Our first surprise came within a few minutes of arriving in Beit Shemesh. We could not find a single place to sit at any of the cafes in a commercial strip located in one of the city's new neighborhoods — not because the cafes were packed, but due to the lack of seats. All the cafes had were tables. Zvi Wolicki, a kippa-wearing resident who accompanied us, explained that the reason was that the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city object to men and women sitting together. They assume that if there aren't any seats, it will be impossible to sit at cafes — and so men and women will be prevented from intermingling, Wolicki says.
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Is this a Haredi neighborhood? one of us asks.
"No, says Wolicki, but the Haredim live in the surrounding neighborhoods and they object to [men and women intermingling] around them.
This episode, as we soon discovered, epitomizes the story of Beit Shemesh. It is a city full of contrasts and surprises, where a group of Haredim has dictated policy and municipal behavior even in areas where they do not live. Beit Shemesh itself is not defined as a Haredi community, but it has become a bastion of ultra-Orthodox Jews in recent years. Long-time residents, both secular and religious Zionist, woke up belatedly to discover that city had been taken away from under their noses.
At the beginning of this month, intercommunal tensions in Beit Shemesh grew violent after a Haredi couple asked a religious Zionist woman to move to the back of a public bus, claiming it was a special mehadrin bus. Mehadrin buses are those that cater to ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers by separating the genders. The woman agreed to move, but the bus driver got involved and steadfastly insisted that the woman remain in her seat. Emotions grew heated in the city, and soon Haredim stoned buses in the city's streets and shattered windshields.
Now, following the announcement of plans to build two new neighborhoods in the city with thousands of apartments and ahead of the local election, members of the city's secular and religious Zionist communities have decided to respond to the Haredim with force.
The new neighborhoods will dramatically increase the city's population. Beit Shemesh today has about 18,000 apartment units, while 7,000 units are in various phases of planning and 4,000 new units currently under construction. The local Planning and Building Committee is currently discussing the possibility of approving another 15,000 apartments. If all these plans are approved, Beit Shemesh will not only become larger than Tel Aviv in terms of land area, but also in terms of population, mushrooming from 95,000 residents today to 200,000–250,000 when the building is completed. Those opposed to the construction plans say they are an underhanded move to create a Haredi city without getting the approval from the national government that is normally required.
We proceeded with Wolicki to a cafe called Holy Bagel. English was the dominant language in the neighborhood we were in, like in many other neighborhoods in the city. The young woman behind the counter would not take her order unless we gave it in English, and we soon felt like we had arrived in a small town in Connecticut populated solely by Jews.
"The largest community of English-speakers in Israel lives in Beit Shemesh, says Wolicki, a high-tech entrepreneur and city council member. He arrived in Beit Shemesh 19 years ago when it was a much smaller city with just 17,000 residents. There are entire classes in the city where the only Hebrew speaker is the teacher, says Wolicki. There isn't a business here where you can get away with not speaking fluent English.
But language is just one of many dividers. The English-speaking community here is divided into a broad mix of groups based on their level of religiosity, starting with the completely secular and up to the fervently ultra-Orthodox, says Wolicki.
Pointing, he continues: The South African expats concentrate on the two streets in this direction and the immigrants from France have their own street in that area.
Wolicki adds that the shared language among the groups from English-speaking countries helps bridge gaps, and that there is no fanaticism among them. He says that while the Haredi political parties seek the votes of some naive English speakers, that naivete has disappeared to some extent amid the current municipal election campaign.
Demographic transition and secular flight
The splits within the English-speaking community are just one small part of the complicated picture that is Beit Shemesh. The city is situated in beautiful location, with views of the Elah Valley that can be seen from most of its homes. The air is pleasant, and the quiet is soothing. The city's neighborhoods are spread over several hills, leaving them disconnected from each other to the extent that it is difficult to move between them without a car, which most of the city's residents cannot afford.
The demographic breakdown of the city is as difficult to comprehend as it is to manage from city hall. The neighborhood Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet is an extremist Haredi neighborhood. Sheinfeld is a religiously mixed neighborhood, as is Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, which is comprised mainly of religious Zionist and Haredi English-speakers. The old part of the city, in contrast, is mostly comprised of religious Zionists and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. However, there is also a Haredi neighborhood, called Nahala Umenuha, in the old center as well as a group of anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Haredim who burn Israeli flags on Independence Day, and a community of Ethiopian immigrants.
We continue and pass a wide plot of land full of thorns. In July 2012, Mayor Moshe Abutbul announced that a cultural center would be erected on the spot within 20 months at a cost of NIS 32 million. Yet, the construction work on the center never got started. According to the mayor, ancient graves were discovered at the spot, preventing the project from moving forward. However, his opponents claim the Antiquities Authority determined that there was no proof of any burials. Instead, they say, the real reason for the delay is that residents of the Haredi neighborhoods next to the site do not want a building that will strengthen the secular presence in the area.
There are no statistics available regarding the religious affiliation of city residents, but the voting record in the last Knesset election is instructive. The Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism won 28 percent of the votes of the city, followed by the Haredi party for Jews of Middle Eastern origin Shas with 18 percent and the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi with 14 percent. Yair Lapid's more secular and centrist Yesh Atid party, in contrast, only received 4 percent of residents' votes.
In the old center we come across one of the city's old-timers. "We will have a future only if we succeed in toppling the Haredim from power, says Tzipi Levi. I have lived here for 20 years, and this city was once entirely secular. There are still hundreds like me here. The city belongs to me and it has been stolen from me. Beit Shemesh was a regular city until the Haredim came and caused the secular people to flee. Everything is because there were Shas members in the Housing Ministry and they brought here Haredim who could buy apartments for NIS 600,000, while for the regular population an apartment cost NIS 1.2 million.