Interview'I have never felt a glass ceiling'

Beit Shemesh’s first female mayor wants her city to be a ray of light for Israel

Entering office on Tuesday, Aliza Bloch says the Jerusalem suburb can transform from a hotbed of religious friction into a shining example of coexistence

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Aliza Bloch, center, on October 30, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/FLASH90)
Aliza Bloch, center, on October 30, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/FLASH90)

In the early morning hours of November 1, a restive crowd assembled in Beit Shemesh, anxiously waiting the final — and decisive — ballot count from Israelis soldiers, prisoners, and disabled voters. Among the throngs of hundreds of city residents, tension rapidly made way for exhilaration, frenzied whooping, and spirited dancing when the news was officially announced: Aliza Bloch, a religious Zionist woman, had become the city’s new mayor by a mere 533 votes, unseating ultra-Orthodox incumbent Moshe Abutbol in what was described as a stunning upset.

It was an abrupt end to Shas-affiliated Abutbol’s 10-year reign over the mixed secular-religious-ultra-Orthodox city of 100,000 residents, long-plagued by friction between its various communities. And the circumstances of the final count, specifically the role of troops in securing her win, spawned a much-shared quip among Bloch’s supporters: It was the first time since 1967, they joked, that the Israel Defense Forces liberated a besieged Israeli city.

News headlines referred to it simply as a “mahapah,” or revolution, a reference to the widely used slogan when Likud’s Menachem Begin rose to power in 1977, upending three consecutive decades of Labor Party rule.

The handover of power — and elections of the city’s first-ever female mayor — elicited gasps across the country and was touted as proof of real change in Beit Shemesh, particularly among those discontented segments of the ultra-Orthodox community believed to have quietly voted for Bloch over Abutbul. But it didn’t catch Bloch, a former principal at the city’s Branco-Weiss high school and a mother of four, much by surprise.

Beit Shemesh Mayor-elect Aliza Bloch speaks during a press conference at the Beit Shemesh municipality building on November 20, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

“One of the reasons that some leaders of the Haredi world were surprised — I wasn’t surprised by the outcome — is because things weren’t done noisily. There was a lot of quiet support, and I think that’s part of the revolution unfolding here,” Bloch told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

On the blackboard calendar alongside her desk in her spare campaign headquarters, October 31 and November 1 had long ago been penciled in as the first and second days of her victory.

The late October contest was also not the first time a Beit Shemesh race was breathlessly close: In 2013, Abutbul squeaked past the secular Eli Cohen by fewer than 1,000 votes, in a campaign later contested over claims of irregularities at the ballot box.

While the outcome of the race may not have been entirely shocking to Bloch’s campaign, the “euphoria, excitement, and enthusiasm” that followed the win completely bowled her over, she said. The victory produced a thrill among her supporters that she hopes to translate into concrete change for the city, she said, transforming Beit Shemesh from a symbol of religious strife into a model that she insists will be able to teach the State of Israel a thing or two about coexistence.

“What happened in Beit Shemesh since Wednesday night — it stunned me how quickly people can make a switch,” Bloch said.“It was one small change — they replaced the mayor with [one] who has not yet moved a pin — but even this small change created insane buzz.”

New Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch celebrates with supporters as the results from the municipal elections are announced on November 1, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Bloch will officially enter the position. Since the victory, Haredi local politicians have engaged her in negotiations to join forces on the council — and all, she said, have accepted that there’s a new sheriff in town.

“Everyone knows I’m the mayor. Everyone wants to be in [the city council’s coalition]. I was surprised at how quickly it was internalized.”

‘I have never felt a glass ceiling’

The daughter of immigrants from Morocco, Bloch, 51, was raised in Kiryat Gat and has lived in Beit Shemesh for over 25 years. Her hair covered in a white beret and with a ready smile, Bloch exuded both the warmth and the command of an esteemed schoolmistress. But she also shied away from describing herself as a feminist (“I’m not there. It’s not an issue from my perspective”), while acknowledging the difficulties of entering local politics in a predominantly male environment.

“In religious society, and Beit Shemesh is [primarily] a religious/Haredi city,the challenge is sevenfold. Because you don’t go into synagogues, and you don’t give [Torah] classes, and you aren’t called up to the Torah, and… you have to find your place in what some people might call the backyard. I don’t feel [relegated to] a backyard, but nonetheless there is a more complicated discourse,” she said of drumming up support during her campaign.

Beit Shemesh’s elected mayor Aliza Bloch celebrates with supporters as the results from the municipal elections are announced on November 1, 2018 (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

“But I want to say that, honestly, never, at any stage of my life, have I sensed a glass ceiling,” Bloch continued. “Not as one who grew up in the periphery, not as a Mizrahi woman, not as a woman, and not as a religious woman. I have never felt a glass ceiling. Sometimes I felt that there were those who had an easier process; it was more challenging for me sometimes, but I never felt like anyone held me back because of this.”

“I want people to see me as a human being. Not necessarily as a woman, a religious person, a PhD,” she added. “I am a person, with all of the complexity [that implies].”

Bloch also defended the decision to keep her photo off her campaign materials in much of the city. The move came amid an ongoing cultural war over the so-called banishment of women from the public sphere in the ultra-Orthodox community, where photos of women do not appear in newspapers and advertisements over claims of modesty. The last several years in Beit Shemesh have also seen attacks on women by so-called modesty police, drawing protests and international attention to the city.

Ultra-Orthodox people walk past a “modesty sign“ in Beit Shemesh. (Sam Sokol)

Most prominently, in 2011, 8-year-old Naama Margolese was spat on and insulted by Haredi men on her way to school, at the edge of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, sparking a huge outcry. In December, municipal officials were ordered by the Supreme Court to take down large signs demanding that women dress modestly, though some members of the ultra-Orthodox community have tried to put them back in place.

“When you are considerate of the values of others, in my eyes, it’s not a capitulation, it’s power,” she said, referring to criticism of her decision. “Those who don’t know how to live with others — in my eyes, it’s immoral. There is no single way to be a moral person, and there is no one way to be religious.

“Specifically, I don’t like the idea of these public photos. I think those who are going to be elected must be elected based on what they say and do,” she added. “I want to encourage men who are running to take off their photos, to deal with the essence, the substance.”

‘A real opportunity to create a better world’

Bloch penned her doctorate on secondary education in development towns, and during our interview expressed hope that Beit Shemesh could transform itself from a “periphery city” — a term usually conferred on geographically isolated and poorer areas of Israel — to an “education powerhouse.”

In 2016, Beit Shemesh was designated the youngest city in Israel, with 52 percent of its residents under the age of 17. And with secular, religious Zionist, and ultra-Orthodox inhabitants, along with sizable immigrant communities hailing from the United States, Russia and the former Soviet states, and Ethiopia, it’s also among the more diverse.

Former justice minister Tzipi Livni seen as she teaching high school students at a school in the city of Beit Shemesh on November 18, 2014. (Flash90)

The demographics of Beit Shemesh is “where the state is headed,” and if the community divides are successfully bridged, it can be “the bearer of good tidings” for the rest of the country, she said.

“The state was not founded, and my parents didn’t immigrate here, to live with alienation and fights,” she remarked.

As mayor, Bloch said she will serve all the disparate populations equally and hopes to unravel previous conceptions that local officials only look after the interests of their community members. And she hopes to clean up the city, quickly build many more classrooms, encourage businesses to set up shop, and significantly bolster education in the city, from kindergartens through high schools, to post-high school programs and higher education for ultra-Orthodox.

“It’s no coincidence that the first minister I met was the education minister. I want to turn Beit Shemesh into an education powerhouse,” she said.

Ultra-Orthodox girls enter their school in Beit Shemesh, on September 8, 2014. (Flash90)

How does she envision the city in five years’ time?

“First of all, it will be a much happier city,” she said, smiling, “because people will have prospects. I think one of the things I’ve learned from recent times is that people were experiencing a dispirited city, [with an undertone] of survival. Even if life was good for them on a personal level, something about the communal experience was very sad.”

“There is no doubt it will be cleaner here… and more well maintained,” she added. “There is no doubt that there will be more cultural sites; there is no doubt that there will be more industry and high-tech on a significant scale.”

Overall, Bloch said of her campaign, she enjoyed the ride.

“I saw the people, I saw a real opportunity here to create a better world,” she said. “There is amazing potential here to build a worthy Israeli society. I think we have the power to do it. And I’ve learned, and I tried to teach the public, that change can be made from hope, from love, without slander, without criticism, without hate.”

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