Israeli City Divided Over Religion Makes History With First Woman Mayor

With the counting of the final 1,300 ballots – from soldiers, the disabled and of a few dozen prisoners – Aliza Bloch is confirmed as mayor, ousting incumbent Moshe Abutbul

Aliza Bloch with supporters in Beit Shemesh.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Aliza Bloch was declared the winner late Wednesday of the mayoral race in Beit Shemesh, beating out incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul. In the closely contested race, Bloch's victory in the town west of Jerusalem was sealed with the counting of the final 1,300 votes from Tuesday's municipal election, including about 300 ballots from disabled voters, 1,000 soldiers' ballots and several dozen votes from prison inmates.

Prior to the final tally, Abutbul was in the lead by 251 votes but the vast majority of the last of the ballots went for Bloch, handing her victory by a 533-vote margin. After the results were announced, she appeared before about 200 supporters in front of city hall and recited the Shehecheyanu prayer, which is delivered on special occasions.

"Beit Shemesh has decided to eliminate the walls, to eliminate the partitions. Up to today, the extremes have been conducting the discussion and depriving us from seeing human beings," she said, adding that this gave Beit Shemesh the image of "a place of alienation and maybe a bit of war."

Bloch, who is religious but not ultra-Orthodox, said that during the election campaign, she refrained from putting her picture in parts of the city in deference to sensibilities of members of the ultra-Orthodox community, some of whom oppose the public display of the female image. There were people who criticized her decision as a sign of weakness, she said, but she saw it as a sign of strength.

Mayor Abutbul, who is affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was considered a shoo-in for reelection until a few weeks ago. Although he warned his supporters against complacency, on Election Day he conveyed an air of confidence.

Bloch is one of 11 women elected mayor in Tuesday's municipal elections around the country. That was four more than in the last municipal elections in 2013.

She had previously been affiliated with Habayit Hayehudi, whose party base is largely in the religious Zionist community. Reacting to Bloch's election, the national head of the party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, tweeted congratulations over what he called Bloch's "historic win" and said the two have already agreed to meet next week "to advance education in the city." Bloch is the former principal of the Branco Weiss high school in Beit Shemesh.

During the election campaign, she reached out to ultra-Orthodox and liberal voters in addition to secular and religious Zionist residents. She also attracted the support of Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of  Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Sephardi chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Bloch's victory is attributed in no small measure to her campaign's work in the ultra-Orthodox community.

The two most recent previous municipal election campaigns in Beit Shemesh were focused mainly on the battles waged between ultra-Orthodox and secular residents over the city's character. In 2008 and 2013, they resulted in Abutbul's election, although the 2013 results were invalidated in court over what the court labeled "systematic, organized and widespread" fraud. Abutbul prevailed again in 2014 in a revote. This year's campaign was tame compared to the prior heated municipal election campaigns in the city.

In the ensuing years, the city has changed demographically. Although the older population is divided among ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist and secular residents, there is a decisive ultra-Orthodox majority among the young population of Beit Shemesh.