By Shmuel Katz
I hate politics. I hate the whole lead-up to elections, when many of my friends and neighbors whip themselves into a frenzy about who the best candidates are and why all other candidates represent total evil. I hate the seemingly never-ending run of eâ€‘mails, posts, letters–all geared toward telling everyone what to do come election day.
Having gone through three election cycles (U.S. presidential, Israeli national, and Israeli municipal) in the past year, I am quite tired of the whole thing–and this does not even include the calls from Nassau County on my U.S. home phone, asking for my vote. There comes a time when enough is enough.
Yet, despite my reluctance to comment upon them and my general discomfort with the whole process, we continue to find out more and more about the “Chicago-style” politics that came into play in the recent mayoral election in Bet Shemesh. I believe that much of what is “reported” (usually by an Internet post or a message to local eâ€‘mail lists) is either inaccurate due to gross exaggeration or is outright false. Yet the parts that are true are truly disheartening.
As I reported on election night, there was a well-publicized incident in which poll workers became suspicious of a woman who had come to vote. She knew the major details on her identity card, but could not name her children and had difficulty coming up with other answers. The police were brought in and they became aware that she was part of a group of people falsely voting on behalf of people who were out of the country.
In general, absentee balloting is not permitted here in Israel. I think diplomats vote abroad through a special ballot, and soldiers have an option to vote at alternate sites (on military bases), with a process designed to make sure each casts only one vote. But no one else has that option. In order to vote, you must be not only in the country, but at your polling place. People who are away on business, or for any other reason, simply cannot vote.
Apparently, this group (and the details are unclear–there are different reports on how they operated) somehow knew the identities of people who were abroad on election day, and (it is reported) they either printed up fake identity cards or obtained their identity cards. They then put together a group of accomplices who would take the card, memorize a few details, and head off to vote.
The police raided an apartment in a chareidi neighborhood, which was the base for this particular group. While many attempted to scurry out the windows and back door, some successfully, the police arrested several people, confiscating over 100 identity cards (along with disguising props) they found in the apartment. A second apartment was also raided and a reported total of over 200 identity cards were found.
We found out this past week that one of those arrested is apparently the son of a member of the Knesset. Additional reports came out this week that an “aide” (and I have no idea what that means) to the current mayor was also brought in by the police for questioning about voter fraud issues.
Additionally, eâ€‘mail allegations of other voting irregularities have been circulating for weeks. One poll watcher reports that in his precinct, they had more ballot envelopes in one of the voting boxes than voters who had voted. Not one or two more, but something like 50 or 100 more. There was a report that in one precinct a poll worker was seen tampering with ballots and had to be removed by the police. There were reports of people who came to vote only to be told that they had already voted. I have only seen these allegations in third-hand reports via eâ€‘mail, so I am not claiming they are confirmed. Yet, where there is smoke . . .
Immediately after the elections, the losing candidate and his supporters protested. There have been several public protests since the elections and a heated exchange on the Knesset floor when Rabbi Dov Lipman called for a revote in light of all the allegations of fraud. Predictably, both sides are calling the others cheaters. The mayor’s supporters are accusing Eli Cohen’s side of trying to overturn the democratic process in which the mayor won reelection. They are in turn being called cheaters because, well, they cheated.
Outside politicians want to avoid this issue. Politicians from the Left who call for new elections are lumped in as anti-chareidi. Any member of the Likud calling for a new ballot, especially those who can actually institute a revote, will essentially alienate themselves from the chareidi public, a voting bloc which has historically aligned itself with the Likud when it forms a ruling government (although not in the current Knesset). Any Likud member thinking of leading the party in the future will therefore not openly take sides.
So it is up to the courts. The Eli Cohen camp has stated that it is going to file a motion with the Supreme Court to dismiss the election results. Yet, with a winning margin of around 900 votes, they will have to show proof that at least that many fraudulent votes were cast. In an election of 32,000 or so votes, that is around 3% of all ballots cast, which I don’t think happened.
The only other way a revote is possible is if the police come out and say that the mayor encouraged or knew about his aides and supporters committing fraud. If he knew about it and let it happen, or even worse, if he encouraged that they do so, then I think that either the courts or the politicians will have no choice but to act. Otherwise, I think it is time for us to move on–whatever that may mean.
Several people have come out and said they are leaving Bet Shemesh within the year. The first to do so was a chareidi activist who was at one time closely affiliated with the Eidah Chareidis. Over time, discouraged by extremists, he moderated his stance. In the recent election, he supported Eli Cohen, and the day after the elections he posted a statement that he was leaving Bet Shemesh.
Others, from the Religious Zionist camp, have followed suit. Yet many, the vast majority, are publicly saying that they like the city too much to just abandon it. They are incredibly disappointed with the election results, but they are not quite ready to abandon ship. They worry about the city’s future, but in the end it is still home to them and they are not quite ready to give up.
As for us, we have no idea what the future holds in store. As renters, we are much freer to make a change than many of our neighbors. Our lease ends in July, and we may need to relocate. As the yeshiva grows, it may also be beneficial to my career for us to relocate closer to the yeshiva.
Yet we like Bet Shemesh. Our kids are happy in their schools and we do not think we could duplicate that same success elsewhere (but perhaps we are fooling ourselves). They are doing well socially. They fit in here. And that is why this decision is so daunting for us and our neighbors. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.