update deskIsrael News

Netanyahu calls to defuse secular-religious tensions

“The most important thing is to lower the flames,” said the Israeli premier, in what was seen as a veiled swipe at National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Left-wing activists disrupt a prayer session on the eve of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Eitan Elhadez/TPS.
Left-wing activists disrupt a prayer session on the eve of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Eitan Elhadez/TPS.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appealed for calm and urged leaders to lower tensions following a tussle between staunchly secular and modern orthodox Israelis over segregated prayer in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur.

The remarks, which were issued Tuesday night, were seen as a veiled swipe against Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who announced that he was planning to hold a prayer session at the site on Thursday in protest over the unprecedented holiday fracas, which has been widely condemned by lawmakers across the political spectrum.  

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

The Rosh Yehudi organization, in an effort to hold the prayer services in keeping with both the court ruling 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.

(Rosh Yehudi seeks to spread religious Zionism to the public at large.)

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 event—which was launched during the coronavirus epidemic, 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.

Ben-Gvir, who is charged with oversight of the police, had vowed to hold public evening prayers in Tel Aviv square on Thursday, setting the stage for a possible showdown if the participants are segregated, in defiance of a High Court order banning such segregation.

“I say to those anarchists that tried to eject worshipers on Yom Kippur—I and my friends … are coming on Thursday to the same spot. Let’s see you try and eject us,” tweeted Ben-Gvir on Tuesday.

Ben-Gvir’s plan was condemned by both right- and left-wing lawmakers.

Simcha Rothman, a lawmaker from the Religious Zionism Party and one of the top stewards of the government’s judicial reform, 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.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Ben-Gvir was “playing into the hands” of those who oppose the judicial reform, adding that “this is no time for unnecessary provocations,” Channel 12 news reported.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the public to ignore Ben-Gvir’s prayer rally.

“I urge everyone to ignore Ben-Gvir’s ‘prayer’ on Thursday at the 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.

“The Orthodox ultra-nationalist nucleus [garin Torani] that came to the neighborhood decided to bring the war to us as well,” Lapid said, referring to groups composed of Jews who move to secular areas seeking to strengthen the community’s connection to religious Judaism, promote integration of religious and non-religious Jews and bring about social change.

“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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