Moshe Abutbul, the incumbent ultra-Orthodox candidate for mayor of Beit Shemesh, defeated his secular opponent, Eli Cohen, by 758 votes Tuesday, in what many saw as a tumultuous referendum over the city’s religious character.
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The results of the repeat election, which was ordered by the Supreme Court on the grounds of suspected voting irregularities, indicated that Beit Shemesh is divided almost equally between the ultra-Orthodox and their supporters, 19,401 of whom voted to keep Abutbul in power, and non-Haredim, whose 18,643 votes were just shy of enough to change the increasingly fundamentalist direction in which the city appears to be headed.
“A book could be written about the drama that existed here, but everyone loves everyone else,” said Abutbul. “Beit Shemesh will be united forever.”
After the election results were made public, Abutbul’s supporters gathered in the main election headquarters and sang a song whose lyrics come from the biblical Book of Esther, which will be read on the upcoming holiday of Purim: “The Jews had light and gladness.”
Although one of the issues that has propelled Beit Shemesh to the headlines over the last few years has been the televised images of Haredi men taunting girls on their way to an Orthodox (but not Haredi) school in the city, a fair number of women and girls were in the pro-Abutbul crowd.
“The clear message to those who formed an alliance against us is: Stop persecuting the Haredi community,” Aryeh Deri, the chairman of the Sephardi Haredi party, Shas — to which Abutbul belongs — said in his victory speech last night. “You will never defeat us.”
In an interview on the Haredi radio station Kol Berama, Deri added, “Anyone who thought that the Haredi community could be defeated was proven wrong.” Abutbul, who was also interviewed on Kol Berama, added, “Beit Shemesh loves the observant and Haredi community. The incitement did not work. It was proven once more that the Haredi community has grown. Haredi communities are celebrating now in Paris, [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Bayit Vegan and in Los Angeles. There has never been anything like it.”
According to preliminary data, it appears that Abutbul won by a margin almost identical to the one in the elections that were disqualified.
The defeated challenger congratulated Abutbu.
“There was a tough struggle here, and we are looking ahead. I wish you success in office,” Cohen said. “I hope that tomorrow morning, there will be unity. I will do everything in my power to help the city move forward. Go celebrate, and with God’s help, Beit Shemesh will blossom from here on out.”
Activists in Cohen’s headquarters said last night that they felt Beit Shemesh already had a Haredi majority and that they had no chance of winning. Many of them said that Beit Shemesh should be split into two separate communities.
Voter turnout was high. According to Interior Ministry statistics, 76 percent of those eligible to vote in Beit Shemesh did so, compared with 65 percent in October.
The city was tense during the election Tuesday, and there were a lot of verbal attacks and mutual accusations of forgeries and disruptions. At almost every polling station, emotions ran high and quarrels broke out between Haredi and secular activists, with each side accusing the other of attempting to forge votes and disrupt the electoral process.
Officials at Shas headquarters said that volunteers who came from outside the city to help them were shocked when they came back in from the street, telling the Shas activists, “We have never seen such hatred.”