Reporter's notebook'I don’t care who's mayor, as long as it's not the ass'

In Tiberias, Haredi locals cheer for defeat of their secularist nemesis’s comeback bid

Exit polls indicate former mayor Ron Kobi lost race to candidate endorsed by influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis, in microcosm of Israel’s religious-secular divisions

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Ron Kobi, holding cellphone, visits a balloting station in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Ron Kobi, holding cellphone, visits a balloting station in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Outside an elementary school in Tiberias, a dozen-odd ultra-Orthodox boys trailed Ron Kobi, a mayoral candidate whose campaign focused on limiting the presence of the growing Haredi community in this iconic lakeside city.

The children gathered around Kobi as he arrived at the Ehrlich Elementary School on Tuesday to vote. One of them hurled a wad of unused voting slips at Kobi, which scattered without hitting him. The children shouted “Bye-bye Ron Kobi, Bye-bye!” before two policemen shooed them away.

The encounter in Kiryat Shmuel, a downtown neighborhood whose population is a mix of ultra-Orthodox and secular residents, was part of the tension in Tiberias. The northern city used to be known for its casual beach atmosphere, vibrant nightlife and tourist scene before a recent influx of Haredim, who currently account for 20 percent of the population.

According to some exit polls, Kobi, a former mayor who has inveighed against the ultra-Orthodox, lost the election to former communications executive Yossi Naba’a, who is also secular but received the endorsement of major Haredi parties and prominent rabbis in Tiberias. The children who taunted Kobi by bidding him goodbye were celebrating his anticipated defeat.

The competing approaches of Kobi, a hardliner who believes in uncompromising pushback against Haredim while they are still a minority, and the more accommodating position of Naba’a, represent two different attitudes toward the ultra-Orthodox on the national level as well.

“You see, this is what the rest of the country will all look like unless we put a stop to it,” Kobi told journalists documenting the exchange with the boys. “Unless Tiberias votes Ron Kobi now, we will be another Bnei Brak by the next elections.”

Ultra-Orthodox children heckle Ron Kobi outside a balloting station in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Kobi was elected in 2018 but lost the mayorship less than two years later when his party failed to pass a budget, partly because of his alienating approach to Haredim. The Interior Ministry, led by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, appointed a caretaker mayor who will be replaced by whoever wins Tuesday’s election.

Tiberias’s population rose from 45,000 to 51,000 in five years, a growth that has been fueled by the arrival of Haredi families, mainly to new neighborhoods on the hills overlooking the city’s lakeside downtown.

Some non-Haredi locals blame the ultra-Orthodox for the decline in tourism and nightlife here, but others argue this charge is unfair and that the Haredi influx merely coincided with other developments causing the slump.

As for many ultra-Orthodox Tiberians, they regard the election as an opportunity to neutralize Kobi. To them, he’s a provocateur whose hostility to their lifestyles is dangerous hate speech. Kobi has repeatedly called Haredi communities parasitic and loosely linked them to organized crime, real estate scams, tax evasion, draft dodging, prostitution and violence.

Asher Dan blows a shofar outside a ballot in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“I really don’t care who becomes mayor, as long as the ass doesn’t,” one Haredi man, Asher Dan, told The Times of Israel near the polling station. His rabbi, Isser Hacohen Kook, an influential figure in Tiberias, told him whom to vote for. Kook has publicly endorsed Naba’a for mayor.

“I don’t know much about politics. I don’t like to elevate a man to godly stature. But the rabbi said to vote, so it’s okay. I have the name [of the candidate] written down somewhere,” said Dan, a man in his sixties who became religious at the age of 30, and whose father was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. His mother’s family has lived in Tiberias for centuries.

Overlooking the rundown square opposite Ehrlich Elementary, Dan blew a shofar. Around him, many election banners bearing a portrait of Rabbi Kook — he has endorsed a party for the city council elections, which are held conjointly with the mayoral ones — fluttered in winter gusts that carried election jingles sung in Hasidic musical style.

This scene in Kiryat Shmuel “is horrifying,” one passerby, a secular kibbutz resident from the Tiberias area who works in the city as a social worker, commented to The Times of Israel. Speaking on condition of anonymity — he explained his work requires a nonpartisan approach — the kibbutznik added: “This isn’t even a Haredi neighborhood officially, but in practice, the whole of Tiberias is a Haredi neighborhood. It has been overrun.”

Worshipers recite atonement prayers at the gravesite of Maimonides in Tiberias, Israel on August 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor / Times of Israel)

Tiberias is one of Judaism’s so-called Four Holy Cities, along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed. Long before the dawn of modern Zionism, Jews were living in Tiberias, which was a center of study and thought as well as the final resting place of great sages.

In addition to the grave of the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, Tiberias features also the gravesites of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, a second-century Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th-century sage from Italy, and Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the second-century thinker and martyr of Roman persecution.

This history factors into how some Tiberians think of Haredim. “They’ve been living here for centuries, so let’s take that into account when we speak about them,” said Dudik Sheetrit, another secular candidate for mayor, who according to exit polls garnered a single-digit percentage of the votes.

Mayoral candidate Dudik Sheetrit speaks to voter at a shopping mall in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Sheetrit advocates steps to curb ultra-Orthodox immigration to Tiberias, “but not because they’re Haredi,” he told The Times of Israel. “Socioeconomically, they’re a weak demographic and that’s not the target population to attract,” he said. Kobi, Sheetrit added, “invented a conflict between Haredim and seculars. In reality, there’s peaceful coexistence. They’re just not taking us where we need to be going as a city.”

In parallel to the Haredi influx, Tiberias suffers from a “serious brain drain,” said Maya Haviv, a 23-year-old social media marketer who owns a small business with four employees. One of them recently quit because she’s moving to Tel Aviv, said Haviv, who ran for city council as part of Sheetrit’s party. “I don’t blame her, it’s difficult to work in high-tech here,” Haviv said of her resigning employee. “There are so few opportunities compared to Tel Aviv.”

Haviv’s family has also been living in Tiberias for centuries, and this history is part of what’s keeping her here, she said. “Moving away is tempting. No more commuting for meetings, so many more opportunities,” Haviv said. She had looked for two months for an office to rent that was suitable for a startup before settling on an overpriced work area inside a hotel, she recalled.

Maya Haviv campaigns at a shopping mall in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“But this has been my family’s city for generations, I could never imagine living and working anywhere else,” she said.

Those problems, she noted, “aren’t the Haredim’s fault. That’s just poor mayorship.” The decline in tourism and nightlife aren’t entirely on the Haredim either, she added. “Tiberias became less attractive when low-cost airlines began offering cheap flights to Cyprus, where everything is cheaper,” she said.

“That has had a knock-on effect on nightlife, which is why many bars and dance clubs have closed down, whereas others close on Shabbat not out of religious coercion but to retain their kosher certificates and a Haredi clientele that keeps them afloat,” said Haviv. “These are complex issues. It’s much easier to blame the Haredim for shutting Tiberias down.”

Dani Biton campaigns for Yossi Naba’a in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Dani Biton, a 70-year-old father of five, nostalgically recalls Tiberias’s heyday in the 1980s. “This was such a magnet. Parties deep into the night, pretty girls everywhere. This was the place to be. But it’s become much more Haredi, much more closed down. This is the reality and we need to adapt,” said Biton, who campaigned for Naba’a.

“This was the past. We need to reinvent ourselves in ways that the Haredim can only amplify. We need to become a high-tech hub like Migdal Haemek and Yokneam have done,” continued Biton, a retired municipal employee. “We can do it, too. No one is stopping us, certainly not the Haredim. They are merely our excuse for failing.”

Biton, a Likud member, notes that none of the mayoral candidates are from the ruling party, even though the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a whopping 43% of the vote here in the previous national elections. “We’re disappointed in Likud. They have forgotten us. They’ve taken us for granted,” he said. The Likud candidate in Tiberias, former mayor Yossi Ben David, dropped out of the race several weeks ago following dismal polling results and went on to endorse Naba’a for mayor.

Avihu Sabti, right, and Neria Hasin campaign outside a balot in Tiberias on February 27, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Back at the balloting station, Avihu Sabti and Neria Hasin campaigned for the Religious Zionism party for the city council. They are both 18, but they cannot vote  because they are among about 120,000 Israelis who are evacuees from border areas under threat from terror groups. These localities will hold their municipal elections in November instead.

“We can’t vote but that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the elections,” Sabti said cheerfully. He and Hasin are from Kiryat Shmona but have been living here since October, when Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, which triggered a war with Israel when its terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped 253 in Israel’s south on October 7. The evacuees are split roughly evenly between north and south.

Sabti knows Tiberias well because his father lives here, he said. A traditionalist Jew, he has “a lot of respect for the Haredim because they preserve Judaism,” said Sabti, who is scheduled to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces this year. “But their radicalism scares me, plus they really should serve the country somehow. So I think here of all places, it’s extra important to strengthen Religious Zionism, which strikes a better balance,” he said of the far-right party.

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