newsJewish & Israeli Holidays

Religion and politics clash on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv

The secular-Orthodox divide has grown wider.

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.

It is the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.

Yet an unholy fracas broke out in a central Tel Aviv square on Yom Kippur, as heated divisions between staunchly secular and Modern Orthodox Israelis—usually sidelined by the solemnity and unity of the occasion—shattered the sanctity of the holy day after secular protesters prevented their fellow Jews from holding a gender-separate prayer service in public.

The melee at Dizengoff Square, which led the evening news broadcasts after the fast day and spread like wildfire on social media, erupted after a national religious NGO tried to hold its annual outdoor gender-separated holiday prayer service despite the High Court of Justice’s rejection of a petition to hold such a gathering.

The court sided with the Tel Aviv Municipality, which had earlier decided to ban the public event this year.

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.

The Tel Aviv Municipality in the past praised the group’s gathering in a tweet.

However, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai on Monday night called the organizers “extremist messianic” sources who, he said, were violating a court order. When asked, Huldai added he was not familiar with the city’s previous posts in favor of the event. Left unsaid was the fact that the mayor is facing a municipal election on Oct. 31.

Why is this year different?

The conflict over the prayer service comes as Israel faces its most intense domestic conflict in decades over the government’s judicial reform program, and at a time of growing national debate over the role of religion in public spaces.

There have also been incidents where secular women have been harassed on buses for how they dress and where they sit, with some haredim illegally demanding gender separation on public transportation.

Growing fringes

“It is fringes, but it is growing fringes in Israeli society,” said Professor Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and former dean of the law faculty at Bar-Ilan University, in an interview with JNS.

“We have always had divisions on the vision and destiny of the state, but we shared a covenant of faith which covered outside threats, national and religious holidays,” he said. “This is the first time in our history that disagreements over our destiny are shaking our covenant of faith that we are one despite the disputes we have.”

Stern cited both the government lawyer’s recent pooh-poohing of the 1948 Declaration of Independence at a High Court hearing earlier this month and the Yom Kippur scuffle as troubling signs of societal malaise.

“They are pushing forward the disputes instead of working to resolve them,” he said.

Politicians rush in

Immediately after the fast day ended on Monday evening and the videos of the scuffles made the news, politicians rushed to offer their reactions, falling largely along partisan lines.

“The people of Israel sought to unite on Yom Kippur by asking for forgiveness and unity among us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

“To our astonishment, specifically in the Jewish state, on the holiest day for the Jewish people, left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews during their prayers,” he continued.

“It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms and no limitations on hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like most Israeli citizens, reject this. Such violent behavior has no place among us,” Netanyahu said.

In contrast, opposition leader and Yesh Atid Party leader Yair 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.

National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz attacked Netanyahu for his statement, saying the premier was “the biggest generator of hatred, and the one who now chooses to fan the flames.

“Whoever decided to separate us succeeded in desecrating this holy day with coercion and gratuitous hatred,” Gantz wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“For 75 years, a large majority of Israelis managed to reach agreements on the public space on Yom Kippur so that it would be adjusted according to each community,” Gantz wrote. “For 75 years, communities managed to respect each other despite their differences, and did not bring politics into Yom Kippur.”

On the right, Yair Netanyahu, the premier’s son, likened the incident to a pogrom, writing in a Facebook post: “Leftists go wild against praying Jews (secular and religious, by the way) on Yom Kippur, and then justify this violence and blame their victims. This is reminiscent of how antisemites in Europe would blame the Jews after committing pogroms against them.”

Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party, decried what he called the “haters who tried to expel Judaism from the public sphere,” and said that he would hold evening prayers in the square on Thursday, likely setting off a showdown between the sides if women attend the services.

Huldai insisted that no gender barriers would be allowed at the gathering.

Past disputes

In the past, such disputes were typically worked out to soften the religious-secular divide that has always existed in Israel.

One of the earliest such examples was the debate over whether to insert the word “God” in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In the end the phrase “Rock of Israel” was employed, leaving everyone free to decide whether this was God or collective Jewish wisdom.

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