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Follow-Up: A Victory for Women Activists of Beit Shemesh

Susan Reimer-Torn
January 2, 2014
A follow-up to our correspondent's December 22 post, "A Bump on the Head and Day-Tripping in Beit Shemesh" By Susan Reimer-Torn In an unprecedented decision, the Jerusalem District Court annulled the results of last October's mayoral and city council elections in Beit Shemesh due to findings of massive and systematic fraud carried out by supporters of the Shas Party's incumbent, Moshe Abutbul. This is the first time an Israeli court has rendered such a judgment, in a decision that many hail as "revolutionary." The tide is finally turning for the women activists of Beit Shemesh, who took up the struggle to unseat Abutbul with unstinting energy. “There is a core group of women who headed the campaigning in the streets. Women led the effort to distribute the party brochures and run the call center, and women were certainly part of the inner circle of decision makers,” said Rena Hollander, an attorney and community organizer who ran as #2, then as #4, on the challenger Eli Cohen’s list. When Cohen lost by less than one thousand votes, his women supporters were stunned with disbelief. But they 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. Then they said something about false ID’s,” Miri Shalem, director of the Women’s Council, explained. Rena Hollander, who was “very involved in gathering all of the evidence for the court case” emphasizes the crucial role of women. “The fraud was pursued greatly by the women in the party. I think that had it not been for them, the men would have given up. All of the groundwork for the court case — poring over excel spreadsheets for hours, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses — was done by a small group of women.” SRT-Miri danceThe women and girls of Beit Shemesh had a great deal at stake, as the quality of their lives has steadily deteriorated since Abutbul’s election in 2008. The town first made global headlines in December, 2011 when the harassment of schoolgirls by ultra-Orthodox men landed Beit Shemesh on the front page of the New York Times. Under the leadership of Miri Shalem, a group of local women responded to that outrage with a spirited flash dance performed en masse in the town square. They danced with simple movements to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" to underscore their unit, presence, and right to human dignity. The video of the event went viral on YouTube and a movement was born. (Pictured at right, in a photo by Joan Roth, Miri Shalem, seated, and Susan Reimer-Torn dancing around her on a visit to the Women's Council office in Beit Shemesh. After Miri's flash dance, she and Susan co-founded Womendanceforachange.org.) The same women turned their efforts to politics, only to suffer disappointment and defeat in an uphill battle. Cheating was not unknown in municipal elections, and the national higher courts seemed loathe to set a precedent of interfering. Even when on Nov 27th, Israel’s Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, confirmed massive fraud, many pundits doubted this would lead to an unprecedented call for a new election. Miri, Rene, and their cohorts anxiously awaited the court’s decision. Like-what-youre-readingMeanwhile, years of effort on Miri’s part to include all women, regardless of religious denomination, in the Council she directed were unraveling. When she and the others pursued charge of fraud, a key haredi member resigned, accusing Miri of “joining others who spread baseless hatred and lies while pretending to be inclusive.” On December 26th, in a decision that reverberated throughout the land, the high court nullified the October 23rd election results. Hollander insists: “It is definitely fair to say that this would not have come about without the women, who have much more of an eye for detail and the patience to pursue it.” While the tide is surely turning after a long struggle, Brenda Ganon, a Beit Shemesh-based modern Orthodox activist who counsels haredi women in weight-loss techniques, is realistic about the difficulties that lie ahead. “I do expect things to get temporarily worse until after the elections and then again perhaps until things settle down. The haredi press incites the community and makes them feel like victims of discrimination, when this is not the case.” Nili Philips, who got hit in the head with a haredi-hurled rock, is equally sober. “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.” While they have come a long way, the women of Beit Shemesh are fighting an uphill battle against entrenched chauvinism. Politics here is “a male-dominated arena” says Hollander, adding that “ Beit Shemesh is worse than most places in that respect.” Eli Cohen departed from politics as usual in that many of his inner circle are women. "But beyond that," Hollander observes, "Eli is concerned with women's issues.” Brenda Ganot speaks for many of her co-activists when she says, “My hope is that Eli Cohen will be elected and he will make the city better for all of its residents. I believe that a mayor who cares highly 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.”

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.