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The Yom Kippur divide

Perhaps the fragile truce between religious and secular Israelis cannot hold any longer.

Jews pray while activists protest against gender segregation during a public prayer at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Itai Ron/Flash90.
Jews pray while activists protest against gender segregation during a public prayer 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.

This Yom Kippur, one of my favorite songs came to mind, and it was not a happy occasion. Each year on the holiday, I take the opportunity to walk in a carless Tel Aviv. This time, I found myself returning home via Dizengoff Street.

I knew there was a controversial prayer service set to take place in Dizengoff Square. Amidst the ongoing clash over the government’s judicial reform campaign, it had become a flashpoint.

Some activists opposed it because of the planned mechitzah, which technically violates laws against gender segregation in public spaces. Others felt it was a deliberate provocation in an avowedly secular city. For others, I imagine there was no specific reason, only the desire to confront social forces they see as increasingly oppressive.

What I found threw me into a funk for several hours: The prayer session had been stopped by a group of activists. There was no violence, but religious and secular Israelis were milling around locked in heated argument. They were talking over and around each other, neither really listening. In the end, I simply walked away, depressed to witness such a spectacle on Yom Kippur, of all days.

Later, after the holiday ended, I read that violence did break out at a similar event on Sunday night. I was not surprised.

As I made my way home, I could think only of country singer Merle Haggard’s legendary song “Are the Good Times Really Over.” It is a lamentation on America’s malaise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Haggard singing,

Are we rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell?

With no kind of chance for the flag or the Liberty Bell?

Wish a Ford and a Chevy

Would still last ten years like they should

Is the best of the free life behind us now?

Are the good times really over for good?

I wondered whether the divide I had witnessed raised the same question: Are the good times over for good? Is this how Israeli life is going to be from now on? Have we become two tribes that cannot live together?

I thought of a comment a friend of mine once made when I mentioned the possibility that Israel might become a theocracy.

“We won’t become a theocracy,” he said, “because we care a lot about being Jewish, but we also care a lot about our freedoms, and we’ll fight for them if we have to.”

This appears to be what is happening now. A large minority of Israelis—perhaps a small majority—feel that their freedoms are under threat, and they are prepared to fight for them. They believe this threat is fundamentally a religious one, and they are no longer prepared to tolerate illiberal religious practices in a city they consider their own.

At the same time, their rivals believe that their right to practice Orthodox Judaism in a public space is being impeded.

Both sides see the other as engaged in malicious provocation. Both sides might be right.

I can do nothing but lament that it has come to this. I am a secular man and will remain so. At the same time, I try not to work on Shabbat. I do not eat pork or shellfish. I live in Israel, speak Hebrew, have read the major texts, studied Torah with Rashi’s commentary and hold two degrees in Jewish history. I think this counts for something. To many religious people, it doesn’t. To many secular people, I have already conceded too much to the other side.

I imagine that, in my ambivalence, I am not alone. I believe and hope that most Israelis do not want religious law imposed on them, but also do not want religion banished from the public sphere. For many years, a fragile but persistent truce along these lines has held. I do not know if it can hold any longer.

If the culture war comes in full, I will stand with the secular, because I have no other choice. I care about my Judaism, but also about my freedoms. If somebody says I can have one but not the other, I will have to oppose them. But I will take no satisfaction in it. Something terribly important will have been lost.

For me, any optimism to be had came from the final, defiant refrain of Haggard’s song:

Stop rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell

Stand up for the flag and let’s all ring the Liberty Bell

Let’s make a Ford and a Chevy

That’ll still last ten years like they should

’Cause the best of the free life is still yet to come

The good times ain’t over for good

I take comfort in the fact that in the end, America did stop rolling downhill. It reversed its decline, revitalized its economy, won the Cold War and emerged more powerful and prosperous than at any other time in its history.

One hopes Israel will do the same, and perhaps this is the more likely scenario. But we are in the whirlwind now and nothing is certain.

Haggard proved to be right about another country at another time. I hope he’s right about this country this time.

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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