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Yom Kippur public prayer disrupted by protests against gender segregation

TJI Wrap
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Yom Kippur public prayer disrupted by protests against gender segregation

Published: 29 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Hundreds of protesters prevented the holding of the Kol Nidre prayer in central Tel Aviv on Sunday after organisers attempted to separate men and women for the service.

Similar scenes occurred in public spaces across Israel as religious groups defied a Supreme Court order allowing municipalities to forbid gender-segregated events.

The conflict on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar has shocked Israelis across the political spectrum, with President Isaac Herzog  describing it as “a shocking and painful example of how the internal struggle within us is escalating and becoming extreme.”

“I know that I speak for the absolute majority of Israeli citizens when I express deep sorrow and shock at the sight of our own people fighting one another on a day that has always been a symbol of unity,” he said.

“How did we get to this terrible situation, in which 50 years after that bitter war, sisters and brothers stand on opposite sides of the divide? Those who pour fuel onto this fire are a real threat to Israeli unity. It has to stop here and now. The division, the polarisation, the never-ending disputes — they are a true danger to Israeli society and to the security of the State of Israel.”

The skirmishes began when Rosh Yehudi, an Orthodox religious group, defying a municipality order backed up by the Supreme Court, set up an improvised gender divider for Yom Kippur prayers in Dizengoff Square.  Liberal residents mounted angry protests that ended up thwarting the entire prayer service. Similar events, and similar protests, took place in public spaces across the country.

The municipality said organisation had violated the terms of the permit it was given to hold public prayers by using physical means for gender segregation, in violation of municipal policy. It has since revoked the permits it previously gave Rosh Yehudi to hold events in the city's public space during Sukkot, which starts on Friday.

Worshippers and protesters in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square, on Sunday (Tomer Appelbaum)
Worshippers and protesters in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square, on Sunday (Tomer Appelbaum)

Protest leaders released a statement distancing themselves from the action. “We’re all pained by the events on Yom Kippur … We won’t assume the role of the police or the courts even when the heart is anguished, and especially not on Yom Kippur, the day that unites us all,” they said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to X (formerly Twitter) on Monday to denounce those demonstrating against the gender-segregated events. “To our astonishment, it was precisely in the Jewish state, on the holiest day for the Jewish people, that left-wing protesters rioted against Jews at their prayers.

“It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms, and no limit to hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like the majority of Israeli citizens, reject this. There is no place for such violent behaviour among us,”  Netanyahu wrote.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir responded with a plan to hold a gender-segregated prayer service in Tel Aviv on Thursday but cancelled the event after widespread criticism, including from inside the government.

Prominent writer Yossi Klein Halevi wrote that the scenes of Jews shutting down Jewish prayer in a Jewish state were unbearable.  

“Something elemental has been desecrated in our shared Israeliness, and Yom Kippur has forced us to face ourselves,” Halevi wrote.

But he noted that the religious group which attempted to set up a (gender barrier in liberal heartland did not come to pray as much as to demonstrate a presence and to challenge the authority of the court.  

“In past years, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur was a model of tolerance. There was no secular outrage against a mechitzah in the streets. What changed this year is the government’s war against liberal Israelis, who are fighting for the survival of their Israel, their ability to continue living in this country. This year a public mechitzah in Tel Aviv was especially provocative, given the growing phenomenon of women being pushed to the back of the bus – metaphorically and sometimes literally – around the country. I wish the protesters had resisted the provocation of Rosh Yehudi, but I understand their desperation.”

Protesters prevent gender-segregated prayers from being held in public across Israel (Haaretz)  

Herzog on Yom Kippur prayer clashes: Polarisation a ‘true danger to Israeli society’ (Times of Israel)

Facing wave of pressure, Ben-Gvir cancels planned Tel Aviv prayer rally (Times of Israel)

The state of our brokenness (Yossi Klein Halevi, Times of Israel)
Something elemental has been desecrated in our shared Israeliness, and Yom Kippur has again forced us to face ourselves

The war for the future of Judaism in Israel has begun (Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz)  
The assault of Netanyahu’s Jewish fundamentalist government on democracy and every value of liberal Israel has also brought with it a culture war, a war over the Jewish identity of every Israeli Jew, and it will be exceptionably ugly

Protest against gender-segregated prayer on Yom Kippur fractures Israel's protest movement (Ravit Hecht, Haaretz)
No matter your opinion about the sights from Yom Kippur and who is responsible for them – there is no disputing that the protest's shift to the matter of prayer, and the images of scuffles between secular and religious people, all serve Benjamin Netanyahu first and foremost.

Almost 40% of Israelis contemplating emigrating in judicial reform protest (Jerusalem Post)
The number of Israelis intending to emigrate underscores the deepening crisis within Israel and raises questions about the nation's resilience, according to the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Court demands answers on chief rabbi's hate speech against LGBTQ, Reform Jews (Jerusalem Post)
The Jerusalem chief rabbi has blamed earthquakes on LGBTQ people and called Reform Jews "evil people."

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