Mar 19, 2013
Bet Shemesh Elections 2013-City at a Crossroads
A Guest Post by Zev Kaplan
Just as we are beginning to recover from the frenzy of the national elections, Bet Shemesh finds itself at the threshold of municipal elections which according to most opinions are going to determine the course of the city for decades to come, if not permanently. October 22, 2013 will be the day that either the charedim led by incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul or a representative of Yahadut HaTorah will continue upon the path they have been leading us the past five years or a conglomeration of non-charedi parties will join together to support a dati or mesorati candidate that will unseat Abutbul and put a brake on the charedization of this mixed and troubled city. Unfortunately, it seems that the vote will not be about the best man for the job but rather a referendum on the path the city should take. Do we want to head in the direction of Bnei Brak or rather a mixed city such as Jerusalem, where many different groups live in harmony and massive one-sided building plans do not threaten the demographic balance? This demographic issue is what makes this election especially critical or "gorali". January's national election results show that that 46% of the population of BS voted for charedi parties while 54% voted for Zionist ones. If the building in RBS 3,4 and 5 is left unchecked, the charedi population will surely be a significant majority by 2018.
At this point a bit of history is in order. Since its inception as a city until 2008, Bet Shemesh was led by either the Likud or Labor. Menachem Begin used to make regular trips to our city where he was mobbed and treated like a hero, especially after he became prime minister in 1977. His victory was sweet vindication for a working-class, immigrant population, which had disdain for the ruling elite. Religious parties were not factors at all in Bet Shemesh (Aguda and Mizrachi) or were not yet born(Shas). The city was like a village and consisted almost totally of traditional, Sephardi immigrants until some charedim came in the 1980's. The political debate was right-wing(Likud) or left-wing(Labor). Towards the end of Likud mayor Daniel Vaknin's third term in 2008 many people felt that a change was in order and supported the candidacy of Shalom Lerner as head of an independent party called B'Yachad. At the end the race was between Vaknin, Lerner and a city councilman named Moshe Abutbul who, with the support of Shas, Yahudut Hatorah and two smaller non-charedi parties, easily won the three-way race with 46% of the vote.
Much ink has been spilled in explaining how Bet Shemesh went from being a Zionist stronghold to a charedi-led city as will be explained below. The first and most obvious reason is the demographic balance shifted as many charedim settled BS and were the primary residents of Ramat Bet Shemesh A and B. Combine this with an understandable desire for change after 15 years of Vaknin's leadership and an infusion of immigrants from Western countries(Anglos), Russians and Ethiopians and you can see the makings of a political revolution. However, Abutbul could not have won in 2008 without three factors, each of are critical to understand as we approach October. Firstly, many people voted along their religious affiliation and when one charedi candidate is running against two serious non-charedi candidates(although both were dati) the results were predictable. For illustrative purposes, assuming there are half in favor of one faction and half in favor of another(the reality is far more complex and grey) the one that runs by itself will get 50% and the other two will split the remaining 50%. A second major reason is for political reasons the Labor party(led by Richard Peres) and the Dor Acher party(Meir Balayish) made a deal with Abutbul and supported and endorsed him. Their reasons for doing so are complex but clearly the lack of proper communication and failed attempts at unity between Vaknin and Lerner could not have helped. This lack of unity, combined with general inertia and despair brings us to the third major reason for the political upheaval. Voter turnout among the charedim with a united mission and sense of purpose was extremely high, reaching close to 80% while among the general population it was in the 65-70% range. These "wasted" votes are critical and people will only turn out if they are excited by a sole candidate who gives them hope for a better future.
Turning to 2013, the local election season is currently in full swing. The first to announce his candidacy was local lawyer Shimon Biton, well-known among locals for his over 25 years of involvement in local journalism and strong anti-corruption record. In recent weeks the floodgates have opened with announcements from Eli Cohen, (who worked many years for the Jewish Agency in South America and in Israel and currently with the Water Authority), Moti Cohen (a current city councilman and owner of the furniture store in Bet Shemesh-Reheitei Lotus) and Deputy Mayor Meir Balayish in rapid succession. Rumor has it that several other people intend on announcing their candidacies in the coming weeks. One thing is clear to all that the chances of unseating Abutbul are greatly diminished if there is not one agreed-upon candidate. Efforts are underway to unite the candidates and factions in the form of weekly meetings designed to create a forum and recipe for turning many into one. These events have been well-attended by almost all the veteran local journalists, politicians, activists and all the candidates themselves. While this is an encouraging development for the "Zionist" sector, it is a work in progress. With regard to the charedi sector, rumor has it that the Ashkenazim(Yahadut HaTorah) wants to challenge Abutbul for leadership of the camp as they are greatly in the majority over Sephardy charedim(Shasniks) and even that Shas itself has soured on Abutbul and is searching for a new leader. As always, there are countless angles, spins and rumors and only down the road will we discover what they agree upon.
As far as the Anglo community in BS in concerned, the views run the gamut of political orientation. I spoke to Anglo members of the Gur community who vowed to vote "as ordered by the rebbe"(communicated by signal on election day) and to Anglo "Tov" voters who said they are open minded about any candidate "depending on who he is and if he understands religious concerns". A sizable number of Anglo voters in Givat Sharett, Migdal Hamayim and Givat Savyon prefer anyone to the current mayor, as they are still smarting from the Orot Banot fiasco,hadrat nashim,creeping religious extremism and a feeling that Abutbul doesn't take their needs into account. Many are enthusiastic about Eli Cohen. In addition, many Anglo olim in the Rama told me that they would place much emphasis on their rabbonim or politicians recommend, wich would mean voting for a charedi candidate if their orientation is "black and white", a "Zionistic" candidate if they are "kipa sruga" and "chofesh hatzba'ah" for those in the middle.
The situation regarding the local political scene is clearly very complicated and changes by the day. We as Anglos who very often can't or do not read the Hebrew local weekly newspapers are even less aware about the comings and goings. This is compounded by the fact that the cutural and political norms are very different in the Middle East than in the countries we come from. As immigrants we need to understand that change comes after understanding the playing field and working within the system and not by wishing things were different. Living in a bubble can only hurt our cause. We need to find common cause with our neighbors, be they Israeli, Russian, Ethiopian, Ashkenazy, Sephardy, young or old if we are to effect change in City Hall and if we are charedi we still need to realize that Israeli charedi is vastly different than the version of charedi we are used to in our countries of origin.
To conclude, this election season could be looked upon as having two stages. The first stage which has already begun is when the list of candidates is hopefully whittled down to two, as we are used to in the United States. This is similar to the (Republican)party primary system we recently witnessed, the difference being that the populace does not have a vote as to who the candidate will be or even whether there will be more than one from our camp. The final stage is the election, scheduled for Oct. 22(18 Cheshvan). Unity is cleary beneficial and even critical, as the charedim showed in 2008 and we are witnessing with the Lapid-Bennett union. For better or worse, it seems that the coming election is a stark choice between two world views which in a way makes understanding it easier. Mistakes were made last time and hopefully we can all learn from them. May the best candidate win.
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