For more than 18 years, the town of Beit Shemesh has been the sister city of Greater Washington’s Jewish community through a “twinning relationship” with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. During that time, the Federation has invested millions of communal dollars in social service and educational programs to benefit the citizens of Beit Shemesh. Historically, our community has had a very positive, successful and productive relationship with Beit Shemesh. But during the past few years, the relationship has become increasingly troubled, as some in Beit Shemesh’s growing ultra-Orthodox community have resorted to intimidation and violence against those who do not share their religious views, traditions and customs.
As was widely reported in our pages and elsewhere, young girls on their way to a Modern Orthodox school were repeatedly harassed, and a public bus was attacked after a woman passenger refused to move to the back of the bus in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox male passengers. As a follow-on to these incidents, the Federation funded award-winning programs in Beit Shemesh focused on women’s empowerment as well as programs promoting greater dialogue and cooperation between the ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and other parts of the Beit Shemesh community. Unfortunately, the offending intolerance has apparently moved from the streets of Beit Shemesh to its city hall. On Friday, the town’s recently re-elected mayor, Moshe Abutbul, a vocal member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, told an Israeli TV interviewer who asked about the presence of gays and lesbians in Beit Shemesh, that “we have no such things… . Thank God this city is holy and pure.” Mayor Abutbul went on to suggest that it was up to the Health Ministry and police to “take care of them,” the Times of Israel reported.
Mr. Abutbul’s comments are offensive and wholly unacceptable. The intolerance and bigotry they reflect demand our condemnation. It also demands a response from our community to our sister city.
This week, the Federation sent a letter of rebuke to Mr. Abutbul. In the letter, Federation President Liza Levy and CEO Steve Rakitt told the mayor they were “outraged” by his comments and “urged” him to retract them. They further informed the mayor that Washington’s Federation “has made it clear that in our community we welcome people of all abilities, sexual orientations and religious beliefs.”
We agree. We ask of Mr. Abutbul nothing more than tolerance, understanding and respect for all Jews. If Mr. Abutbul is not able to get beyond his personal bias, bigotry and intolerance, the Federation should consider its options regarding its relationship with Beit Shemesh.