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Topsy-Turvy Elections in Beit Shemesh
Socio-religious politics can be bizarre
Beit Shemesh is a city of great interest even to those who do not live here, because the socioreligious politics in this mixed city are often regarded as shedding light upon national trends. The municipal elections for Beit Shemesh are taking place in a few weeks, but it’s looking like a very bizarre situation. Note that in Israel, local elections involve two votes, one for a political party and one for mayor. And many people are wondering why the dati/Zionist parties are not automatically supporting the dati Zionist mayoral candidate. The answer is fascinating.
The political disputes revolve around one main issue, which is the growing charedization of Beit Shemesh and its suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh. From the charedi perspective, many have the goal expressed by Rav Aharon Feldman a few years ago, “to turn Beit Shemesh into Bnei Brak.” Note this does not necessarily mean driving out the non-charedi population entirely; as previous charedi (Shas) mayor Moshe Abutbul told a stunned dati-leumi shul, it is their privilege to financially subsidize the lifestyle of their charedi neighbors.
But for the secular, traditional and dati-leumi (national religious) Zionist residents, this means impoverishing the city (Abutbul boasted that charedim registered in kollel received a 90% discount on municipal taxes), caving to the restrictions demanded by the charedi rabbinic leadership (such as against outdoor seating at certain restaurants), and effectively enabling the flourishing of the minority of charedi residents who are extremist zealots.
In the previous local elections of 2018, an extraordinary thing happened. Despite Beit Shemesh being a majority charedi city, incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul was defeated by Dr. Aliza Bloch, a dati-leumi woman! This took everyone by surprise. Evidently, a not-insignificant number of charedim are willing to buck the party line when it comes to local elections.
Mayor Bloch has done a great job of improving the image of Beit Shemesh. But according to some politically-involved people in the dati-leumi community that I spoke with, it didn’t work out as they had hoped. According to them, Aliza Bloch decided that she wanted to solidify charedi support. Consequently, they say, rather than work with Zionist councilors to prioritize initiatives and values of the Zionist community in Beit Shemesh that formed most of her electoral base, she basically “sold out” to the charedim. This is with regard to things like major construction projects for an enormous charedi influx, not allocating sufficient land and resources for dati community projects, and catering to charedi rabbinic dictates about what should and should not be built.
Meanwhile, the charedi political leadership was shaken by their unexpected loss. They realized that they need to cater more to moderate, modern charedim, who are not automatically going to vote for whoever the Rabbonim tell them to vote for. And so the candidate that Degel HaTorah (the Ashkenazi Litvishe Charedi party) is running for mayor, Shmuel Greenberg, is from the most modern and moderate part of the charedi world. He’s clean-shaven and has a Master’s degree in public policy; he chooses to live in a mixed charedi/dati neighborhood; and he believes in the value of general education.
(Full disclosure; Shmuel Greenberg is a former neighbor and also a huge fan of the Biblical Museum of Natural History. He’s helped us from the start when he was deputy mayor, and on his last visit a few weeks ago he urged me to keep the museum in the area. Note that this is notwithstanding the fact that someone told him all about what a terrible anti-charedi heretic I am! Clearly, he is sophisticated enough to distinguish between my museum and my other activities.)
But on the other hand, Degel HaTorah as a national party is certainly one that focuses almost exclusively on charedi interests, at the expense of the rest of the nation. And its official rabbinic overseer in Beit Shemesh is Rav Elimelech Kornfeld - Rav Aharon Feldman’s son-in-law - who is towards the zealous side of the charedi spectrum. Although personally strongly opposed to violence, Rav Kornfeld has (to my knowledge) never spoken out publicly against it. Yet he has spoken out publicly against lots of other things, such as women’s marathons, Mishpacha magazine, and charedi schools that provide secular education. He has also stated that people are not free to choose who to vote for, but must instead vote for whoever "Daas Torah" tells them to vote for.
Is Shmuel Greenberg going to be independent from the charedi rabbonim in his decision-making? It’s impossible to know, though it doesn’t seem likely. But, as certain sources in dati-leumi political circles have told me, it’s by no means clear that Aliza Bloch is significantly different.
Meanwhile, to complicate matters even further, former mayor Moshe Abutbul just threw his hat into the ring! Despite the fact that most residents do not have fond memories of his term as mayor, to put it mildly, he would presumably get many votes from Shas supporters. And with the presence of three candidates (if any candidate does not receive 40% of the vote then there is a run-off vote), this introduces the notion of strategic voting (i.e. it might make sense to vote for someone who isn’t your first choice to ensure that your most disliked candidate does not win).
So, as opposed to previous elections where it was very clear who to support for mayor, nothing at all is clear at this point. The only thing that I can say clearly is that if it is important for you to slow the accelerating charedization of Beit Shemesh, then be sure to vote on a party level for a party that will not support that. This means voting for parties such as Likud or HaBayit Shelanu (led by Rena Hollander). Also, remember that these parties are not identical to their national counterparts; I would never again vote for Likud in the national elections, but I wouldn’t rule it out for local elections, where the issues are very different. Even if you’re charedi and voting for Shmuel Greenberg as mayor, you may well recognize that having dati-leumi parties well represented in the coalition will benefit the city as a whole.
Exciting times, indeed!
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