Ultra-Orthodox mayor wins vote in Beit Shemesh, an Israeli town torn by religion

March 13, 2014

(Campaign billboards for theĀ  municipal election in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem March 6, 2014. When residents of this Israeli town go to the ballots on Tuesday, they may decide more than a bitterly contested mayoral race. Many see the vote as a bellwether for the strained secular-religious ties in the Jewish state. Picture taken March 6, 2014. To match story ISRAEL-ULTRAORTHODOX/ REUTERS/Ammar Awad)

A bitter mayoral race in a town that has become a symbol of religious and political divisions in Israel ended on Wednesday with the victory of its ultra-Orthodox Jewish incumbent over his secular challenger.

Moshe Abutbul won the re-vote in Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem that has become a focus of national attention in the Jewish state where secular-religious tensions often flare.

Voicing fears of religious zealotry and coercion, secular voters and other residents who hold to Jewish traditions but are not ultra-Orthodox had mobilized to topple Abutbul after a court, citing election fraud, cancelled results of a ballot in October that had kept the mayor in power.

Abutbul won the election by 758 votes, 51 percent of the ballot, over his secular rival Eli Cohen, the Interior Ministry said. Intensive campaigning by both camps yielded a high turnout of more than 75 percent.

Beit Shemesh drew international attention in 2011 after an eight-year-old girl from a more liberal religious community was spat at by ultra-Orthodox men who deemed her clothes immodest. Several protests, some violent, have erupted there over religious issues since.

“Beit Shemesh is a reflection of Israeli society,” Cohen told Israel Radio. “The battle is not just local, it is national.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim, a term in Hebrew which means “those who tremble before God”, began settling in Beit Shemesh, originally a secular, working class community, in the 1990s. Estimates say they now make up about 40 percent of the town’s 80,000 population.

Read the full story by Maayan Lubell here.

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