Shock and Awe: The Holy Wars of Beit Shemesh Rage On

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Even those who fought hardest for it to happen seemed stunned by the news that there would be fresh elections in Beit Shemesh, following a landmark decision by the Jerusalem District Court. It seemed too good to be true.

I remember what it felt like in Beit Shemesh when the results were announced immediately after municipal elections back in October. Mayor Moshe Abutbul and his supporters in the ultra-Orthodox camp were celebrating, and you could hear defeat in the voices of Beit Shemesh residents who had worked tirelessly day and night for months hoping to unseat him and turn the tide on the Haredization of their city.

For the secular-national religious coalition-backed challenger Eli Cohen, the post-election picture looked bleak. Haredi parties decisively dominated the city council, which lacked even a single female member. It felt like the beginning of the end. Mentally, it seemed that many were already packing their suitcases.

What a difference a week made.

“They stole the city from us!” thousands of protesters cried as they gathered in front of City Hall – possibly as many as 2,500 were there. They were no longer resigned, but defiant in the wake of suspicions of forged and illegal voting in the Haredi sector. The cloud of suspicion began to form over the Abutbul camp; after the Election Day-raid on apartment where police found and confiscated 200 forged identity cards, stories of irregularities and suspicion spread by word of mouth. As the tales of voting irregularities made their way around the city, the Cohen camp began to collect them to prepare a legal case for invalidating the election. In a corner of the demonstration, people filled out forms testifying to witnessing irregularities.

Up on the podium, speaker after speaker stuck to the talking points: This wasn’t about Haredim, it was about the irregularities. Except it was about Haredim. Opponents were battling Abutbul because they believe he was systematically pursuing a plan to turn Beit Shemesh into an exclusively Haredi city. The Abutbul camp conducted a no-holds-barred campaign in the Haredi sector, claiming that Cohen was an ‘enemy of the Jewish people’ who hated Haredim, ran pictures of him alongside Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett - national figures who are viewed as threatening Haredi interests. False reports said that Cohen advocated public transportation in Beit Shemesh on Shabbat; even Holocaust imagery was used to arouse fear of the consequences of a Cohen victory.

As evidence of fraud grew, the battle was back on. Accepting defeat in a fair election was one thing. After such a bitter and angry campaign, the idea of losing as a result of cheating was quite another.

For Nili Philipp, a Cohen activist, working to unseat Abutbul was a natural extension of the activism triggered by Orot Banot: she and other women who have suffered attacks from Haredim, including Finkelstein, have filed suit against the city claiming that Abutbul’s failure to remove illegal modesty signs have fostered the atmosphere of violence that led to the violent incidents they experienced.

“If I loved Beit Shemesh before, the last eight months, working with Eli Cohen and the coalition of people he pulled together have made me love it more,” said Philipp. “I’ve met people from old Beit Shemesh from the Ethiopian immigrant community, people willing for greater good. If the great Anglo community here wasn’t worth staying for, it’s an amazing group of people here. And most of these people can’t leave. If you look at the inequality in this city it is frightening and it’s sad. So we’re going to abandon them, just because we can afford to move?” she told me as some of her friends and neighbors began to discuss leaving town. “We’ll never stop fighting. Give up? We are going to give up on decency, democracy?”

But despite the combative words from Phillipp and others, there was still an undercurrent of pessimism, a feeling that while they would go down fighting, they were well aware that they might go down. Off the record, even as they gathered evidence of fraud to present to the court, they didn’t think they had a real shot of overturning the election results. They told me that while they expected Mayor Abutbul to continue to serve as mayor, they wanted to make him miserable on his throne. If they were going down, they would go down fighting.

Today, following the stunning court decision, there is still concern that a new election won’t necessarily have a happy ending. The Cohen campaign fought hard over leading up to the election, and yet the court’s ruling, the signs point to the fact that Abutbul may very well have won even if the elections were squeaky clean. Although the non-Haredi adult population of the city still technically outnumbers the ultra-Orthodox, their turnout numbers are consistently lower, and they have not been able to avoid internal squabbling among the heterogeneous non-Haredi groups - national-religious English speakers, ‘veteran’ secular or traditional Sephardic residents, and Russian immigrants.

The challenges are real and the last chapter of this roller-coaster ride has yet to be written. But thanks to the court, those who are fighting for their future in a pluralistic Beit Shemesh now have something they haven’t had since October: hope.

An ultra-Orthodox man voting.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

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