When I decided to get involved in the Beit Shemesh mayoral election campaign, I believed that the main issue was to back a candidate that could unite the all the communities of Beit Shemesh, and have the experience and skills to manage the city, which in corporate terms needs a complete turn-around.
I believed and continue to believe that the choice of mayor should primarily be based on two key factors, relevant skills and experience to do the best job as a manager and administrator, and leadership to carry all parts of the city and cater for their requirements.
In Beit Shemesh this was always going to be a great challenge, given the complex mosaic that makes up the population. We have Haredim (from Kanai’m, Eida Haredit, all the way to the so-called “New Haredim” that work and serve in the army ), Hilonim, Masortim, Dati’im on the one hand, and almost every possible Jewish ethnic background on the other (North African, Western, Russian, Ethiopian and Israeli native). All of this is crammed into a tight space and a city that has suffered from bad strategic planning and severe growing pains. It is no surprise that there have been inter-communal tensions over the years.
What then is the vision for this city and how can is it possible for one candidate to win the support of residents from across this wide spectrum that it characterizes?
I have lived in Beit Shemesh for 12 years, but for the very first time I have seen a group of activists join together from almost every one of the backgrounds mentioned above in order to change the course the city is currently charting.
The most interesting part of this journey is to have met many Haredi residents of the city, who specifically chose to live in Beit Shemesh because of its heterogenic nature. They say openly (if quietly) that had they wanted to raise their families within a homogenous environment they would have picked Beitar, Kiryat Sefer or Elad. Why then do they seek to protect the multi-faceted nature of life in Beit Shemesh?
I believe that they, along with the rest of the group supporting the unifying candidate, know that if Beit Shemesh continues down its current path, not only will the non-Haredi communities feel less and less welcome, but that the more moderate brands of Haredi living, will also become less welcome.
It is somewhat of a myth that Haredi violence is directed mostly to the outside world. Whilst we do see the occasional outburst (like the infamous Orot Banot saga) towards non-Haredim, ask anybody on the inside and they will tell you that violence and intimidation is a daily occurrence inside the Haredi world.
The fear of many ordinary Haredim is that the more dominated by hard-core Haredim it becomes, the more this intimidation will intensify, and indeed we have witnessed many examples of this in the last few weeks of the campaign as the contest heats up and nears the finishing line.
In the last week or so this has taken a new and almost amusing turn. Hitherto non-Haredi rabbis (at least notionally) like Rav Tzvi Tau of Har Hamor and Rav Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba, are now being used as part of the mayor’s campaign to be re-elected, this of course in addition to the obvious conscription of Haredi Gedolim (various Hassidic and Litvak rabbis of renown).
Surprisingly for me, many college-educated Western olim are now debating among themselves how they could vote for Eli, who as a Masorti Jew does not wear a kipa regularly and does not keep Shabbat strictly, when there is a kipa wearing alternative. Ethics, the negative campaigning, and even obvious law-breaking campaign that the so-called G-d-fearing Jew Moshe Abutbol has shown, is not viewed as germane, so long as he keeps Shabbat.
I have even found myself drawn into endless Facebook debates on the issue with various residents who seem to lie on the fringes of Haredi life, but just enough to have trouble going against Rav Ovadia or Rav Shteinman (Sefardi and Ashkenazi Gedolei Hador).
Let’s take a step back. Let’s focus on what might happen if Moshe Abutbol wins a second term. We must assume that he will be strongly influenced by the same Haredi politicians and rabbis that influenced him during his first term. These include the local senior Eida Haredit rabbi, who although not at the most extreme end from a violence perspective, has a very narrow view as to what may be considered acceptable from a Jewish or Halachic point of view when drafting the city policy. Also include are Litvak politicians, whose declared aim is to make Beit Shemesh like Bnei Brak. Oddly, even though Moshe Abutbol represents Shas, one of the most discriminated groups in the city are his own Sefardi constituency.
Anyone who is looking for Beit Shemesh to be a model for co-existence among the different brands of Jewish ethnic and religious groups, almost as a microcosm for wider Israeli society, must look to the candidate who has formed a group of supporters who represent this ideal by their very variety. On the other hand, those seeking a homogenous and almost monolithic future for Beit Shemesh should vote for the candidate who has used maximum scare tactics and rabbinic edicts to pull his support together.
Deeds in this case speak much louder than actions and give us a great crystal ball view of the future.
Whilst each choice is of course democratically legitimate, those hiding behind “my rabbi said so” should not be surprised if they are the next group to be called the enemies of Torah as the forces of extremism extend their reach beyond the non-Haredi groups into those, who today consider themselves to be of the same interests as the mayor.
My choice is clear and hence I will be voting for Eli Cohen for mayor of Beit Shemesh this Tuesday.