Last Tuesday, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar visited Beit Shemesh. He was received with all due state panoply, including a row of short flags assembled at the entrance to City Hall. The minister wanted to figure out - or, in the usual parlance, "see up close" - why Beit Shemesh had made its way onto Channel 2's Friday evening newsmagazine. To the minister's credit, let it be said: He is always attentive to Channel 2 news programs, and from there works efficiently and diligently.
The television report had described a confrontation between secular and religious residents of the city. At the heart of the debate is a secular school that Mayor Moshe Abutbul wants to shut down so he can hand the building over to ultra-Orthodox students.
The mayor was pleased with the outcome of Sa'ar's visit. Everything was postponed, and every postponement is helpful - because who knows what the future will bring. By midday, the flags had already been loaded onto a gray pickup truck and the mayor was pleased with his victory over the minister, "who could not just go to the Knesset and make a decision for us without first talking to us."
Beit Shemesh is the largest city - with a population of about 100,000 - that has a mayor from Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party. The cloud of the "Tehranization" of cities with a secular minority and Haredi majority hovers over Abutbul's head, as it does over the heads of the pupils in the secular school. They know that although their dispersal was deferred, it is nonetheless a sure thing; the mayor is aware of the government's fear of Shas fanaticism.
Abutbul dismisses this fear with a flutter of his fingers. He comes off as entirely pleasant and conciliatory. To begin with, he says, "The secular people here are not really that secular." They may have televisions at home, but they don't drive on Shabbat. Besides, he adds, "There will be no Tehran here." True, he has accepted some amendments aimed at improving the quality of religious life, such as separating men and women on buses. "The public wants it, so why not?" he explains. "The main thing is to have appropriate democratic legislation."
Abutbul is a very cordial fellow, slightly round. His voice is soft and his face welcoming. There is certainly no arguing with his taste in suits, or that of senior Shas members, which can be described as refined and elegant. His tie (striped, gray) also matches. He is 45, the father of eight children, an ordained rabbi and a ritual slaughterer. Until his victory in the municipal elections at the end of 2008, Beit Shemesh had been governed by mayors from the Likud party for 14 years.
Two terms in office will be enough for Abutbul. You have to rejuvenate yourself, he says. Where will he rejuvenate himself? In the Knesset, where else?
The exterior appearance of the municipal government here is Haredi. Photographs of former mayors hang in the corridors, displaying mischievous forelocks and thick mustaches. These days, you won't spot anyone here without a skullcap on his head or a skirt that reaches below her ankles. Abutbul's cell phone also underwent strict conversion; "Authorized by the Rabbinical Committee for Communications" has been stamped on it. I have no doubt - with a seal like that, there's no way to talk dirty on this phone.
Abutbul dismisses the possibility that he is perceived as narrow-minded with a small smile. Beit Shemesh does not have a movie theater (there were two, which have been converted into banquet halls), but he himself did watch a movie not long ago - and enjoyed it, too. The movie was "Blaumilch Canal," Ephraim Kishon's 1969 comedy. Abutbul particularly recommends taking note of the municipal aspects of the film. Moreover, he himself has acted in a movie or two. Okay, they were Haredi flicks, but it's nevertheless impossible to ignore the Hollywood glitz, however minuscule, that is surely part of his character.
He firmly rejects the idea of separation as a way to prevent friction and disputes. This is not Jerusalem, with the Haredim in the north, the secular people in the south and the Arabs in the east. He wants a mixed Beit Shemesh; let secular people come live here, too - why not? He plans to build a hospital and offer fine homes at alluring prices.
And the violence? The conflicts? They have decreased significantly during his term in office. And the letter? Oh, right, two weeks ago he received an envelope containing a rifle bullet and a letter signed by "the secular residents." It's nothing serious, he says. Someone probably saw him on television and freaked out. He gets along with the Haredi extremists, quietly giving them what they never got before. All in ways of pleasantness.
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