Beit Shemesh has spoken

March 20, 2014

In last week’s mayoral election in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, incumbent Moshe Abutbul appears to have been returned to office fair and square. That wasn’t the case last fall, when the results of an earlier election went in Abutbul’s favor, only to be overturned due to voter fraud. While it appears that the voters of Beit Shemesh have spoken, it remains to be seen whether the vote was a victory for coexistence in the tense streets of the city. Beit Shemesh is home to a secular, traditional and modern Orthodox majority and a large haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, minority. Abutbul was the incumbent haredi candidate in the election. The ultra-Orthodox minority won the election.

Abutbul received 51 percent of the vote, just 458 votes more than his opponent, Eli Cohen, who was endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turnout was high at 76 percent, higher in fact than the overturned results. The Jerusalem Post reported that groups of haredim, who traditionally boycott the elections, and haredi women, whom some sects forbid from voting, were given special dispensation by their rabbis to vote. While not illegal, it does seem like a cynical use of democracy from at-times extreme Jewish groups that don’t recognize the State of Israel but are willing to benefit from the public dime.

This is the same constituency whose members made headlines by spitting on a modern Orthodox schoolgirl, attacked a public bus after a woman passenger refused to move to the back in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox male passengers and, a couple of years earlier, threw parts of the city into chaos with daily riots. Abutbul himself displayed either ignorance of reality or a close reading of his constituency when he claimed that no gays lived in his city, adding, “Thank God, this city is holy and pure.”

At least one Israeli commentator suggested that the local political drama in Beit Shemesh is being amplified into a national issue for partisan reasons. But we have our own interest in Beit Shemesh. For the last several years, the city has been the home of choice for a flood of English-speaking olim. Down I-95, the Greater Washington Jewish community has partnered with the city for more than 18 years. Millions of communal dollars from well-intentioned Americans has been invested in social service and educational programs to benefit the citizens of Beit Shemesh.

So while Beit Shemesh has spoken, and we respect the results, the question now is whether the growing city can fulfill its image as an Israeli success story or whether it will continue to be emblematic of the deep divides in Israeli society.

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