Beit Shemesh is Ground Zero for Deri vs. Bennett

A local election should be about local issues, but this one is shaping up as a national power struggle.

Dr. Harold Goldmeier,

Dr. Harold Goldmeier
Dr. Harold Goldmeier

Beit Shemesh is a small, inland, bedroom community of 85,000 residents, nestled in the hills, less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem to the East, Tel Aviv to the northwest, and the bustling port and recreation cities on the Mediterranean of Ashdod and Ashkelon to the West.

Three decades ago, Beit Shemesh was a dust-bowl town of 20,000 people including surrounding agricultural communities. Construction of new homes is on target to increase the population to 100,000 or more in this decade.

It was inhabited early on by Jewish refugees from Arab countries like Morocco and Tunisia. They arrived in the 1940’s and 1950’s with few Western trade skills and education, and successive national governments largely ignored their needs for medical facilities, schools, roads and infrastructure, etc.

The older generation was largely traditional in Sephardic religious practices, and local political leaders came from these families. The City later became a drop off point for many of the Ethiopians smuggled to Israel who still largely live in their own housing complex (called the Fishbowl because of its circular layout and architecture of buildings).

Twenty years ago Anglo, Ashkenazi families began buying in Beit Shemesh. The government released land east of the Green Line for new construction, as an alternative to the increased construction of housing in Judea and Samaria. A whole community called Sheinfeld [the builder's name, ed.] blossomed in old Beit Shemesh with American style housing and amenities. The old Sephardic politically powerful families welcomed the newcomers with caution, doling out services like schools and infrastructure construction at a snail’s pace.

Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and Bet were later built on the hilltops surrounding Beit Shemesh, but incorporated into the city limits. For many of their first twenty years, the needs and desires of  the two neighborhoods, RBS A and B, were given short shrift.  Aleph came to be populated by Anglos from the U. S., South Africa, England, Scotland, and some Australians; they are religiously observant, with yeshiva and often-secular educations, practicing a profession or in business. They have been politically weak and disorganized, taking little interest in local politics.

RBS Bet attracted hareidim over the last two decades.  They have grown into a political force in their own right, linking to sects and rabbinical leaders housed in Jerusalem and with links around the world. They have large families, many hold part-time or no jobs at all, are not likely to serve in the IDF, many - if not most - are not Zionists, and are the recipients of yeshiva learning stipends from the government and wealthy supporters from around the world.  Their interest in local politics is heightened by the issues on the national level where debates rage over the inclusion of hareidim in Israeli society.

Bet lies between Sheinfeld and Aleph and they share borders and neighbors at the fringes. Some hareidim in Bet try to assert their religiously extreme views on their neighbors. For instance, some demand that women sit in the back on buses travelling through their neighborhoods; there were incidents where hareidim spit at and engaged in namecalling against children who attended modern Orthodox schools on the edge of their neighborhood; women--even Orthodox women with their heads covered--have been called vile names, had their lives threatened and had their cars pelted with stones and rocks when driving in the Bet neighborhood.

 An interesting phenomenon began in the 1970’s and 80’s. The children of Sephardic families with their own religious traditions and practices began attending hareidi yeshivot, adopting Ashkenazi traditions, dressing in black suits and hats. Many are politically simpatico with hareidi political parties and agendas. The Sephardic boys, however, never wavered from serving in the IDF or getting a secular education until the current generation of "Litvisha Sephardim" (Sephardim who studied in Lithuanian-type hareidi yeshivas) grew up. Now, the leader of the Shas Party, Arye Deri, vociferously opposes the current government plans to draft yeshiva boys.

Security and safety are always the top agenda items of every government and budget priority since the founding of the State. Today, the economically prosperous start-up nation enjoys recreational activities and leisure time, spurring the onset of new priorities and demands for an improved social agenda. There were street demonstrations in Tel Aviv, offices occupied by students on university campuses, tent cities in parks, and cries for more support for the poor.

The modern Orthodox and secular Jews want to eliminate or at least curtail the army exemption for hareidi yeshiva students, since their young men volunteer to serve in the IDF in great numbers.  They want everyone to work and pay taxes relieving, in their minds, the heavy burden of supporting a defense budget.  In the national election last November two candidates and their parties were swept into office on a tide of hardline attitudes toward hareidi demands, politics and politicians. The campaign was very ugly, and the language in and outside the Knesset today continues with personal attacks and name-calling.

Naftalli Bennett, speaking perfect, unaccented English and fluent Hebrew, is a retired, young and successful businessman from the hi-tech sector who is one of the new faces in the government. His party, Bayit Yehudi, stands against much of what hareidi parties hold true in their political platforms. MK Dov Lipman represents Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid in Beit Shemesh. Their party supports government efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs, but they are more hardline on ceding anything to the hareidi parties.

The race for Mayor of the City of Beit Shemesh is ground zero in the national bruising battle between Shas and Naftali Bennett. Shas backs the incumbent Mayor. Bennett fielded a religious female candidate months after others announced their candidacies.  Shortly into her campaign, Bennett switched allegiance so as to unite nn-hareidi forces, backing Eli Cohen, leaving Bennett’s candidate to slowly twist in the wind. After a week of contemplation, she resigned her candidacy.

Bennett anointed Cohen as the only candidate with enough local support to “unite the Zionist camp” and unseat self-proclaimed hareidi-Shas Mayor Moshe Abutbol. This enraged many of Bennett’s party loyalists, Cohen supporters feared the campaign would be dragged into Bennett’s camp at the expense of honest discussion of local issues facing Bet Shemesh.

Cohen’s candidacy took hold quickly, pushing other candidates out.  Cohen is running as an independent, though his lifetime affiliation is Likud. He is a traditional but non-observant Jew with government and business management experience and comes from a Sephardic family. He is articulate with a proactive economic and social agenda dedicated to unifying hareidim, modern Orthodox, and secular Jews who have co-existed in the City for nearly three decades. He is passionate about improving living conditions for the Ethiopians in Bet Shemesh. He does not want to see the city divided in two, legally or religiously, resulting in segregating hareidim from others.

Mayor Abutbol does not lack for supporters. They characterize his administration as progressive and dedicated to growth and development. There are new parks and schools, housing construction, expanding social services, improved public transportation including a new major thoroughfare, reasonable taxes, new malls, and the Mayor is accessible.

Some vociferous critics of Mayor Abutbol claim his favoritism to hareidim inflames tensions and empowers extremists among them. His Deputy Mayor is quoted saying, “it is superfluous to call (riots by some) destructive and damaging,” referring specifically to attacks on three public buses when a driver of one bus called the police after a hareidi couple asked a female passenger to move to the back.  Supporters claim Beit Shemesh a traditional city that loves and respects religion. The Mayor’s only “sin” in the eyes of his opponents is that he wears a kippa (skullcap).

The Mayor’s opponents charge that his sin is the deafening silence to physical attacks over the years, shaming the good name of the city. When a few hareidi extremists acted like thugs against other community members, international headlines forced national ministers to enforce peace in the city. This attitude is discouraging young religious Zionist and secular families other than some olim to reside in Beit Shemesh, claiming it is already dominated by people not interested in their kind.

The national press was able to elicit a response from the usually recalcitrant Mayor to repeated violent acts in Bet Shemesh by one hareidi group against other hareidi rabbis and other residents. Mayor Abutbol made his campaign strategy clear. He scolded Cohen and Bennett in the same breath for criticizing hareidim, charging that both know nothing about the hareidim or their concerns. Cohen, Bennett, and hareidi leaders condemned the violence,  not the hareidim as a group, but the Mayor took the opportunity to pit “them” against “us,” much like Deri has done in the national kerfuffle.

The larger issue at stake than the political divide between candidates is Shas boss Arye Deri, who might decide to enshrine Abutbol as ruler of the realm, supplying hardball public support and chests of treasure for Abutbol’s campaign. Some Cohen supporters characterize Bennett as untrustworthy for casting aside his own candidate and they want Cohen to distance his campaign from Bennett. Bennett, appearing disorganized and weak in the knees after jilting his candidate, might spark Deri to engage Bennett in their scabrous and edacious national brawl down in the trenches of local politics. Deri would like to flex his muscle, demonstrate his genius, political skill, iron will, understanding of human nature and tenacity by defeating Bennett’s new choice for Mayor.

Bennett himself has a lot is at stake. He must build a political party from the ground up, in order to win future elections. He rode the coattails into office of a nation tired of being pushed around by the Europeans and President Obama. Bennett promised no land compromises without real peace, no carte blanche Palestinian prisoner release, and a meaningful draft of hareidim into the IDF, the integration of hareidim into the workforce, reform of Israeli bureaucracy, and a return to modern Orthodox religious leadership in the offices of Chief Rabbis. Essentially, it is everything many Israelis wanted to hear, but as of yet, he has not been able to fulfill most if any campaign promises and his rhetoric is sounding Aesopian.

Shas leaders torrefy Bennett as a poltroon and knave. His sobriquet is Amalek, a vile most-hated character who killed Israelite women and children.  This only increases his standing in the eyes of his supporters and in the polls, but Cohen needs to avoid getting dragged into this jingoism and quagmire.

Cohen’s followers vociferously argue against any alliance with Bennett and his Yesh Atid cohort MK Lipman. Cohen repeatedly assures his people he is running on his own platform and personality. In politics, talk is ephemeral as women’s fashion.

In the trenches, politics is about getting things done, or as a Senate Ways and Means Chairman once told me, power is in having the appearance of power. Deri has jobs and money giving him real power, and Shas will try to lay Bennett bare on the hills of Beit Shemesh by returning Abutbol to office and relishing the win in the national press.

Eli Cohen must reassert his independence from national politics and parties. “I'm not sure if anyone can muzzle Naftali Bennett, as he turns our local race into a national referendum on ‘us vs. them’,” according one ardent but frustrated Cohen supporter, but Cohen better work to make it happen. Cohen’s vision is what could win him the Mayoralty.

The knuckle-brawler former Mayor of Chicago quipped: A candidate must work at it, deliver on your promises, and make the people believe “good government is good politics.”