Beit Shemesh Election Highlights Ultra-Orthodox And Secular Tensions In Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - FEBRUARY 12:  Ultra Orthodox men pray during protest against construction at site in the town of Bet-Shem
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - FEBRUARY 12: Ultra Orthodox men pray during protest against construction at site in the town of Bet-Shemesh, on February 12, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. The site is believed to contain ancient graves inside the caves. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

(Reuters) - 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.

Haredim comprise about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million population. They are mostly poor and unemployed, with many men pursuing religious studies full-time. They receive small state stipends for a traditional life of study, and child benefits for their large families.

Such payouts and a policy, now undergoing changes, of exempting the ultra-Orthodox from compulsory military service, have stoked resentment among many Israelis.

Abutbul said he plans on setting up a wide coalition. "I promise you one thing: Beit Shemesh will remain a beautiful town for everyone ... we will bring back the spirit of love and put extremism aside," he told Army Radio.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller)



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