What I learnt from Eli Cohen

This evening, a large group of RBS residents met with Eli Cohen to discuss our feelings upon losing the the mayoral race, and to hear from Eli what he is planning to do at this juncture.

Eli began his speech by pointing out that the elections were won by the Hareidi voters, including those “zealots” who are so anti-Zionist that they never participate in elections. Their participation this time is as great an achievement for Am Yisrael as was the court decision to have new elections due to organized cheating. The most anti-Zionist Jews have recognized that having a Jewish, democratic State enables them to maintain their lifestyle. This may, sometime down the road, lead to an appreciation for Jewish Sovereignty, even in its imperfect form.

Another important issue that Eli raised is the cooperation between the 9 (out of 19) city councilors who supported Eli in the mayoral race. These councilors – from the Likud, Eli’s joint list with the Bayit Yehudi, Motti Cohen’s list (representing the working class of old Beit Shemesh) and Richard Peres as yet another Beit Shemesh native involved in local education and culture – have all recognized the need to prioritize their shared vision for the city as a whole over any one item in the city’s budget. They are each holding out on joining the municipal coalition as individual parties, demanding that the mayor take all of them together in order to prove that he wants to develop this city for ALL residents. Otherwise, they will ALL sit in opposition, and pool their energies, supporters and connections with Knesset members, in order to block any one-sided changes the coalition might try to make to Beit Shemesh.

Those who followed local politics in the previous term saw Abutbul hand out small budgets to please a few councilors, while on the large scale, ignoring the needs of what was then more than half the city. This time, there will be no accepting of crumbs, such as a single school building or a one-time cheque to a public library. The mayor will have to earn their support by giving significant responsibilities in long-term and wide-scope projects and goals for the city. The half of city council that are not in the mayor’s pocket will, as a unit, whether in the coalition or opposition, be able to accomplish far more than a any one city councilor sitting in the coalition.

Splitting the city into two authorities is a subject that had been raised many times , probably starting with the first time that the residents of RBS B stoned public buses and burnt garbage cans. The fact that the “bridge neighbourhood” between older and newer neighbourhoods houses so many violent extremists, created a divide in people’s minds between all of RBS and all of “Old Beit Shemesh”. In my discussions with people from all parts of the city, it is apparent that many residents of each half of the city have never been to the other half, much less feel like parts of the same community

However, to Eli’s mind, splitting the municipality into two distinct authorities is making the statement that no one can live with Hareidim. Many people feel that way, but Eli feels otherwise – that even as a minority in a Hareidi town, other Jews SHOULD be able to live comfortably and have their needs met.

Eli pointed out that the ball is in the mayor’s court. If Mayor Abutbul continues to give all authority to hareidi councilors, and refuses to respect other groups’ needs (such as continuing to withhold on the civic centre, public libraries and non-hareidi tzedaka organizations), then perhaps that statement is true. But if the 9 councilors can, as a large unit, ensure that the city of Beit Shemesh meets the needs of all stripes of residents, then we will become an example of coexistence and cooperation that many Israelis never imagines could happen.

As for respect, Eli pointed out that the most painful issue in the election campaign (of the mayor and certain hareidi parties) was not the slander against himself personally, but rather the complete and total disrespect towards the Torah and Rabbanim of Religious Zionism., The rabbanim, schools, yeshivot and entire lifestyle of the Religious-Zionist movement were insulted personally and as a group. The mantra that was repeated was that the hareidi rabbanim are the only true rabbanim, that the hareidi lifestyle is the only Torah true lifestyle, and that the Religious Zionists are part of a plot to destroy Torah. (While Eli did not say it, the denigration of traditional Jews is also an insult to Torah, which , until this generation , accepted the variety of degrees of observance among believing Jews.)

The religious and Gd-fearing traditional Zionists – who sincerely believe that building our country, working for a living, and developing technology, medicine, agriculture and a military ARE the Torah way – MUST, says Eli, demand apologies from the hareidi askanim, rabbanim and media!! Not for our personal honour, but for the honour of the Torah. We must expect that state religious affairs be handled by rabbanim who support the State.

I will elaborate: We must insist upon respect for our rabbanim and our lamdanim. We cannot continue to allow hareidi askanim and journalists to slander our rabbanim or treat our Torah observance as b’di’avad. There can be no more tolerance for Hareidi journalists calling Zioni Rabbanim by their surnames without the title Rav. There can be no more exclusion of Zionisim Rabbanim from Religious Councils, no more discrimination against Zionist balaniot in public mikvaot. There must be RESPECT for our Torah.

I can already hear people complaining that if Eli is not Shomer Shabbat, who is he to talk about the honour of Torah? But that is exactly the point. Torah is not an all-or-nothing game. Regarding the mitzva of Shiluah haKein, Hazal teach us that we “do not know the true value of any mitzva.” Is Shabbat more important than bringing tens of thousands of Jews back to Eretz Yisrael, and in that way saving them from murder or assimilation? Sure, it would be wonderful if the same person who went on shelihut all those years were also Shomer Shabbat. But we are human, and each person who does something for Am Yisrael is doing it because he believes in Gd and His Torah, even if they might not express it in a way that seems “perfect” in other people’s eyes.

My closing thought:

In the years that there has been Hareidi Violence (even little things like the accepted practice of breaking car flags) in Beit Shemesh, people who live outside Beit Shemesh always asked us , “why do you still live there?” I think that Eli’s campaign and his goals for the next period sum up our answer. We don’t choose a place to live in Eretz Yisrael simply for our own convenience. By living in Bet Shemesh, our family has been part of a large community that includes all stripes of Jews. Our Torah-Zionist goal in living here is to bring Am Yisrael to a new era of respect for others to an era of cooperation between Jews, with Jews stepping out of their comfort zone of only living with “people like us,” and recognizing that we are all One Nation with One Future.

As long as we can work on that goal, there is a value to staying here.

About the Author
Chana made Aliya at age 17 as part of her goal to live Torah in the details. When not writing obsessively, she is a full-time wife and mother, with side helpings of remedial math teaching and case management for special-needs kids. Currently studying psychology and education at Open University and desperately seeking cleaning help.
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