Inside story

In Beit Shemesh election, the ultra-Orthodox are looking to regain power

Religious conflict no longer solely defines the city’s politics but some worry that a victory for Shas’s Moshe Abutbul could spell a return to the violence of his last term

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Residents of the mixed Modern Orthodox-Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph on April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol)
Residents of the mixed Modern Orthodox-Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph on April 27, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

When Aliza Bloch was elected mayor of Beit Shemesh in 2018, ending a decade of Haredi control over this rapidly growing bedroom community, she became a reluctant icon for Orthodox feminism.

Beating incumbent Moshe Abutbul by an ultra-thin margin of only several hundred votes, the former school principal’s win was seen by many national-religious and secular residents as one final chance to fix their city following years of religious violence at the hands of ultra-Orthodox zealots.

Now, at the urging of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, Deputy Agriculture Minister MK Moshe Abutbul is fighting to regain his old position in Tuesday’s municipal election — campaigning against both Bloch and fellow ultra-Orthodox politician Shmuel Greenberg of the Degel HaTorah party.

Agudath Israel, the Hasidic ultra-Orthodox party that runs together with Degel HaTorah as part of the United Torah Judaism list in national elections, supports Abutbul rather than Greenberg.

And while the religious kulturkampf that largely defined the last two elections in Beit Shemesh is no longer the major defining issue of the city’s politics, significant concerns remain regarding the possible return of a mayor who was widely seen as complacent in the face of rising religious intolerance.

“I don’t think anybody thinks it’s [about] Haredi-secular issues any more. All three candidates are religious,,” but the possibility of a return to the politics of yesteryear “is a gut punch to all of us who lived through Abutbul’s reign,” worried Michael Lipkin, a national-religious resident of the city’s Sheinfeld neighborhood.

“He explicitly denigrated us and our community. He allowed our children to be abused by extremists, without uttering a peep of support for us, yet expressed full-throated support for their goals. We feel abused by Abutbol and Likud has decided to shack up with our abuser,” he lamented, citing the rightwing party’s decision to back Abutbul’s candidacy.

Beit Shemesh’s newly elected Mayor Aliza Bloch (right) with outgoing mayor Moshe Abutbul during a press conference at the municipality building on November 20, 2018 (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

A history of violence

Abutbul has at times cut a divisive figure in the city. His time in office coincided with a series of violent attacks at the hands of extremists seeking to enforce their stringent standards of modesty and gender segregation on the wider public.

In one of the most well-publicized incidents, 8-year-old Naama Margolese was spat on and insulted by Haredi men when walking to her school on the border between Sheinfeld and Ramat Beit Shemesh, an extremist stronghold. This kicked off a series of violent attacks aimed at pushing women to the back of buses and off public sidewalks.

In 2013, Abutbul insisted that there were no members of the LGBTQ community in the city, touting it as “holy and pure,” and in 2017 the Supreme Court ordered the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove signs demanding that local women dress modestly — despite the Abutbul administration’s insistence that they were just “ideological signs.”

But the battles over religion are no longer the defining feature of local politics, Mayor Bloch argued in an interview with The Times of Israel last week.

“In Beit Shemesh people want good services. It doesn’t interest me very much whether someone is Haredi or secular — I’m giving them the best I can,” she said, denying that the elections constituted a contest between ultra-Orthodox residents.

“I think both secular and Haredi residents [just] want things to be run well. Since I’ve been in office the city has been quieter,” she continued, describing the election as one between “a mayor of the people and askanim (power brokers) appointed by parties and making all sorts of deals.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police during a protest in Beit Shemesh, March 21, 2022. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

“If you want a mayor who doesn’t care if you have a kippa or not, I’m for the freedom to allow everybody to live their lives as they want,” she said.

But while the violence has abated in recent years it has not disappeared, with extremists seeking to forcibly impose their way of life on residents of the recently constructed Ramat Beit Shemesh Dalet, posting modesty signs, tearing down Israeli flags and marching through the neighborhood harassing residents.

Last August, in the second attack against the mayor in less than two months, dozens of extremists rioted outside a local school while Bloch was touring the building, hurling objects, starting a fire and vandalizing her car — effectively holding her hostage for nearly two hours until she was rescued by police.

More recently, extremists burned down a cellphone store in the more moderate English-speaking neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, an attack that Bloch insisted is much less representative of the city than it once might have been.

It was an “unusual incident” and the perpetrators were brought to justice, she stated, asserting that “we respond very seriously to every incident of extremism” and it is important to make sure that the city does not “turn backwards.”

Political ties that bind

For his part, Abutbul has argued that his ties with Deri and other national-level politicians would be useful in further developing a rapidly expanding Beit Shemesh, which has grown to more than 157,000 residents.

Speaking with local magazine Connections, the former mayor insisted that he would work to encourage investment, strengthen the city’s secular neighborhoods in partnership with the Likud party, promote “cultural programs” and balance construction for the ultra-Orthodox with “a reasonable response also to the general sector.”

Asked if his party harbored any reservations about Abutbul, Likud city councilman Zvi Wolicki replied that “there’s a ton of concern” but insisted that internal polling showed the veteran Shas politician was the only realistic candidate.

An agreement between the two parties, which largely delegates authority over the secular and national-religious parts of Beit Shemesh to Likud, was signed “to protect the interests of the communities that we represent” and guarantees the construction of new non-Haredi neighborhoods, he said.

As for the violence, Bloch too has not managed to fully stop it, Wolicki argued, noting that his wife was recently trapped inside her home office because the extremists were “rioting and throwing manure or feces all over the place.”

Beit Shemesh city councilman Tzvi Wolicki (Courtesy)

“The mayor has a lot of authority when it comes to talking to the police department but the fault here is the police department. They have to break up these riots, they have to respond in real time. Past experience has shown that even during [Abutbul’s] term that when senior council people approached the police and said ‘you gotta get your act together,’ it does have an effect,” he continued.

“In the previous terms when the zealots were out of control, the Likud was not a senior partner in the coalition. We were a very junior partner. That’s not going to be the case this time.”

Everything will be okay

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former Yesh Atid MK who rose to national prominence as an ultra-Orthodox opponent of the extremists, said that unlike previous divisive campaigns, today residents are facing “a scenario where no matter who wins, the broader population seems to be okay.”

Likud’s backing of Abutbul means that it could potentially “mitigate the polarization in the city” while a victory for Degel HaTorah’s Greenberg would mean the election of a “moderate and well liked” politician representing a relatively liberal wing of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.

So far, both Abutbul and Greenberg’s campaigns seem to have eschewed the vicious attacks that characterized the 2018 election, when Bloch’s opponents demonized her, distributing fliers predicting that she would close down religious schools and introduce bus service on Shabbat.

Despite representing Degel HaTorah, Greenberg — a cleanshaven former IDF serviceman with a masters degree in public policy who until recently served as a senior education official in the Jerusalem municipality — has worked hard to distance himself from the image of a sectoral candidate.

“I’m not competing for the Haredi vote, I’m competing for the votes of the residents of the city who want a good quality of life and change,” he told Connections, despite the fact that his campaign posters call for “more power, more Judaism.”

Posters for United Torah Judaism candidate Shmuel Greenberg defaced ahead of the 2024 municipal election in Beit Shemesh. (Sam Sokol)

“I see no difference between sectors,” he declared, asserting that “we have a duty to treat all sectors equally.”

But while the issue of religion isn’t as dominant as it once was, Greenberg has still come under attack for his educational background and the fact that his children study in “Haredi public” schools.

According to one flyer distributed in Greenberg’s neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, the city “deserves a Haredi mayor” and “not somebody who doesn’t listen to the great Torah sages.”

The specter of fraud

Despite the cautious optimism with which some residents have approached this election, a leaked plan for ballot stuffing indicated that it could potentially spiral into the kind of divisive political and legal contest seen during the 2013 vote, which was marred by angry protests alleging that Abutbul supporters had engaged in significant voter fraud.

On Monday, Channel 12 correspondent Inbar Twizer tweeted an image of what she said was a leaked document linked to extremist elements in the city outlining a plan to stuff ballot boxes with “at least 2,500 additional votes.”

Ultra-Orthodox children tearing down an election sign in Ramat Beit Shemesh, February 23, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

During the 2013 election, local police discovered hundreds of identity cards in an apartment and car believed to belong to Abutbul supporters, as well as a cache of clothing that apparently served to disguise individuals who voted multiple times on election day.

Investigators suspected that Shaya Brand, an associate of Abutbul, had organized a plan to identify nonvoters and pay them for their identity cards, so that Abutbul supporters could use them to cast fraudulent ballots.

In response, the Jerusalem District Court ordered new elections, which Abutbul won with 51 percent of the vote.

Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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