OpinionIsrael News

Israel’s ‘democracy’ protesters destroy their own platform

The mob attack in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur has far wider resonance.

The Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider amongst protests during a public prayer service at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 24, 2023. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90
The Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider amongst protests during a public prayer service at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 24, 2023. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

The shocking scenes in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur not only destroyed the principal claim of Israel’s nine-months-old protest movement against the government. They also illuminated a fundamental and disturbing fault-line in the wider Jewish world and the West.

Those who came to pray together in Tel Aviv’s public spaces on the holiest day of the year were shouted at, abused, reduced to tears and forced to disband their prayer services.

This repellent spectacle, on Yom Kippur of all days, was redolent of the forcible attempts to suppress Jewish prayer that have characterized Jew-hatred throughout the ages. Yet sickeningly, the perpetrators were themselves Jews spitting baseless hatred against other Jews.

The immediate cause was that the worshippers had erected a mechitzah, or divider, between men and women. Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai had made a ruling forbidding segregated prayers in the city’s public spaces, a ruling that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The objectors said the Rosh Yehudi movement, which tries to spread Orthodox Judaism in Tel Aviv, deliberately provoked disorder by disobeying Huldai’s ruling.

However, as everyone could see, the mob wasn’t only targeting Rosh Yehudi but also ordinary, religiously observant people who came to pray in those open spaces.

During the Covid emergency, segregated public prayers were regularly held in Tel Aviv and provoked no problem. The flashpoint occurred this week because, for the past nine months, secular people have whipped up hysterical loathing of the haredim and religious-nationalist Jews, whom they accuse of plotting to destroy Israeli democracy and human rights through the government’s judicial reforms.

True, Mayor Huldai was within his rights to ban segregated public prayer events. In procedural terms, the Supreme Court was behaving properly in stating that each municipality may set its own rules.

However, banning people from praying in accordance with their religious precepts in a way that causes absolutely no harm to anyone else has no place in a liberal society. Huldai’s ruling was oppressive, disproportionate and deeply illiberal.

As for the Supreme Court, it regularly strikes down even laws made by the Knesset—the overreach that prompted the government’s judicial reforms—because it claims to have a duty to protect human rights over and above the laws passed by democratically elected politicians.

Whatever view of these reforms one may take, by upholding Huldai’s ruling, which denied the worshippers equal rights with anyone else to pray in public spaces, the Court demonstrated that its claim to be Israel’s bastion of human rights protection is sheer humbug.

What the mob attack on Yom Kippur showed was that, for these so-called upholders of freedom, there is to be no freedom for certain people who want to pray in their own way. The secular protesters stopped these services simply because they find orthodox religion offensive.

Current dogma holds that subjective emotion drives all before it, that dissent from left-wing attitudes offends liberal feelings and that any such offensiveness must therefore be punished and erased. That’s how the Tel Aviv mob justified their aggression, bullying and show of force.

One man who said he opposes both the judicial reforms and intolerance towards women displayed by the ultra-Orthodox world nevertheless described his shock and disgust when he turned up to pray at the segregated event in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square.

He encountered there dozens of people with “eyes seething with hate,” who were jostling a pregnant woman, shoving their phones in the faces of Jews for whom interacting with electronic devices on Yom Kippur is forbidden and bellowing “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” at those who had merely come to pray.

Of course, this mob represented only a fraction of the anti-government protesters who are motivated by a variety of different but linked agendas. However, the protesters have regularly abused Orthodox Jews, whom they lump together with the haredim; and they have all marched beneath the banner of democracy and human rights—a facade that has now been ripped off by the events on Yom Kippur.

Understanding the damage done to their cause, the protest leaders tried to distance themselves from what happened by declaring, “We’re all pained by the events on Yom Kippur … the day that unites us all.” But it is they who have spent nine months trying to divide and harm the country.

Some of the protest’s most prominent supporters have now pronounced themselves shocked and ashamed—although they still couldn’t bring themselves to face the full significance of what they had helped bring about.

One actually blamed the government for having “revived a desperate form of militant secularism,” which sounds uncomfortably akin to the ancient claim that the Jews provoke antisemitism by behaving as Jews.

Clearly, intolerance is not a one-way street. The attacks by some in the ultra-Orthodox world on women praying aloud at the Western Wall with Torah scrolls and tefillin are appalling and inexcusable.

There is, however, a significant difference here. Whether or not one supports the Women of the Wall, their ultra-Orthodox harassers are trying to stop what they regard as a desecration of Judaism. The harassment of those praying in Dizengoff Square was an attack on Judaism.

The protesters claimed they were resisting the haredim. But those who turned up to pray on Yom Kippur weren’t haredim. They were the same kind of people who pray in Orthodox synagogues everywhere—in the Diaspora as well as in Israel—which routinely separate men from women.

What this demonstrated was not just hatred and fear of the ultra-Orthodox but hatred and fear of all observant Jews. This was expressed most graphically in Haaretz by its columnist Gideon Levy.

In a commentary on the Yom Kippur disturbances, Levy blamed all “knitted kippah” wearers—in other words, the modern Orthodox—for either constituting or supporting the “settlers” in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, all of whom he falsely characterized as violent zealots who harass and attack their Arab neighbors.

He went even further: “Yes, the knitted kippah has become a symbol that sparks resistance. The knitted kippah makes its wearer a suspect until proven otherwise. They have no right to benefit from liberalism. They are its enemies.”

So, for Levy, the modern Orthodox—who include IDF officers, judges, journalists, politicians, officials, businesspeople and many others—have no human rights and are in effect enemies of the people.

Levy is well-known for his virulently anti-Zionist views. However, bigotry and discrimination against traditional biblical believers is standard among secular liberals. In both America and Britain, Christians are discriminated against for holding conservative beliefs about sexuality that accord with their religious teaching.

Progressive Judaism, meanwhile, seeks to appropriate liberal dogma as Jewish values, even though such universalizing precepts may be inimical to Judaism.

This accords with the fixed liberal belief that religion is responsible for all bad things, such as oppression, selfishness and obscurantism, while all good things such as freedom, compassion and rationality come from secularism.

In fact, all those good things and many more come from the Hebrew Bible, while it is secularism that undermines or destroys them. 

Secular Israelis spitting hatred at the ultra-Orthodox fail to grasp that if it hadn’t been for people like that, there wouldn’t still be a Jewish people. The Jews survived over the centuries despite overwhelming odds because enough of them remained faithful to their religion.

Being faithful instead to democracy, feminism or judge-made human rights is not a recipe for cultural survival. A glance at how secular and supposedly liberal, rational, Western society is currently destroying itself through rancorous division, irrationality and intolerance shows what happens when a culture renounces the biblical precepts that are the source of its most precious values.

The disgraceful scenes in Tel Aviv carry a message that resonates far beyond Israel’s internal convulsions.

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