On Wednesday at two in the morning Eli Cohen arrived at his headquarters in Beit Shemesh. It was a little after his supporters had started to realize the cause was lost.
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“Despite the sadness and dissatisfaction I ask you to accept the democratic decision,” said Cohen. “There is no other way to run a democracy. It’s all behind us. Time to move forward.”
Election Day and what proceeded it did not forbode the dismal outcome for the non-Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh. They ran a very impressive electoral campaign with the declared goal of reaching every last voter in the city’s secular and modern Orthodox neighborhoods.
The tension of the previous months peaked on Election Day. Countless words were exchanged between the two sides as well as physical exchanges. But in the end, cautious optimism reigned around Cohen.
Analysis of voter turnout favored their camp, as some 76% of eligible voters cast their ballot, 11 percent higher than in the previous election. Observers concluded that the secular and modern Orthodox voters accounted for the rise.
“If over 75 percent vote we need a miracle to win,” one of the mayor’s supporters had said. Haredi activists began to gather around the screen outside their campaign headquarters as the rain began to fall, and the atmosphere there early in the evening was pretty grim.
At Cohen’s HQ a few streets away the celebrations had started. Dozens sang and shouted the slogan “We’re not giving up on Beit Shemesh.” Even when initial results showed a poor outlook for their candidate, they continued to sing, in the faith that the secular ballot boxes that would soon arrive would turn things around. Only as the night dragged on were the smiles erased and the sounds of despair emerged.
Many Cohen supporters saw this election more as a campaign for the character of their city than as a political campaign, and as a campaign for them to have a chance to continue living there with their children.
“That’s it. It is over,” said one activist. “What will we do now?”
“We have to look for somewhere else to live,” answered her friend.
Some claimed the campaign was a lost cause from the outset, that somewhere in the last five years Aboutbul had taken the city past the point of no return. At this point too many Haredim lived in the city to beat them, regardless of the investment and resources of the campaign or attractiveness of the candidate. Though Haredim did not make up the majority, their political behavior and ability to recruit their constituents made a majority unnecessary to continue winning.
From here on Beit Shemesh turned into a Haredi city
“The secular public cannot beat the Haredi public because the secular public thinks and the Haredi public acts,” said Yisrael Shpiz, a young resident of the city and Likud party activist. “You don’t need to convince him. A democracy cannot defeat a dictatorship.”
Many angry prophecies were made about the city’s future during the campaign. Many threatened to move away if Cohen would lose. People probably won’t leave their city so quickly and there is no need to expect a mass exodus. But everyone agrees the failure of the youth to return and the abandonment by the middle class will pick up speed.
“My son, who is married with two girls, says to me ‘Dad, let’s leave, let’s go south, let’s go to the Galilee. We have nothing to do here,’” said Zion Sultan, a local journalist and one of the city’s non-Haredi leaders. “Many people will. That is the atmosphere. Even now you can find clusters of Beit Shemesh people in Mazkeret Batya, Rishon Letzion and Modi’in.”
The only lifeboat left for the non-Haredi public is a plan to divide Beit Shemesh into two towns. On Wednesday a petition was published on the matter directed at the interior minister. “The city of Beit Shemesh is about to die,” it reads.
“I have seen Yom Kippurs that were happier than today,” concluded Shpiz.