July 13, 2024

Yom Kippur, the most solemn and sacred date on the Jewish calendar, is usually a day of unity for Jewish Israelis. Highways empty, shops close and transport networks shut down, as nonobservant Jews show respect to the devout by avoiding work and driving.

But that social cohesion collapsed this year. Confrontations broke out on the streets of Tel Aviv as religious Jews tried 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 fallout is still reverberating, leaving many braced for similar standoffs in the coming days, with more Jewish holidays falling this weekend and next. On Thursday, the Tel Aviv City Council canceled permission for another outdoor religious event this weekend, citing the possibility of public disorder.”

The far right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he would hold his own segregated prayer meeting on the same spot on Thursday evening, before backing down. Critics of Mr. Ben-Gvir Jews went ahead with a mixed prayer service nearby, in what had been intended as a counterprotest.

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

The confrontation in Tel Aviv underlined the vast — and widening — rifts between many religious and secular Israelis, which have been exacerbated by the political turmoil that has gripped the country since the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took power late last year.

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

To secular Israelis, the court is a guarantor of their rights. The effort to weaken it has been partly driven 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, and so they have been protesting not just the changes at the court but also other threats to their lifestyle and freedoms. There has been a rush of reports, for example, of incidents like women being forced by religious drivers and passengers to sit separately from men on public transport.

The specific trigger for the confrontations in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, which ran from Sunday evening until Monday night, was a prayer ceremony in Dizengoff Square, a plaza that to many secular Israelis embodies the cosmopolitan heart of the country’s most secular city.

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

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

To work around the ban, the organizers hung a line of Israeli flags from a wire hanging across the plaza. It was a symbolic nod toward gender separation, and was permitted by the police because, in practice, it did not function as a barrier.

The organizers said their goal had not been to force religious practice onto secular Jews, but to make Orthodox Jews feel more comfortable about participating in a ceremony geared toward a less observant part of the population.

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

But for critics of the event, the background of the group that organized it, Rosh Yehudi, aroused suspicion. 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 to those with large Arab minorities, with the stated intention of making society more Jewish.

Tel Aviv, Rosh Yehudi’s leader, Israel Zeira, said in a broadcast interview, 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 said in a separate video interview, “you need to be thinking in your head: How you are changing him? How are you fixing him? How are you making friends with him, not only for the purpose of friendship, but for the purpose of influence?”

It is statements like this that led secular Israelis to heckle Rosh Yehudi’s members as they began to gather at sundown on Sunday and, ultimately, to halt the prayers.

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

“Why come here and stick it to us?” shouted a secular man. “You are a disgrace to Judaism!”

For the worshipers, the heckling was “extremely painful and heartbreaking,” said Ms. Partoosh, the organizer. “I never imagined that people would have the audacity and the extreme lack of sensitivity to do such a thing 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-overdue intervention against a creeping takeover of public space.

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

But secular Jews do not see it as merely a matter of an annual prayer event for Yom Kippur.

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

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

The clashes made clear the sharp divides in Israeli society. Three separate polls commissioned independently by Israel’s three biggest broadcasters found that nearly half of Israelis supported the concept of gender separation during prayer, with between 34 and 42 percent opposing it.

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

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

“Historians and leaders will look at these days 50 years from now, at the terrible price that this rift exacted from us,” President Herzog said in a speech.

And those historians will ask, Mr. 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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