Will Charedim Vote In Their Own Best Interests?
Municipal elections are being held soon in Bet Shemesh (which includes Ramat Bet Shemesh). The issues are very different from those of the national elections, and it gives a window of insight into the dynamics of charedi vs. non-charedi populations.
There are two leading candidates for mayor. One is the current (charedi) mayor, Moshe Abutbol, from Shas. He's a friendly person of average intelligence (picture at right, in the middle, when he was looking at my book The Challenge Of Creation, and asking me what dinosaurs are). But he is utterly incompetent as mayor, and has clearly demonstrated (and more-or-less explicitly said) that he believes in kowtowing to the most extreme factions amongst the charedim. The challenging candidate is Eli Cohen (pictured below), a traditional Jew who has the backing of virtually all non-charedi factions. He's held senior positions in the Jewish Agency and Mekorot Water Company.
It will be a close race: Eli Cohen is leading in the polls, but only by a narrow margin. The question is, will charedim vote in their own best interests, or will they vote to maintain the current charedi mayor?
Why do I say that the non-charedi candidate is the best candidate for the charedim? This isn't out of some paternalistic Yair Lapid-style position that non-charedim know better than charedim what sort of life they should be leading. Rather, it's based on some very simple truths.
1. Everyone needs the municipality to have money, and benefits when it has more money.
2. A significant proportion of the charedi population pays very little in municipal taxes - people in kollel get a 90% exemption.
3. Under Abutbol (and as a result of him), many non-charedim (i.e. people who pay full municipal taxes) left the city, and many non-tax-paying charedim moved in. This pattern would continue and even increase were Abutbol to be re-elected. Non-charedim are not attracted to a city in which Abutbol is mayor.
Thus, it's better for charedim if there is a non-charedi mayor, who will maintain a strong tax-base. QED.
I would also add:
4. Abutbol is hopelessly incompetent at running a city. This is only to be expected, since he has no professional training. He's been unsuccessful at attracting business to the city and managing the budget. Money designated for projects such as security cameras, the Kav LaChaim fund, libraries, the Cities Without Violence project, and cultural centers, has simply disappeared. The city is a mess (until a recent frantic pre-election cleanup). Posters saying "Jews Hate Zionists" remained up for months, while city sanitation workers are speedily dispatched to take down campaign posters for Eli Cohen. The planning of the new neighborhoods is nothing less than a disaster, with completely inadequate areas for businesses and other communal necessities. Already in Ramat Bet Shemesh, many retailers are reduced to running their businesses from subterranean store-rooms, there is inadequate parking, and it's only going to get worse when the new neighborhoods get occupied. Eli Cohen, on the other hand, is professionally trained in resource management and has successfully run major organizations. Everyone benefits from having a mayor who knows how to run a city professionally.
Are there any reasons why the above simple arguments would not be valid? One reason would be if charedim had to fear becoming an insignificant minority in the city. But this is clearly not the case - they are already at least 40% of the population, and once the new neighborhoods of RBS open, charedim will be the majority of the population forever. There is no chance of charedim becoming an insignificant minority - the future choice is between them being a slight majority or the vast majority.
Another potential flaw in the above logic would be if Eli Cohen had antipathy towards charedim, and would not enable them to benefit from the increased funds that the city will have when he is elected. Abutbol and his team are running a nasty and completely hypocritical campaign, claiming that Cohen is anti-charedi and is running an anti-charedi campaign. But he isn't at all (follow the above link for more details). In hypocritical contrast, Abutbol and his team are running an anti-non-charedi campaign, telling people that Rav Steinman said that it would be a chillul Hashem to vote for a secular mayor. (What they don't reveal is that Rav Steinman and them are thereby condemning the Gerrer Rebbe along with all the Boyan, Viznitz and Sanz chassidus, who supported secular candidate Nir Barkat in Jerusalem against the charedi candidate.)
As Eli Cohen told me personally, under his leadership everyone would benefit, including charedim - when the pie is bigger, everyone gets a bigger piece. Certainly, charedim are not faring well from the non-charedi population leaving Bet Shemesh, which impoverishes the city.
Charedim, then, stand to gain tremendously from having a non-charedi mayor. Some of them recognize this and will be voting for him. But why will others vote for Abutbol? The reason is pathetic and tragic. It's due to simple tribalism. Abutbul is the chareidi candidate, which means that he is "us." Cohen is the non-charedi candidate, which means that he is "them." End of story.
One can only hope that many charedim will be intelligent enough to vote in their own best interests.