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.”