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Secular Israelis are mad as hell

A new compact between religious and secular Israelis must be forged, and soon.

A secular protester holds a sign reading "strictly secular" at a demonstration against a gender-segregated Yom Kippur prayer service at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Itai Ron/Flash90.
A secular protester holds a sign reading "strictly secular" at a demonstration against a gender-segregated Yom Kippur prayer service at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Itai Ron/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

During my first year in Israel, My girlfriend and I were taken by a tour guide to Mea She’arim, one of the most religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem. My girlfriend was dressed in a skirt and long sleeves, but her forearms were partially exposed. As we were walking back to the city center, a car pulled up next to us, a haredi man jumped out, jabbed at my girlfriend’s wrists and shouted, “What, you’re not modest?!”

Before I could fully absorb what was happening, the man leaped back in his car and drove away at twice the speed limit.

I was appalled. The man had his right to object, but no right to lay hands on a young woman (thus violating his own professed mores) and then dash off like a frightened mouse. If he had stood his ground and faced the consequences of his actions, I might have had a grudging respect for him, but he did not.

The next night, my girlfriend and I stood above the Western Wall plaza and watched a crowd of thousands welcome in Yom Kippur. The revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, by then well over 90, was officiating. He would whisper a prayer into a microphone, the hazzan would repeat it and the thousands would respond—a great roar of voices rising into the cool autumn air.

I realized at that moment the extraordinary nature of Israeli Judaism. Unlike the confined proceedings I had known back in the United States, these proceedings were epic, both in size and in history. Such a gathering was impossible anywhere else. The Jewish world, I felt, rotated on this axis.

I realized then that I loved this Judaism, as I had never loved and even hated the Judaism I had known in my youth. For that, my only sentiment is gratitude.

I recount these two experiences, which occurred within 36 hours of each other, to convey some measure of the ambivalence with which I—and many other Israelis—confront the immense and widening divide between religious and secular Israelis.

This divide was revealed in full on this year’s Yom Kippur, when a group of left-wing activists blocked an Orthodox missionary organization from holding a gender-segregated public prayer service in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square. I witnessed a small piece of the dispute—though not the violence that occurred on the holiday’s eve—and wrote shortly afterward that my only feeling was sadness. I felt I had seen two tribes arrayed against each other—a new Kingdom of Israel and a new Kingdom of Judah—with all the implications inherent therein.

The reaction to the incident was as divisive as the incident itself. The religious and their right-wing allies mostly denounced the activists as violent, oppressive thugs and even antisemites. The left defended the activists and attacked what they view as an increasingly powerful religious extremism that threatens Israeli liberalism and democracy.

I am a secular man and I admit that, while I do not approve of the activists’ decision to disrupt rather than simply protest the service, I do understand their sentiments. The reason should be obvious: I know from that unpleasant experience in Jerusalem (and others) that many religious Israelis are perfectly willing to impose their values and mores on others in a distinctly ugly manner. These values and mores are, moreover, often thoroughly illiberal and either indifferent to or outright hostile to democracy. For these particular religious Israelis to denounce secular Israelis for imposing their values and mores on others is blatant hypocrisy.

The response, I imagine, would be that the religious people who gathered at Dizengoff Square were not haredim, many of them live in Tel Aviv and they were not seeking to impose themselves on anyone. This is a legitimate counterargument, but the attempt should be made to understand that, for secular Israelis, it doesn’t matter. The gender-segregated service could not be other than a symbol that offended them as surely as my former girlfriend’s exposed forearms had offended that man. Like the religious Jews in Dizengoff Square, she had no desire to offend, but she was treated as if she did, for the same reasons.

But the issue goes even deeper than that. Put simply, secular Israelis are fed up. Right or wrong, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. They feel that, for decades, they have been asked to shoulder an unfair burden in army service and other areas of life, while their tax money is taken from them and given to religious people who hate them and consider them fake Jews. That may or may not be fully accurate, but it is how they feel and it must be faced.

Until now, an uncomfortable but stable social compact has been maintained: Secular Israelis would continue to tolerate a situation they disliked and, in return, the government would protect their basic freedoms against religious encroachment and maintain Israel’s character as an essentially secular liberal democracy.

In the eyes of secular Israelis, that compact has now been broken, and it was the religious who broke it. They see the government’s campaign for judicial reform as an attempt to breach secular Israel’s last line of defense—the Supreme Court—and impose a theocratic tyranny on them that they do not want and will not tolerate. The sense of betrayal is immense and the reflexive response to it is rage. In the face of this, the nuances of the Dizengoff prayer service simply disappear.

In fact, all the nuances disappear. It is useless to point out that most religious Israelis serve in the army or an alternative; that they and indeed many haredim do work and pay their fair share in taxes; that religious Israelis engage in social activism and charitable works that benefit all of us; that there is nothing inherently wrong with a Jewish state acknowledging that the great Torah scholars are a national treasure who should be supported by the state; and so on.

It is useless to point out any of this, because this has been coming for a very long time. It is based on resentments that are at least partially justified. Nothing is going to stop it now. Or, at least, nothing will stop it unless the government foregoes its judicial reform campaign and makes certain concessions to the secular population. There is no sign, however, that this will happen anytime soon.

I consider this, as I must, a tragedy. Yes, I have had ugly experiences with religion in Israel, but I have also had transcendent experiences like that night above the Western Wall. There were others as well: The beautiful anarchy of the Sephardi Yom Kippur service at the synagogue two doors down from my apartment building. The sight of hundreds of white-clad traditional Jews walking the streets of Beersheva after the breaking of the fast. My admiration for the stunning minds of men like Yosef, who was an acknowledged Torah genius before he was a teenager. The times I have leaned my forehead upon the Wall, placed my hands over my head to block out the sounds and sights, and entered another world. All of this counts for something.

If it is to continue to count for something, however, the Israeli right must put its own resentments aside and accept what is happening. They are the government, they are in power, it is their responsibility. Judaism’s public role should be maintained, but concessions must also be made. The judicial reforms must be either abandoned or substantially changed. Some solution to the haredi draft issue must be found, whether national service or something along similar lines. Part of the funds now subsidizing yeshivahs and settlements should be reallocated to subsidize housing, education, medical care and consumer staples for all Israelis. These alone would go a long way toward healing our wounds.

I hope I am not naive. I do not think the religious-secular divide will ever be fully bridged. The beliefs and values of the two communities are simply too different. But a consensus we can all live with is possible. For quite a long time, secular Israel was willing to tolerate the old consensus, but it is not willing to do so any longer. It may be partially right or partially wrong. It may be fair or unfair. It doesn’t matter. A new consensus needs to be forged and it is the responsibility of those in power to do so. The Dizengoff Square dispute should be the wake-up call they need: It is time to begin now.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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