemesh voters (or at least reporters) of the threat of continued Haredi rule of the city. But faced with the loss, he did not lament the victory of a Haredi Beit Shemesh over a secular one. Rather, his about-face suggested that his own assessment of the results saw Beit Shemesh voters rejecting first and foremost the transformation of their municipal race into an arena for Israel’s national identity battles.

Beit Shemesh, a city of approximately 75,000, sits just off the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and has a growing Haredi population.

The city has been the scene of sometimes violent tensions between the Haredi population and other residents. In 2011, eight-year-old Naama Margolese was spat on and insulted by Haredi men for her school outfit. In July 2012, Egged was ordered to compensate a young girl who was forced by ultra-Orthodox passengers to sit at the back of a bus in the city. The presiding judge ruled that gender segregation on a public bus was illegal and it was the driver’s responsibility to prevent it.

In July of this year, a group of Haredi men reportedly smashed the windows of a bus after a women refused to give up her seat and sit in the back. Haredi rioters have also violently protested construction at a Beit Shemesh site that once may have been a burial ground.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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