'This city has received a shot of adrenaline'

Local elections turn placid Tiberias into unlikely front in Israel’s societal clash

Haredi and secularist extremism, as well as the alleged involvement of a former politician with a criminal record, are muddying the lakeside city’s political waters

Ron Cobi, a former mayor of Tiberias and a candidate for the job, stands atop a hill overlooking his city in Israel on August 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Ron Cobi, a former mayor of Tiberias and a candidate for the job, stands atop a hill overlooking his city in Israel on August 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

At 35, Avinoam Gotliv of Tiberias is one of the oldest residents of his Haredi neighborhood of some 2,500 people.

It’s a “young neighborhood,” says Gotliv, a father of three, not only because it didn’t exist 10 years ago, but because young couples and their small children make up the entire population of Nof Poriah. It’s one of several Haredi neighborhoods that are rapidly changing the demographics of one of Israel’s most ancient and cherished cities.

A hair care product agent and college student studying for a bachelor’s degree in education, Gotliv moved to Nof Poriah in 2018 with his wife from his native Rehovot. He is one of about 10,000 Haredi Tiberians, most of whom made the move in the past decade and who now make up 20% of this city’s total population of about 51,000.

The influx, driven by people in search of homes at more moderate prices than the country’s expensive center, is reversing decades of demographic stagnation in Tiberias and fueling a building spree on the volcanic rock hills surrounding its sleepy, lakeside downtown. But it has also placed Tiberias at the center of Israeli society’s internal conflict over religion and state, as secular and traditionalist Tiberians engage in a tense negotiation with Haredi newcomers on a new modus vivendi for this popular holiday destination on the Sea of Galilee.

Recently, Tiberias made headlines because of a legal issue connected to both Haredi politics and the judicial overhaul that is dividing Israeli society. On July 30, the Supreme Court dialed back a piece of Knesset legislation that was widely thought to benefit the mayoral election prospects of a local politician with ties to Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party.

This is shuffling the deck of the mayoral race and placing Haredi political power high on the agenda in Tiberias, a laid-back beach town with a right-wing majority where friction over such issues is a new development.

Nationally, the ruling has made Tiberias an unlikely focus of the judicial overhaul fight over the balance of power between the judiciary and elected politicians.

To some supporters of the judicial overhaul, which seeks to weaken the judiciary by transferring some of its powers to elected officials, the court’s intervention in Tiberias’s mayoral race is the latest case of selective overreach and interference with democratically reached policies. To opponents, the ruling encapsulates the need for a robust court imposing checks and balances on the government to ensure democratic principles amid fears of religious coercion.

Noam Gotliv in a park in his neighborhood of Nof Poriah in Tiberias, Israel, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In the debate of religion and state in Tiberias, no one represents the secular cause more vociferously than Ron Cobi, who previously served as Tiberias’s mayor and is running to reclaim the title in October’s municipal election.

“Unless I’m elected, Tiberias will become the next Bnei Brak,” Cobi told The Times of Israel during an interview on a hilltop overlooking the city. As he brewed mint tea on a propane camping stove he kept in his black SUV, Cobi said he invited reporters to that spot to “feel the atmosphere” and “witness the Haredi takeover.”

He then played the song “All This Useless Beauty” on his cellphone. Elvis Costello wrote it about Marilyn Monroe, Cobi said, “but it might as well have been about Tiberias.”

Two residents of Nof Poriah stand outside the neighborhood’s central synagogue in Tiberias, Israel, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Cobi pointed out mountainsides that he says will “in five years’ time become a new Haredi city instead of the old [Tiberias], which will be deserted. It will become a ghost town.”

Why would Haredi locals want to shutter downtown Tiberias, with its tourist attractions and lakeside facilities that generate millions of shekels each year in revenues from thousands of visitors, including many Haredi ones?

“They don’t need to make a living,” Cobi replied. “They make a living off of us and our children. We’re their livelihood.” He loosely linked Haredi Tiberians to organized crime, real estate scams, tax evasion, draft dodging, prostitution and violence.

Downtown Tiberias, which lies on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, Aug. 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Cobi has a record of making defamatory statements about Haredim and political rivals. He’s been found guilty of libel at least twice in recent years. In one case, he paid (Hebrew link) $15,000 to a Haredi councilman whom he had defamed on Facebook as a “fraudster” and “delinquent.” In another, he defamed (Hebrew link) a local newspaper publisher and was slapped with damages to the tune of $120,000.

Gotliv says that Cobi’s campaign, and the fact that he’s among the leading candidates, is “very painful.”

“It used to be amusing but now it’s just worrisome and disappointing that so many people go for this sort of base hate campaign, especially in a right-wing city with so many people who adhere to the Jewish traditions,” Gotliv said.

Haredi parties are preparing to unite forces behind a single candidate — a new development that may work against Cobi.

During the interview with Cobi, the former mayor got out of his car near some bulldozers and pulled out his cellphone to produce one of several live broadcasts that he airs on his Facebook channel every day. He claims that the current mayor, Boaz Yosef, is destroying antiquities to make a new dock.

Katia Cytryn-Silverman, a Hebrew University archaeologist who is supervising the dig, later told The Times of Israel that this claim was “made up.”

Mayoral candidate Ron Cobi broadcasts on Facebook from Tiberias, Israel, on August 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Another inaccuracy involving Cobi appeared on August 20 on his Facebook page. It showed religious men praying at the grave of his grandfather, Machlouf Cobi, a former member of the local religious council and esteemed teacher. Ron Cobi wrote that the men were performing a Pulsa deNura, an ancient curse, against his grandfather. But the men can be heard praising the deceased and calling him a tzaddik, a righteous man.

Cobi’s aggressive campaign has earned him recognition nationwide. Some think of him as a champion of democracy and liberal values. Others who support this agenda call Cobi’s tactics a disgrace.

Chaim Hecht, a prominent journalist who used to head a rehabilitation program for delinquents in Tiberias, spoke recently on a radio program where he called Cobi “an impressive showman, a one-man circus” who is engaged in a “thuggish and embarrassing fight, armed with his loudspeaker and cellphone with which he descends on his victims with rudeness that borders on violence.”

Former Tiberias mayor Ron Cobi, whose chances of returning to office may be harmed by a Haredi dark horse candidate (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Part of Cobi’s appeal is his right-wing populism in a stronghold of the Israeli right (40% of voters in Tiberias voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in last year’s general election, and another 12% voted for the Religious Zionism party, which is to the right of Likud.)

But some of the popularity may also be attributed to alleged Haredi extremism. In June, Hadas Madmon, a local resident, told the media that she had been driven out of her neighborhood because of harassment over her attire. Her water was shut off and a letter warning her to dress more modestly was placed on the piping, she said.

In 2018, a tourist, Ariella Hasson, said she was chased out of a hotel lobby in Tiberias because she was wearing a tank top. Cobi himself was involved in a number of incidents, including one in which he said his car had been torched. He also circulated a video of a young girl allegedly being harassed over immodest attire. Police later questioned the authenticity of the video, which Cobi insists is genuine.

Bathers in the Sea of Galilee in the northern city of Tiberias, on May 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

To Tani Frank, the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute, the municipal election campaign in Tiberias exposes a broader incompatibility within the current rightist bloc.

“A large segment of Likud is nationalist but liberal, and this is especially the case in local politics,” Frank said. “This is generating conflict within Likud’s coalition with religious parties, which is visible in Tiberias and beyond, and is only deepening during the judicial overhaul crisis.”

Gotliv acknowledges that Haredi society in Tiberias has an extremist fringe that sometimes complicates relations with less devout individuals. “But they’re not the decision-makers,” he said of the extremists. His predominantly Haredi neighborhood holds events without enforcing sex segregation, Gotliv added.

Tiberias has two bus lines that operate on Shabbat, as well as multiple bars and restaurants. There are also trash disposal services on Shabbat, and women in bikinis are a common sight along the lakefront.

“It’s got no bearing on our lives,” Gotliv said.

His Haredi neighborhood, which has seven synagogues and two schools, operates separately, unaffected by downtown activities, he said, adding that this applies to the other Haredi neighborhoods as well. Demand for housing in Nof Poriah is rising, as are prices. In 2017, Gotliv said, he paid NIS 1.3 million ($340,000) for his five-room penthouse apartment. Its worth has since increased by 50%, he said.

The launch of the new Saturday bus line in the northern city of Tiberias on February 9, 2019. (Screen capture/YouTube)

On Shabbat, thousands of Haredi Tiberians leave town altogether en masse. It’s a weekly migration by bus — most Haredi Tiberians don’t own a car, according to Gotliv — born out of the young families’ need to stay connected to their large families in the center of the country, Gotliv explained.

“We’re pretty secluded here. Kind of torn out of the fold,” he added.

This leads to a tighter-knit community life and “a significant saving of money” that would have otherwise been given to friends and distant relatives as bar mitzvah and wedding gifts at parties that the new Haredi Tiberians skip because of the distance. “We’re pioneers in a sense,” Gotliv said.

To Cobi, the Haredi influence is “drying up businesses and preventing Tiberias from realizing its touristic potential,” he said.

Yosef, the caretaker mayor, disputes this. “We’re getting new hotels, occupancies are quite high during the high season. And any decline in business, which is felt across the board because of the rise of travel abroad at the expense of local vacations, is not the result of any Haredi influence,” Yosef told The Times of Israel.

But others agree that on weekends especially, Tiberias’s nightlife is a shadow of its former self.

A man walks up the promenade in Tiberias, Israel, on August 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Today in Tiberias, people don’t have the option of walking to the promenade for a drink on Friday night or on holidays,” Alex Azrayev, one of the many young people who grew up in Tiberias but left in recent years in pursuit of better job opportunities, wrote recently on X, formerly Twitter. Azrayev, a teacher who lives in Tirat Hacarmel, added: “Veteran bars went under. It’s unfortunate that this is the reality.”

In parallel, other tourist attractions are developing in Tiberias, one of the few Israeli cities where Jews had lived consecutively for centuries prior to the country’s establishment in 1948.

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

The city is the resting place of none other than Maimonides, the 13th-century sage whose newly renovated gravesite is open and busy 24 hours a day. On late summer nights, the lake breeze carries from the gravesite the sounds of men reciting Selichot, atonement prayers. The rhythmic murmur travels far along the beachfront buildings as the heat absorbed from the blazing sun escapes their bricks, which are made of the iconic black volcanic rock for which Tiberias is known.

The gravesites of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, a second-century Talmudic scholar, and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th-century sage from Italy, are also drawing growing numbers of pilgrims, as are the gravesites of Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the second-century thinker and martyr of Roman persecution, and the presumed gravesite of Rachel, his wife.

The growing popularity of Jewish gravesite pilgrimages in certain seasons surpasses Christian pilgrimages. Tiberias is a must-see site for Christian pilgrims because of the Sea of Galilee’s famous churches and holy sites mentioned in the Christian Bible, including the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy.

Avraham Kochavi greets visitor at Hat’chelet Beach in Tiberias, Israel, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Avraham Kochavi, the 88-year-old founder and operator of Hat’chelet Beach, Tiberias’s first commercial beach and a former nightlife boss, attributes the decline of the local nightlife scene not to religious coercion, but to a shift in patrons and their preferences.

“It’s because flights abroad became so cheap. Israelis go on vacation to Cyprus, not Tiberias,” he said.

Shabbat closures diminish the city’s touristic attractiveness, he added, but “nobody forces the businesses to close on Shabbat. There’s a major religious clientele. To remain kosher, we need to close for Shabbat. We lose weekend business to keep weekday patrons,” said Kochavi, whose beach and bar are open on Shabbat.

His mother’s family has lived in Tiberias for seven generations. Kochavi’s father was an Egyptian Jew who got a concession from David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, to build Hof Hat’chelet as a reward for smuggling British arms from Egypt to pre-state Israel, Kochavi says as he sits in his mobility scooter at the bar of the manicured-grass beach resort. “Tiberias is changing,” he said, “but not necessarily for the worse.”

Tourism is suffering but the underworld and criminals, whose presence made him shut down his discotheque in the 1990s, are gone, he noted.

Shas chief Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on January 18, 2023, hours after the High Court ruled he cannot serve as a government minister. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The perceived Haredi influence in Tiberias became national news in July, after the Supreme Court delayed the implementation of legislation that dispensed with a mandatory cooling-off period for caretaker mayors before they can run for election. The legislation was widely seen as designed to allow Tiberias’s acting mayor, Boaz Yosef, to run. Many believe Yosef is an ally of former interior minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Sephardic Haredi Shas party, which is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Tiberias Acting Mayor Boaz Yosef on the city promenade, May 15, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that Deri may not serve as interior minister, calling it “extremely unreasonable” in light of Deri’s multiple convictions, including for fraud and bribery. The coalition then passed legislation — part of a planned broader judicial overhaul — eliminating “reasonableness” as a parameter for judicial review. The court said it will review this legislation, raising concerns of an impending constitutional crisis amid widespread protests against the government and perceived religious coercion and anti-democratic moves.

Israelis and tourists cool off in the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias on June 28, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Cobi may harness these fears into another electoral victory, as he did in 2018, when he won on an anti-Haredi campaign. But his divisive platform may also prevent him from governing, as it did during his last stint. He won six seats out of 15 in the city council, a rare feat. But Cobi, whose volatile personality saw him thrown out of a Knesset discussion where he lashed out at his city comptroller in 2018, failed to peel off another two votes to pass a budget.

Deri then appointed Yosef, an Interior Ministry official, as caretaker mayor of Tiberias.

Gotliv, the Haredi father of three, believes that Yosef is an effective mayor and should have been allowed to run. “I don’t even think the Supreme Court would have interfered if it weren’t for the polarization in society,” he said.

Gotliv believes in Tiberias regardless of who gets elected, he said.

“This city has received a shot of adrenaline,” he says, referencing the Haredi influx. “It has created some friction, concerns and problems, but it’s also a new lease on life for a unique place.”

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