How a rat infestation in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak could reawaken its democracy

Upcoming local election could be a real race for the 1st time in years, as Shas candidate Uriel Buso takes on the United Torah Judaism machine and vows to mop up sanitation issues

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: A close-up of a rat on a wall. (Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)
Illustrative: A close-up of a rat on a wall. (Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)

Talking to Bnei Brak council member Yaakov Vider on a street corner in this largely ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, city near Tel Aviv was unexpectedly challenging: We were repeatedly interrupted by drivers and passersby who simply had to have a word with him.

“Bravo, I’m praying for you,” they would say to the 40-year-old council member, who doesn’t belong to any of the Haredi parties. Or, “You’re doing great work — this time I’ll vote for you.” (It was mostly men who addressed Vider, as in the norm in this highly gender-segregated city.) Vider, a council member for the past five years, would respond: “This time really do it. It’s not enough to tell me on the street; you really need to vote.”

Vider has the dubious honor of leading the fight to improve the city’s public hygiene. Here, that means man versus rats.

And in recent years, the councilman, a member of the Likud party, has managed to do something not seen in Bnei Brak in a long time – ignite a public struggle against the city’s hegemonic rabbinical establishment. His criticisms are many and varied, but one central grievance wins broad support from residents: Why is the city so dirty?

As a council member, Vider began to post videos featuring residents’ complaints on issues such as garbage in the streets, the lack of trash cans, street flooding, sewage problems, and, above all, the problem of rats and mice inundating local neighborhoods that are some of Israel’s most densely populated.

But Vider is not alone in looking to shake things up in his town. Recently, Shas MK Uriel Buso announced that he is moving his residence from Petah Tikva to Bnei Brak to run for mayor. He will compete against Agudat Yisrael party candidate Hanoch Zeibert, who previously served as mayor from 2013 to 2018.

Buso has not yet resigned from the Knesset, and some believe he may withdraw from the race before the election if Sephardi Shas and Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism reach political agreements to prevent competition.

However, as of now, polls in the city show Buso has a decent chance in the upcoming election. In 2023, it seems, municipal elections in Bnei Brak might actually be real and open for the first time in decades.

A predetermined mayor

Here’s how elections in Bnei Brak have worked since the late 1980s: Every five years, there’s a rotation between the two Ashkenazi Haredi parties that make up the Knesset’s United Torah Judaism alliance: Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah. The Sephardi Haredi party Shas doesn’t have its own candidate, nor do any other parties. And with the ultra-Orthodox public largely voting according to rabbis’ directives, the city’s mayor is elected through a political deal.

Because of this deal, there’s no need for campaigning. The identities of the mayor and the council members are predetermined. Meanwhile, the members of the party’s pre-agreed slate still receive substantial election funding in accordance with the law, even though they have no actual expenses.

Near the Pardes Katz market, Vider points to low buildings that resemble warehouses. “People live here, it’s no longer a market,” he explains.

The proximity to what was once an active wholesale market produces relatively high pollution. On the floor, next to the shops, are leftover pieces of raw meat. In the heavy August heat, decay sets in quickly. Nearby are some other shops selling fish, meat, and vegetables. The side corridors and the floor in parts of the building suffer from dampness that gives off a foul odor.

Outside, among endless stacks of cardboard and box remnants, a stream of water emerges. The water shoots upward, and from there it flows into the street. One can only imagine the number of pests — mice, rats, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes — that are drawn to the area. Residents in the surrounding buildings live modest lives in severe crowding. But why should they also live alongside sanitary hazards?

Trash on the ground in Bnei Brak. (Tal Schneider)

From the results of the elections for the 25th Knesset, one can see that support of United Torah Judaism is at 60% in Bnei Brak; Shas is represented at 30%; Religious Zionists make up about 4.4%; and Likud is at 3.3%.

This means that Shas has a base in the city comprising almost a third of the residents and yet Bnei Brak has never had a Shas mayor. When the Haredi parties determine the outcome in advance – and Shas doesn’t run – that means the mayor is simply a political appointment and how he performs in his job is less relevant. This is where the mice come into the picture.

Signs of change

Are Bnei Brak’s citizens sick of all this? Not exactly. Shas’s entrance into the election, explains Vider, doesn’t stem from concern for the residents but from the Sephardic party’s anger toward United Torah Judaism because it won’t grant Shas automatic political control in cities like Beit Shemesh, Ashdod, Beitar and Elad.

Garbage in Bnei Brak. (Tal Schneider)

Shas – which wants to close political deals in other places – realized that United Torah Judaism is playing “hard to get.” Therefore, MK Buso – on behalf of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri – simply decided to move his residence to Bnei Brak. Vider is infuriated by this. “He’s not from Bnei Brak. I’ve been here since I was born. I’ve lived in this city for 40 years.

“He’ll move here from Petah Tikva and instantly know how to manage our city? He should have the decency to serve as a council member for a few years, just like Moshe Lion in Jerusalem. The first time [Lion] came there, he lost the election and remained a council member; the same should apply to Buso,” said Vider.

The Times of Israel: What do you suggest for dealing with all the infestations in the city? How can you start treating this problem?

Yaakov Vider: First and foremost, the mayor and the council must recognize that there’s a problem; acknowledging it will already be part of the solution. The city does not lack the funds necessary to address the problem. Bnei Brak has commercial areas that bring in a lot of money through municipal taxes. The city has a budget of 1.7 billion shekels, and the city also receives grants from the government, which are based on residents’ income and not the city’s budget. This city is like Africa; the municipality gets richer, but not the residents. The money doesn’t reach the citizens.

Bnei Brak council member Yaakov Vider. (Tal Schneider)

So where does the city’s budget go? What are they doing with 1.7 billion shekels?

I believe most of the money goes to salaries for employees and to people hired by the municipality through external contracts. The Bnei Brak municipality has an insane number of employees. Who are they? I have no idea. For five years, I’ve been asking the municipality for a list of employees by departments without names – and I don’t get it.

They are hiding the information. I think there’s an employee for every residential building in this city. I estimate there are thousands of municipal employees. In every council meeting, they ask for further approval to hire contractual workers. This is a city of a quarter of a million people with insane density; it’s the most densely populated city in the country.

What are the odds that the people who are approaching you on the street will actually vote for you or Shas, instead of adhering to the rabbis’ orders?

I can’t really tell you. There is a group of ultra-Orthodox political operatives who decide everything among themselves. I still haven’t decided whether to run for mayor or not.

In the meantime, I see that Shas is trying to challenge the old establishment of the city. This would be the first time in decades that there will be free elections here, and I believe the results will shake the entire country. The ultra-Orthodox public is changing, and if people here rise up against the old establishment – it will affect all of Israel.

To which ultra-Orthodox sect do you belong?

I’m called “modern Haredi.” We are a large group that was formerly represented by the Agudat Yisrael Workers’ party, known to Israelis as Poalei Agudat Yisrael or PAGI, and the name [of former PAGI head] Hanoch Verdiger is familiar to most of the public. They disappeared. We are talking about ultra-Orthodox Jews who work. Many of us also served in the military, as I did.

PAGI was also involved in establishing worker settlements in Israel, like Beit Hilkia, Bnei Re’em, and Gamzo. But today, I’m with Likud, and I want to give my 3-year-old daughter an ultra-Orthodox education – but there isn’t a single preschool in Bnei Brak that is willing to accept her because her father is “modern Haredi,” has a job, and has a cellphone.

They have a long list of requirements that blocks people like us from entering education. And Bnei Brak’s municipality isn’t willing to open “modern Haredi” schools.

Why doesn’t ultra-Orthodox media talk about the city’s sanitation issues?

The ultra-Orthodox media is like [the Soviet newspaper] Pravda. They are not willing to interview me on radio stations like Kol Berama or Radio Kol Chai. I’m forced to speak only with the mainstream media – and the messages reach the public, whoever that may be, through social networks.

If you had seen my situation in the city five years ago, in 2018, people would walk by me on the street, curse me and yell at me. Today, after five years of being the sole opposition in the city, you see what’s going on. Everyone approaches me on the street asking for my help.

Shas MK Uriel Buso attends a Knesset committee meeting on May 16, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In it to win it

Shas says that Buso’s candidacy is not meant merely as a means of pressuring United Torah Judaism – and insists that he will continue his campaign to the end. The party is also encouraged by recent polls, which show that the public in Bnei Brak is thirsty for change.

Shas says that Buso offers Bnei Brak a technocratic and nonpartisan city management. If Bnei Brak’s municipality transitions from the hands of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox faction to the hands of Shas, it will create a significant political shock and will demonstrate that the ultra-Orthodox public is not willing to vote blindly and obediently.

In a statement to Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-langage sister site, Buso said: “As I’ve declared from the outset, I’ll be running for the mayoral position in Bnei Brak until the end – and I will win. The public in Bnei Brak wants professional management for the city – and the time has come for them to receive thorough, professional management. With my 14 years of municipal experience, I will take on the role and bring orderly management to the city.

“From the moment the decision was made to nominate me for the mayoralty, there has been incredible momentum caused by residents eager and hoping for change. I see this both in the polls and in my meetings with residents from all sectors. The support for me cuts across party lines and sectors; everyone, without exception, supports me. The result has surprised everyone.

“I am working together with my team to develop a 100-day plan that will reflect the drastic measures we’ll implement immediately upon my entry into the role. We will soon present the milestones to the public. I’m personally going to take charge of the portfolio to improve the city’s appearance. I’ll ensure the cleanliness and aesthetics of the city on a daily basis. I had held this portfolio for years, and I know firsthand how one can transform a neglected and dirty city into a gem.”

There was no response from the Bnei Brak municipality by the time of publication.

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