Row over move to split troubled Beit Shemesh into Orthodox and non-Orthodox areas
Representatives of the non-Charedi communities in the town of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, are lobbying to split the municipality into two separate entities – one for the strictly Orthodox and one for the others.
The move comes seven months after Shas’s Moshe Abutbul was re-elected as mayor in a second round of elections following claims of voter fraud last year.
Last week, the opposition in Beit Shemesh city hall presented a detailed plan to divide the town be-tween “old” Beit Shemesh and the mainly strictly Orthodox newer neighbourhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh, forming two separate municipal authorities.
The plan has emerged after years of clashes over a wide range of religion-related issues, including segregation in schools and the harassment of “immodestly dressed” girls attending classes in predominantly Charedi areas.
A second round of voting was required after the Supreme Court ruled last year that the elections in October 2013 had been tainted with fraud. Despite winning in court, the non-Charedi coalition lost the second round as well, and the incumbent mayor, Mr Abutbul, was re-elected.
Eli Cohen, the losing mayoral candidate and head of the opposition bloc on the town council, said: “During the elections, I was against splitting the town. But after Abutbul refused to hold coalition talks and continued his policies, we have been forced to realise that there is unbridgeable gap between us, the secular and modern Orthodox communities, and the Charedim.”
Mr Cohen insisted that he was in favour of splitting the city “not for demographic or financial reasons, but because it is clear now that the Charedi leaders have an ideological objective to turn a pluralistic city into a Charedi one. I have no problem respecting them and not driving through their neighbourhoods on Shabbat but their intention is to monopolise our public spaces and there is no way to bridge these gaps.”
As proof, he cites the town’s deficit, which “has gone to finance the Charedi community’s interests”, and the lack of progress in building a new cultural centre and football stadium.
Mayor Abutbul denied these accusations and described the opposition’s plans as “politically-motivated wailing”. He accused the opposition of “making a mockery of democracy. First, they ran in the elections and when they failed twice to win, they are now trying to split the city instead.”
He said that he was willing to include some of the non-Charedi parties in his coalition, “but they insisted in negotiating with me as one bloc. I couldn’t agree to that, but I was willing to hold talks with each party separately. Why should they force me to bring them all into my coalition if they are acting against the city’s interests and are fundamentally hostile to the Charedi community?”
Mr Abutbul dismissed the claims that his administration was neglecting the non-Charedi communities, saying that “we have prize-winning secular schools that get a much higher allocation than Charedi schools. I promise that, in my term, there will be a new football stadium and we are making progress on the cultural centre as well.”
He said that the plans to split the city “are impossible to implement and the government will never authorise it anyway”.
Splitting a municipality is a rare, costly and legally complex move that needs to be done on the initiative of the Interior Ministry, which is usually in favour of amalgamating local councils, not dividing them. It would also have to be voted on by the cabinet. The opposition in Beit Shemesh is pinning its hopes on the fact that the current coalition has no Charedi parties to oppose such a move from within government.