A record breaking number of people came out in Beit Shemesh on the 11th to support Eli and the parties of the Gush Hazioni. Hundreds upon hundreds volunteered before and during election day to try and make the dream come true. It was not to be. Not only was it not to be, but the ramifications of this election will be felt for a long time, and perhaps in some ways it is too early to truly get to grips with the new reality.
There are many elements that we tried to promote during the last year of campaigning, led by Eli, but endorsed by the many who have run with him over this period. I would like to focus on two of these, although there are others perhaps worthy of debate.
The first and most important element was the belief that Eli stands for a Beit Shemesh in which all communities can feel welcome and flourish. This absolutely included the Haredim, and at every step he emphasized this.
The second element (which became particularly relevant after the first election for obvious reasons) was our belief in the rule of law, and the wider ramifications of living within a democracy. Living in a democracy is so much more that simply showing up and putting your vote in the ballot box. It is about accepting a set of rules, and then playing by them. It is about not stooping low, even if the other side is not playing fair. It is about creating an environment of open debate, even when that debate is difficult and uncomfortable, and in the context of Beit Shemesh feeling disadvantaged by accepting the rules of the game, when the other side at best pays lip service.
I made Aliya over 20 years ago. I did so based on the ideology of Bnei Akiva which has always led me to believe the fate of the Jewish people will be decided by the events that happen in Israel and the society that we strive to create. Whilst I cannot say that I moved to Beit Shemesh in 2001 as a specific expression of that ideology, the longer I have lived here, the more obvious it is to me that Beit Shemesh has and will continue to have an important role in the future social history of our country.
In some ways the fate of Beit Shemesh had already been decided before I even arrived. It is no secret that the massive growth and in particularly housing for the Haredi population were conceived long before Moshe Abutbol came to power, and the congruence of local economic interests and national convenience set the city on a very specific course. In many ways the election we have just fought should have happened years ago, but politics and ego along with circumstance and public awareness stopped that from being the case.
What is absolutely true is that I did not dream of waking up one morning and saying to myself – I am living in Haredi city. This is not something that I really wanted for myself or my kids. Not out of any hatred for the Haredi lifestsyle (although I have increasing dislike and criticism for it), but because, like so many others (including Haredim) who have chosen Beit Shemesh as their home, we wanted to bring our kids up in a heterogeneous community where there is opportunity to see up close how others behave, what they believe and most of all, see that it is possible (even if challenging) to live side by side with those different from ourselves.
I have the greatest respect for our local politicians. Moshe Shitrit is a true leader for the future, Richard Peres has a heart the size of a water melon and Motti Cohen is a gladiator of a public servant. It goes without saying that I have strong feelings for Eli, and have grown to love and respect the other members of the Beit Shemesh Chozeret team. Our ability to survive as a wider community largely depends on their ability to create a consensus around how best to protect the community.
There is at this point in time somewhat of a disagreement about how to move forward. The two big questions on our plate are whether to go all out promoting a plan to separate Beit Shemesh from Ramat Beit Shemesh, or crudely the Haredim and the rest of us, and the second is if and how it would be possible to join the Mayor’s coalition in a way that would actually achieve some of the goals we set out during the campaign.
I have previously stated that I am not in favour of a plan to separate the city. There are many elements to this position, but I would like to focus on a couple.
Firstly, as much as I did not dream of bringing up my kids in Haredi city, I did not make Aliya to admit that Jews are unable to live alongside other Jews. For me the statement that we must separate off from the Haredim reminds me of the famous statement by Avraham –
הֲלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ, הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי – אִם-הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה, וְאִם-הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה
This should not be the ultimate vision for building our society.
I also believe that having worked so hard to establish that we will live by democratic means, there is a terrible מראית עין not waiting one day after losing the election, to turn around and respond that the election has taught us that we must separate our ways.
I am not papering over the cracks (maybe huge cracks) that have come to the fore. Few people are more disappointed than myself at the behavior of the askanim and politicians in their blind race to win the election. I am no less disturbed by the complicit and in some cases active support for this behavior by Rabbanim, both local and national. The fact that in their eyes the fight for Beit Shemesh had become a sub-struggle against the government, the courts and in some ways the State itself, cannot excuse the hatred that this inspired. I am yet to hear one ounce of חשבון נפש on this issue, and I will not rest until there has been.
Notwithstanding this, they and of course the regular Haredim are our brothers, they were before and they still are now. This doesn’t mean we should put up with bad behavior, or be patronized to because we have a different religious or sociological outlook. It just means that we have to continue to struggle to find a way to live side by side.
Let us also be honest and accept the fact that even within Beit Shemesh (even taking out the Kirya Haredit and Hefzi Bah) Abutbol received ~20% support. Let us also be honest and accept that Herzl, Bialik, Ramat Lechi and other neighbourhoods, are highly unlikely to be the places where our children decide to make their homes, even if they choose to stay in the city. This by the way is true for most of the people who are campaigning for the split. Hence, there is every likelihood that those areas will continue to become more Haredi over time, and unless we are suggesting some type of racist exclusion, there is nothing that can be done to stop that.
I am personally unconvinced about the national political will for such a move, both because national policy has been towards combining municipalities rather than splitting them, but perhaps more importantly I cannot envisage another nationally driven policy that would be read as anti-Haredi. Make no mistake, rightly or wrongly these will be the battle lines (again).
I have not mentioned here what the economic implications for both cities would be, this is because as yet nobody has really looked into it.
One final thought, any realistic plan to split the city would take several years to come to fruition. Clearly no decision of this magnitude could be made at a government level without a full process. Let’s remember that we live in Israel and how long these things take, certainly something as controversial as this.
What will happen in the meantime? Will we be able to find any room for cooperation with the mayor at the same time as driving this controversial plan forward? How will we all feel if we set out on this course, which will probably exclude us from protecting what is left of our community interests, only to find that in 5 years the plan was not adopted by the government, for reasons that we may never know. Remember that the reason we are in the mess is because of national political deals.
Whilst I am not sure that the Mayor has any real interest in anything other than the ceaseless chase to become Bnei Brak, it is fitting in a democracy first to challenge him with that and give him an opportunity to prove us wrong.
I fully intend to stay and fight it out. Can’t promise that I will always feel the same, I am a rational person and there will be a point at which I will accept that nothing more can be done. Perhaps at that point, even I will be persuaded that splitting the populations is the only remaining option, but right now, where we stand at the moment, I think that our efforts should be focused on using the unity achieved around Eli’s leadership in order to leverage the maximum gains from the Haredi leadership of the city.