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Beit Shemesh Faces Renewed Calls to Split the City

Some Eli Cohen supporters react to elections loss with petition to split the city into hareidi, secular halves.
By Maayana Miskin and Ari Soffer
First Publish: 3/13/2014, 12:16 PM

Incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul celebrates with supporters after winning re-vote Wednesday
Incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul celebrates with supporters after winning re-vote Wednesday
Flash 90

Hareidi incumbent Moshe Abutbul was voted in as the Mayor of Beit Shemesh in a hotly-contested election this week, effectively ending accusations that his victory in the city’s first elections, in late 2013, was a result of fraud.

Many of Abutbul’s opponents warned that a hareidi victory in the elections would lead to Beit Shemesh becoming a majority-hareidi city, altering its character as a historically mixed city.

After his seeming victory in the 2013 elections there were calls to split the city. Now Abutbul’s confirmed victory has led to a renewal of those calls.

Activists are circulating a petition to divide the city into two municipalities, one hareidi-dominated and one with a non-hareidi majority.

Abutbul has previously termed calls to split the city “childish.” While those in favor of splitting the city say poorer hareidi areas - where many men shun employment in favor of full-time Torah study - are a financial drain on the city’s resources, Abutbul has argued that in fact the opposite is true, and that the rapid development in newer, hareidi areas actually helps support historic Beit Shemesh.

He has also argued that the city’s mixed population would make it geographically impossible to split Beit Shemesh into hareidi and non-hareidi halves.

Hundreds of people have signed the document, which claims: “The model of cooperation between hareidi and secular residents of Beit Shemesh has clearly failed. Therefore, the only option is to split the city in two – a hareidi city, and a secular city.”

Sources close to Abutbul rejected the petition as the work of a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of residents of the city want to see Beit Shemesh stay united, they said.

Tensions between hareidi extremists and non-hareidi residents of the city have made headlines on occasions, in particularly in 2011, when footage emerged showing hareidi activists protesting the presence of a Religious Zionist girls' school by harassing and spitting at young schoolgirls and their mothers.

Some residents accuse Abutbul of focusing on developing hareidi neighborhoods at the expense of others, threatening to further exacerbate tensions. But other locals say the entire issue has been blown out of proportion, and that most residents of the city - hareidi, Religious Zionist and secular alike - get on just fine.