One of the most bitterly fought cities in Israel’s local elections held on Tuesday was Beit Shemesh, the flashpoint town near Jerusalem. Now, the government is apparently mulling a plan to prevent passions getting so high in the future.
Beit Shemesh is famous for its deep tensions between Haredi and non-Haredi residents. In fact, since the world’s media focused two years ago on an eight-year-old girl who was spat on by religious zealots on her way to school, the name has become synonymous with sectarian rivalry to most Israelis. And during the election campaign, they surged again.
Supporters of the incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul, who belongs to the Haredi Shas party, used Holocaust imagery to underscore the supposed dangers of challenger Eli Cohen, and presented him as an enemy of the Jewish religion. The campaign grated on the sensitivities of non-Haredi voters — who were left devastated when Abutbul won.
Israeli television has today been buzzing with reports that following all of this the government wants to slice Beit Shemesh in two, making the newer Haredi-dominated neighborhoods into one city and the older neighborhoods, where there are fewer Haredim, a separate city. According to the plan, which is being pushed by non-Haredi Beit Shemesh residents, there would be two mayors and two city councils. So in short, come the next election in five years, there wouldn’t be a battle along religious lines, because the two camps would have largely been separated with a city border between them.
On one level, the initiative is understandable, as the division in the city runs so deep and the agendas of the different populations are so different. But on another level, isn’t the challenge of democracy to mediate this, and find a way of allocating resources and managing the public space that takes the needs of the different populations in to account?
Is there some unspoken rule that democracy can no longer be used to manage differences when Haredim are involved? Does this unspoken rule make gerrymandering, normally viewed with concern, desirable if it seeks to limit the power of Haredim?
And what is the slippery slope that this could lead to — cities where there are tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews splitting? Carving out Jews of Ethiopian origins from cities if they become powerful and want different things from the rest of the local population?