There was a confrontation in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening over public prayers in Dizengoff Square during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and Judaism’s holiest day. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the behavior of “left-wing extremists,” while Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz blamed religious Jews and accused Netanyahu of inciting popular violence for political reasons. There is more to the strife and hostility in Tel Aviv than just hatred of religious Jews and segregated prayers on Yom Kippur. Many fear that after Jerusalem, Tel Aviv will also be conquered. That’s what I hear from the residents of the coastal metropolis.
This reminds me of the Leonard Cohen song “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” I think you know it:
At the start of Yom Kippur on Sunday evening, clashes broke out in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv when religious Jews tried to put up partitions to separate men and women during the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Tel Aviv Municipality has banned segregation in public places and the Supreme Court had upheld that decision. The spontaneous announcement by religious Jews that services would be held segregated by gender, as in all synagogues, caused unrest among the Tel Aviv population on the holiest day of the year, forcing the Israeli police to intervene. Some groups petitioned the Tel Aviv courts to lift the ban on gender segregation, but the Supreme Court rejected those requests.
“We must learn our lessons and understand that domestic conflict is the most acute and dangerous threat to our people,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog in his speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. “Just yesterday, on this holy day, we saw a shocking and painful example of how the internal struggle is escalating and intensifying among our people.”
Netanyahu sharply criticized the behavior of the left: “To our surprise, left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews in the Jewish nation on the holiest Jewish day while they were praying. It seems as if there are no limits, no norms, no exceptions to hatred for left-wing extremists. Like most citizens of Israel, I reject this. There is no place for such violent behavior among us.”
Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted: “On Yom Kippur we saw haters trying to ban Judaism from public spaces. Israel is a Jewish and a democratic nation. On Thursday I will hold an evening service in the square. I invite everyone to attend.”
Others condemned the incident as an antisemitic attack on religious Jews.
While Netanyahu attacked the radical left-wing demonstrators, opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the national religious groups that want to establish so-called “messianic” Judaism in Tel Aviv. “The Orthodox ultra-nationalist core that has come to Tel Aviv has decided to wage war,” Lapid said, referring to religious nationalist groups that appear in secular and Arab cities and claim to promote Jewish values. “They try to tell us that there is only one version of Judaism, their version. They demand that in the name of tolerance, even in our neighborhood, they decide what is allowed and what is not.” Lapid noted that he himself goes to synagogue on Yom Kippur and that this day is an example of what Judaism is, and that it must not be enforced.
תל אביב ניצחה. הוברחו לבית הכנסת pic.twitter.com/eIV2D66rgu
— Shaul Greenfeld (@shaulig) September 24, 2023
The dispute over the separation of men and women was only a trigger. I understand the fears of the left-wing Tel Avivians who rebelled against segregated prayers on Yom Kippur, but not their behavior. As someone who grew up in Jerusalem, I see how Jerusalem has changed over the last five decades. Secular neighborhoods have transformed over the years into religious and then Orthodox neighborhoods, such as Rehavia, Bakaa, Givat Mordechai, the long Uziel Street in Ramat Sharret, Pisgat Zeev, and many other neighborhoods in the capital of Israel. Everything started small, with one or two families and a synagogue, then a mikveh, and that gradually attracted more and more religious Jews to the originally secular neighborhoods. For non-religious Jews, life in such an environment often becomes unpleasant, they move away and new residents move in, religious or Orthodox Jews. This is how Jerusalem has changed over the decades, and every Jerusalemite will attest to this. So one should not be surprised if secular Jews leave the capital and Jerusalem becomes an increasingly Orthodox city.
The Orthodox Jews cannot compromise with their prohibitions and commandments, but the secular Jews can. The Orthodox Jews themselves admit this. Not only that, they also admit that they want to slowly turn the holy city of Jerusalem into a religious city. I have often heard from Orthodox Jews that they want to conquer Jerusalem. Even the nearby town of Tzur Hadassah to the southwest of Jerusalem was founded essentially as a secular community. But over the past decade, more and more religious Jews have settled there, and two synagogues and a mikveh have been built. The town’s founders were against it, but the dynamics of the community are moving in a different direction. I know how much trouble this has caused there because I live only two kilometers away.
Secular Jews do not move to religious or Orthodox neighborhoods like Mea Shearim in Jerusalem or other Orthodox cities like Beitar Illit. It only happens the other way around. In Orthodox neighborhoods and cities, available housing is not sold to secular Jews. Not only that, in Orthodox neighborhoods and cities, apartments are often not sold or rented to Sephardic Jews if there is an Ashkenazi community in that neighborhood or city. This was the case, for example, in Beitar Illit, where I knew two Moroccan Orthodox Jews of who were turned away because of their Sephardic background.
In order to avoid the influx of religious and Orthodox Jews into cities or districts that were considered non-religious, Jewish Orthodox cities such as Beitar Illit, Elad or Modiin Illit were founded in Israel. This was intended to solve the problem: Orthodox Jews should live in these towns where they can practice their customs without imposing religious restrictions on others. The construction of another Orthodox city in the Negev was recently announced. When it’s finished, there will be space for 80,000 Orthodox Jews in the city of Tila. But that doesn’t solve the problem today.
The situation makes Tel Avivians anxious. They fear that the public prayers signal the start of a slow takeover of the city by religious Jews. But in my opinion, harassing religious Jews during their prayers on Yom Kippur is of course not justified. If Muslims had prayed in downtown Tel Aviv, the same left-wing Jews would certainly not have objected. No, the leftists wouldn’t have objected, but I can well imagine that the religious Jews who were themselves disrupted would have had something to say about Muslims praying in Dizengoff.
The country is changing and that is a fact. Both sides must find a middle ground to live together peacefully, preferably in their own communities. Unfortunately, cooperation often doesn’t work. And that’s why some people freaked out on Yom Kippur. That’s a shame, but in this case the extremists on both sides must be curbed in order to reestablish coexistence in these crazy times.
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