Ballot is battleground for Israeli town torn by religion

Sun Mar 9, 2014 6:37am EDT
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By Maayan Lubell

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (Reuters) - When this Israeli town goes to the polls on Tuesday, the vote may decide more than a bitter mayoral race. Many see it as a bellwether for the strained secular-religious relations throughout the Jewish state.

Municipal votes rarely raise passions in Israel, but this one - a rerun of an election last October - is different. Two courts ordered it after finding voter fraud in the original ballot that returned the ultra-Orthodox mayor to office.

Now more liberal voters in the town of 80,000 are mobilizing to topple the incumbent and, they hope, stem the influence of religious zealots they see as a growing challenge.

"This election is our last chance to save Beit Shemesh," said Noa Kedmi, 28, who has lived in the town for eight years.

The town 35 km (22 miles) west of Jerusalem gained notoriety 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 over religious issues since.

To walk between neighborhoods is to cross cultures, with strict dress codes, sex segregation and Sabbath closures vigorously enforced on some ultra-Orthodox streets and the more relaxed ways of mostly secular Israel on others.

Kedmi lives unhappily on the edge of one ultra-Orthodox zone. "I'm yelled at every day. I'm scared of walking down the street. There are roads I can't drive down on the Sabbath and I have to choose my clothes carefully before I go out," she said.

VOTER FRAUD   Continued...

Moshe Abutbul (2nd L), the ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor of Beit Shemesh, speaks to residents in the town near Jerusalem March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun