Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

The Battle for Beit Shemesh

The first visible sign I noticed that we were back in election season was an appalling one. A number of weeks before the election, I could not fail to notice the large, bright yellow campaign advertisement pasted on the side of a bus slowly making its way down the street in Ramat Beit Shemesh. “BEIT SHEMESH WILL OVERCOME THE EXTREMISTS,” the sign declared confidently. Alongside this rather unpleasant slogan was a picture of a smiling Eli Cohen, the secular candidate vying, for the second time in five months, for the position of mayor of Beit Shemesh.

We had all known that it was coming, and I was rather surprised that it took that long for the campaign materials to appear on our streets once again. In the weeks leading up to the first election, we had been inundated by flyers, posters, letters, leaflets, and all sorts of other campaign materials. The notorious court ruling overturning the municipal elections in Beit Shemesh, which the incumbent mayor, Moshe Abutbul, had won by a margin of 956 votes, had taken place weeks earlier, and while the streets had given little indication, during those weeks, of the battle that was yet to come, we all knew to expect it.


It was a tense time in Beit Shemesh, and the tension grew only more pronounced as the date of the second elections crept closer. Everyone was aware of the story: After 36 cases of voter fraud were discovered in the first municipal elections, the losing side had turned to the courts and asked them to order new elections. Despite the fact that the fraudulent votes were only a tiny fraction of the margin by which the incumbent mayor had won, the courts, ever ready to pounce on an opportunity to deal a blow to the chareidi public, had overturned the elections, giving the secular challenger, Eli Cohen, another chance to unseat the incumbent mayor, Moshe Abutbul. The courts also reversed the elections for the municipal council, which meant that all the seats in the council would be up for grabs once again.


In this vibrant and diverse Israeli city, an hour’s drive from Yerushalayim, passions were flying high over the results of the elections. The chareidi presence in the city has steadily increased over the years, yet the chiloni and dati leumi communities have still expressed resentment of the chareidi community. The sentiment in those communities was that wresting the office of mayor from Abutbul’s hands was the last recourse available to them to halt the growth of the chareidi community in Beit Shemesh. Cohen’s bus-borne battle cry against the “extremists” was a clear attempt to capitalize on those sentiments.


Before long, the campaign began to intensify. Chein, the Litvishe chareidi political party of Beit Shemesh, launched a campaign that was presumably intended to make residents realize how well the municipality had already been handling their needs. Large posters – in English – appeared in the entrances to many buildings in Ramat Beit Shemesh, bearing the proclamation, “I Love RBS!” followed by multiple lines on which residents were invited to write in their own reasons. At the same time, smaller versions of this poster were placed in every mailbox. A small flyer from the Cohen campaign arrived in our mailboxes, announcing his intention to “restore the honor of Beit Shemesh,” while the Abutbul campaign sent out a flyer advertising Mayor Abutbul’s many past accomplishments on behalf of the city. At the bottom of the notice was a cartoon-like picture of the mayor, along with the words, “With love, from Moshe.” The same picture appeared on the Abutbul campaign’s own advertisements on the sides of local buses, along with the slogan, “Don’t extinguish the love!”


Now we were seriously in election season. People continued going about their business as usual, but there was a good deal of apprehension under the surface. The days ticked by, and the papers promoting one candidate or the other began to pile up. The Abutbul campaign’s black-and-yellow signs bore the phrase from Megillas Esther, lehikoheil velaamod al nafshom,” a clear reference to the danger that they felt we were all facing. The façade of one building, which faced a slope and could be clearly seen from far away, bore three massive campaign banners. One declared, “It’s the education of your children that frightens them,” while another announced, “Do you have a beard? You must be a crook,” referring to the court’s preposterous and unwarranted assumption that entire chassidic communities had been involved in widespread voter fraud. A third bore a picture of Yair Lapid along with the words, “This man is counting on your indifference.” All three banners also bore the “lehikoheil velaamod al nafshom” slogan. Shortly before the elections, they were apparently ordered removed, since they disappeared several days before the polls opened. Another banner, this one with a picture of Bibi Netanyahu, also appeared for a short time, bearing the words, “This time, this man hopes that you will stay home.” The message was clear: The organizers feared that voters would be too indifferent or resigned to come to the polls, and that the election would therefore be lost due to the expected increase in the secular, pro-Cohen vote.


The elections were widely viewed as a struggle between the Torah world and the secular one, and it was understood that the outcome would have a major impact on the spiritual character of Beit Shemesh, and even on the country as a whole.


Prior to the elections, a number of prominent rabbonim visited Beit Shemesh in order to aid the incumbent mayor’s cause. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the rov of the Old City of Yerushalayim, made an exception to his policy of not leaving the Old City walls in order to come to Beit Shemesh and exhort the community to take part in this all-important battle for kiddush Hashem.


On the Thursday afternoon before the elections, a car circled through the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh with a loudspeaker blaring the announcement that Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman would be coming to Beit Shemesh for a special rally in advance of the elections. A huge crowd packed into the Kehillos Yaakov shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and after a series of addresses from some local rabbonim, Rav Shteinman spoke briefly, urging everyone to step forward and do their share to contribute to the kiddush Hashem of reelecting Moshe Abutbul.


On Motzoei Shabbos, the English-speaking community was also invited to an address from Rav Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, who reportedly made a special trip in order to address the community on the subject of the elections. A local free newspaper printed a large “special edition,” including coverage on the p’sak halachah issued by many gedolim that everyone should vote for Moshe Abutbul.


The situation reached a fever pitch as the week of the elections dawned. It was likely the sole issue on many people’s minds, and it was the subject of conversation everywhere. A copy of a fascinating article was circulated throughout the neighborhood. Written by the secular journalist who had first exposed the fraudulent votes in the first election, it was a frank admission that, at the chareidi parties’ urging, he had reviewed the materials from the court case invalidating the elections and had discovered that the court’s decision was completely unfounded. He demonstrated how the court had used the testimony of a few individuals, much of which was based purely on hearsay, to conclude that entire chassidic communities had refrained from voting and had instead given their ID cards to others to vote on their behalf. Even the number of members in each community, the journalist revealed, had been determined by the court based solely on a speculative text message sent by an individual who admitted his own unfamiliarity with Beit Shemesh. The court even refused to heed the request of Abutbul’s attorney that it review actual evidence that would have substantially affected its ruling. The article, which began with the declaration that there was no reason to invalidate the Beit Shemesh elections, concluded with the author’s uneasy admission that the court’s willful ignorance of proper judicial procedure would never have been tolerated if it had affected any community other than the chareidim.


Also telling was a sign posted in many shuls several days before the elections, which announced: “Due to the grave situation in our city, local rabbonim have asked for twoperakim of Tehillim to be recited after every tefillah until after the elections.” There were widespread expectations that if the challenger won the election, Beit Shemesh’s chareidi community would be plunged into oppressive circumstances, including severe cuts to funding for their schools.


Two days before the elections, a middle-aged avreich in one local bais medrash was exhorting everyone he saw to pitch in for the campaign effort. “There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of explaining to be done,” he asserted. Apparently, many voters in the neighborhood were confused, uncertain of whom to vote for, and perhaps influenced by the media’s skewed version of events. A number of kollel avreichim took it upon themselves to try to reach out to those people, making telephone calls up until the night before the election and even, in a few cases, going from door to door, hoping to present a clear picture of the truth of the situation and thereby swing some more voters to Abutbul’s side. The results of the election were certain to have a significant impact on every individual, and every individual therefore felt obligated to do something to advance the cause.


When Election Day dawned, our mailboxes were filled with campaign paraphernalia yet again, along with a “guide to voting” published by the Chein party, including guidelines for anyone who might run into intimidation at the polls. In the prevalent atmosphere, anything was possible. The streets were also littered with small flyers. “The Proud Torah Choice,” one of the flyers declared, advocating voting for Moshe Abutbul. Another showed a picture of Eli Cohen and announced grimly, “Tears of joy or tears of pain? He wants tears of pain.” Clearly, thousands of these colorful flyers had been printed, for they were now ubiquitous.


Arriving at my polling station at about 8:30 in the morning, an hour and a half after the polls opened, I found long lines of people packing the corridors of the school where the voting was to be held. Uniformed border police, holding their machine guns at the ready (for some strange reason), patrolled the halls, while men in neon vests stood at the entrance to every polling room, scrutinizing the voters. The people waited patiently as the lines grew longer and longer. When I was finally admitted to the room, I found a scene similar to the one that had greeted me when I voted in the first election. At a table sat several men, including a threesome – one chareidi, one apparently dati leumi, and one bareheaded and presumably chiloni – each of whom had a list of voters before him. I handed my voter card and ID to one of them and he read off my name and number. Each of the three then checked me off on his own list.


A fourth man, who was sitting off to the side, perked up when he heard my voter identification number. “Those digits add up to twelve,” he commented in gruff Israeli Hebrew. “You know what twelve is? The twelve shevatim!” I nodded pleasantly, uncertain of what he was driving at. He was wearing a yarmulka, but I could not readily discern whether he was chareidi or dati leumi. The other officials paid him no attention. Perhaps that was simply his way of making a pitch for achdus, I mused. But if that was the case, I had no problemwith the idea. It was my own community, after all, that was being threatened.


I was handed two envelopes, one yellow and one white, and I went behind the screen to make my selection. In Israel, voting is accomplished by choosing a preprinted slip with the name of the candidate or party on it, placing it in the appropriate envelope, and dropping the sealed envelope into a large box. The guidebook to voting that I had received in the morning had warned about many mishaps that might disqualify a ballot: if the slip was even slightly bent, creased, or marked; if it was placed in the wrong envelope; if more than one slip was placed in an envelope; and so forth. I took great care to separate the ballot slips I chose from the rest in their pile and to keep them from becoming bent or folded. After dropping the envelopes in the box, I left the room to find the lines even longer than they had been when I first arrived. I had done my part and now all that was left to do was daven.


That day, a long-awaited rain began to fall, stirring some hope that perhaps the siman brachah of the rain would be accompanied by the brachah of Abutbul’s victory. We all went about our business as normal, but tension hung in the air. A car repeatedly made the rounds of the neighborhood, playing music that included the Chein party’s campaign jingle, “If you’re happy and you know it, vote for Chein” (yes, really!).


An hour before the polls closed, a neighbor knocked on our door to make sure we had voted. We assured him that we had. “It’s very important!” he remarked, before continuing to the next door in the building. When I went to Maariv later that night, I found the shul unusually empty, with a couple of people standing outside and discussing the elections. “Are you nervous?” one of them asked the other, as the minyan slowly trickled in.


“I’ve been nervous for weeks already,” the other man responded.


The voter turnout in this election reached 76%, higher than it had been in the first round of voting several months earlier. (After all the hullabaloo surrounding the elections, though, on which everyone in the city seemed to have an opinion, I am somewhat mystified by the fact that nearly a quarter of the city still did not vote.) It was reported that even some kannoim, members of communities that do not vote in Israeli elections for ideological reasons, participated in this election. A local newspaper later reported that a rov in one of those communities had ruled that his constituents should vote, and for a very interesting reason: The rov felt that the second round of voting in Beit Shemesh could not be called an “election” at all. Rather, he maintained, it was nothing more than a game of some sort. And since any bais din – and, lehavdil, any secular court – would certainly have ruled that the original elections should stand, he felt that every citizen was obligated to see to it that Abutbul retained his position, due to various halachic considerations, such as the mitzvah of lo saamod al dam rei’echa.


It was a close race, and tensions ran high as the votes were counted that night. The results were so close that it was impossible to predict who the winner was until the very end of the counting. There was concern for a while that Abutbul had lost, but at around 2:00 in the morning, it was finally confirmed that he had won. From the commercial center in Ramat Beit Shemesh, cries of Nishmas Kol Chai could be heard. Cars filled the street leading into the shopping center, as scores of people came to celebrate in the rain and dark of night. The crowd cheered as Mayor Abutbul announced that Eli Cohen had called him to concede.


The next morning, euphoria filled the botei medrash. People could not hide their excitement over what they acknowledged as a miraculous salvation. There was a widespread sentiment that Purim had come early in Beit Shemesh. The maelstrom of fear and concern that had held the community in its grip over the past few days now dissolved, and waves of relief and joy washed over the people instead. Broad smiles of relief were everywhere to be seen. We had all shared the uncertainty, the fear and the concern that had marked the days leading up to the election, and now we all shared relief over the fact that it was finally over.


Living in Eretz Yisroel today, though, we seem to be enduring constant struggles between the Torah world and those who oppose it. The celebration was marred by only one fact of which we were all painfully aware: that the struggle over forced conscription of yeshiva bochurim was continuing, and, indeed, the proposed draft law was to be brought to the Knesset for a vote later that day. But, at the same time, there was at least one victory to celebrate, a ray of light piercing through the clouds that had enveloped Beit Shemesh – and much of Eretz Yisroel – over the preceding days.



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