Two contrasting images sum up the story of Beit Shemesh following the Oct. 22 municipal elections. On the night of Oct. 29, thousands of secular residents took part in a raucous demonstration against alleged fraud in the results. At the same time, ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbul — elected for another term — stood at the head of a procession of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox who slowly marched from his home to one of the synagogues in the city, to take part in a ceremony installing a new Torah scroll. At the same dark hour in which the secular rose up against the attempt to “steal” the election from them — as they put it — the ultra-Orthodox celebrants were overcome with joy. They exuberantly sang, danced, drank and feasted, as they carried the new Torah scroll into the synagogue's hall.
These two simultaneous events symbolize more than anything the drama and culture war taking place in the city a week after the polls. The day after the election, hundreds of ID cards were found scattered at the entrance of a building in one of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the city. It quickly became clear that ID card holders had given them — for a fee — to young ultra-Orthodox men who, in turn, had distributed them among ultra-Orthodox voters. These voters then cast their vote a second time by using other people’s ID cards.
The election committee members did not notice the scam. Taking advantage of the uniform ultra-Orthodox appearance, hundreds of serial “voters” unlawfully voted more than once. The final result was so close — about 900 votes separated the two candidates — that the secular camp demanded new elections. Immediately after the abandoned ID cards were discovered the police stepped in and began a vigorous investigation. It brought the fraud suspects before a court, and several of them were arrested.
The municipal elections took place in about 200 towns across Israel on Oct. 22. Voter turnout was low and testified to a general apathy. Except for two cities — Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh — where the elections were portrayed as likely to determine their future character. On election night, the eyes of Israelis were turned to these two cities, since they represent the fragile coexistence between communities separated by a wide cultural abyss. Voters asked themselves whether the capital of Israel would maintain its secular character, whether it would fall into the hands of the ultra-Orthodox and for how long the secular and ultra-Orthodox would be able to live together despite their extreme differences.
The secular candidate won in Jerusalem, and the secular breathed a sigh of relief and broke out in song and dance. In Beit Shemesh — which drew a special interest on the national level because of the open and vitriolic conflict between the camps of voters — the ultra-Orthodox candidate won, and the secular were thrown into unprecedented distress. In an attempt to head off such a crisis from the outset, all of the city’s other parties united in an alliance against the ultra-Orthodox. For the first time in the history of Beit Shemesh, religious, secular and traditional Jews worked together and nominated secular Eli Cohen to stand at the head of the political federation they established.
For years now, Beit Shemesh has been changing its character as a result of a massive ultra-Orthodox immigration. With time, a divide has formed between the two populations. The secular concentrated in their neighborhoods, the ultra-Orthodox withdrew to theirs. The idea of a separation in case of an election loss was first raised in the last election cycle. “If the ultra-Orthodox win again, there won’t be escaping a division of the city into two,” declared Richard Peres, a member of the city council who ceded a chance to vie for the mayor’s office in favor of a candidate agreed upon by all parties.
From the moment the election results became known, the city has been in turmoil. There is hardly a day without a demonstration or a protest vigil. I visited Beit Shemesh on Oct. 29, and the signs of the political battle were still visible on the walls, which were decorated with the election slogans of the secular camp: “We’re not giving up on Beit Shemesh,” and “Beit Shemesh is coming back.” The losers are not taking it well. They feel that they were fraudulently defeated in an essential battle over the future of the town. Now, they expect the court to invalidate the result and declare a new election for mayor.
One city, two polarized feelings. In the commercial center where many secular residents gather, the anger is manifest. The residents talk openly about the possibility of a continued secular existence. The idea of separation is gaining popularity. “They stole the election from us by cheating,” Moshe Shitrit, a member of the city council, said. He continued, “The split between the secular and ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh has turned into a real rift, and the secular know where in town they can walk around and where they can’t. I believe the only solution that will prevent the continuation of hatred is a separation of powers. It’s possible to draw a border line that passes between the secular and ultra-Orthodox sections.”
In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods a clear joy is felt. No one here takes the accusations of fraud seriously. “Maybe a single individual cheated on his own,” responded a rabbinical college student. He added, “But to use this as an excuse to demand a new election, it’s bordering on madness.”
Here, they believe that the secular panic is misplaced. “Until the ultra-Orthodox arrived in Beit Shemesh, it was considered remote and crime-ridden,” said Zvika Gronich, an ultra-Orthodox journalist. “Since they [ultra -Orthodox] arrived en masse, Beit Shemesh has become a lively city, the price of housing has skyrocketed. I don’t take the talk over the separation of the population seriously. It can’t be that in cities such as Safed, Haifa and Acre Jews and Arabs live alongside each other, while in Beit Shemesh Jews can’t live together,” Gronich continued.
Next week, the court will decide on the question of the validity of the results. Beit Shemesh has become the vanguard of the secular fight against the ultra-Orthodox. If it is decided that new elections should be held, secular activists from around the country will arrive to turn the result in their favor. If that does not happen, it is likely that Beit Shemesh will soon turn into a second ultra-Orthodox Bnei Barak.
Daniel Ben Simon is a former Knesset member from the Labor Party. Prior to his political career, he was a journalist with the Israeli dailies Haaretz and Davar. Ben Simon has written four books on Israeli society and is the recipient of the Sokolov Prize, an Israeli journalism award.