Beit Shemesh votes in the shadow of religious war

Situated halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and divided between ultra-Orthodox and secular and modern religious camps, the city has mayoral stakes that are unusually high

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

This must be good for you -- Beit Shemesh men arguing over politics in the lead-up to elections, October 2013. (photo credit: Yaakov Lederman/Flash 90)
This must be good for you -- Beit Shemesh men arguing over politics in the lead-up to elections, October 2013. (photo credit: Yaakov Lederman/Flash 90)

Blindly following Waze’s computerized driving advice and climbing up the hill to Beit Shemesh, a city named after a Canaanite sun goddess and home to divisive religious struggles today, this reporter pulled over to have a look at the campaign slogans on the morning of the municipal elections.

“Our holy Torah prohibits participation in the unholy elections,” read one stern black-and-white placard on Levi Eshkol Street in the Yefe Nof neighborhood. Nearby was another one, proclaiming in red and yellow that the inhabitants of the house do not own any sort of device that allows access to the Internet or to movies. “Here we do not chase away the Divine Presence, God forbid,” it read.

The majority of the signs, though, were in favor of the incumbent, Moshe Abutbul, the Shas party representative who has been at the center of the religious conflict.

“The extremists who put up those signs are a tiny minority,” said Chaim, an ultra-Orthodox resident of the neighborhood and a kashrut supervisor at a nearby matzah factory. “They are 100 people and they cause me to suffer too. They know no limits. And besides,” he said, “they put the signs in the window and then send their wives out to vote.”

A derelict playground in Beit Shemesh, October 22, 2013. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)
A derelict playground in Beit Shemesh, October 22, 2013. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)

For his part, Chaim had just cast a ballot for Abutbul, a once secular father of eight who has served on the city council since 1993. He asserted that after years of negligence the city had come back to life under the first-term mayor. “He built new sidewalks in the neighborhood, established a well-baby clinic and a new road out of the city to cut back on traffic,” he said.

All around Chaim was garbage: stuck in bushes, in the corners of the playground and alongside the newly constructed buildings. A nearby playground featured an uprooted slide and was littered with glass and bricks. “It’s a private area. That’s why it isn’t cleaned,” Chaim said.

Mayor Moshe Abutbul on the morning of the elections (Photo credit: Yaakov Lederman/ Flash 90)
Mayor Moshe Abutbul on the morning of the elections (Photo credit: Yaakov Lederman/ Flash 90)

Chedva, in modest but colorful dress, walked down the nearby stairs on Ben Kisma Street. She was once a moderate ultra-Orthodox voter, she said, but as the neighborhood grew more extreme she felt increasingly isolated. “No one here lets you live as you see fit,” she said. Her boys, who wear knitted head coverings, were constantly excluded. “In the end, we left,” she said, noting that she now lives in Jerusalem but still votes in Beit Shemesh.

Outside the neighborhood voting center, at a childcare center, an ultra-Orthodox immigrant from Boro Park, New York, a father of nine, explained his rationale for supporting Abutbul. “I used to get 1,900 shekels ($540) childcare from the government. Today I get 1,000,” he said. Yisroel, who refused to give more than his first name, said that if Abutbul’s primary rival, Eli Cohen, was elected, the municipality would do locally just what the government without the ultra-Orthodox parties did nationally, cutting the state support for families with many children. An employee of the chevra kadisha burial society, who pays municipal taxes but refrained from taking Israeli citizenship, he said, “I will not turn the other cheek to Eli Cohen.”

A thin young man with a wispy red beard and clear plastic glasses came out of the voting booth. He, too, had voted for Abutbul. “I’m a Gur Hasid,” he said. “The rebbe said to vote for him. That’s it. I don’t look to the right and I don’t look to the left. There are no issues that are important to me. What’s important to me is what he said.”

A pair of young religious boys with short sidelocks and sneakers came up to one of the Hassidic parties’ tables and tried to bum a cigarette off one of the young men. They couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. Asked if there was a soccer court or somewhere else for them to spend their free time after school, they chuckled. “Abutbul’s a cheapskate,” one said.

In a more secular part of town, the Water Tower neighborhood, Dmitry Diga stood outside and tried to convince passersby to vote for the secular Cohen for mayor and Yelena Konianski for city council. A security guard on the Jerusalem light rail system and an immigrant from Ukraine who converted to Judaism while in the army, he said there was nothing for young people to do in Beit Shemesh. “All you have here are corner stores and parks to get drunk in.”

Rosa Reich, seated nearby, herself an immigrant from Ukraine, said “the city is dirty. There are no community centers. There are no after school activities for the kids. There is no tennis. And on Shabbat I don’t even go out of the house.”

Maybe, Diga said, noting the deep secular-religious divide, “we should just split into two cities.”

But in the Scheinfeld neighborhood, home to many English-speaking religious residents, there was no talk of disengagement and plenty of spirited campaigning. “The issue is, will this city be a place for all or just for certain segments?” said Jonathan Duker, a religious educator whose son goes to the boys branch of the Orot School that was at the center of a December 2011 uproar, when extremist factions from within the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood were filmed spitting and cursing at the eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese on her way to school. “Every parent had to deal with that kind of behavior,” said Duker. His son added, “They threw fish at me.”

Na'ama Magolese and her mother shortly after the extremists' harassment became public (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)
Na’ama Magolese and her mother shortly after the extremists’ harassment became public (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)

Shortly after Duker asserted that Abutbul had tried to “stifle religious Zionist culture,” Cohen showed up at the Uziel Elementary school to cast his vote. The crowd of supporters began chanting and Cohen told them to “save it” for later. “Now: rabota, rabota,” he said, using the Russian word for work.

Speaking briefly to The Times of Israel, Cohen said he assumed that most English speakers in Beit Shemesh want “a normal life, in a normal, clean city. No one here is looking for a religious war,” he said, “at least not me.”

Finally, after speaking with Tilahon Mula, an Ethiopian immigrant who said he supported Cohen because Abutbul had not followed through on his promise to build a synagogue for members of the community, The Times of Israel reached Beit Shemesh’s most famous resident over the phone. Rabbi MK (Yesh Atid) Dov Lipman, who was pushed into politics by the rising tide of extremism in the city, said the two primary issues at stake were “overall mismanagement” and the ceding of control to extremists.

Asked which way it would go in this closely contested and pivotal race, Lipman said, “I think it all comes down to the percentage of secular voters who come out to vote. The norm is 50 percent, in which case Eli [Cohen] can’t win. If we get 70 percent [turnout], then I think he will.”

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