The Holy War: Beit Shemesh Elections

The contest has become a holy war that leaves residents high and dry. Religious hatred dominates, replacing any political discourse.

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Dr. Harold Goldmeier,

Dr. Harold Goldmeier
Dr. Harold Goldmeier

Closing in on the final days for election of Mayor and City Council members in Beit Shemesh the tone and tricks turned ugly. The election is no longer about issues and party platforms. It is now a battle between the holy and righteous versus the sinners and anti-Torah candidates. In Beit Shemesh, it is all about religion.

Several months ago. I wrote an article in which I  predicted the Beit Shemesh electioneering will be ground zero in the national political brawl pitting hareidim against Bennett and Lapid. The Beit Shemesh campaigns quickly shot past issue based political debate, whizzing past the inane moral fetor and mordacious personal allegations exacerbating the brawl of Israeli national politics, deteriorating into a holy war.

The losers are residents who really want to know what each candidate is going to do for the community.

Some of the issues facing Beit Shemesh include how to eliminate the City’s significant debt and stop the bleeding; what to do about inadequate infrastructure in the face of fast housing growth; the need to clean public and private properties from litter, graffiti, and garbage; gain control over construction rehabs that do not have authorized approvals and permits; getting schools and yeshivot out of caravans into modern facilities; the need for a maternity center if not a hospital in the area; building recreational and cultural facilities especially for teens; improving roads and public transportation to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; attracting factories and other companies for local employment in an economically depressed City.

In place of reasoned debate the hareidi -Shas Mayor Moshe Abutbol campaigns to delegitimize non-hareidi candidates even discouraging moderate hareidi candidates through intimidation and threats.

Here are a few examples.  Mayor Abutbol released a campaign flier with pictures of the traditional but secular candidate Eli Cohen shaking hands with Bennett and Lapid.

Hareidi rabbis characterize them Amalek and worse.  Abutbol campaign supporters paint Cohen guilty of anti-hareidi, anti-Jewish policies by association like planning to let public buses operate on Shabbat in Beit Shemesh if he wins.

Worse still, another campaign piece shows a picture of hareidi children behind a barbed-wire fence imputing to Cohen Nazi-like hatred of religion and hareidim.

An Abutbol campaign flier encourages people to vote for his reelection “to preserve a Jewish Beit Shemesh,” implying that election of Cohen will make it a non-Jewish city. 

The TOV Party self-describes as moderate hareidi. Their number two candidate for city council told the media that Mayor Abutbol’s campaign workers are using violence and intimidation.  When Abutbol’s people were photographed hanging campaign signs on city street poles, they threw rocks and threatened TOV Party people who complained and took photographs. The door locks to TOV party headquarters were glued shut, and TOV Party campaign banners are torn down throughout the City.

Mayor Abutbol is accusing Cohen campaign workers of attacking his staff when they tried to prevent the Mayor’s banners from being removed.

Eli Cohen represents the Zionist bloc, and some hareidi rabbis view this as an assault on religion.  One of the more outspoken and leading Rabbis of one of the largest synagogues in Beit Shemesh wailed from his pulpit accusing Zionism and its minions for pulling his family in America away from Judaism. Shortly thereafter the Rabbi endorsed Mayor Abutbol for reelection.

Fueling the fire and brimstone hatred of secular candidates like Cohen is the declaration of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.  He is the leader, great Posek, thinker, and policymaker of the hareidi Lithuanian stream. Rav Shteinman declared recently, “If a secular mayor will be elected in Beit Shemesh, then it will be a desecration of God’s name.”

To many hareidim, this justifies violence and thuggery. One group of 12 and 13 years old boys on the way home from yeshiva scaled a wall to the deck (mirpeset) of one home and tore down an Eli Cohen banner.  They stood in the street mocking the homeowner as children are wont to do when he reminded them it was just four weeks since Yom Kippur.

They and others continue to tear down banners, most likely under the influence of their parents and teachers. They pulled out Abutbol banners waving them and shouting his name at the homeowner.  This is repeated throughout the City according to others. The father of one yeshiva teen when confronted by a homeowner defiantly asked, “What are you going to do about it?”

The most widely read Beit Shemesh blogger writes on Life In Israel. “You want to talk chilul Shabbos (desecration of the Sabbath)?  While Moshe Abutbol is busy consistently accusing Eli Cohen of planning to bring mass chilul Shabbos to Beit Shemesh, despite Eli Cohen’s denials and promises, Moshe Abutbol’s frum (religious) supporters are busy tearing down Cohen’s signs (among others, like TOV signs as well) on Shabbos.”

Their response to a community rabbi rebuking them for doing this on Shabbat was to justify their actions that it is a milchemet mitzvah (a holy war, therefore an especially good deed and obligation) to tear down the signs of anyone Rav Shteinman believes will harm Torah Judaism.

It’s the declaration of another Beit Shemesh rabbi that captures the schism between hareidim and other members of the community.  He threatens his congregants on Shabbat from the pulpit that they must vote and vote for Abutbol, because this is a matter of saving Torah, and if they fail to follow his decree they must leave his synagogue and pray elsewhere.

I grew up in Chicago active in City and State politics for over three decades, so there is not much I haven’t seen in dirty, rough and tumble politics. Never did I witness the level of anti-Semitism I see in Beit Shemesh.  Religious hatred dominates, replacing any political discourse. Perhaps this allegory for despotism from Dr. Seuss can remind people about what really matters, “I know up on top you are seeing great sights, But down here on the bottom, We too should have rights.”