Yom Kippur prayers divide Israelis in Tel Aviv | ET REALITY


Yom Kippur, the most solemn and sacred date in the Jewish calendar, is typically a day of unity for Israeli Jews. Roads empty, shops close and transportation networks shut down, while non-observant Jews show respect to the devout by avoiding work and driving.

But that social cohesion collapsed this year. Clashes broke out on the streets of Tel Aviv as religious Jews attempted to organize Yom Kippur prayers in which men and women were encouraged to pray separately, angering residents of the mainly secular city.

The clashes shocked Israelis of all backgrounds, and the consequences still reverberate, leaving many prepared for similar clashes in the coming days, with more Jewish holidays falling this weekend and next. On Thursday, Tel Aviv City Hall canceled the permit for another outdoor religious event this weekend, citing the possibility of public disorder.

Far-right security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said he would hold his own segregated prayer meeting at the same location on Thursday night, before backing down. Mr. Ben-Gvir’s critics went ahead with a mixed prayer service nearby, in what was intended to be a counter-protest.

Yair Lapid, an opposition leader and secular Tel Aviv resident, said religious activists had “decided to bring war to us.” And President Isaac Herzog warned that social divisions represented “a real danger to Israeli society and the security of the State of Israel.”

The confrontation in Tel Aviv highlighted the huge – and growing – divisions between many religious and secular Israelis, which have been exacerbated by the political turmoil that has gripped the country since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition took power at the end of last year.

It was the latest example of how his government’s polarizing campaign to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court has evolved into a broader, existential dispute over the role of Judaism in the public life of the Jewish state.

For secular Israelis, the court is a guarantor of their rights. The effort to weaken it has been driven in part by religious coalition lawmakers who are simultaneously trying to promote greater clerical involvement in society, including a plan to expand the role of rabbis at lower levels of the judicial system.

That has left secular Israelis feeling increasingly vulnerable, so they have been protesting not only the changes to the court but also other threats to their way of life and freedoms. There has been a spate of reports, for example, of incidents in which religious drivers and passengers forced women to sit separately from men on public transportation.

The specific trigger for the clashes in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, which unfolded from Sunday afternoon to Monday night, was a prayer ceremony in Dizengoff Square, a square that for many secular Israelis embodies the cosmopolitan heart. of the most secular city in the country.

Religious Jews have organized mass prayers there at the beginning of each Yom Kippur since 2020. In the past, organizers have gently, though not strictly or even successfully, encouraged a separation between men and women, in accordance with Orthodox Jewish custom. , and with few objections from secular residents, attendees say.

But with emotions especially high this year, the ceremony drew unusual scrutiny and opposition from secular activists. The Tel Aviv municipality, led by secular politicians, banned the construction of barriers to divide men and women at the event, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court.

To avoid the ban, organizers hung a row of Israeli flags from a wire stretched across the square. It was a symbolic nod towards gender separation and was allowed by police because, in practice, it did not work as a barrier.

Organizers said their goal had not been to impose religious practice on secular Jews, but to make Orthodox Jews feel more comfortable participating in a ceremony aimed at a less observant part of the population.

“No one was forced in any way to be separated,” said Dikla Partoosh, a television producer who helped organize the event. “The separation was there for the people who wanted it,” he said.

But for critics of the event, the background of the group that organized it, Rosh Yehudi, raised suspicions. The group is part of a growing number of right-wing movements, many with roots in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, whose members have moved en masse to secular cities, or those with large Arab minorities, with the declared intention of make society more Jewish.

Tel Aviv, Rosh Yehudi leader Israel Zeira, said in a broadcast interviewIt is one of several cities where “it is possible to revolutionize the people of Israel.”

When members meet someone from the “secular world,” Mr. Zeira saying in a separate video interview, “you have to think in your head: How are you changing it? How are you fixing it? How do you become friends with him, not only for the purpose of friendship, but also for the purpose of influence?

It is statements like this that led secular Israelis to interrupt Rosh Yehudi members as they began to gather at sundown on Sunday and, ultimately, to suspend prayers.

“Their religious coercion will not pass!” shouted a secular woman, in an exchange captured on video.

“Why come here and impose this on us?” shout a secular man. “You are a disgrace to Judaism!”

For worshipers, the booing was “extremely painful and heartbreaking,” said Ms. Partoosh, the organizer. “I never imagined that people would have the audacity and extreme insensitivity to do something like this on the holiest day of the Jewish year,” she said.

Hila Tov, one of the people who obstructed the prayers, said the protest was a long-awaited intervention against a progressive takeover of public space.

“They say we are brothers, that we should know each other, that we should pray together, that we are all Jews,” said Tov, owner of a left-wing media company.

But secular Jews don’t see it simply as a matter of an annual Yom Kippur prayer event.

“We know that their intention was not that: they really come to occupy our territory,” Tov said.

Ms Tov said: “We closed our eyes all these years and allowed them to do some things under the title of pluralism and democracy. But you played it in an ugly way and took it to new and ugly places.”

The clashes made clear the stark divisions in Israeli society. Three separate polls independently commissioned by Israel’s three largest broadcasters found that nearly half of Israelis supported the concept of gender separation during prayer, with 34 to 42 percent opposed.

But among both sides, there were many who criticized their own side’s actions: some religious Jews warned against using prayer as a provocation, and some secular Jews criticized the confrontational approach of secular activists.

Above all, the situation raised alarm about the cohesion of Israeli society.

“Historians and leaders will look back at these days 50 years from now and see the terrible toll this rupture exacted from us,” President Herzog said in a speech.

And those historians will ask, Herzog said, “How did they not understand the magnitude of the danger and the depth of the abyss? After all, it was right in front of their eyes.”

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