5 September 2023
Last week, the mayor of Beit Shemesh had to be rescued by police from a mob of dozens of Haredi extremists who blockaded the mayor while visiting a Haredi school.
The story could easily be cast in simplistic terms, particularly as the mayor is one of only 4% of Israel’s municipal leaders who is female. But the story is much more complex.
At the end of 2018, Aliza Bloch, a mathematician and educator with a doctorate from Bar Ilan University won a surprise victory over the 10 year incumbent in the mayoral election in Beit Shemesh, by slightly more than 500 votes.
Beit Shemesh began as a “development town” whose early residents were mainly from North Africa, very much like Aliza Bloch’s parents who came from Morocco. Today, the city population is greater than 120,000, including a sizeable Haredi segment as well as modern religious and secular residents. The town’s numbers are expected to double in the next decade. With an underinvestment in urban infrastructure and such a diverse population, there are a lot of tensions.
Bloch ran as a candidate to get communities to work together instead of walling themselves off. She wanted better planning and services instead of unplanned growth. Speaking in an interview with Shlomit Tzur, Bloch explained, “The reason why so many people in Israel got excited about the elections in Beit Shemesh is that Beit Shemesh was thought to be a lost cause. What happened here was upside-down logic; it was something unusual. No political party led me. My campaign cost almost no money. The change came entirely from below – from the residents.”
As mayor, she took responsibility for leading the Local Planning and Building Commission, an intensely sensitive position. It meant issuing demolition orders for unlicensed synagogues, including one built on Israel Lands Authority property. She also stopped the intensive residential construction in Haredi sections of the city. But it was not for reasons of hostility to the Haredi community. “They were busy here with high-density construction for Haredim with big planning problems. Today, I have to deal with a shortage of public buildings, infrastructure problems, and crowding…Our goal is to live in the long term. Haredim also deserve quality of life…I first of all have to minimize damage caused by past concessions that led to construction violations because of planning negligence, difficulty in obtaining construction permits, and lack of enforcement…The goal is for people to obey the law because it’s in their interest to do so, not because they’re afraid of the municipality. I’m sure that Haredim also don’t want to live in a place with collapsing infrastructure.”
The town’s issues extend far beyond the Haredi community. “Many of the city’s problems are due to decisions by the government, which sent large numbers of people here with no solutions for infrastructure or employment.” But she sees advantages given the location of Beit Shemesh, which is near Tel Aviv but far enough away for costs still to be inexpensive. She is working, along with the central government, to bring a mixed set of industries, including even tourism, to the town–employment opportunities for the broad range of people who live in the community.
As last week’s violence showed, in addition to the historical and immediate challenges, there are extremists. Says Bloch, “Living together is what I ran on in the elections, and I’ll go on waving that flag. This whole rift here results from fighting over who is stronger, under the assumption that the stronger people will win and set the tone. That prevailed because the city leaders came from the extremes. Those days are gone.”
A religiously observant woman is a rarity in Israel’s municipal leadership. Reflecting on it, Bloch said, “I didn’t want people to vote for me because I’m a woman, just as I didn’t want people to vote for me because I’m Sephardi or any other irrelevant reason. I’m a person with my own way of looking at the world, and as a woman, I think I have other skills. What can’t be disputed is that my being elected broke through walls that haven’t even been penetrated in Tel Aviv.”