Anti-gay remarks by the newly re-elected mayor of Beit Shemesh brought condemnation from residents as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which runs a partnership program with that Israeli city that is said to be where David slew Goliath.
During a television interview aired in Israel Nov. 8, Mayor Moshe Abutbul, a fervently Orthodox Jew, said that his “holy and pure” city does not have any homosexual residents. He continued on during the interview on Channel 10 to say that it wasn’t his job to take care of homosexuals. Rather, he said, the police and the Health Ministry are responsible for handling the LGBT community.
Shortly after the mayor’s comments, the Federation sent him a letter, saying it was “outraged” by his comments. “Mr. Mayor, gays and lesbians are neither sick nor criminal,” it was stated in the one-page letter that was signed by Liza Levy, Federation president, and Steve Rakitt, its CEO.
“Your comments hurt and offend many in your community, in Israel and in the Diaspora, and we urge you to immediately retract them.” The Federation “is a welcoming community of tolerance, a ‘big tent’ within which all can thrive and prosper,” the letter stated.
For the past 18 years, the Federation has paired with Beit Shemesh and Mateh Yehuda region in the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2Gether program. Gideon Even Ari, who chairs Partnership 2Gether Beit Shemesh Mateh Yehuda, said he “was very upset to hear it, of course. The fact that he said it doesn’t mean this city thinks like that.”
Abutbul won in a very close election, Even Ari said, adding, “I don’t think all the people who gave him their vote think like this.”
“He is my mayor, like him or not,” he said, adding however, “I don’t feel like he is my mayor when he speaks like this.” Even Ari urged Washington Jewish Week to stress that the mayor’s anti-gay statements are “not what all the city thinks.”
Gideon Vennor, Partnership director, said “People are appalled. People are shocked.”
“I haven’t seen support of the man’s views,” Vennor said of the mayor, adding that he has, however, seen much outrage in postings on personal Facebook pages.
Beit Shemesh resident Chaya Yosovich is also upset. “In a way, I would say he is naive. On the other hand, he is the mayor. He has to know what is going on.”
Yosovich, whose father lives in Silver Spring and is head of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, continued, “I think everyone can live in Beit Shemesh. It doesn’t matter what they think, what they do. We have to find space for them.”
The Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered in Israel filed a complaint with the police against Abutbul.
There have been numerous exchanges between the Federation and Beit Shemesh, which has a population of about 75,000 and is located about 20 miles west of Jerusalem. Residents of Beit Shemesh have visited this area to learn about environmentalism, the development of Rockville, bicycling competitions and cooking exhibitions.
Montgomery County had considered becoming a Sister City with Beit Shemesh but never made it official following complaints by about 40 residents who attended a Sister Cities’ meeting. Prior to that meeting, Beit Shemesh had been the scene of unrest. Some members of its haredi population harassed and even physically attacked females of all ages, whom they said were dressing immodestly and otherwise not living up to their stringent religious standards.
A relationship between the county and Beit Shemesh is on hold indefinitely.