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Sunday, October 20, 2013

A holy war that's out of hand

Several months ago in a Jerusalem Post article, I predicted that Beit Shemesh is likely to become ground zero in the national political brawl pitting the ultra-Orthodox against Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious Zionist party Hayehudi Hayehudi, and against Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party. 

Bennett and Lapid did well in the last elections running on platforms demanding that the haredim do their fair share of military and national service, and that benefits be reduced for those who learn Torah rather than working, among other agendas. One candidate for mayor, Eli Cohen, has the support of Bennett, Lapid, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His opponent, the incumbant Mayor Moshe Abutbul, has labeled him anti-Torah and worse.

The Beit Shemesh race quickly shot past issue-based political debate, becoming emblematic of the inane moral fetor and mordacious personal allegations exacerbating the unseemly brawl of Israeli national politics. The local election is a holy war, bellum sacrum.

The losers are residents who really want to know what each candidate is going to do for the community.

Beit Shemesh has many concrete needs, such as the need to eliminate the city's significant debt and stop the bleeding; provide adequate infrastructure in the face of fast housing growth; clean public and private properties from litter, graffiti, and garbage; gain control over construction rehabs that do not have authorized approvals and permits; get schools and yeshivot out of mobile homes and into modern facilities; build a maternity center, if not a complete hospital; build recreational and cultural facilities, especially for teens; improve roads and public transportation to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; attract businesses for local employment in the economically depressed city; and replace the currently deplorable housing for immigrants from Ethiopia.

In place of reasoned debate, the candidates and their supporters have leveled charges at one another. Bennett has claimed that this is the last chance for Beit Shemesh to remain a Zionist city in the face of ultra-Orthodox extremists. Abutbul's campaign has sought to delegitimize non-haredi candidates, and has even discouraged moderate haredi candidates through intimidation and threats.

Here are a few examples: Abutbul released a campaign flier with pictures of the traditional but non-Orthodox candidate Cohen shaking hands with Bennett and Lapid. Haredi rabbis compare them to the biblical archenemy Amalek and worse. Abutbul supporters paint Cohen as guilty of anti-religious policies by association, claiming that he plans to let public buses operate on Shabbat in Beit Shemesh if he wins. 

Worse still, another campaign poster shows a picture of haredi children behind a barbed-wire fence, imputing to Cohen Nazi-like hatred of religion and haredim. During one campaign stop, haredi teenagers pelted Cohen with dross and debris, screaming "Nazi!" at him for trying to dislodge the haredi mayor from office. An Abutbul campaign flier encourages people to vote for his re-election "to preserve a Jewish Beit Shemesh," implying that election of Cohen will make it a non-Jewish city.

The TOV party self-describes as moderate haredi. Its no. 2 candidate for city council told The Jerusalem Post that Abutbul's campaign workers were using violence and intimidation. When Abutbul's people were photographed hanging campaign signs on city street poles, they threw rocks and threatened TOV supporters who complained and took photographs. The door locks to TOV party headquarters were glued shut, and TOV campaign banners are torn down throughout the city. Abutbul accuses Cohen campaign workers of attacking his staff when they tried to prevent the mayor's banners from being removed.

Cohen represents the Zionist bloc, has lived in Beit Shemesh all his life, and wants to maintain the city as an attractive destination for non-religious Zionists as well as the religious. Some haredi rabbis view this as an assault on Judaism.

One of the more outspoken and leading rabbis of one of the largest synagogues in Beit Shemesh wailed from his pulpit, accusing Zionism and its minions for pulling his family in America away from Judaism. Shortly thereafter, the rabbi endorsed Abutbul for re-election. In a letter to his congregants, the rabbi extolled the incumbant mayor's record, and then went on to encourage them to vote for the mayor because "the Torah world -- of all stripes -- is under attack in the Land of Israel." His letter concludes by charging that one who does not support Abutbul's re-election is not a Torah-loving Jew. For this rabbi, it's us against them:

"There is not the slightest doubt that the Beit Shemesh mayoralty and the city council is seen as a battle in the larger kulturkampf. And make no mistake -- the perception creates the reality. The forces which want to force avreichim [married yeshiva students] into the army and workforce (besides cutting all subsidies to the bare bone) will be much strengthened by a vote turning out the incumbents. 

The eyes of Israel can be said to be looking at what happens in Beit Shemesh. As such, every lover of Torah, every defender of the values we hold dear and have fought so hard to have and maintain, has a responsibility, despite other misgivings they may have, even despite being 'us' and Mayor Abutbul being 'them,' to vote the mayor (and other incumbents) back into office. Don't be the 'useful idiots' of the Lapid-Bennett alliance."

Fueling the fire-and-brimstone hatred of non-Orthodox candidates like Cohen is the declaration of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman. He is the leader, halachic decisor, thinker, and policymaker of the haredi Lithuanian stream. Shteinman declared recently, "If a secular mayor will be elected in Beit Shemesh, then it will be a desecration of God's name."

To many haredim, this justifies violence and thugery. One group of 12- and 13-year-old boys on the way home from yeshiva scaled a wall to the balcony of one home and tore down an Eli Cohen banner. They stood in the street mocking the homeowner as children are wont to do when he reminded them it was just four weeks since Yom Kippur. They and others continue to tear down banners, most likely under the influence of their parents and teachers. They pulled out Abutbul banners, waving them and shouting his name at the homeowner. Others report that similar scenes are repeated throughout the city. The father of one teenage yeshiva student, when confronted by a homeowner, defiantly asked, "What are you going to do about it?"

The most widely read Beit Shemesh blogger writes on "Life In Israel": "You want to talk chilul Shabbos [desecration of the Sabbath]? While Moshe Abutbul is busy consistently accusing Eli Cohen of planning to bring mass chilul Shabbos to Beit Shemesh, despite Eli Cohen's denials and promises, Moshe Abutbul's frum [religious] supporters are busy tearing down Cohen's signs (among others, like TOV signs as well) on Shabbos." Their response to a community rabbi who rebuked them for doing this, particularly on Shabbat, was to justify their actions by claiming it is an obligatory "holy war" to tear down the signs of anyone Rabbi Shteinman believes will harm Judaism.

I grew up in Chicago and was active in city and state politics for over three decades, so there is not much I haven't seen in dirty, rough and tumble politics. Never did I witness the level of anti-Semitism I see in Beit Shemesh. Religious hatred dominates, replacing any reasonable political discourse. Perhaps this allegory for Hitler's despotic regime from Dr. Seuss's "Yertle the Turtle" can remind candidates about what really matters to residents: "I know up on top you are seeing great sights/ But down here on the bottom/ We, too, should have rights."

Dr. Harold Goldmeier is the managing partner of Goldmeier Investments LLC and an instructor of business and social policy at the American Jewish University, Aardvark Israel, in Tel Aviv.

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