In Beit Shemesh, a Battle for Every Voter

Repeat election taking place in the in city that has become microcosm of Israel's rift between Haredim and non-Haredim.

Yair Ettinger
Nir Hasson

Haredim were battling secular and religious Zionist Jews over every one of Beit Shemesh’s 50,000 eligible voters Monday as they geared up for Tuesday’s repeat municipal election, which has come to symbolize a broader political and social rift in the country.

The ultra-Orthodox incumbent, Moshe Abutbul of Shas, is fighting to retain his seat as mayor against challenger Eli Cohen, representing Habayit Hayehudi and a local municipal party. Both campaigns said the were optimistic and had reached out to almost every potential supporter.

The rare do-over election, for both the mayoralty and the city council, was ordered by the courts after massive fraud in favor of an ultra-Orthodox party was discovered in the original vote in October.

Cohen’s campaign staff includes about 1,000 volunteers, whose job includes bringing some 2,000 soldiers and students from all over the country, including Eilat, back to their hometown so they can cast their ballots.

Shas and its fellow Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, are mobilizing behind Abutbul. A Shas spokesman quoted party leader Aryeh Deri on Monday night as saying, “This is the campaign of my life.”

Shas Knesset members spent all evening Monday phoning potential voters, and will campaign in Beit Shemesh Tuesday. The party spokesman said Shas has recruited some 750 activists from around the country to help in the get-out-the-vote effort, and other Haredi politicians have recruited hundreds more campaign workers.

Leaders of national parties from both the coalition and the opposition have been actively involved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a letter of support for Cohen, and the parade of politicians coming to Beit Shemesh to support the challenger has included Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the party Cohen is representing, as well as MKs from Likud (Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz) and Labor (opposition leader Isaac Herzog).

A parade of leading Haredi rabbis has come to show support for Abutbul, including Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, spiritual leader of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Ashkenazi) Haredim.

“This isn’t an election campaign, but a war,” declared MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) at a campaign rally last week for Chen, a city council ticket affiliated with his party. “The evil Netanyahu didn’t intervene in the [other] municipal elections; only now, in Beit Shemesh, is he intervening, because this is a war against the Haredim. It’s a religious war.”

Beit Shemesh became a national focal point for the struggle against religious extremism in 2011, when Haredim in the city regularly taunted and spit at young girls attending a religious, but not Haredi, girls school. The ultra-Orthodox community also posted a controversial sign calling on women not to congregate on a sidewalk outside a synagogue, and Haredim engaged in violent clashes with police. Thousands of Israelis rallied near the Orot school to protest the fundamentalism and what many said was an attempted Haredi takeover of the city.

In the run-up to the repeat election, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Haredim have united behind Abutbul, and Monday, he even won a rare endorsement from a leading Hasidic rabbi in Bnei Brak, Shmuel Halevi Wosner. But the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, a Haredi group with many members in Beit Shemesh, has announced that it won’t deviate from its principal of boycotting all elections. Voting, its rabbis wrote in a statement, would violate “a major [religious] prohibition.”

Nevertheless, Abutbul seems to be gaining support from another direction: moderate Haredim, who include many English-speaking immigrants. Tov, the party that represents this group and is seeking to retain its lone city council seat, is internally divided over the mayoral race. Party chairman Aharon Solomon supports Cohen, but his predecessor and many key party activists have switched their support to Abutbul.

A Saturday night visit to the city by Rabbi Shimon Adani, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, underscored how deeply this election has become intertwined with the Haredi battle against a new conscription law, which the Knesset is coincidentally expected to approve on Thursday. Adani used his campaign appearance to denounce Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party was behind the law, as “Amalek” – the Biblical enemy of the Jews whom God orders them to exterminate. He also lambasted the rabbis and MKs of Lapid’s coalition ally, Habayit Hayehudi, as “animals.”

The Haredi daily Yated Ne’eman, which is affiliated with the “Lithuanian” community, delivered a similar message in milder language when it published a front-page letter from leading community rabbis ordering people to vote for Abutbul and Chen, because this is a campaign “for the glory of heaven and the sanctification of [God’s] name.”

Rabbi Dovid Cohen, a member of the Council of Torah Sages of Degel Hatorah (one of the two parties that comprise UTJ), appended a personal note to the letter: This isn’t a local race, he wrote, but one “for the future of the entire Torah community” against “the secular government that conspires” against it.

A policeman drags an ultra-Orthodox man during clashes in Beit Shemesh, August 12, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Boy walks by campaign posters, Beit Shemesh, March 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi