In the coming days we will come to the end of the longest municipal election campaign in history. By 10pm on Tuesday I will have been through three separate campaigns in the last 12 months.
This is more than any sane person can cope with!
There have been ebbs and flows over the last year, and a group of unbelievably dedicated activists have donated thousands of hours, and given of their heart and soul, in order to make this campaign successful.
I have met people, who have been my neighbors for over 14 years, but only now have I had the opportunity to get to know them and in many cases hug and love them. People from all backgrounds have been united by the strongest deepest desire to try something so rarely attempted in Israel.
It’s a crazy experiment. Can we really put aside the 10% that separates us and focus on and amplify the 90% that unites?
All over the city, pockets of apathy have been replaced with care and ambition for Beit Shemesh to reach the heights. This is about uncovering the true potential of the different communities as they tackle decades of living separately under systemic mismanagement and nepotism.
All this cannot and will not change overnight. Indeed there are some out there who believe that that Beit Shemesh’s horse has long since bolted the stable.
Those who have followed my previous musings on this and other topics know what my Dad used to say. “You are either part of the solution, or else you are part of the problem.” It has been inspiring to see how many friends, neighbors and thousands of people from across the city have taken this to heart, each in their own way, believing that we have yet to pass the point of no return.
Passions have been running high from early on, continuing all the way through a bruising and often very personal election. Since the decision of the Supreme Court to repeat the elections, we have been plunged back into the round the clock activism of the election campaign. Blessedly for all involved it has been mercifully short!
I know that there are still some voters who remain undecided and it is to you who I welcome the chance to speak directly. First and foremost, get out and vote! This is your civic duty! While I unwaveringly prefer a specific candidate, I still say get out and vote, no matter who you choose.
So why then am I choosing Eli? More to the point, why have I chosen to dedicate hundreds of hours over the last year with the firmest of beliefs that he is the best possible person for this job?
On the practical level, he has the support of a group of activists and fellow candidates who are people that understand where Beit Shemesh has been and the enormous potential it has for ALL of its residents. Eli has lived here for 50 years and remembers when it was a town where everyone knew each other by name.
Eli is a public servant to his fingertips. His life has been in the public sector and his heart has been into building this country into a better, stronger place. That cannot be denied and the many thousands of Olim that are here because of his leadership efforts are living examples of this.
Eli has been a senior manager responsible for budgets in the hundreds of millions of shekels and projects coordinated with the highest levels of government. Whilst he has not held a senior political role, he has negotiated budgets and bills through all political levels and remains in close contact with some of our country’s most influential leaders – relationships that he will immediately leverage with the local coalition partners to our city’s benefit.
Admittedly, Beit Shemesh in 2014 — and this election in particular — have forced us to make this campaign about more than just who will practically be the better city manager — where I can see little doubt that Eli is the clear leader.
This campaign has split our city down tribal lines – plain and simple. Recognizing that if the campaign were about merit alone, Moshe Abutbol would have a far more difficult battle, I believe he chose to make it about religion and sectarianism.
The Abutbol campaign has not been talking about advancing our city, embracing fiscal management or cleaning it up to overcome the negative stereotypes that have driven us down. It has been about encouraging Haredim to vote for him because he is Haredi and to oppose Eli because he is not.
They have sought to paint me and anyone who is “brazen enough” to seek out a better direction for this city as “a hater of religion”. They have ignored Eli’s numerous efforts to reach out to the Haredi community with love, tolerance and understanding and claimed that our opposition to the Kitzonim (the extremists) is somehow an indication of our opposition to all Haredim. This is a gross misrepresentation and one which hurts deeply as I know that Eli is someone who believes that this city needs to heal – but can only do so if it first roots out those who are committed to our downfall… the extremists.
On the other hand we need to be honest and admit that there is no shortage of bad will towards certain Haredi leaders, here and outside of Beit Shemesh, who have taken off their gloves in verbal attacks on the non-Haredi world. We are rightfully suspicious and concerned over where Moshe Abutbul’s true allegiances lie. Based on his numerous public pronouncements that he will favor the interests of only one sector of the city and having made almost no effort to reach out to the non-Haredi residents in his campaign, we know that his election would mean outright preferential treatment for “his” political allies while continuing to largely ignore progress in the rest of the city. Such a trend will lead to a further damaged social fabric, with obvious negative knock-on economic implications – a result which will hurt the entire city – regardless of where you live.
Conversely Eli has repeatedly said in every possible forum that he is committed to the interests of ALL the city’s residents. To the point of criticism, he has campaigned in all areas of the city to send the message that he will be the mayor of ALL, even those who might not share his worldview.
It is deeply disheartening that Moshe Abutbol has succeeded in manipulating the Haredi political hierarchy — mostly because those efforts hurt Haredi interests who would benefit from a more inclusive city. While they baselessly claim that Eli is illegitimate as a mayor because they question his commitment to Jewish tradition (a right we were always taught was solely reserved for the One Above…), in Jerusalem, several Haredi groups openly backed Nir Barkat.
I would therefore call upon all voters who choose to think of the best interests of the city and those of their children to open their hearts and minds. Choose the candidate who is best for you and your city – not for the limited interests of the askanim – many of whom have no familiarity with Beit Shemesh – bringing Haredi Rabbis from near and far in support, even as far afield as Baltimore and Philadelphia.
I am not choosing Eli as my Rabbi, although many local Rabbis have endorsed him. Those of us who seek out inspirational figures to guide us spiritually don’t typically choose our mayors or politicians for that purpose. Eli is a man of tremendous dignity, respect for others and a love of tradition that many of us should be blessed to emulate. But as noted above, it is not our jobs to ever attempt to judge the religious commitment of another and to do so in my mind is counter to those very Jewish values which we hope to imbue in our children.
Eli has a vision for his hometown which overlaps fully with my own – and those who have had the opportunity to see him up close, typically find many such areas of common interest. He wants a Beit Shemesh with a new self-confidence. He wants a Beit Shemesh where Yeshivot can be built in the day, and not in the dead of night. He wants a Beit Shemesh where all children get an opportunity to study in the best conditions available in 2014. He wants a city that is run with long-term thinking and planning, where resources are used efficiently and for the good of the whole population. Where classical music lovers can live alongside those dedicated to life in Kollel. Where sporting excellence can be achieved with the help of the city and not in spite of it.
Most of all Eli has a vision of city at peace with itself, with people from so many different backgrounds and religious levels learning to live in harmony, preserving the atmosphere Beit Shemesh was once so famous for and putting us all at the forefront of what can be achieved when we work together, rather than constantly fight.
When you enter the booth on Tuesday you will be voting for a better future for you and your children and your choice should be made on those merits.
If you appreciate the enormous potential that exists to point Beit Shemesh in a new direction then you will understand why I so strongly support Eli Cohen – and why I encourage you to do so as well.