It is Wednesday, 15 minutes past midnight. Throughout the day Tuesday, the city of Bet Shemesh—and all municipalities in Israel—held elections for mayor and city council. As I write, election results are beginning to trickle in (right now the results are 952 to 0 in favor of the incumbent). Within the hour, I expect to know who will be the mayor of the city for the next five years and essentially the direction in which the city will grow in the future.
Five years ago, Mayor Rabbi Moshe Abutbol was elected with 43% of the vote. A plurality, but not a majority. At the time, I was very public about my concern about his election. In the last election, the non-chareidi public was represented by two candidates, who split 57% of the vote between them. It was this split that gave the election to our current mayor. I remember commenting that we no longer stood a chance to change the demographics; in five years we would fall behind too much to be able to recapture the city government.
The city was going through growing pains and the adjustment of having the chareidi sector grow into an ever larger demographic in the city. There was a lot of tension in the city and things looked to be turning ugly. At times things have gotten very ugly.
As I had feared, the mayor chose to focus all expansion of the city to the benefit of the chareidi public. New neighborhoods were drawn up, planned, approved, objected to, reapproved, and built. Thousands of new families moved to the city and the city has changed. While the chareidi sector represented less than 40% of all voters in the last election, they number in the upper 40s just five years later.
Eli Cohen (among others) announced that he was running for mayor as much as a year ago. He held many parlor meetings and went about introducing himself to the voters. Other candidates threw their hats into the ring and the whole thing looked like it was going to become a big mess with a whole bunch of candidates effectively splitting the vote and handing a second term to the mayor. (By the way, it is now 1,208 to 1, which means that either someone in the Iriyah is having a laugh or they are deliberately announcing specific precincts first.)
In the spring, a unity agreement came out in which almost all the opposition candidates agreed to unify behind whoever was polled as the leading challenger come early August. Eli was the expected victor of this “primary” but the first of what would become many dirty tricks was played—this time by the Bayit HaYehudi national party. They made a deal with Eli to call off the polling and unify behind his candidacy without getting the final approval of their candidate.
This turned a lot of their voters off. Both from the entire process and from voting for Eli Cohen in the general election. Yet it effectively installed him as the main challenger to Mayor Abutbol. The only other candidate is Meir Belayish, a current councilman and former deputy mayor who parlayed throwing his support in the last election to Mayor Abutbol in the final weeks of the campaign into a term as deputy mayor. I can only guess that he was attempting to do so this time as well, but neither side bit. He was polling in the low single digits and the worst he can have done is siphoned a few votes away from Eli Cohen and possibly let the mayor sneak through because of it.
As we entered into the chagim, we began to prepare for a showdown.
I cannot claim that Eli Cohen and his people ran a clean race and used no dirty tactics. I am sure that there were many questionable or objectionable things they did. Yet none of them have come to light. One would normally assume that they would have been exposed, at least a little.
Campaign signs were torn down by both sides. There was a lot of screaming and yelling by both sides. It always shocks me, however, that people who promote themselves as having the highest levels of commitment to Torah can so often use that rationalization to justify the most disturbing actions.
I need to explain how the voting system works here. Everything is done by paper ballot. A voter comes to the precinct with his ID and presents it to the election workers. The voter is given two envelopes, one yellow and another white. He then goes behind a divider and chooses two slips of paper from the many available at the polling booth. He must choose one yellow slip that has the name of his choice for mayor and one white slip that has a one to three alphabetic code representing the party for whom he wishes to vote to the city council.
The mayoralty is awarded to the highest vote getter who has gotten at least 40% of the vote. City council seats are awarded differently. There are 19 city council seats. In order to qualify, a party needs to get at least 5.2% (approximately) of the votes. Any party falling below that threshold does not qualify and their votes are thrown away. Once the surviving parties are identified, their vote totals are used to distribute the number of seats they each get on the city council.
It is a little more complex, but that should suffice. Also, since there were only two candidates (who themselves also were the number one candidates for city council on their respective parties’ nomination lists), almost all of the parties backed one or the other candidate for mayor, while still asking for your vote for city council. In all, there are 13 different parties that ran for election.
For example, the Tov party calls itself “Moderate Chareidim” (I just call them yeshivish) and would normally get a lot of support from yeshivish/chareidi Anglos. The number two candidate on their list was stoned by supporters of the current mayor at a public appearance. Why? Because they back Eli Cohen for mayor.
The tone of the campaign was nasty. And that is just one example. I could cite dozens. I don’t want to write it and you won’t want to read it. Essentially, his message to his own voters was, “I am chareidi and your vote must be for me for that and only that reason” and his message to everyone else was, “I did so much for you and your neighborhood and everyone else is just making things up against me.”
Last week, MK Dov Lipman filed a suit challenging the voter rolls, accusing the mayor’s supporters of arranging to have hundreds, if not thousands, of chareidim temporarily file as Bet Shemesh residents in order to come vote in the elections. I do not know the eventual ruling, but I know that the court agreed that they needed to hear the case.
Many people looked to this election as a crossroads for the city. It seems to me that many of my friends and neighbors felt this way. Should the mayor win reelection, he could use his position to grow the city in such a manner that would make the chareidi public a clear and overwhelming majority, thus delivering effective control of the city and the budget to that sector.
Even though many of you think differently, I am not anti-chareidi. The overwhelming majority are wonderful people. However, I choose to live differently than they do, and while I am happy to respect them and let them live as they choose, they refuse to extend me the same courtesy.
Why am I concerned about having the city become more chareidi? Because (among other things) I do not think the city could survive financially if the majority of its citizens were chareidi. There would be a huge draw for resources for education and social services. Without significant property tax revenues (many chareidim pay little or no property tax), the only way to support their neighborhoods is to divert funds from other, more revenue/tax-paying communities. (4,782–1,829 and 54 for Belayish.)
My kids’ schools have already seen cutbacks in budgets and I fear that they will be cut even more. All of the new parks, facilities, and infrastructure in the city are being built solely in their neighborhoods. I am not against the redistribution of wealth in principle—but not the way it is being done.
I am also concerned that an outright majority will lead to even more violence, intimidation, and bullying from the extremists in their community. The current mayor refuses to shut down these extremists.
For those and the many other reasons that you know, I want Bet Shemesh to remain a multi-demographic city. I think a professionally run Bet Shemesh, a city that encourages new growth for all demographics in order to preserve a balance of communities that can support the needs of the city, is the only way to go. Eli Cohen is the last chance we have of keeping Bet Shemesh as the city we chose to live in.
So we came to Election Day. I am skipping a lot of the false ads and misinformation that has run through the city the last few weeks because this would be a 20-page article. Instead, I simply state that through all the noise and name-calling (both sides) and finger pointing (both sides), we got to the big day. (6,737–3,159—and remember, something close to 40,000 votes were cast, so we have a long way to go and they seem to have been very careful about which precincts were reported first.)
The morning started with a report that an Abutbol supporter had quietly slipped all the Eli Cohen official yellow voting slips into his pocket and made off with them to interrupt the voting in one precinct (they had to wait quite some time for refills to arrive, possibly leading some voters to leave). Others reported ballots that seemed to be tampered with (any ballot not in pristine condition is discarded. This includes folds, markings, wrong color ink, ballots stuck together, etc. In the past, some candidates have sent voters in with tainted ballots and had them place these ballots on top of the legal ballots for their opponents in order to disqualify votes).
Yet the kicker came in the early evening. Eight chareidi men were arrested after a raid of two apartments in one of their neighborhoods. In that apartment, the police found 250 ID cards (according to INN) for people who are currently overseas and cannot vote (there is no absentee ballot system here). Apparently, these people were using the ID cards, claiming to be those voters and casting votes for their candidates. (8,957–6,038)
In an election where there were probably close to 40,000 votes cast, 250 votes is a sixth of a percent. In a neck-and-neck election, those votes could make a huge difference.
Yet despite the various calls of outrage or indifference, the end result is that Bet Shemesh is about to approach its next stage of growth. We can grow as a city that works for all its citizens or we can grow as a city that is focused on serving one demographic and eventually become a chareidi city. Young people do not move here like they used to. The city has become somewhat of a microcosm of what the country will face moving forward. If we can figure out a way to make it work, with professional and responsible leadership, we stand a chance. Otherwise, I fear for the city and Goldie and I are discussing making a change. Only time will tell.
It is 2:40 a.m. and I just saw a Facebook posting that Eli Cohen announced that the race is too close to call and will probably only be decided once the soldiers’ votes are counted. Soldiers are allowed to vote at their bases. However, in order to prevent fraud (a soldier voting both at his base and at home), they do not count the soldiers’ votes until after the other results are published. Each soldiers’ ballot (from his base) is matched against his home voter roll in order to check if he did or did not vote from home. Once it is determined that he or she did not vote at home, the ballots are opened and counted. Which might be sometime tomorrow.
At 3:30 a.m. a chareidi radio station announced a 2,000-vote victory for reelection of Mayor Abutbol. Another source (pretty reliable but anonymous) reported the victory at 1,200 votes, with the soldiers’ votes yet to be counted. At this point, unless there are 1,200 or more soldiers’ votes for Bet Shemesh residents, the election is over and the mayor has been reelected.
I know of a lot of friends who will be incredibly disappointed and discouraged. I know of many people who think that this means the end of Bet Shemesh as a beacon for the Religious Zionist public. I know of many people who will wake up tomorrow and say, “Who cares, nothing will change.” Only time will tell. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at