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Oct 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Mayors

A guest post by David Bar-Cohn

Let me start with the famous introduction from the Dickens novel which inspired the above title:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...”

When I read this, I feel like Dickens must have secretly/prophetically been referring to Beit Shemesh. Here we have so many capable, intelligent people among our ranks, and yet so much utter foolishness – dangerous and destructive foolishness. We have a great deal of fervent “belief,” and at the same time a great deal of cynicism as to where that belief is taking us. We are blessed with unprecedented opportunity – far beyond our previous generations’ wildest imaginations, and yet many of us are gripped with pessimism and uncertainty as to what the future holds for this city, indeed for Israel as a whole.

While day-to-day life here in Beit Shemesh may be agreeable, even quite wonderful in fact, many of us are deeply disturbed at the palpable and formidable darkness we witnessed first-hand throughout the campaign and election process. We are greatly troubled by the heightened sense of animosity and distrust we perceive between the Haredi and non-Haredi communities, where it’s hard to see much of any light at the end of the tunnel. We lament the fact that Beit Shemesh has emerged as a sort of “ground zero” in the turf-battle over religion in Israel, where each side sees itself as fighting for its own survival – if not physical survival then the survival of its ideals. And we dread that as long as that is the case, every election in this city will be cast as a "mortal battle."

Now, in the event that the current investigation of last week’s elections should turn up sufficient fraud as to render the election invalid, the next step presumably would be to hold another election. That of course means going through part of the gut-wrenching campaign process all over again – the posters, the rallies, the hate-filled invective, etc. At best we will have a final winner, and half the city will rejoice while the other half lives in doubt as to whether its needs will be represented in the foreseeable future. Whoever wins the distrust and resentment will remain. Yes, I recognize that this is life in the grown-up world of politics and elections. But just the same I thought I would offer up an alternative.

The idea is this: Instead of holding a second election (should it come to that), perhaps we could embark on a five-year experiment: A Beit Shemesh with two mayors, “co-mayors,” serving simultaneously – one representing the Haredi sector and the other representing the non-Haredi sector. Executive decision-making would be undertaken together, through a process of mediation and compromise.

Now I want to state straight away – I called this a “tale” of two mayors because I am fully aware that it may strike the reader as pure fantasy, something that could never happen “in a million years.” There is no precedent for it. Both sides are gravely embittered. Neither (I would venture to guess) has much of any willingness to share power with the other. And the very idea of the “co-leadership” model (even in much smaller-scale projects) is often known to be tall on “high ideals” and short on actual effective leadership. I get all that.

But I think we are in a situation now where a little idealism “lishma” (for its own sake) isn’t a bad thing either. We find ourselves presently neck-deep in profound mutual distrust – a good deal of which has certainly been earned. No one mayor currently has the right to say, “Trust me.” That is far too much to ask. What I believe we need now is to find a way where both communities can feel secure, where both feel they are being adequately represented – without requiring anyone to “trust.” Only when both sides experience a significant measure of security can we – slowly, over time – begin to build trust. And each community having a mayor to vie for its interests may just hold a hope of doing that.

There is of course another suggestion for two mayors – the “two-city solution,” i.e. dividing Beit Shemesh from Ramat Beit Shemesh. Whether or not this is a realistic solution (economically, geographically, logistically, etc.) I honestly don’t know. But we need to be aware of what that idea represents, what message it sends. It is a move toward two Israels – Haredi Israel and non-Haredi Israel. I admit this may well be taking place on its own, but to go ahead and formally split Beit Shemesh in two would arguably be seen as an “official statement” to that effect – a writ of separation, citing irreconcilable differences. We can no longer live together. Haredi and non-Haredi societies cannot coexist... And that is something I for one am not yet ready to concede. I would sooner try something else first – even if it is radical and unprecedented – before taking a step along the road to mutual isolation.

Having a single Beit Shemesh with two mayors would send precisely the opposite message. It’s a shake-up, a game-changer. It’s a statement – to ourselves and to the world – that we haven’t given up. We’re ready to do things differently. We’re ready to share power, not grab power. We’re ready to work together, not against each other. We’re ready to be stop being an example of what not to do, how not to be, and to instead do something totally out-of-the-box, something extraordinary, something which makes the world look at us, at Beit Shemesh (yes, Beit Shemesh of all places!), and say: “Wow, there might actually be hope for the human race.”

This city of ours is a crucible, a testing ground of sorts for issues of coexistence facing the society as a whole. The way we handle things, here and now, has the capacity to affect life down the line, and well beyond our borders. Yes, we may feel burdened, weighed down, by the problems we face. But we also have in our hands a unique opportunity to effect far-reaching positive change. We have a responsibility not merely to ourselves but also to all of Israel, and arguably to the rest of the world.

That is why I’ve put the two-mayor idea on the table. I think we ought to consider another way. And even if it can’t be done, even if the election results stand – even if it remains just a “tale” – that’s okay. Because I believe it’s a tale worth telling.

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  1. This city of ours is a crucible,
    If you haven't already, you might want to read The Crucible by Arthur Miller - I think about it often these days regarding my beloved religion and country.
    Joel Rich

  2. As things stand this could happen already albeit in a less official way. The Charedim (Shas, Degel, Gimmel and Koach) have 9 seats in a 19 seat council. That means if the non-Charedi parties, including Balayish, join together to make a bloc they can negotiate within reason whatever they want.

  3. Another idea with precedent - why not a unity gov't with rotating mayor each with 2.5 years? This was done at the Prime Minister level with Peres and Shamir. In my opinion this can work but only after a complete investigation is done and the current vote determined to be invalid.

  4. Um, yeah - including Balayish - do you have any idea what you're saying?


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