by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
It’s the last week before city (mayor and city council) elections in Israel, and it’s getting ugly. A regular commentor wrote, “Reb Akiva, would you do one of your analyses on what’s going on with local elections in Israel, particularly in Beit Shemesh?”
You got it, here we go!
The political advert above, from the city of Kiryat Gat in Southern Israel, says “Kiryat Gat, Don’t Be Like Beit Shemesh. We Don’t Want an Ultra-Orthodox City! Vote for Chaim Aberjil.”
Beit Shemesh, a city mentioned in the Torah (in Nevi’im), started out in modern Israel as a backwater town. Located off the beaten track halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it was a somewhat poor hilltop populated primarily by sephardim (Jews from Arab countries). With the modern influx of immigrants, it gained a Russian Jewish population, followed by an Ethiopian Jewish population – with neighborhood expansion funded by the national government. Or rather, “Hey, how can we get the national government to fund the expansion of the city? Let’s offer to take in 10,000 needy immigrants!”
A decade before, a developer bought a hilltop a bit north of Beit Shemesh from a nearby moshav (farming village) and turned it into a cemetery import business targeting the overseas Jewish burial-in-Israel market. The cemetery partnered with a number of mainstream orthodox Jewish organizations in the U.S. and developed a successful market.
After importing lots of needy immigrants, someone in Beit Shemesh took the idea from the cemetery and said, “how can we attract some living American Jews to Beit Shemesh? (and build the tax base to offset the poor immigrants and generally improve the town tax income)”
Yet another builder convinced them to build higher density housing, allowing for less expensive properties but many more per acre of land.
The result was Beit Shemesh growing from a population of 30,000 to 100,000 in 15 years, and on a pace to grow to 200,000 in the next 8 years. This growth occurred in completely segmented communities – segmented by neighborhood build style and property costs.
Old Beit Shemesh with traditional sephardi Jews as well as some high density poor Ethiopian and Russian Jewish neighborhoods. Kiryat Charedit, a high density poor ultra-orthodox Jewish section of town. Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, a high density extreme ultra-orthodox Jewish part of town that bisects the city. Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, low density (by Israeli standards) with parks and greenery that’s about 50% immigrant American (or other English speakers), the Americans being divided between ultra-orthodox U.S. style and modern orthodox Jews, as well as traditional Israeli’s and ultra-orthodox Israelis. And now under construction, Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, which is being built high density style but being marketed to Americans (so far successfully – though they may not like it when they get there.)
These different distinct communities have significantly different drives and expectations of the city government.
In the previous election, the long term mayor (over 15 years) who had been involved in creating much of the current segmentation (divide and rule?) lost the support of even his own party. The majority of the city that was not part of the original Beit Shemesh felt ignored (underserved) by the city government, and voted for the current mayor en masse who was from the new part of town. The fact that the mayor was an ultra-orthodox Jew as irrelevant, anyone from the new sections of town that people could rally around would have carried the day (of course his political expertise was becoming that person and getting the support of all the large factions of the city).
Unfortunately the current mayor has not been particularly competent at running the city. The city is not a disaster, thank G-d, but it’s got some growing problems – some of them very high profile. One everyone in the WORLD has heard about, as a group of ultra-orthodox fanatics harassed elementary school girls headed to their new school building which was placed on the edge of the ultra-orthodox neighborhood (guaranteed to cause some friction). The mayor’s actions against this situation – NONE.
A very professional candidate is running against him, one who does very well presenting a long list of problems the city has and the approach he will take to solving them – including dealing with the inter-communal resource pressures that the city hasn’t managed.
But the candidate has a problem. He’s a traditional sephari Jew from the old section of town. He doesn’t wear a yalmulke, he doesn’t learn in yeshiva. (He does run one of the major government utility corporations in Israel.)
Sadly the incumbent mayor, who everyone says is a very personable fellow, doesn’t seem to have a great series of accomplishments to run on. And since it seems many recognize that managerial competence is a major issue – the mayor’s election team has turned the campaign negative and vicious.
They are running a disgusting anti-anti-religious smear campaign against the opponent candidate who is NOT anti-religious. Got that? The mayor’s campaign is trying to convince the ultra-orthodox public that the opponent candidate is anti-religious and is going to round their children up and place them in concentration camps. (see ad above) They’ve alternatively said the opponent candidate is going to shut down synagogues, close religious schools, and fund city public transportation to run through the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on Shabbos.
As with most politics, all such statements are outrageous disgusting lies (how do I know? I contacted the candidate and asked him). And simply making such statements brings the ad that I presented at the top of this article, another city’s politician campaigning on the point of “don’t let them turn our city into an embittered place like Beit Shemesh”.
The zionist governments of Israel spent some generations attacking the ultra-orthodox, ridiculing them and pressuring them to lose their religion. In response the ultra-orthodox circled their wagons and embraced their segmentation. While those days are past in general, there is the occasional national politician who makes anti-religious statements. And the current Israeli government is upsetting the apple cart – changing the relationship of the government with the ultra-orthodox community. Whether this is for the long term good or bad, in the short term it is certainly painful.
So the ultra-orthodox community is primed to find a boogeyman. The mayor’s campaign, painting his opponent as an anti-religious who’s trying to take away from the ultra-orthodox community speaks to many of the voters. They’re feeling the pain of the national government moves, and this local candidate make take the brunt of that feeling.
It’s ugly, disgusting, damaging to Beit Shemesh, and shows a problematic moral and religious position. I don’t understand how an ultra-orthodox man (the mayor) can allow himself to be associated with such statements and pictures.
But it’s politics AND IT’S WORKING.
I need to go wash out my brain now. Local elections in Israel are on October 22. If there are Beit Shemesh readers who would like more, comment below to let me know if it’s worth sharing other related material.