Beit Shemesh: My city

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SHOSHANNA KEATS-JASKOLL

For years, when peo­ple asked where I lived, I in­wardly cringed. I hes­i­tated. Some­times, I even changed the sub­ject. Be­cause I didn’t want to talk about my town. I didn’t want to deal with the re­ac­tions and ques­tions that came when I an­swered be­cause my town was known for hor­ri­ble things.

It was known for men spit­ting on lit­tle girls and for pub­li­ca­tions hav­ing no im­ages of women. It was known for “mod­esty” signs and for city man­age­ment so derelict that peo­ple of­ten won­dered why we didn’t move out that same day.

It’s true that when male pas­sen­gers told our daugh­ters to the go to the back of the bus and when women dis­ap­peared from the posters in health clin­ics and banks, when grown men ha­rassed school­girls and those mod­esty signs told us what to wear and where to walk, and es­pe­cially when lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­ters be­gan to sep­a­rate chil­dren into “haredi” and “Zion­ist” groups, we con­tem­plated leav­ing.

THEN SOME­THING amaz­ing hap­pened. The com­mu­nity started to push back. When Mayor Moshe Abut­bul re­fused to as­sist and pro­tect women who were ver­bally and phys­i­cally as­saulted in the pub­lic square, five en­ter­pris­ing women turned to the courts, and won – sev­eral times. They pe­ti­tioned to have the mod­esty signs taken down and se­cu­rity cam­eras in­stalled. The mayor was fi­nally forced to re­move the signs – com­ply with the court’s de­cree or go to jail! – but he never in­stalled the cam­eras. The con­se­quence? Ma­jor thor­ough­fares of his city have been dra­mat­i­cally and sys­tem­at­i­cally van­dal­ized with black and red graf­fiti call­ing for the ouster of im­mod­est women and “Zion­ists.”

Re­sis­tance via the courts was joined by nu­mer­ous groups on What­sApp and Face­book, with names such as Sav­ing Beit Shemesh and Beit Shemesh Women Shine. Com­prised of dozens of women and men who turned to one an­other to save their city, na­tive Is­raelis and new im­mi­grants spoke to­gether about the mu­nic­i­pal is­sues, from un­fair al­lo­ca­tion of city re­sources to the clos­ing of state re­li­gious schools and kinder­gartens. We sup­ported one an­other, wrote let­ters, formed com­mit­tees, cre­ated videos and fought point-by-point against the un­wel­come changes that were be­ing forced on the city.

We were proac­tive, too. A cam­paign to re­mind the city of the women it had erased, the brain­child of Ra­mat Beit Shemesh Alef res­i­dent Kerry Bar-Co­hen, saw weekly posters of women with funny mes­sages. Qui­etly, but ef­fec­tively, she drew at­ten­tion to the ab­sur­dity of the city’s re­moval of women’s im­ages from the pub­lic sphere.

Res­i­dents met MKs and re­porters, as well as other ac­tivists, in the lo­cal ef­fort to re­pair what had gone so awry. Dozens of women, whose reg­u­lar sched­ules were tight with fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and full-time jobs, made sav­ing Beit Shemesh a pri­or­ity. Tire­lessly, end­lessly and en­tirely as a vol­un­teer ini­tia­tive, the women of Beit Shemesh fought for the com­mu­nity to be safe, for the chil­dren to be able to walk down the street with­out fear of as­sault.

For me, the events in my city changed my life. From be­ing a mother with a busi­ness, I be­came a woman with a cause. I have spent the past seven years speak­ing out about the dam­age caused by ex­trem­ism, in blog posts, jour­nal­is­tic ar­ti­cles, panel dis­cus­sions and any other plat­form I found. My warn­ing is con­sis­tent to other com­mu­ni­ties: stop th­ese prac­tices be­fore they spread fur­ther; use grass­roots ef­forts to push back.

It is im­por­tant to note that ev­ery­one suf­fers un­der ex­trem­ism. The ones who suf­fered most weren’t my friends and me, or even the sol­diers who were ha­rassed daily, or even the dis­en­fran­chised girls on the buses. The ones who suf­fered most were the haredim, the non-ex­trem­ist haredim who have only ever wanted a de­cent qual­ity of life and nor­malcy for their fam­i­lies. Their lives were made hell by their neigh­bors for whom no one can be mod­est enough, re­li­gious enough or zeal­ous enough. Qui­etly, we worked with res­i­dents in th­ese neigh­bor­hoods to iden­tify the cul­prits and learn the pres­sure points that would make them back off. We used th­ese pres­sure points when the mayor did noth­ing, the po­lice were stymied and the ex­trem­ists threat­ened our chil­dren. We kept th­ese con­nec­tions with res­i­dents out­wardly un­like us but who held the same goals.

Still, the mayor al­lowed the ex­trem­ists to hold the city hostage. He ne­glected in­fra­struc­ture and ed­u­ca­tion and stood by as the en­tire wel­fare depart­ment col­lapsed. Beit Shemesh was on the brink of dis­as­ter.

This revo­lu­tion [the elec­tion of Dr. Al­iza Bloch] is proof pos­i­tive that most peo­ple want a life out from un­der the thumb of ex­trem­ists, and that com­mu­nityled ef­forts can change what was con­sid­ered a fore­gone con­clu­sion

SUD­DENLY, ALL that has changed. The peo­ple of Beit Shemesh – of all stripes and hats, in­clud­ing at least some of the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox – elected a new mayor, one who cares about all seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion. In the course of a day (plus the nail-bit­ing time it took to count the ab­sen­tee bal­lots), the peo­ple of Beit Shemesh were re­lieved of their fear for the fu­ture as the city came to­gether, men and women, sec­u­lar and re­li­gious, ul­tra-Or­tho­dox and tra­di­tional, in a col­lec­tive de­sire for pos­i­tive change and elected Dr. Al­iza Bloch for mayor.

Bloch was strate­gic in her ef­forts, and yes, she did

not put her im­age on her cam­paign posters in cer­tain ar­eas of the city. She knew that in or­der for her mes­sage to be heard, she had to speak to her au­di­ence in a way they could hear – and hear her they did, for even those who could not vote for Bloch be­cause their re­li­gious lead­ers for­bade it chose to stay home that day, know­ing that their ac­tions would tip the scales in her fa­vor.

The sig­nif­i­cance of this revo­lu­tion can­not be over­stated. It is proof pos­i­tive that most peo­ple want a life out from un­der the thumb of ex­trem­ists and that com­mu­nity-led ef­forts can change what was con­sid­ered a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

The city that had ef­fec­tively erased its women elected a woman to be mayor, and for the first time in more than seven years, I can say with pride, “I live in Beit Shemesh.” ■

(Pho­tos: Marc Is­rael Sellem)

‘LAST WEEK, the city that had ef­fec­tively erased its women elected a woman to be mayor’: Al­iza Bloch.

(Re­vach Hafakot/Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

A VIEW of the Ra­mat Beit Shemesh Gim­mel neigh­bor­hood.

VOT­ING IN the Beit Shemesh elec­tion.

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