For religious Jews in Tel Aviv and a number of other communities across Israel, the Yom Kippur Neilah service turned out to be a sucker punch. Their public prayer services were disrupted and, in some cases, halted by secular activists. There is a strong sense of betrayal.
The Tel Aviv religious community was proud of being part of Tel Aviv’s diversity. They thought the feeling was reciprocal. It turns out that it wasn’t.
This is in stark contrast to the secular response to Neilah prayers in Jerusalem from 1929-1947. Back then, young secular Jews who were members of the organization Beitar defended religious Jews from being harassed by Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the end of the Neilah prayer, the secular Jews blew the shofar for the religious Jews at the Kotel in defiance of British law and were arrested for it.
In the wake of the 1929 Arab riots in which 133 Jews were murdered, Beitar sent a contingent to the Old City. The Plugat HaKotel Museum in the Old City depicts the Beitar unit escorting religious Jews to the Kotel. They carried a fake hand gun in order to get past the knife-wielding Arabs blocking their way. The museum has a photo display showing the secular shofar blowers, along with the shofars they used. They received months in prison for their defiance. All of them understood the consequences of their actions beforehand. Their bravery is chronicled in a wonderful movie. As a tour guide, I have yet to be jaded at the museum. Every time I see the support and sacrifice of one Jew for another, I tear up.
Contrast that with today. Neilah service 1933: Love, sacrifice and commitment to each other at the holiest time of the year. Neilah service 2023: Hatred and violence.
Here’s a typical response I heard after the Tel Aviv incident: “I loved Tel Aviv. I loved the diversity. I loved the people. I even agreed with some of the protesters that the judicial reforms, at least initially, had gone too far. But then they attacked us, and they attacked when we were most vulnerable, after 24 hours of fasting in the heat. Where’s their humanity?”
One can point out other forms of intolerance that may or not be analogous, such as haredi Israelis behavior towards secular Israelis and vice versa. Nevertheless, this particular incident appears to have significant ramifications. The way forward is not clear.
It seems unlikely that those who turned on Tel Aviv’s modern Orthodox community will engage in some serious introspection. Yet that is what is required. Those who ripped down a simple flag demarcation, not a barrier, and harassed Jews at this most sensitive time—along with the politicians and courts who made unprecedented decisions against the religious public and the media that fanned the flames—should do some soul-searching.
The Beitar Movement’s defense of religious Jews, so movingly depicted at the Plugat HaKotel Museum, shows Jews at their best. Respect, appreciation and sacrifice of one Jew for another is something very special. Across our precious nation, it is a model to inspire us.