In Israel’s municipal elections last week, the city of Beit Shemesh narrowly voted out its two-term mayor, Moshe Abutbul. In doing so, it ended eight years of confused and corrupt governance, and ushered in what we hope will be a new era that seeks to integrate the city’s insular haredi Orthodox community into the larger objectives of organized government rather that surrendering to its members’ outbursts and demands.
The race pitted the very aggressive and fast-growing haredi population in the city’s southern Ramat Beit Shemesh enclaves against virtually everyone else. Its victor, Aliza Bloch, had the backing of Israel’s secular and religious Zionist parties. The result may be the last best chance to get Beit Shemesh back on a more even keel.
Abutbul, of the haredi Shas party, had a bumpy ride as the city’s mayor, and aggravated almost all but his haredi supporters with his intolerance and coarseness. For example, in 2013, after his reelection, Abutbul responded to an Israeli TV interviewer who asked about the presence of gays and lesbians in Beit Shemesh, saying, “We have no such things. … Thank God this city is holy and pure.” Abutbul went on to suggest that it was up to the Health Ministry and police to “take care of them,” making clear they were not welcome in his town.
While that outburst outraged Jews in the Diaspora, it didn’t appear to bother Abutbul’s political base. Indeed, in recent years, the city of 114,000 has repeatedly become a flashpoint for conflicts between the haredi community and its secular and modern Orthodox populations. Much has been written about the conflicts in Beit Shemesh over restrictions on women’s dress and gender-segregated seating on public buses, including a widely publicized incident in which an 8-year-old modern Orthodox girl was spat on by haredim on the way to school for her perceived immodest outfit.
What may have swung the vote to Bloch, a modern-Orthodox, Zionist woman, is dissatisfaction among some haredi voters with the way Abutbul was running their town. It got so bad that some ignored the calls of their own rabbis and voted for change. According to one report in the Jerusalem Post: “Corruption allegations, reports of rampant nepotism and poor financial management within the municipal council have meant that many [haredim] have grown weary of the Abutbul administration.”
In victory, Bloch promised to be a unifier. “As mayor of Beit Shemesh, I intend to engage in finding the good and the common, and together we will become a model for Israeli society, each of whom will live his life in his own way with respect for the other,” she declared.
Bloch went on to proclaim, “The people of Israel look today to Beit Shemesh with new hope.”
So do we.