Sometimes it feels as though there is bad news all around us, and when it comes to Israel, that sentiment seems to multiply. While reading the newspaper headlines one is constantly met with a feeling of dread or loss of all hope. In order to shield yourself from such emotions, you become cynical, unwilling to keep looking for a solution to bring people together when they seem comfortable staying apart. But just as you think all is lost, a glimmer of hope presents itself in the city of Beit Shemesh of all places.
Full disclosure: This is going to be an optimistic story, one that even the most disillusioned will find hard to spoil. It’s the story of an educator, who, despite being thrown out of her political home didn’t lose hope and ultimately succeeded in her own right; the story of an uncharacteristically positive campaign which broke down tribal barriers and voting patterns. It’s also one of solidarity between women who wanted to show that the world can look better. The story is that of Aliza Bloch, who, against all odds, won the municipal elections in Beit Shemesh, allowing Israeli society to ponder if only for a moment, that change might be possible.
Beit Shemesh is a poor, polarized city, with a bad reputation in much of the rest of Israel. It has become the epicenter of the Israeli internal war among the various social sectors. Beit Shemesh’s political system has been male-dominated for over a decade, torn apart by an intensive battle between Haredim and secular and religious Zionists over control of the public space. This fate has turned the city into a symbol in Israel for the gradual decline into a reality of segregated tribes.
Once mostly a secular city, Beit Shemesh went through a drastic change when ultra-Orthodox groups started moving into town during the 1990s, leading to increasing out-migration of secular populations from the city. Since the election of Moshe Abutbul from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party as mayor in 2008, the growing frictions between the different populations have intensified. Secular groups have complained about a neglect of their neighborhoods by the mayor’s office, and on an apparent investment of surplus funds in construction and development in the Haredi neighborhoods rather than in communal city institutions. The city has become completely divided by its different neighborhoods, creating a situation of separation where each demographic sticks to their own. Certain ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have become characterized by their extreme attitudes towards women: in these neighborhoods, one can find signs promoting gender separation on the sidewalks, and there have been incidents of stone throwing at women who have supposedly dressed immodestly. In 2011, Beit Shemesh made headlines for several weeks following an incident where an ultra-Orthodox man spat on an eight-year-old girl whom he claimed was dressed immodestly.
Funnily enough, it was the soldiers who were the ones to save the day. In Israel, the soldiers’ votes are the last to arrive, officially bringing the race to a close. Even so, their votes don’t usually make much of a difference and whoever was leading before is most likely still going to win. However, that wasn’t the case in Beit Shemesh, where most of the soldiers seemed to remember Dr. Aliza Bloch fondly from the days when she was their favorite high school principal, tipping the scales in her favor.
The last two elections in Beit Shemesh focused mainly on the struggle between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular over the character of the city. These elections led to clashes between residents and further fostered polarization in the city. The results in 2008 and in 2013 were the same — a victory for Abutbul. But this year’s elections felt different. Bloch, formerly a member of the Jewish Home party (she left after being abandoned by party leader Naftali Bennett, who promoted a different candidate), decided to advocate for tolerance, the dissolution of dividers, and for pursuit of a common good. In addition to secular and national-religious groups, she also turned towards certain liberal Haredim in town. During the election campaign, she chose not to put her picture up in some places in the city, in order to not provoke the ultra-Orthodox public. In an age where social media is the base for political strategy and where everything is visual, Bloch did the impossible: she ran a campaign that was based on volunteers from all sectors, who went door to door with hardly any posters or major public campaigning.
But the story here is much bigger than Bloch and Beit Shemesh. Bloch appears both as a symbol for hope in itself and as a symbol of the political possibility for change in general. Her story is both one of disrupting stereotypical perceptions and barriers, and one of revitalizing faith in the democratic system. When it comes to subverting stereotypes and defying expectations, Aliza Bloch has it all: she is a religious woman who successfully brought change in Beit Shemesh. And when it comes to social barriers, Bloch proved that you can bring people together despite their fundamental differences. For many, the solution for Beit Shemesh was to divide it into two different cities, leaning on the perception that the differences between the groups are too major for them to ever be capable of living together. For Bloch, this is an easy way out, but also an unrealistic solution in the long term. Israel’s demographics are changing rapidly and it will need to make a conscious decision to either try and find a way to live together, or it can start building walls; either way, as Bloch says, “no one is going anywhere.”
According to Bloch, the situation today is one where a “child can grow up in a certain house, on a specific street, a specific school, a specific neighborhood, listen to a specific radio station – and the moment he meets another kid from one street over, he can’t even understand his language!” In this way “we are creating superficial people. You meet the same friends, hear the same opinions, stuck in your own echo chamber convinced that you know best,” says Bloch. Seeing the differences in each other is much easier than finding the similarities. When Bloch won the elections, she proved that not everything in life is a war over the survival of our identities, and that most of the time, most people want the same things: a roof over their head, clean streets, good education, a livelihood, health and quality time with family and friends. But most of the time “marginal voices manage the discourse and prevent us from seeing the human beings.”
When it comes to restoring faith in the democratic system, Bloch has reminded us that there is still value in the notion of free choice and a secret ballot. For Bloch, her victory is bringing democracy to the Orthodox world. One of Bloch’s groups of volunteers was made up of ultra-Orthodox residents who worked day and night for her cause. According to her, this is nothing less than a revolution in the Haredi world. “These are people that say, I am a Haredi and want to raise my kids the same way, but within this world I want people to care about what I think, to give me the right to choose and to refer to my Rabbis differently.” Bloch claims that she was trying to refine the concept of choice: “I want to live in a society of people who choose,” she says. However, the real story is not these ultra-Orthodox men looking for change, but the women. Bloch claims to have had a whole brigade of women who stood by her side, sometimes working in secret. Women whose very participation was problematic, who had to be careful about what they said, what their husbands knew, or even their kids. Even so, they decided to make their own choices.
Even after all this triumph in human capability, Bloch’s grace period is almost over and she will be left to have to pick up the pieces in one of Israel’s poorest, dirtiest, and most conflicted cities. She definitely has her work cut out for her. Still, Bloch’s victory shows that it is possible for leaders to win by bringing people together, and not only by cultivating a discourse of conflict, alienation, and fear. Moreover, it shows that when paradigms are broken, people have the capacity to think for themselves without being affected by the narrow interest of others. According to Bloch, the sane majority stays silent but is still capable of comprehending a level of complexity. By tomorrow, everyone will go back to talking about national elections, and a new wave of cynicism will rise, but for now, we can try to hold on, even for just a little longer, to the small glimmer of hope coming all the way from Beit Shemesh.