The Battle for Beit Shemesh: Riot Gear and Selfies

Haredi incumbent Abutbtul wins repeat mayoral election after day of torn posters, voting-booth selfies, and exhausted volunteers. at the second round of the mayoral elections of a divided Israeli city.

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Election atmosphere usually tends to be a mixture of tension, excitement and celebration. Despite the hard work and concentration, there tends to be something of a holiday spirit. But at the campaign headquarters of Eli Cohen, the challenger in the critical race for mayor of Beit Shemesh who eventually lost to Haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul, it was all business.

A “war room” atmosphere prevailed as the elections drew near, and only grew more intense as polls opened on Tuesday. Cohen himself came off as the most relaxed and cheerful person in the room, as volunteers made phone calls and gathered up posters to plaster around a city that was already covered with campaign slogans.

“Don’t let the extremists win!” screamed the Cohen posters in bright yellow; “Don’t give up on Beit Shemesh!” The Sephardi areas were covered with posters of Cohen being embraced by the late revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in an effort to convince Shas party supporters that it is okay to vote against Mayor Moshe Abutbul of Shas. Abutbul’s posters in the non-Haredi parts of town were bright orange, and interestingly enough didn't feature a photo of the candidate himself, but a cheerful cartoon version and the message, “We’re with you, Moshe!” in what seems to be an effort to make the vilified mayor more cuddly and lovable, while de-emphasizing the ideological secular-Haredi battle behind the personalities.

Miri Shalem, one of the key activists in the Cohen campaign, was glued to her cell phone, making last-minute preparations for the buses that were getting ready to pick up more than 2,000 residents who were away from home back to Beit Shemesh to cast their votes, including university students, soldiers and young people doing national service away from home. With the voting age of 17, even high-school students on their class trip - hours away in Eilat or the Golan Heights - were being brought back.

A young girl tugged at her sleeve. “I’ve got two more soldiers for you!” she told Shalem excitedly and their names and phone numbers were duly recorded.

“Some of these soldiers, especially the new recruits, are hesitant to ask their commanders for the day off to come and vote, even though the army has given them permission,” Shalem explained. Volunteers were on hand to help the soldiers figure out how to get home to cast their ballots.

As dawn broke on Tuesday morning, when Miriam Zussman - one of many English-speaking immigrants volunteering for Cohen - arrived at 6:45 A.M. at the polling station in an all-Haredi neighborhood where she had been assigned as an observer. “It literally looked like a war zone based on the number of soldiers and police that were there to keep the peace,” she said.

But their riot gear wasn’t necessary - at least not during the day. Zussman, who is modern Orthodox, sat alongside Haredi and secular observers where she said “everyone was friendly and polite, but we also had some interesting conversations about politics and army service.” Interior Ministry officials, she said, kept a close eye on what was happening, presumably determined to prevent a repeat of the first round of election, nullified because of the use of forged identity cards.

While Shalem, Zussman and other Cohen supporters were elated at this second chance to save their city from what they see as domination by the ultra-Orthodox Abutbul, they were also exhausted. The first campaign was hard-fought, the disappointment at having lost it was devastating and the long political and legal fight that resulted in new elections was draining. But both sides knew the stakes were so high, they couldn’t afford the luxury of exhaustion.

Social media updates: Where the fraud is

Social media was used heavily to get out the vote. All day, updates were posted on Facebook and Twitter as to polls where fraud was suspected (only one minor incident); posters were defaced, questions and calls for help were made.

There were also plenty of voting booth “selfies” - where the privacy of the voting booth was overruled by the desire to rally online friends to join in supporting their candidate.

Turnout was reported to be high of 5 P.M. when the Interior Ministry reported that 46 percent of those eligible in Beit Shemesh had already voted - a far higher percentage than at the same time during the last round of elections.

The conventional wisdom has been that election will rise and fall on turnout. While Beit Shemesh is now about 50-50 Haredi and non-Haredi, the non-Haredim still have a clear majority among those of voting age - approximately 20,000 of voters are ultra-Orthodox while 30,000 are not. As the population grows in the next five years, these numbers will change; more ultra-Orthodox will reach voting age and they will become a majority. So when the secular and modern Orthodox sectors say this election is their last chance to wrest control of the city, it isn’t just hyperbole.

The challenge of the Cohen campaign had been to match and exceed the organization and discipline of the Haredi sects that were supporting Abutbul. Led by a professional campaign manager (last time around, they didn’t have one, the campaign was all-volunteers) they divided the city up into small sections, with volunteers responsible for ensuring Cohen supporters get to the polls.

While the reportedly high turnout was good news for the Cohen camp - meaning that previously indifferent secular voters made it to the polls - it could also mean that on the Abutbul side, perhaps Haredi extremists who didn’t vote last time for ideological reasons of opposing the institutions of the state, were convinced to change their minds.

Daniel Goldman, a key volunteer for Cohen, said that the extremists probably number approximately between 3,000 and 4,000, but “nobody really knows.” The turnout pressure was so high, he said, "that people I know with some serious medical issues discharged themselves from the hospital for the day so they could come vote.” The weather, he said, had worked in their favor. Though rain had been feared to affect turnout, most of the day was clear, and as evening approached there was only a light drizzle.

As darkness fell, the work intensified. Volunteers ran back and forth between polling places and campaign headquarters, entering data into laptops as to who has voted. “Now it’s crunch time,” Zussman told me at 6:30 PM. “There’s a huge push underway to get anyone who hasn’t voted to the polling places. Our volunteers know these people. We’ve been to every house. Last time around, people said they were going to vote and didn’t. This time, we know who hasn’t voted and we are literally pulling them out of their houses.”

While the mood remained serious and somber, Zussman believed that it could have been for a good reason.

“Neither camp has an incentive to get people excited; I don’t think they are really sharing the information they have. I know I'm working a lot harder right now because I’m worried. I think right now there’s this feeling that we are getting our people out, that we are doing everything we possibly can to win this fight - but so is the other side. We need to feel like we’ve done all we can.”

Beit Shemesh mayoral election.Credit: Emil Salman
Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Eli Cohen, March 11, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Haredi anti-Zionist extremists campaigning against voting in the Beit Shemesh mayoral elections.Credit: Daniel Goldman
Miri Shalem getting the names of soldiers from a young volunteer.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer
Mitch Schneider's selfie of voting for Eli CohenCredit: Mitch Schneider

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