As Religious Candidates Battle It Out in Israel's Beit Shemesh, Religion Takes a Back Seat

For mayor it’s a religious-Zionist woman versus an ultra-Orthodox man, but don’t expect the voting to run entirely along sectarian lines

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Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch hugs a voter, October 30, 2018
Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch hugs a voter, October 30, 2018Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

A moment before heading into the polling booth, Aliza Bloch, the challenger to Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, cracked a joke about how she hadn’t yet decided whom to vote for.

“There are things you don’t joke about,” said her husband, Aharon, a nonchalant guy with a smile that doesn’t stop.

Optimism was in the air. Bloch, a member of the religious-Zionist community, took the time to bid everyone a happy Election Day and ask whether the entire family was going out to vote.

Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch casting her vote, October 30, 2018
Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch casting her vote, October 30, 2018Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Abutbul, the incumbent, represents the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

“Those who have already voted should go out and bring their friends to the polling stations,” Bloch said in one appearance. “We have one special day to influence our future. This yellow slip will determine our future. I ask you all to go out and vote. Beit Shemesh is awakening anew.”

On Tuesday morning there were long lines at the polling stations in the city, which is not far from Jerusalem. In the secular neighborhoods, many Israelis of Ethiopian origin were out to cast ballots.

“We’re with Aliza, only Aliza,” one young woman said as she accompanied an older person to the polls.

In ultra-Orthodox areas, many women pushing strollers stood on line for a long time waiting to vote.

Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, October 2018
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, October 2018Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Unlike the tensions during local elections five years ago, when fraud complaints led to a revote, no irregularities were reported Tuesday; the city even seemed a bit sleepy.

But near the main polling stations the atmosphere could even be described as festive. Dozens of activists and volunteers sporting T-shirts touting the various candidates and parties darted around doing some last-minute campaigning.

The secular divide with the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, so prevalent in the city in recent years, wasn’t in evidence Tuesday.

“I’ll work for everyone,” Bloch told Haaretz. “Why shouldn’t Haredi children get what they need? I don’t accept this division of people into groups.”

The guard at the municipality building where ballot boxes would be brought at the end of voting saw things a bit differently.

“I’ve lived here for 59 years. In the past we didn’t know about divisions between the Haredim, the religious Zionists and the secular. But since the Haredim arrived here, that has changed,” he said.

Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch, October 2018
Beit Shemesh mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch, October 2018Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

“They threw a piece of metal at my wife and daughter one Shabbat. Most of the Haredim don’t behave that way, but they get carried away by the extremists. Only Aliza can bring change to the city. She’ll also provide for the Haredim, but she won’t be in their hands.”

A municipal employee seated next to him nodded in agreement. “I voted for Aliza and hung up signs for her at my home even though I’m a municipal worker,” he said. “There’s no other option.”

Indeed, the social divisions are a little different in this election. There’s a big Haredi headquarters working for Bloch, where the activists appeal to the “modern Haredim” – the ultra-Orthodox community in which the men tend to work rather than study Torah for a living.

This segment has broken ranks and is expected to vote for the religious-Zionist candidate. But campaigners on the phones at Bloch’s Haredi office appeared very worried about the Haredi vote.

“Some of the people we’re calling fear that the calls are tapped or being recorded, so they’re afraid to say who they’re voting for,” one activist said. “So when we notice such fears we only ask if they’ll be voting the way they’d like to. If they answer yes and say all is well, we get what they mean.”

An ultra-Orthodox voter in Beit Shemesh on election day, October 30, 2018
An ultra-Orthodox voter in Beit Shemesh on election day, October 30, 2018Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

While Bloch’s headquarters was relatively calm, the office of Agudat Yisrael, an ultra-Orthodox party, was very lively. Dozens of yeshiva students 13 and older were hard at work. The computer system was working overtime and they knew exactly who was voting for whom and whom they needed to call.

Three young men were sitting in a corner. One was speaking excitedly on the phone and issuing orders. Apparently their job was to bus in Beit Shemesh residents studying at yeshivas outside the city so they could vote. Every potential vote was taken into account.

In contrast to Bloch’s vitality and smiles, Mayor Abutbul looked weary. “I haven’t really slept the past few nights,” he said. “We’re working very hard.” Still, he seemed calm.

“At first, we were worried about complacency, but now that the polls have opened and the rabbis have arrived in the city, we’re re seeing a big wave of support,” Abutbul said.

But it was clear that the story of this campaign was at Bloch’s Haredi office; how much of a crossover vote there would be.

“It’s the question of questions,” said Shmuel Greenberg, deputy mayor from Degel Hatorah, an ultra-Orthodox party. “The question is whether they’ll get 1,000 or 2,000 votes, or more like 4,000 to 5,000.”

It seems this question reverberates well beyond Beit Shemesh, and the answer is expected to have broader implications for Haredi society – and its leaders in particular.