columnJewish Diaspora

The dark side of Israel’s ‘democracy’ debate comes out into the open

The disruption of a public Orthodox prayer service in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur cannot be excused. But it should be also understood as part of a political and cultural conflict.

Activists protest against gender segregation (the sign in Hebrew can be translated as“Enough with the sanctification”) in the public space during a prayer on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 25, 2023. Photo by Itai Ron/Flash90.
Activists protest against gender segregation (the sign in Hebrew can be translated as“Enough with the sanctification”) in the public space during a prayer on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 25, 2023. Photo by Itai Ron/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Explaining the lifestyles and religious practices of American Jews to Israelis (and vice versa) has its challenges. While many in the United States still seem to think of it as a 51st state, or, in recent years—thanks to the election victories of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the popularity of former President Donald Trump there—as a “red state,” Israel is nothing of the kind. There are shared values and a strong affinity between the two nations based on history and faith that make them natural allies. Events in Tel Aviv during Yom Kippur this year, however, demonstrated that the gap between these countries and their people when it comes to understanding about faith and rights can seem as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

Simply put, it is hard to imagine Americans on either the right or the left regarding the attack on a public prayer service in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square as remotely defensible, no matter the context. Nor could they accept that a municipal ban on gender separation at a public event—even a religious service—could be considered legal by a Supreme Court that is supposedly dedicated to the protection of individual rights, since, by definition, such a regulation constituted a ban on public prayer by Orthodox Jews.

The First Amendment protections of speech and free exercise of religion that Americans have generally always taken for granted make such things unimaginable in the United States.

But in Israel, the prayer service on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar in the center of largely (though not exclusively) secular Tel Aviv was somehow considered a “provocation” aimed at allegedly intimidating secular liberals. Non-religious Israelis are no more threatened by Jews praying in their vicinity than are religious Jews by those who might choose to violate the Sabbath or go for a picnic at the beach on the Day of Atonement. In a free country, it ought to be a given that people are allowed to live as they choose so long as they do not interfere with the practices of others.

Yet Opposition Leader Yair Lapid jumped at the opportunity to signal to his secular voter base that he, too, was offended by Jews praying in Dizengoff in the traditional manner and characterized the prayer service as the work of “messianists” who were “bringing war” to Israel’s most liberal city.

As it happens, the service, which is sponsored by a religious outreach group, has been held in that spot every year since the COVID-19 pandemic because of the fear of praying in enclosed spaces. But after nine months of weekly protests against the Netanyahu government’s efforts to pass judicial reform legislation, the line between the rhetoric about preserving democracy from “a tyranny of the majority”—i.e., the largely Mizrachi, religious and nationalist voters who delivered a clear majority of the Knesset to Netanyahu and his allies last November—and a culture war against those groups has been erased. The notion that the mere public practice of religion constitutes a coercive act that both gives offense and seeks to intimidate secular Jews seems, from an American perspective, to be both madness and a sign of intolerance that gives the lie to the protesters’ claim to be defending liberal values.

Still, there is context here that makes it slightly understandable.

Secular Jews can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that if ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem or in other cities can be considered “no-go” zones for those dressed or acting immodestly (by the standards of the observant) or not observing Shabbat, then why can’t Dizengoff be kept off-limits to public prayer.

By the same token, some Orthodox Jews believe that women praying in egalitarian services or in a manner that they considered reserved for men, but which is normative among the overwhelming majority of American Jews who are not Orthodox, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall is also a “provocation.” Is the violence and bullying that the Women of the Wall—whatever you might think of their beliefs—experience any better than the actions that took place in Dizengoff on Yom Kippur? And what about those instances when the space set aside for egalitarian prayer in Robinson’s Arch, away from the main Western Wall Plaza, is taken over by Orthodox worshippers who are intolerant of the non-Orthodox?

Clearly, both sides of this cultural and religious divide lack tolerance for their opponents, let alone a willingness to live and let live in spaces that they consider solely their turf.

In the short term, it may be that the only way to ensure that communal peace is a sort of status quo agreement is, in essence, to divide the country between “safe spaces” for prayer and others for secular Jews to enjoy “freedom from religion.” That is hardly a solution that would guarantee individual rights, but at least it would avoid appalling scenes like those that the world witnessed this week in Tel Aviv.

But that brings us back to the issue that is supposedly creating such turmoil and worries about the threats to “democracy”—the effort to rein in the out-of-control power of the Israeli Supreme Court.

The arguments most frequently heard against judicial reform proposals tend to rest on the following idea. Namely, without a Supreme Court with untrammeled power to intervene in virtually any dispute or any issue even without it being a question of interpreting the laws or solely on the basis of what the judges think is “reasonable,” that individual rights will be trampled by the Knesset and the executive branch.

That’s the rationale behind court rulings that guaranteed the right of the Women of the Wall to pray in a non-Orthodox manner at the Kotel, though the beneficiaries of their ruling have found it difficult to exercise it absent adequate protection from the police or a willingness on the part of the authority running the area to respect the decision.

But when it came to those who wished to pray in the traditional manner in Dizengoff, the very same court had no interest in defending the rights of the individual. In Tel Aviv, the prerogative of the municipality to enact a regulation that, for all intents and purposes, banned public Orthodox prayer was considered eminently “reasonable.”

At the Kotel, the rights of the individual or even a group to flout the traditions of the plaza, which treats the area as an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine, were treated as pre-eminent. Yet in Tel Aviv, the court made no bones about its belief that prohibiting any practice it considered inherently discriminatory, even if it is a normative religious practice in Israel where the non-Orthodox are a tiny minority, is more important than the rights of those practicing their faith.

Like so many other examples of the court’s activist practices that have enabled left-wing administrations while seeking to hamstring Netanyahu’s government with impunity, there is no consistency or really any principle on display in their conduct. This betrays the upsetting and demoralizing truth that rather than an objective defender of rights, the court is merely a juristocracy that acts as a bulwark of the secular left and its traditional Ashkenazi elitist base.

Those who care about Israel must hope that the disgusting images in which those crying democracy “defended” it by preventing people from praying, won’t be repeated. At this point, the notion that it is only a coercive religious right that threatens the freedoms of the non-religious and not the other way around can no longer be reasonably sustained.

Those who claim that Netanyahu is a proto-authoritarian for seeking to establish some checks on the power of the court need to think seriously about how the judiciary’s hypocrisy when it comes to supporting bans on public prayer undermines their case. Just as important, those who claim that those crying “democracy” are somehow defending a truly liberal cause must also rethink the valorization of a movement that seems more intent on suppressing their opponents than on defending individual rights.

Let’s hope that both the courts and Israelis on both sides of the political divide will treat the events in Tel Aviv as a reason to ratchet down their rhetoric and seek compromise rather than destroy their opponents. Those who love Israel and who are looking at these events from abroad should also realize that efforts to delegitimize Israel’s elected government are not as righteous a cause as they may have thought. In this context, their support for democracy may not mean what they think it does.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate) Follow him: @jonathans_tobin

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