Before Rosh Hashanah, my Israeli aunt—who is not particularly observant—told me that my son should wear a baseball cap rather than a kippah if he planned to visit Tel Aviv during an upcoming trip to Israel. I took her comment in the playful spirit in which I believed it was intended. Only after the events of the last several weeks did I realize it was more serious than that.
Earlier this month, Tel Aviv police were called to protect Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, head of a military preparatory academy in Samaria. According to reports, protestors gathered around him shouting, “Go away, fascist. Go back to the settlements. You don’t belong in this place.”
Levenstein was in Tel Aviv to meet with Israel Zaira—head of Rosh Yehudi, an organization tasked with fostering engagement between Israeli youth and Judaism—to discuss the Tel Aviv municipality’s decision to bar Rosh Yehudi from holding its traditional Yom Kippur service in the city’s center.
After Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the municipality’s ruling that prohibited gender-segregated prayer on Yom Kippur in Dizengoff Square, Rosh Yehudi, along with a cohort of religious Jews, sought to find a workaround by erecting a barrier made of Israeli flags during Sunday’s Kol Nidrei prayers. It wasn’t long before hundreds of demonstrators descended on the service and surrounded the worshippers. Some protesters hurled insults and attempted to tear down the makeshift barrier.
Rather than revisit its previous judgement, the Tel Aviv municipality doubled down last week and rescinded Rosh Yehudi’s permits to hold public gatherings on Sukkot.
All of this underscores the antagonism an increasingly vocal secular left feels towards religious Israelis. It also debunks the claim that such resentments are driven by haredi reluctance to serve in the IDF or secular suspicions of their isolationism. On the contrary, many who went to the Dizengoff Square prayer service were modern Orthodox Jews, who comprise a hefty percentage of IDF officers.
The chaos that erupted on Yom Kippur is part of a pattern in which Tel Aviv officials prevent Orthodox Jews from engaging in traditional public prayer while allowing Muslims to do so. For example, the Tel Aviv municipality permitted a large gender-segregated Eid al-Fitr event to proceed last April. It did so just days after denying Jewish requests to hold a gender-segregated event commemorating Israel’s 75th Independence Day. For some, an endless reserve of tolerance runs dry when it involves Orthodox Jews.
It bears mentioning that the Dizengoff Square protesters likely felt emboldened by the Israelis and Americans protesting in New York against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Thousands of Jews bridging the divide between Israel and the Diaspora via shared resistance may have given Israelis back home the ideological will to come together against traditional prayer gatherings.
No longer confined to blocking traffic on Israel’s highways, Israelis visiting New York could now march alongside well-known American activists like Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, a left-wing group that perpetuates falsehoods about Israeli “occupation.” The U.S. rallies marked the unification of the Jewish left in Israel and the Diaspora, giving the Israeli left a path towards new provocations.
Ironically, left-wing secular elites bash Netanyahu’s right-religious coalition but reacted with indifference or excitement when the anti-Zionist Ra’am Party joined the Bennett-Lapid government in 2021. Ra’am has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, with its charter maintaining that Zionism is a “racist, occupying power.” It also has decidedly unsavory positions on issues dear to the left, such as LGBT rights. That did not deter several Jewish groups from hailing Ra’am’s inclusion in the government. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, for example, stated, “This new government proudly reflects Israel’s broad and diverse societal makeup.” The Israeli and American left have never granted Israel’s religious parties the same benefit of the doubt.
Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik’s new book Providence and Power: Ten Portraits in Jewish Statesmanship opens with a chapter on King David. It contains several paragraphs on the cherished 1967 photograph of three Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall after Israel reunited Jerusalem, particularly Yitzhak Yifat, the central figure in the picture, who stares up longingly towards the Temple Mount.
Soloveitchik writes, “We do not always feel God’s presence as David did. But the photograph’s fame suggests that many Jews, deep down in the recesses of their souls, do still long to see a world infused by that presence.”
Let’s hope that those who disrupted last Sunday’s prayer service in Tel Aviv acknowledge that upholding Israel’s religious character is essential to preserving it as a Jewish and democratic state.