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Ben-Gvir nixes Tel Aviv prayers after counter-protesters agree to move service

"I am glad that the extreme left has realized that there is no longer room for antisemitism against Jews in the heart of Tel Aviv," said the national security minister.

Secular and religious Jews argue at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Sept. 24, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Secular and religious Jews argue at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Sept. 24, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced on Wednesday evening the cancelation of a planned prayer service in Tel Aviv after organizers of a counterdemonstration said they were moving their mixed-gender prayers away from Dizengoff Square in a bid to avoid a confrontation.

“In light of the announcement by the leaders of the extreme left-wing protest that they would no longer repeat the antisemitic activity they carried out on Yom Kippur, in which Jews praying were expelled from the public sphere, I decided to cancel the service tomorrow,” Ben-Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit Party, wrote in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

“I am glad that the extreme left has realized that there is no longer room for antisemitism against Jews in the heart of Tel Aviv. We have one Jewish state, in which Jews will always be able to pray in the public sphere, whenever they want and at any place, even if I have to clarify this in the future,” he added.

The move comes after anti-government protesters said they would instead gather at nearby Habima Square on Thursday for a “prayer for the peace and democracy of the state,” a decision made after speaking to local residents.

On Yom Kippur, staunchly secular and Modern Orthodox Israelis tussled over gender-separate prayers in Dizengoff Square.

The Rosh Yehudi organization, in an effort to hold the services in keeping with a High Court ruling against gender-segregated prayer and the NGO’s desire to nonetheless maintain an element of separation, had strung up a makeshift barrier made up of Israeli flags, in the hope that it would not be an issue.

But a group of dozens of protesters, some wearing T-shirts reading, “Democracy” and others dressed in the shirts of the anti-judicial reform protests, pulled down the flags and removed the plastic chairs that organizers had set up, preventing the service from taking place.

They hurled abuse at the head of the organization and participants who had donned prayer shawls for the holiday, screaming, “Not here” and, “Look at the face of evil,” along with racial slurs against a new immigrant from France, video showed, as scuffles broke out between the sides and the participants had to return to the NGO’s synagogue.

The gender-separate prayer service, which was launched during the coronavirus pandemic when indoor gatherings were deemed unsafe, had drawn hundreds of participants in years past. They included a typical Israeli mix of secular, traditional and Modern Orthodox worshippers, many of whom felt more comfortable in an outdoor setting than in the confines of a synagogue, with no dress code enforced and a mix of the informal and the formal on display.

Criticism from both right and left

On Tuesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed for calm and urged leaders to lower tensions.  

“After what happened in Tel Aviv, the most important thing is to lower the flames,” he said in a statement released by his ruling Likud Party. “Therefore, I expect all leaders to act responsibly.”

On Wednesday, Benny Gantz, head of the opposition National Unity party, accused protesters of “using violence against worshippers on a day of holiness and disturbing the prayers.”

He also blamed Rosh Yehudi for creating “provocations.”

“Both sides took the law into their own hands and lost mutual respect. Both sides have soul searching to do, as we all do as a society,” Gantz said.

Ben-Gvir’s plan had drawn criticism from both right-wing and left-wing lawmakers.

Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member from the Religious Zionism Party and one of the top stewards of the government’s judicial reforms, called Ben-Gvir’s actions “unwanted.”

The “response to the extremist, vociferous progressive minority that does not want a Jewish state here is not through a counter-provocation that would further inflame hatred,” tweeted Rothman.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism Party, said Ben-Gvir was “playing into the hands” of those who oppose the judicial reforms, adding that “this is no time for unnecessary provocations.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party, called on the public to ignore Ben-Gvir’s planned prayer rally.

“I urge everyone to ignore Ben-Gvir’s ‘prayers’ on Thursday at [Dizengoff] Square. Leave him alone there. There’s no greater punishment for him,” Lapid wrote on Facebook.

On Monday, Lapid decried the “messianic” Judaism of the nationalist groups that “decided to bring war” to the Tel Aviv square.

“They make sure to explain to us that there is only one version of Judaism, their version. They demand that in the name of tolerance, even in our neighborhood, they will decide what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Lapid said.

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