Beit Shemesh: A pessimist could call this city a vision of Israel’s future.
The ultra-Orthodox represent, by far, the fastest-growing demographic in the Jewish state, and government statisticians expect their numbers to increase by anywhere up to 700% in the next half-century.
Nobody knows what the full consequences will be if there is such rapid growth in a population that is at best ambivalent and at worse antagonistic to many of the secular values that lie at the foundation of the modern Jewish state. But some residents of the scandal-ridden and deeply divided city of Beit Shemesh think that their reality may provide a glimpse into what might come.
Tensions in Beit Shemesh, a city of about 100,000 people, 20 miles west of Jerusalem, have bred illegal activity, violence and even voter fraud. In late December 2013, a court nullified the result of October’s local election, which both sides of the city’s religious divide had fought as a battle over Beit Shemesh’s soul. The results gave a narrow victory to Moshe Abutbul, a Haredi politician whose spokesman boasted five years ago that Beit Shemesh would surpass the historic Orthodox stronghold of Bnei Brak and become a Haredi city second only to Jerusalem itself.
On election day, police raided two apartments where men in Haredi attire were gathered. They seized 180 identity cards, most of them belonging to Israelis who live abroad and were unaware that their IDs had been taken or duplicated.
A fifth of the cards had been used for illegal voting, and the rest were thought destined for that use. There was other purported misconduct, as well: The new ballot comes in response to a request by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who cited allegations of widespread and systematic fraud in his appeal. Abutbul has appealed against the decision, so a new election is required.
To the secular mayoral candidate Eli Cohen, what is happening in Beit Shemesh is no less than a sidelining of basic civic values such as democracy and multiculturalism. “If at the end of the day we are not going to build a multicultural society and respect one another, this will happen in Safed, Rehovot, Kiryat Gat and other places,” he said.
Cohen’s suggestion that Beit Shemesh is a test case for multiculturalism in the country is more than rhetoric. The arrival of Haredim, who today represent almost half the local population, has been sudden. And there is strong reason to suggest that if successful coexistence following such an influx can work anywhere, it could work here. The non-Haredim of Beit Shemesh are almost all Modern-Orthodox or traditional Jews with reverence for religion, and the kind of secularism found in Tel Aviv is alien here. Today, just as when the city was established in 1950, there is hardly a shop open on the Sabbath and there are no calls for this to change.
But with Haredim teetering on becoming a majority in the city, some within their community want far more than the kind of traditional atmosphere that characterizes the place.