Beit Shemesh Elections: Good for Democracy
Beit Shemesh Elections: Good for Democracy

Many Bet Shemesh residents are grumbling while waiting for new elections to elect a Mayor and complain that the costs and noise are folderol. They seem apathetic, uninterested in another campaign, contributing money, listening to more campaign stump speeches, or to the ranting of pulpit rabbis.

The Jerusalem District Court ruled there was massive and systematic fraud in last October’s election of hareidi Bet Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol. In the interim, the Bet Shemesh government rumbles on inertia.  City Council committees are frozen. New appointments, municipal projects, and construction plan approvals - are on hold. Streets are cleaned and garbage collected, sans much management control.

The first election rallied supporters of Eli Cohen. He forged a coalition of religious and secular residents who were highly motivated to stem the rising tide of hareidi political and financial domination in Bet Shemesh. Mayor Abutbol’s largely hareidi supporters countered Cohen with a well organized, concerted, and philosophically energetic campaign to firmly implant Torah values in city government.

The first election was all about democracy, and represented the best in free choice. People seldom, if ever, active in politics, especially local government, got involved. Citizens' awareness of the needs for better local services and economic development expanded immensely. It was refreshing to see people so motivated.

Several hundred stolen election ballots and voting with fake identity cards, described as massive and systematic fraud, is risible compared to shenanigans elsewhere. I remember one Chicago mayor pulling the operating license of a day care center where an opposing candidate’s wife worked; restaurants targeted for health inspections after hosting campaign parties for opponents, or the tale of the mayor refusing to submit election results until he was sure he knew the number of votes needed to elect his favorite for President of the United States. The only community to report later was a leper colony in Hawaii.

In my career, three Illinois Governors went to jail where two remain until today.

The Beit Shemesh election became entangled in a web of passion and loathing, desperate appeals and self-deluding simplicities. Cohen will have a harder time winning a new election. If he does win, Cohen will likely be the last non-hareidi Mayor of Bet Shemesh for the foreseeable future. 

Bet Shemesh is increasingly hareidi and hassidic and that is where Abutbol’s strength lies. Edah Hareidit, Ger, Belz, Satmar and Neturei Karta hareidim dominate the Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet neighborhood. Thousands of new dwellings under construction attract these groups, while only hundreds of new units are designated for secular and modern-Orthodox families.

During the first election campaign a hareidi national leader allegedly told a Cohen volunteer that hareidim hope to turn Bet Shemesh into another political stronghold modeling Bnei Brak and Betar Illit. The former is one of the poorest most densely populated cities in Israel dependent on annual subsidies from the Interior Ministry in millions of shekels.  The latter boasts a 65% unemployment rate among working age men. At some point officials will need an economic plan to keep Bet Shemesh sustainable.

Concomitantly, secular and modern-Orthodox residents are leaving Bet Shemesh with few trickling into the city. The increasingly stringent demands, values, and lifestyles of hareidim spark tensions between differing streams of Judaism. Tolerance is not their watchword. My modern-Orthodox, national serviceparticipating nieces own three apartments in Bet Shemesh, but live elsewhere never dreaming of moving into Bet Shemesh.

Another election is unlikely to generate the same exuberance as the first campaign, but residents ought not believe it is a waste of resources. One study out of the Cato Institute concludes election  “spending increases public knowledge of the candidates, across essentially all groups in the population.  Less spending on campaigns is not likely to increase public trust, involvement, or attention.” Democracies strengthen in proportion to campaign spending.

A pessimist might agree with Mark Twain’s delightful observation that “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”  More realistically is the caveat that “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” 

The re-election of a mayor might be a chore, but residents ought not shilly-shally on election day.