Anyone who reads what the media has to say about the situation in Israel today may have feelings of doubt, concern or even despair. After all, the country seems insolubly divided. Haredi vs. secular, settling Judea and Samaria vs. the creation of a Palestinian state, and now, of course, the fraught question of judicial reform, with all the protests and demonstrations that have resulted.
But I am optimistic, because I have seen the immense potential of the State of Israel during almost four years as mayor of Beit Shemesh.
Think about Israel’s current challenges. We are handling most of them right here in Beit Shemesh:
A growing Haredi population in a city that is not Haredi? Check.
Kibbutz galuyot, the Ingathering of the Exiles, with large groups from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, English-speaking countries, European countries and so on? Check.
Political opinions ranging from far-left to far-right? Check.
Skyrocketing real estate prices and the need to build affordable housing? Check.
The need to provide high-tech employment, so our residents don’t have to deal with long commutes? Check.
We have all this and much more in Beit Shemesh. And I love it.
I love it because I see Beit Shemesh as a city of communities in which anyone can find their place and feel at home.
Beit Shemesh is not just geographically located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is also a bridge between them. Living both the secular life of the resurrected State of Israel and the religious life of the Land of Israel that we share with our ancestors, Beit Shemesh residents have figured out a way to live side-by-side, even if they do not agree on everything.
In fact, it is precisely because residents are so different that they are able to create a wide variety of opportunities. I believe that living close to people with different views and backgrounds makes for a better city. In Beit Shemesh, we want to provide a balance between modernization and tradition, family and community, progress and conservatism.
It is well-known that Beit Shemesh has seen its share of discord over the years, but through respect and understanding the various needs of its different populations, our city’s leadership has begun to heal those wounds and move forward.
If we consider the demographic makeup of Beit Shemesh, it’s clear that our city is a model for Israel’s future. As such, there are several key lessons to be learned that can help move our country in a positive direction.
Populations must be given the ability to live the way they choose.
We all have our preferences for how we should dress, raise and educate our children, make a living and interact with those around us. While we wish others would see the world as we do at times, we must respect each other’s views and perspectives, even if we do not agree with them. For example, even if one population enjoys listening to secular music, there is no reason for them to parade through a Haredi section of the city blasting such songs. At the same time, the city should make sure there are opportunities for those who enjoy such music to listen to it.
Housing must be affordable, even as prices rise.
We have seen real estate prices increase dramatically in Bet Shemesh over the past 10 years, but we have also given significant attention to building new homes for our residents that align with their specific way of life. There is no sense in building high-rise apartment buildings for those who won’t use an elevator on Shabbat. But there are some areas where high-rise buildings make perfect sense. Building according to various communities’ needs will help address Israel’s housing challenges.
Provide hi-tech career opportunities to residents.
In the coming years, Israel’s innovation ecosystem will only grow. But hi-tech cannot be confined to Tel Aviv and its environs. Just as we are bringing many technology companies to Beit Shemesh, other cities should do the same by offering significant incentives. Beit Shemesh has even seen a large segment of the Haredi population—particularly working women—embrace a career in high-tech.
Appreciate that education is our future.
One of the commitments I made when I ran for mayor four years ago was to provide all our communities with improved educational facilities. No longer would a classroom of children have to spend their day in a caravan with a broken air conditioner. From the day I entered office, we have built school after school. This should be a nationwide endeavor in both STEM subjects and for those who are more artistically inclined.
There is no sense in sweeping our differences under the rug.
From a city in conflict, we are creating a city of unity and coexistence. Dialogue has been key to this process. In Beit Shemesh, everyone is free to live as they wish, believe what they want to believe, and dress and behave however they please. But we also owe it to each other to listen and understand. There is much to learn from those who see the world differently.
Create opportunities that will bring the community together.
While I mentioned above that there are certain cultural events that will be enjoyed more by one population than another, there are opportunities—through culture and sport—to bring us all together. We see this each year at our annual Beit Shemesh 5k/10k race, in which many of the city’s communities participate.
There is also our annual Beit Shemesh Music Festival, which provides separate seating for those who desire it. We have our football team, the Judean Rebels, which includes players from many different backgrounds, as well as fans who come with black kippot, knitted kippot and no kippot at all. We cheer on our team together.
As we look ahead to our shared future, we in Israel will have our disagreements. That’s part of life. However, cooperation, respect and even appreciation can set the tone for mutual recognition, which can lead to a truly pluralistic Israeli society.
Dr. Aliza Bloch is the mayor of Beit Shemesh.