Law-abiding, responsible Israeli citizen that I am, I did my civic duty today and voted in the municipal elections for the mayor and city council of Ra’anana, the relatively peaceful city half an hour north of Tel Aviv in an area I jokingly refer to as “Israel’s version of Westchester.” I voted for the folks who I thought would keep the streets clean, the schools well-funded, and run a city hall that would listen when I came in with a complaint. In the case of Ra’anana, if you are interested (and if you don’t live here, you probably aren’t) we have the choice of the legendary long-time mayor Ze’ev Bielski, after his foray into the national political ring was unsuccessful, and the current mayor, Nahum Hofree, who was Bielski’s chosen successor, but after eight years has proved disappointing enough for Bielski to turn around and challenge his protege for his old job.
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It is a nice little local drama. But am I going to sit with nervous anticipation tonight and tomorrow morning, watch the returns come in, and feel like my fate and my future and my children’s future rests on the poll results?
The irony of these Israeli municipal elections is that I feel like the outcome of the races in cities far from my home has the potential to affect my life and the lives of my kids far more significantly than the local race for city hall.
As journalist Haviv Rettig Gur wrote on Monday, “American politician Tip O’Neill famously quipped that 'all politics are local.' In Israel of late, it seems that all politics, even the most local, are increasingly national.”
His observation applies most strongly in two municipal races in particular: Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
In the case of Jerusalem, the reason is more obvious. Everyone cares about Jerusalem. It’s the capital city of the country, its character and atmosphere affects every Israeli directly, and not only because it’s where we bring our visitors from abroad and take our kids on school field trips. The rejuvenation of Jerusalem that has taken place under Nir Barkat has made it a much more attractive place in which to spend time in, and as a frequent visitor, I hope the progress continues.
And, after all, it is JERUSALEM. Even The New York Times is interested in who runs it.
But while I feel invested in the result, I don’t think the future of the city is at stake. Jerusalem has survived imperfect mayors in the past, mayors who probably did more damage than Barkat’s challenger Moshe Leon could potentially do.
The municipal race where my heart is, which I am watching with my fingers crossed and my hopes high, where I truly believe something important at stake is Beit Shemesh.
The opening salvo in the war for the future of Beit Shemesh took place in 2011, when the Haredi harassment of the girls at the Orot Banot school made national headlines. A core of the city’s national religious/Modern Orthodox community stood up to the extremists after the city, led by Shas mayor Moshe Abutbul, stood by and did nothing, which essentially represented tacit support of those who felt the school for national religious girls had no place on the border of a Haredi neighborhood. All politics are local? Not in these Israeli elections
As I’ve written before, that struggle galvanized a community and awakened national awareness across Israel of the dangers of tolerating extremism. Beit Shemesh was the national canary in the coal mine - warning other cities of what they might face in the future.
When the issue went national, and enough pressure was exerted that the extremists and whatever rabbinic authority lay behind them backed down and allowed the girls of Orot Banot to attend school peacefully, it was a true victory.
But it was only a battle in a larger war, and other battles have followed - fights against public modesty signs that encourage an atmosphere of "extreme modesty" that has resulted in abuse and violence against women deemed immodest, and the struggle surrounding housing in the city being available to all and not pre-targeted to the Haredi population alone.
For those who are invested in this struggle, the municipal elections on Tuesday are critical. Many of them have told me clearly that if Abutbul is re-elected, there is no future for them in Beit Shemesh - they feel it is the beginning of the end of the non-Haredi population of the city.
Whether or not the situation is that clear-cut, a victory for Abutbul’s challenger, Eli Cohen, for whose campaign many of the activists in Beit Shemesh have been working tirelessly, would be a shot of energy and encouragement for those who are determined to stay in Beit Shemesh and keep the city open to diverse communities that can grow and thrive - regardless of their level of religiosity. Many of those who want to keep Beit Shemesh diverse and don’t want a future of ultra-Orthodox homogeneity, by the way, are Haredi themselves.
My heart is with all them as the votes are counted on Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh. I’m sure that others, in many other towns around the country, are cheering them on as well.