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The Media Line: On Judaism’s Holiest Day, Jews Fight Over the Future of Their State

Written by on September 27, 2023

On Judaism’s Holiest Day, Jews Fight Over the Future of Their State

Secular protesters disrupt public prayers in Tel Aviv after religious organizers defy a court order prohibiting gender barriers

By Keren Setton/The Media Line

The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur in Hebrew, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is a day of self-reflection in which many Jews, not only religious ones, fast and pray for forgiveness and a better start to the new year. Most of Israel comes to a standstill; as traffic diminishes almost to zero, a quiet engulfs the country for 25 solemn hours.

This year, Yom Kippur came at a time of heightened tensions and raging internal divisions between Israelis. The hope that those divisions could be set aside for one day was shot down abruptly in the center of Tel Aviv, as religious groups set up an improvised barrier between female and male worshippers in a public square in defiance of a Supreme Court order barring such gender division in public areas. Liberal residents of the city heckled those praying, shouting at them and attempting to remove the barrier, in stark contrast to what was supposed to be a somber day.

The conflict was the epitome of the rift that has been exposed in the country since the swearing-in of its most right-wing government ever almost a year ago. The divisions are already existing under the surface, but the current government’s policies and the emergence of a fierce grassroots opposition movement have put the spotlight on what divides Israelis, rather than what unites them.

“Throughout Jewish history, this was a day which united the people,” said Rabbi Uri Bloy, an expert on the Haredi community and a social activist who tries to promote dialogue between the different sectors. “Once a year, most Jews want to pray and these prayers in public areas allow for more people to pray, making it more accessible. In the Jewish state, in a Jewish city, Jews are not letting other Jews pray. This is a pain that is inexplicable.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the protestors in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, hours after the fast was over and news of the incident spread.

“The people of Israel sought to unite on Yom Kippur by asking for forgiveness and unity within us,” Netanyahu posted. “To our astonishment, precisely in the Jewish state … left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews during their prayer. It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms, and no reservation for hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like most Israeli citizens, reject this. Such violent behavior has no place here.”

Netanyahu seemed to delineate the political borders the way he and many of his supporters see the left wing in Israel: Regardless of whether it actually exists or how small it is, is not really Jewish, while his right-wing bloc owns the religion, and how it is practiced.

“It was clear from the day the government was established that it would cause a rift and bring hostility toward tradition,” said Dr. Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Rubinstein fellow at Reichman University. “When laws of coercion and discrimination are promoted, there is antagonism, and this is what we saw.”

Once sworn in, the Netanyahu government announced a massive overhaul of the judicial system. Claiming the courts had gained too much influence in recent decades, the coalition devised a plan that would weaken the courts, giving more power to the executive branch. The plan was immediately met with harsh opposition. Critics said it would severely weaken Israel’s democracy, limiting the independence of its only check on the government. In addition to the planned reforms, the coalition also began promoting dozens of laws pertaining to every aspect of life in the country. From expanding the authority of the national security minister to elevating the status of religious studies in the job-seeking process, the government embarked on a widespread campaign to change the country, tipping the balance between religion and state.

The prayer in Tel Aviv was the scene in which many of these divisions played out. Last week, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to allow gender-segregated prayer in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square. Prayers could be segregated, but without a physical barrier between them, allowing males and females to move freely. Defying the courts, the “Rosh Yehudi” group which organized the prayer, put up a barrier in the square. Activists from the group claimed that the barrier, made up of Israeli flags, did not disrupt the freedom of movement at the square.

When the prayer began, protestors began yelling “Shame!” and “Democracy!” at the worshippers. The same chants have been used frequently in the anti-government protests that have been held since the judicial reform was announced.

Israel is also on the cusp of a constitutional crisis, as it awaits a Supreme Court verdict on the legality of the first law the Knesset passed dealing with the judicial overhaul. When asked whether he would adhere to a court ruling should it strike down the law, Netanyahu’s answers have been vague. With Israel’s premier ambiguous on court orders, others are already choosing to be defiant, perhaps emboldened by a contrarian government.

Netanyahu leads an extreme right-wing government with ultra-nationalist members as his main allies. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir are both part of a relatively new “Hardali” movement within Judaism, which reflects a nationalistic, ultra-Orthodox-oriented view that Netanyahu now leans heavily on for his political survival. Rosh Yehudi portrays itself as an organization seeking to “quench the growing thirst for Jewish identity,” as it claims on its website.

“They have no problem with racism, misogyny, and homophobia; in fact, they encourage it,” Persico said. “Netanyahu does not share these views, but he is being held captive by these forces. The Hardalim are the ones actually ruling this coalition and Netanyahu has no choice but to surrender as they take the road of religious coercion and Jewish supremacy.”

The Rosh Yehudi organization did not respond to The Media Line’s request for comment.

In Orthodox synagogues, there are separate areas for men and women to pray.

“The feelings of the religious public are repeatedly being hurt,” said Bloy. “The fact that the court decided to not allow segregated praying in a public area which is part of the Jewish prayer ceremony makes us feel that there is a deliberate attempt to hurt every Jewish religious symbol. This is borderline antisemitic and not the way to maintain democracy and equality.”

The scenes of Jewish Israelis fighting each other on what is supposed to be a day of reflection were difficult for people on all sides of the political map. The public prayers, a tradition carried over from the days of the pandemic, became another scene in which the liberals and the religious clashed. The tensions that led up to the prayer, which included a petition to the court, provided a preview of what eventually played out.

“They [Rosh Yehudi] could have chosen not to conduct the prayer this year and certainly not defy the court order by putting up the barrier, but also the secular Jews could have not interrupted the prayer with their shouting,” Persico said. “Even though the barrier was against the law, it does not legitimize interfering with the prayer.”

As the political crisis deepens, there is increased talk of the emergence of two Israels—a religious country in which the legal system is derived from Jewish laws and traditions, and a liberal country that allows people to choose their own lifestyles.

“We are nearing a civil war,” Bloy said. “The religious people need to reach an understanding of how they conduct themselves vis-à-vis the general public. However, the general public has to understand that there are many people here who want to practice religion and feel that they are being hurt. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”

Months into the political turmoil, lines are frequently crossed during events that were previously untouched or consensual among the Jewish majority in Israel.

“We are seeing the falling apart of the foundations that have built society. The status quo is dead,” Persico said. “The question of identity is open for debate, but from this crisis, there is an opportunity to rethink things.”

Politicians from both sides of the map condemned Monday’s events but also contributed to further tensions. Ben-Gvir vowed to hold a communal prayer at the same site in Tel Aviv later this week, daring his opponents to drive him out of the city. The hate and mutual incitement are expected to continue, as no moderate voice has the power needed to change the course of a very bitter discourse that has taken over.

“The politicians may be looking to promote divisions, but most of the people want to live together in peace,” Bloy said.

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