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Prayer vs. Provocation: Why Israelis Fought on Yom Kippur

It’s a discourse of people who live in parallel universes: those who regard what happened as an enraging sabotage of a Yom Kippur prayer, and those who regard it as a provocation masquerading as a Yom Kippur prayer.
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September 26, 2023
Screenshot from YouTube

There are two ways to interpret what happened on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel. The first leads to condemnation, and perhaps to shock. The second leads to understanding, and perhaps to empathy.

It is appropriate to give these two ways proper names:

First way: Jews interfered with Jewish prayer.

Second way: Jews interfered with a Jewish demonstration.

That’s the whole story. It is a story of a discourse of people who live in parallel universes. The universe of those who regard what happened as an enraging sabotage of a Yom Kippur prayer – and the universe of those who regard what happened as a provocation masquerading as a Yom Kippur prayer.

What is the essence of the story? As Yom Kippur began, fighting broke out in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, as some worshipers, who were there to hold a public Kol Nidrei prayer, erected partitions to separate men and women, which the Tel Aviv municipality and the Court had banned. Protesters pulled down the partitions and removed the chairs that were set up for the prayer. The service was off.

Was this a disruption of prayer, or a counter demonstration? There will be no agreement on this question, but this is the question to ask. On the eve of Yom Kippur a considerable number, perhaps a majority of those who came to the public square, wanted to have a quiet prayer. They did not come for a demonstration. The interruption to their prayer is saddening. The tears some of them shed were real.

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At the same time, the public prayer was initiated by a certain organization, Rosh Yehudi (A Jewish Head). This is an activist group, that is well financed, well connected to the current government – and has an agenda. It has a cohesive platform that it is trying to promote, the goal of which is the reshaping of Israeli society to become more religious, more conservative, more Orthodox. Therefore, its every action, certainly when it takes place in the public space, is also a political action, like a demonstration. True, it is a demonstration that takes the form of a prayer, and also serves as a prayer for many of those who attend. But as far as the organization is concerned, this is what a demonstration looks like.

This is a demonstration for which the Tel Aviv municipality grants a license, because there is no reason to withhold a license from a demonstration. But the license is given under certain conditions, which the organizers are supposed to meet. This year, they weren’t going to meet them. Why? Because had they complied with them, the essence of the demonstration would have been eliminated. The whole purpose of the event is to celebrate Orthodoxy in the heart of secular Tel Aviv. So a mechitza (partition between men and women) is a must.

The ones who were supposed to enforce the rules were the municipal inspectors, but the mayor, Ron Huldai, did not send them, which was an error of judgment on his part. So, Tel Aviv residents ended up doing the enforcement. And yes – it did not look pretty. And yes, in general, it is not good for civilians to assume the role of law enforcement. Alas, in Israel’s current atmosphere, relying on the patience of civilians is not a wise idea. There is no patience left in Israel, nor tolerance.

There is no patience left in Israel, nor tolerance.

In such circumstances, it is wiser to prevent provocations, and as sad as this might sound, a prayer arranged by a staunchly Orthodox, rightwing, missionary organization in a central Tel Aviv square is a provocation. It is a prayer, yes, but also a provocation. Just imagine a parallel situation and you will easily see that this is the case: Imagine a fictitious organization “Progressive Head” trying to hold a mixed gender Yom Kippur prayer in the city square in Bnei Brak, or in the center of the settlement Eli. Would it be quiet? Or would it be clear to everyone that this is a provocation—one that ought to be prevented?

The only serious claim of Rosh Yehudi and their supporters is that of tradition: they have been holding this public prayer without interruption in previous years. If these were normal days such a claim would have merit. But not these days. Why? Because the main feature of Israel’s current upheaval is the disturbance of old traditions. Those who fight to cancel the tradition of “seniority” in the Supreme Court (the justice with most years on the bench gets to be Chief Justice), those who legislated to upend the legal tradition of “reasonableness” in public policy, are just two examples out of many. These are the allies of Rosh Yehudi, their supporters, and for them to complain about undermining traditions is hardly convincing.

You might say: But this is not about legal reform or religious legislation – this is about prayer!

And I’d say: You see a prayer, others see a provocation.

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