Is Tide Turning In Beit Shemesh Religious Wars?

In fight against haredi mayor, emboldened Modern Orthodox women gearing up for key election.

01/22/14
Special To The Jewish Week
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They are the newest, and perhaps unlikeliest, foot soldiers in the bitter battle over religious pluralism in Israel. And when the small band of Modern Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh — the city that many consider ground zero in the ongoing war against religious extremism — ferreted out a case of massive voter fraud in last fall’s mayoral election, its tenacity paid big dividends for secular candidate Eli Cohen.

In an unprecedented ruling late last month, the Jerusalem District Court denounced “massive and systemic fraud” by supporters of ultra-Orthodox Shas Party incumbent Moshe Abutbul, who won the Oct. 23 election by a razor-thin margin. The court nulllified the results and called for new city council and mayoral elections in 120 days.

“The evidence of fraud — [obtained by] poring over Excel spreadsheets, interviewing till all hours — was pursued relentlessly by the women in the party,” attorney Rena Hollander, who ran for city council on Cohen’s Beit Shemesh Chozeret slate, told The Jewish Week. “I think if it had not been for them, the men would have given up.”

Now, as Israel’s Supreme Court is set to take up Abutbul’s appeal this week, the Modern Orthodox women of Beit Shemesh and their secular supporters are gearing up for what will likely be a closely watched new election. It comes about a year after a slate of moderate Knesset members who pledged their support for greater religious pluralism were swept into office. And it comes as memories of the incident two years ago that put Beit Shemesh on the map and garnered headlines worldwide — the searing photograph of an 8-year-old girl making her way to school while being spit at by ultra-Orthodox men for her allegedly immodest dress — are still fresh in people’s minds.

The women’s fight against haredi rule in Beit Shemesh, a city of about 90,000 some 20 miles west of Jerusalem, began in earnest late last spring when they took up the bid to elect the secular Cohen as mayor. Fed up with rigid gender segregation in the city, the women, about 15 in all, were led by Miri Shalem, director of the local Woman’s Council, who has worked for years to bridge the divide between the city’s haredi and Modern Orthodox and secular women. (Shalem’s efforts are part of a broader bid to calm the religious-secular and haredi-Modern Orthodox tensions that have gripped the city.)

The women may have been new to politics, but they were motivated by a sense of urgency, and they learned fast. In time-honored fashion, the women, most of them working professionals, campaigned in the streets, distributing brochures and party literature. They worked the phones in a call center, all in an effort to identify those who might be sympathetic to Cohen and to get them to the polls. 

The race between Abutbul and his more liberal challenger figured to be a tight one, as the city is evenly split between haredim and more modern residents. When the Oct. 23 election was over,  Abutbul was declared the winner by a scant 950 votes out of 35,000 cast.

Stunned by Cohen’s loss, his women supporters kept their eyes and ears open.

“We overheard some young girls laughing about how they put on different costumes and wigs and went to vote several times,” Shalem said in a phone interview. “Then they said something about fake IDs.”

Following well-grounded suspicions, Cohen’s supporters followed a trail to the apartment of a group of Abutbul supporters, where they discovered falsified ID cards. The evidence was turned over to the police, and the attorney general soon affirmed that widespread voter fraud had taken place.

The court decision on Dec. 25 to void the election was a hard-earned victory for defenders of pluralism in a town that in 2011 became synonymous with the religious wars flaring in Israel; in the last few years, there have been pitched battles over gender seating on public buses, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and conversions turned down by what Orthodox centrists viewed as an increasingly right-wing and rigid Chief Rabbinate.

Within a week after the spitting incident, Shalem pulled together a flash-mob dance by a cross-section of the town’s women in the main square. The YouTube video went viral and a women’s movement defending gender equality and tolerance in Beit Shemesh was born.

No group had more at stake in the outcome of the mayoral race than the town’s women. Shalem, herself a Modern Orthodox mother of four, explained, “Beit Shemesh is one of the few places where we can give guided tours of gender segregation. We have huge modesty signs, step-off-the-pavement signs aimed at women, pressure for women to sit at the back of the bus.

“Plus,” Shalem continued, “men-only/women-only hours in grocery stores and medical centers. If we have another five years of a haredi mayor, this is only a beginning.”

The furor over the voter fraud brought thousands of protestors to the street. The women, said attorney Hollander, were stepping into “a male-dominated political arena. Beit Shemesh is worse than most places in that respect.” Eli Cohen, she continued, departed from politics as usual in that “he is concerned with women’s issues. But beyond that, many of Eli’s inner circle are women.”

When reached for comment, Daniel Coleman, a Cohen supporter, spoke in cautious tones. “Women had no less of a role in Eli Cohen’s campaign than men. In every case it was obvious that whatever roles were fulfilled by women, they did so because they were the most appropriate for the job. ... Nobody paid attention to gender. We only focused on what’s best for the campaign.”

While Shalem and her cohorts anxiously awaited the court’s decision, there was a price to pay for their engagement. Many of the town’s haredi residents were deeply offended by accusations of misconduct: they insisted only a small group of zealots was at fault, while their whole community was sullied. Years of effort on Shalem’s part to include women of all stripes in the Women’s Council were unraveling. A key haredi member resigned from the council in outrage, accusing Shalem in an email of “joining others who spread baseless hatred and lies that blacken the haredi community, even while you’re pretending to be inclusive.”

Speaking at NYU Law School at the time of the uproar, the renowned Jerusalem-based ethicist Moshe Halbertal bemoaned what he saw as “a growing theocratic appetite” in Israeli politics. While adding that his “own family has deep roots in haredi culture,” Halbertal regretted “the boiling temperature” of the national conflict, cautioning against the way in which “each side perceives the other as an existential threat.” He explained, “There are high stakes and a small majority can tilt outcomes to the other side.”

Those working to calm tensions on the ground in Beit Shemesh see the new election as a double-edged sword.

“I am glad the law is being upheld to the necessary standard and ultimately it will serve Beit Shemesh well, and set a strong example for all of Israel,” Yoni Scherizen, the program development director at Gesher, a religious organization that works to “bridge the gaps between different segments of Israeli society,” told The Jewish Week. “But equally, there is widespread fatigue in Beit Shemesh — a sense that elections are just about the last thing this torn city needs.

“It could be that the recent pain here will give birth to a genuine coalition and pave the way for a new era at a time when it is needed most, but one can’t help feel it would take a miracle. At the same time,” Scherizen continued, “we have seen how quickly things move in Israel and miracles are worth working hard to bring closer to reality. I believe we can get there.”

The court’s call for new elections has reverberated beyond the borders of the embattled town. The Jerusalem Post named David Heshin, the acting judge who ordered the new elections, the most influential legal person of the year. Rather than deciding on the usual mathematical basis of how many votes may have been corrupted, Heshin, said the Post, “justified his ruling on the broader and bolder basis that democratic legitimacy must be maintained as a value.”

While the tide may be turning after a long struggle, Brenda Ganot, one of Shalem’s Modern Orthodox foot soldiers, who counsels haredi women in weight loss, is cautiously optimistic. “I do expect things to get temporarily worse until after the elections and things settle down.”

Nili Philips, a petite Orthodox mother who was hit in the head by a rock while biking, helmeted, through a haredi neighborhood (she was wearing three-quarter sleeves and long, tight-fitting pants), is suing the municipality to remove the modesty signs. She is equally sober about the future. “Our fight is far from over — this court victory is only an interim victory. The real fight is ahead of us with the new elections, and our future in Beit Shemesh is contingent on winning that fight.”

Supporters of Eli Cohen face an enormous challenge. Key to their  strategy is getting the vote out among non-haredi potential supporters. They continue to work the phones and are addressing problems, such as childcare or lack of transportation, that might keep supporters from coming out to vote.

Still, the women of Beit Shemesh are savoring their temporary victory. Hollander, the attorney, emphasizes, “It is definitely fair to say that this would not have come about without the women.” And Ruth Calderon, a Knesset member whose Yesh Atid party champions pluralism and religious tolerance and who was instrumental in recently securing government funds — for the first time — for Israel’s Reform and Masorti movements, told The Jewish Week in an email, “These Modern Orthodox women are an inspiration to all.”

Nili Philips added, “It gives us tremendous strength and hope that the diverse secular public can band together and win an important legal victory.”

Like the majority of Beit Shemesh residents, Ganot looks forward to a new beginning. “I believe that a mayor who cares a lot about respecting all cultures and sectors will be able to build a city where the residents respect each other and live side by side in peace.”

With the new election drawing nearer, Miri Shalem puts the long battle for religious tolerance in stark terms. “We have a choice,” she said. “We either leave or keep fighting.” 

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/29/2014 - 20:31

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The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

As author of this piece I have received much feedback, both on and off line, both supportive and challenging. One of the most interesting angles was offered to me last Shabbat by long-time family friend Rabbi David Silber. He cautioned against the Modern Orthodox tendency to bash the haredis, reminding us all that there is much good in the haredi community. (This comes from Rabbi Silber who is an innovative and pioneering educator of women, a thought leader who calls upon us to evolve into the "post-gender" consciousness which will allow our attention to return to true imperatives of Jewish piety...). Rabbi Silber wonders if pointing the finger at the haredi community does not distract the Modern Orthodox from the ways in which they themselves are stuck re:issues of gender equality. For an in-depth interview on the subject with JOFA's exec director Elana Sztokman and I, go to www.jwa.org. And in conclusion, not quite sure what is meant by a "sock puppet" in this context , but I am quite sure I am not one.

This article does not reflect what is truly going on in Beit Shemesh. The author makes it sound like all the problems are because of the evil, immoral behaviors of the Chareidim- that is ridiculous and makes this article read like anti-Chareidi propoganda. The issues are far more complex and a large part of the fault lies in the Modern orthodox/ secular citizens lack of tolerance and respect for the traditions and beliefs of others. Recpect and tolerance have to work both ways this is the results.

Mr Anonymous
Ever hear the expression "where there's smoke there's fire?

Yes, and the Jewish Week excells at creating smoke where they wish to see it......everything is allways the fault of the "charedim", and there is always a suppressed vibrant middle of the road "modern orthodox" group who would solve all problems if only the mean charedim would let them

Why are my comments not being posted? I wrote that I think Abutbol is a very good mayor and I find that there is a lot of flurry in the complaints of these women. We walk into chardei owned stores as well as walk in their areas and we have never ever had a problem. I dress the way I want to. We also see cars driving by on Shabbat and no one bothers them. Please post this so people see a bigger picture of what Beit Shemesh is.

We are dati leumi and voted for Mayor abutbol and will gladly do so again should there be a re-election. There is substantial animus against charedim for no legitimate reason and a campaign of pure slander against Mayor Abutbol. First of all people claim he is "anti-Zionist". How can that be when his opponent made fun of him saying that he (Cohen) was a hot shot in Tzahal while Abutbol was "only" a driver. If Abutbol served as a soldier he is definitely not anti-zionist. Moreover, we walk all the time on Shabbat next to Chardei areas and we never hear anyone yelling at us or bothering the chilonim who drive along the road. While there may indeed be isolated incidents of yelling at cars on Shabbat (which can happen in ANY big city) it clearly is not the norm. More significantly, it is not in any way approved by the mayor. Abutbol is a great mayor who has brought substantial building and commercial improvements to Beit Shemesh. The prior mayor did almost nothing for 3 terms. Finally, we have malls and new buildings and great improvements. I dont care what he is as long as he does a good job which he does.

Who are you a sockpuppet for?

Congratulations on this very accurate article, except for one thing; Yoni Sherizen (Gesher) 's is quoted as saying: "...there is widespread fatigue in Beit Shemesh — a sense that elections are just about the last thing this torn city needs". The fatigue is there, but more so, is the anger and feeling of having the city's election "stolen" from the non charedi sector which includes both Modern Orthodox, secular, traditional and more open minded charedi people who want to leave in peace with their fellow citizens in Beit Shemesh. More than ever, Beit Shemesh must have new elections. The shadow of documented cheating, the smearing of the name of Eli Cohen and his supporters as somehow being secular and anti charedi (untrue) has brought division and deep resentment to Beit Shemesh. New fair well observed elections are what the city needs to heal. I am proud to say that in particular Orthodox -non charedi (myself included) Jewish women have been and continue to be in the forefront of supporting Eli Cohen for mayor and brining fairness and harmony to Beit Shemesh. Eli Cohen may not be orthodox, but he is a Jew with Ahavat Yisrael - love of all of his Jewish bretheren, including Charedi ultra orthodox Jews. He has repeatedly spoken about wanting to better the lives of all Beit Shemesh residents, including Charedim. I have never heard him publicly attack or besmirch the Haredi community, in spite of efforts to besmirch his good name. Beit Shemesh needs Fair Elections and Soon. Eli Cohen political activists are not too fatigued to continue to fight for Fair and Honest Elections and the Development of Beit Shemesh, economically, culturally and socially for all residents.

"Observant Jews" do not lie, cheat, and
harass. Observance includes, respecting others.

we should all know about this struggle .These are religious Jews in secular world yet they are martyrized on their right .and ignored on the left by ordinary people .

This article contains many inaccuracies, but the most glaring is that it says there was "widespread" vote fraud. Only 36 fraudulent votes have been documented, but a lack of facts has not stopped the anti-charedi campaigners from making all sorts of unfounded allegations and the court from gleefully accepting them.

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