West of Lupolianski

In the mid-1980s, Moshe Abutbul and his family moved from Be'er Sheva to Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh was then a small town with a minimal local council, impoverished apartment blocs built by the Amidar public housing corporation, factory workers and unemployed residents, many of whom nursed bitter grudges against the Labor Alignment (Ma'arach). One of the residents flipped Shimon Peres the bird when the latter came to Beit Shemesh for an election meeting, while Begin's Likud candidates were carried around town on people's shoulders.

The Abutbul family bought an apartment in the new neighborhood at the town's southern end, along with a small core of newly religious disciples of Jerusalem-based Rabbi Reuven Elbaz. This group founded the town's first Talmud Torah public elementary school.

"There were no ultra-Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh at all then, 100 families maximum, and most of them newly religious," Moshe Abutbul recalls. "Over the years, more and more groups arrived, and established their own krayot [religious education campuses] around town. The Gur Hasidim came and established a kirya. Then the Lithuanians arrived. Then there was massive construction in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, and ultra-Orthodox Jews moved into those neighborhoods as well, may their numbers multiply."

Now, 22 years after Abutbul moved to Beit Shemesh, he has jumped into the mayoral race. He represents Shas, which is comprised mostly of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, and he hopes to be the first ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, now a city of 80,000 residents. Estimates state that more than half are ultra-Orthodox.

That same southern neighborhood, now called, the "Veteran ultra-Orthodox kirya," is surrounded by other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph is referred to as the "Casbah" of the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit, whose rabbis forbid their followers from engaging in politics. Last year, the neighborhood made headlines when residents posted menacing signs that admonished women to dress modestly when passing through the neighborhood.

Even if Abutbul fails, the decision to nominate him as a candidate in the November elections represents a crucial moment in local politics. For years, Beit Shemesh residents have been aware that the election of an ultra-Orthodox mayor is a matter of time. In recent Knesset elections, United Torah Judaism was the strongest party in the city (with 22.2 percent of the votes), and Shas came in second (19 percent). Likud plummeted to fourth place. There was no ultra-Orthodox candidate in the primary elections for mayor then, but United Torah Judaism won the largest share of local council votes, almost 20 percent, and Shas was only slightly behind. And this happened despite the fact that the ultra-Orthodox vote was split by other, smaller parties; most of the ultra-Orthodox residents were too young to vote, while many of the adults boycotted the elections.

Abutbul's candidacy is supported by two secular lists, including the Labor Party, which established the Beit Shemesh Gush Hahevrati bloc with Shas to promote social issues. Abutbul enjoys Labor's support because the two factions share the common goal of ousting incumbent Mayor Danny Vaknin, who is also seeking ultra-Orthodox support in the coming elections. The ultra-Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh does much more than tip the scales. It is the scales.

Haredi majority forced on town

"It was very difficult for me to support an ultra-Orthodox candidate," explains Beit Shemesh Labor Party Chairman Richard Peres. "But recognizing the political reality here, we hope to work together. To my sorrow, an ultra-Orthodox majority was forced on Beit Shemesh."

Abutbul says: "It's not an ultra-Orthodox matter. I'm not here to fulfill the role of community rabbi, but to do the work of a mayor. I try to put aside that aspect.

"From outside, this may look like an ultra-Orthodox story, but I consider this to be a professional thing - serving the entire public. We also have Russians and Ethiopians. You have to serve everyone, and that's the goal. People turned to me as a political man, not as an ultra-Orthodox man. I intend to bring a broad perspective to my work, rather than be identified only with one side."

But ultra-Orthodox residents do consider Abutbul's candidacy to be an ultra-Orthodox matter. Some believe it is still too early to mount an ultra-Orthodox candidate in the Beit Shemesh mayoral election, and others, like residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh, believe that "one is not kosher, and the other is treif" - in other words, any political candidate is an abomination.

Ramat Beit Shemesh resident Moshe Shapira explains that, as far as zealous members of the Eda Haredit are concerned, "It doesn't matter whether the mayor is ultra-Orthodox or secular. We are not going to vote. And, based on what we see in Jerusalem, we believe that an ultra-Orthodox politician is worse than a secular politician. In Jerusalem, the Gay Parade only gained strength during [ultra-Orthodox Mayor] Uri Lupolianski's term. Here as well, we don't know what an ultra-Orthodox mayor would bring."

United Torah Judaism, the strongest political force in Beit Shemesh, does not support Abutbul. It sees his quick bid for the mayor's seat as opportunistic.

"Everyone has the right to become a candidate," says Hanoch Zeibert, director of the Agudat Yisrael municipal wing. "We will make our decisions with no connection to Abutbul's candidacy. United Torah Judaism received more votes here than Shas. So there is no reason for us to join in with someone else. We, in the ultra-Orthodox parties, think that in places where there is a large, ultra-Orthodox population, there is no need to be bashful. We must represent our public in a worthy manner."