In a land where conflicts between residents draw blood on a regular basis, the skirmishes of Beit Shemesh, a city of just under 100,000 midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, may seem benign, almost trivial.
But the escalating disagreements between its ultra-Orthodox residents — who constitute about half the population and whose ranks are rapidly swelling — and the rest of Beit Shemesh seem impossible to reconcile and are prompting some residents to think of leaving a home they love and others to call for their part of town to secede.
One recent battle centers on illegal public signs ordering women in some neighborhoods to dress modestly. A group of four Beit Shemesh women won a court battle in January to have the signs removed and were to be financially compensated for having suffered the insults and threats of Haredi residents. But the signs never got taken down, sending the women and the ultra-Orthodox-controlled municipality back to court.
Other fierce struggles have been sparked by competing claims to public school buildings. And now a front is shaping up in twin battles over new neighborhoods for the growing city and the allocation of its limited resources.
“I think I’m the last of my kind to live here,” said Motti Malka, 60, a self-described traditional Jew who grew up in Beit Shemesh. “I’ll be left holding the keys,” he said, anticipating a time when the residents will be largely ultra-Orthodox.
Malka — who has lived in Beit Shemesh since he was four, worked for several of the city’s nonprofit organizations and raised his four kids here — said the city’s shift in population religiously rightward feels like a losing battle, and it saddens him.
The city, which was established in 1950, was first home to immigrants from Iran, Iraq and Morocco, and later to a large Russian and Ethiopian population. In the 1990s the ultra-Orthodox began moving to the area, looking for roomier , lower-cost housing. At the same time, a sizable population of English-speaking Orthodox immigrants began migrating to the area, looking for better access to Tel Aviv (or Jerusalem), along with better housing options.
Back then, recalled Malka, the atmosphere was fairly tranquil. “There was no hatred of the other; we accepted [the religious newcomers],” he said. “We grew up with lots of patience and respect for one another.”
Now, nearly 20 years later, it’s not as comfortable as it used to be. A central issue is the plan for the future — what this city, whose boundaries enclose an area just slightly smaller than Tel Aviv’s, will look like in ten or twenty years.
It’s a Tuesday morning and Malka was driving through the streets of Beit Shemesh in his beat-up minivan. He likes to take tours of the city, searching for examples of illegal construction.
“See that?” he said, pointing at a sloppily constructed room added on to an apartment building. “That’s what the Haredim do, they add rooms without permission, and you’re left with a city that looks like a pile of cement.”
For Malka and others, the lack of planning for the development of the city is one of the biggest gripes. They’re not necessarily against the ultra-Orthodox presence in Beit Shemesh; they just don’t want that community to have complete control of the city. What he wants, said Malka, is to maintain a sense of the original Beit Shemesh he grew up in.
Beit Shemesh goes way back. The city is named for the Canaanite sun-goddess Shemesh, or Sun, and the ruins of the biblical city are still visible on a low hilltop from the modern city, next to the construction sites where Beit Shemesh’s newest neighborhoods are going up.
“This is where I used to hike with my kids,” said Malka, pointing to the grass-covered hillocks and trails overlooking Ramat Beit Shemesh B. “We still bike here on Shabbat mornings.”
The city, however, has changed tremendously since Malka hiked those hills with his children.
When Beit Shemesh first expanded beyond its original city limits, the regional council added Ramat Beit Shemesh, or Beit Shemesh Heights, a new neighborhood that nearly doubled the size of the city.
There were also new neighborhoods added to one portion of Beit Shemesh, and many American immigrants moved into the new neighborhoods of Sheinfeld, Nofei Aviv and Migdal Hamayim. Those residents are largely religious Zionists, whose ideologies span the range represented by black hats to knitted kippahs.
In order to accommodate the influx of ultra-Orthodox, a brand-new neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh C, slated for Haredim only, was approved for a large swath of state-owned land bordering southern Beit Shemesh. That’s when one set of troubles began a few years ago, referred to by former Knesset member and Beit Shemesh resident Dov Lipman as the battle over the hills: 18,000 housing units planned for the new neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh, followed by another 20,000 soon after.
Those making the plans included Eli Yishai and Arial Attias, then of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who headed the Interior and Housing ministries, as well as Beit Shemesh’s current mayor, Meir Abutbul.
“It was clear it would attract Haredim,” said Lipman.
There were alternate suggestions put forth by non-Haredi members of the Beit Shemesh city council, said Lipman, including building the same number of housing units but in tall towers. That idea was nixed by the ultra-Orthodox faction because of the complications concerning elevators on Shabbat.
Lipman said he tried to promote plans to build a secular neighborhood, Hashahar, within the expansion of Ramat Beit Shemesh. That idea was rejected as well.
Now, six years later, construction is well underway on Ramat Beit Shemesh C, as well as D and E. Locals who are against those plans have taken the battle to court several times.
They’re furious that the additional neighborhoods make inroads into the Ella Valley, a verdant ribbon of open land that is Beit Shemesh’s backyard and home to wineries and farming communities as well as miles of bike and hiking paths and the beloved Lupine Hill.
“This is the green lung between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s a major national site,” said Eve Finkelstein, a local doctor and vocal supporter of various initiatives in Beit Shemesh. She recently won a legal battle along with three fellow supporters against the municipality over illegally posted signs demanding that women dress modestly in the Ramat Beit Shemesh B neighborhood. Finkelstein is also active in Save the Ella Valley, a local group of residents fighting the residential developments in the valley.
Finkelstein, originally from Australia, said she’s found it harder to get native-born Israeli residents of Beit Shemesh involved in the battles over the city’s character, but that hasn’t stopped her.
“I love Beit Shemesh,” she said. “I live in a 190-square-meter house on the edge of a field, and for the same amount of money I could live in a two-bedroom in Jerusalem. I don’t think there’s another community like this on the planet. We have a critical mass of people who have energy, and God has put us here in direct conflict [with the ultra-Orthodox residents] on the female issues and the environmental issues. I think it’s a calling.”
Finkelstein ramped up her fight to reclaim the Ella Valley when it appeared that new Ramat Beit Shemesh construction would edge into the fields and forests of the area.
“No one imagined that old plan would happen, but it gained traction with Yishai, Attias and Abutbul,” said Finkelstein. “The plan is to make Beit Shemesh an ultra-Orthodox city. That’s what the mayor said in his election campaign, that he would make it the next Bnei Brak [an ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel aviv]. And on his first day of being mayor, he got tractors to come and destroy the soccer pitch because that helped define Beit Shemesh as a non-Haredi city.”
Finkelstein’s list of complaints against the mayor is long: He organized property tax discounts for Belz Hasidim; he tried to cancel plans for a police training college that would have brought in nonreligious residents (the academy did get built); he removed parking spaces because, he said, Haredim don’t drive; he eliminated parks, community centers and swimming pools. He narrowed roads and changed street names to honor ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
“It’s almost childish, but that’s what they do,” she lamented.
Now, said Finkelstein, there is talk of an official separation between mixed religious-secular Beit Shemesh and the largely ultra-Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh.
“It’s a turf war,” she said. “They [Ramat Beit Shemesh] want nothing to do with us, so it’s logical, but I won’t put my energy in supporting a separation. I don’t think the Interior Ministry will invest its money in that. The State of Israel doesn’t seem to care about Beit Shemesh. They’re just giving up on it.”
Daniel Goldman, a British-born resident of Beit Shemesh, agrees with Finkelstein. He points to the municipality’s severe economic difficulties,noting that many of the ultra-Orthodox don’t pay property taxes. There’s a significant lack of city services, he said, such as busing for children with special needs, no public library or auditorium, no services that would benefit both ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox residents.
“The general feeling is that the city is on its way to being Haredi, in spite of the protestations of the mayor and some of the people around him,” said Goldman. “They’ve convinced themselves that can be done, without the rest of us leaving, and there’s no real national-level debate about this.”
Who does care about Beit Shemesh?
According to Malka, the needs of Haredim far outpace those of the other residents of Beit Shemesh. There are 23,000 ultra-Orthodox students in local schools, and about 10,000 secular and modern Orthodox students. Those kinds of numbers are what helped derail plans for Ramat Beit Shemesh that included a college, national park and suburban housing for secular residents.
“Beit Shemesh was supposed to be beautiful,” said Malka. “But instead we have the Haredim, and if you build the right place for them, they’ll come. That’s the outlook of the mayor.”
Moshe Abutbul, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, became the city’s head in October 2013. He narrowly won a revote in March 2014 after the courts overturned the original election result over allegations his supporters had committed systematic voter fraud.
Originally from Beersheba, where he was raised in a traditional family and attended secular schools, Abutbul became more religious in high school and moved with his wife to Beit Shemesh when they married 29 years ago.
A short, bullish figure who sits behind a massive desk crowded with honorary plaques and a plate of sesame cookies, Abutbul likes to compare Beit Shemesh to Rosh Ha’ayin, a central Israeli town that was once home to Yemenite immigrants until the army built suburban neighborhoods around the town for army officers and their families.
“That changed the city,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. Haredim want to move here, and they have the power of the market.”
It was difficult to find ultra-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh willing to speak about the situation in the city. Anyone approached preferred not to be interviewed, and while Abutbul and his spokesperson, Matti Rosenzweig, who is also ultra-Orthodox, said they would find other ultra-Orthodox interviewees, they didn’t respond to repeated requests.
During a brief interview with the mayor in his Beit Shemesh municipal office, Abutbul called Beit Shemesh an “incubator” of institutions, educational and other, “that happen to be Haredi.”
He said he has to make sure Haredi buyers can find affordable housing in Beit Shemesh.
“Prices are better in Beit Shemesh,” said Abutbul. “We want to build for everyone and relate to everyone. We build massively to offer better prices. We don’t know who will live there. The challenge is to live together.”
Shelly Levine, a real estate broker known for helping develop the newer, English-speaking neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, dismissed the notion that the city has become too ultra-Orthodox. She compares it to any other town or city that has a mix of various populations.
“Beit Shemesh is very much like Jerusalem,” she said. “It has Sheinfeld, which is like Baka,” a mixed religious and secular neighborhood at the southern end of Jerusalem, “or (Ramat Beit Shemesh) A which is different from (Ramat Beit Shemesh) G. In (Ramat Beit Shemesh) D, it will be knitted kippa people, and parts of Beit Shemesh, like near the BIG,” a discount shopping center in the older part of town, “will be secular.”
According to Goldman, the new Beit Shemesh towers planned near the BIG shopping center will probably end up being sold to ultra-Orthodox residents, mostly because secular buyers aren’t interested in Beit Shemesh.
Levine pointed out two current projects in the Beit Shemesh neighborhoods of Sheinfeld and Ganei Ha’ela that are being filled with “knitted yarmulke” types.
“Lots of people are still coming,” said Levine. “The best religious education takes place in Beit Shemesh and that’s the big pull.”
It’s why Anglos like Dov Bruce Krulwich moved to Beit Shemesh’s Sheinfeld 10 years ago. A computer programmer who is modern Orthodox and considers himself part of the national religious camp, Krulwich said he loves Beit Shemesh and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“I like my home, I like my neighborhood, I like the particular sub-community around my shul,” he said. “I like the schools my seven kids go to, I’m happy with things like the mall and the coffee shops, and I love the ability to go in either direction from Beit Shemesh to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”
Originally from the Washington, DC, area, Krulwich said he even likes his ultra-Orthodox neighbors.
“With the exception of the really bad incident with the school, I like the amenities of the Haredi neighborhoods,” he said, referring to a 2011 incident in which 8-year-old Naama Margolese was spat on by extremist Haredi men who were protesting the location of a girls’ school in their neighborhood. “I very frequently go to bakeries or stores in Haredi areas. I love the ability to find a place to [pray].”
Krulwich thinks the situation that has arisen in Beit Shemesh is due to ultra-Orthodox extremists, and for now, is relying on the mayor and the national government to solve it.
“I think a lot of the ultra-Orthodox constituency is happy to live and interact well,” said Krulwich. “I think of us as a city that beat the extremists. Nothing’s perfect, but there’s not one neighborhood in the country that hasn’t had some kind of incident.”
Malka and Goldman believe it’s not a question of whether Haredim and the other residents of the city can or can’t live together. What bothers them is that the municipal administration is building new housing without paying any attention to the dearth of municipal services and infrastructure.
There’s a significant lack of supermarkets, kindergartens and parks, said Malka, driving through the new neighborhoods and pointing to the lack of public space.
Water bills keep going up, said Goldman, because only a portion of the city’s residents pay their bills, and the roads are never clean.
And yet, said Goldman, he’ll probably never leave.
“On a micro level, if I look at my house, my street, my neighbors — it may sound insane, but I can’t improve on what I have,” said Goldman. “We love this place.”
At the same time, he’s expecting a massive exodus from the city in the near future.
“It’s hard to see how it won’t happen,” he said.
It’s getting harder to see Beit Shemesh as a normal, functioning city, said Goldman.
“Given the makeup and mosaic of types of people in Beit Shemesh, this city is actually a place of great potential,” said Goldman. “It’s not a frontier town, which just adds to the frustration of why that potential can’t be expressed in this city.”
He thinks the city’s future is pretty clear: The planning for Ramat Beit Shemesh C and D, as well as E, F and any other neighborhoods that will come along in the future, are “100% in the hands of the Haredim,” he said.
“It’s absolutely clear that they have a very focused agenda about the maximum incoming population at maximum speed,” he said. “It’s an almost insane push and desire just to approve projects and get people in without any meaningful strategic planning. I think it will have the potential to sink Beit Shemesh; the die is set in terms of what new populations will look like. I don’t think Abutbul has the desire or ability to make this a multicultural city.”
There’s also no national debate about Beit Shemesh, said Goldman, and there won’t be, not now that the current national government is reliant for its majority on right-wing Orthodox politicians who will presumably side with Abutbul and his supporters.
He doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t like the idea of a separation between Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh either.
“I didn’t make aliyah in order to live in a ghetto,” said Goldman.
Separate neighborhoods, said realtor Levine, is how it works all over Israel.
“In every city, it’s a polarization,” said Levine. “This is indicative of what’s going on in Israel rather than Beit Shemesh. It’s what’s happening everywhere.”