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Ben Gvir, protesters plan rival Dizengoff prayer rallies, drawing broad rebuke

Activists from competing camps said Tuesday they would hold converging prayer services at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square this week, amid continuing fallout following confrontations that broke out there on Yom Kippur between secularists and observant Jews.

Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s announcement that he and other members of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party would pray on the square on Thursday afternoon prompted criticism by prominent members of his own right-wing bloc. A rival prayer event organized by Koach Kaplan and other protest movements also drew internal criticism as voices on both sides of the religious and political divide sought to lower tensions.

At the same time, Tel Aviv threatened to stop permitting events by the Orthodox group that had organized the Yom Kippur services, which devolved into loud protests and furious altercations on a day considered sacrosanct by most Israeli Jews.

The events are seen by some as fresh proof of the rippling effect of the societal conflict unleashed by the government’s judicial overhaul, which has spread to multiple areas of life and overlaps with divergent visions for the country’s character.

The Yom Kippur altercations on Sunday and Monday were sparked after organizers attempted to observe the segregation of men and women during prayer in accordance with the requirement of halachah, or Jewish Orthodox law.

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The Tel Aviv municipality forbade organizers from the Rosh Yehudi nonprofit from placing a physical barrier as they had done in previous street prayers that they have been organizing since 2020. The Supreme Court affirmed the municipality’s right to do so in a ruling over a petition filed by the organizers.

Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that states that it encourages greater adherence by Jews of halachah, installed a bamboo frame with Israeli flags hanging down from the top side, which they said satisfied halachah without violating the city’s rules.

Tel Aviv Mayor Run Huldai wrote on Facebook that the frame did violate the law, and while police did not remove the bamboo frame, angry protesters pulled it down and broke it apart as both sides exchanged angry words.

On Tuesday, the municipality sent Rosh Yehudi a letter specifying alleged violations of the permit for Yom Kippur prayers, adding that it is “considering” not authorizing future requests by Rosh Yehudi for permits for activities, Channel 12 news reported.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Israel Police event in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I say to those anarchists that tried to eject worshipers on Yom Kippur — I and my friends from Otzma Yehudit are coming on Thursday to the same spot, let’s see you try and eject us,” Ben Gvir said in a video posted Tuesday on X.

In seeming response, several groups that regularly organize protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government announced that they are also organizing a prayer event on Dizengoff Square at sunset on Thursday.

“Mass prayer on Dizengoff Square for democracy and the unity of Israel,” reads a banner for the event that several protest groups, including Koach Kaplan and Building an Alternative, shared on social media. The prayer, the banner states, would feature no sex segregation.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow. (Aryeh Katz)

Multiple prominent personalities from Ben Gvir’s religious-Zionist circles criticized his plan for a mass prayer.

Simcha Rothman, a lawmaker and one of the top stewards of the government’s judicial overhaul, called Ben Gvir’s actions “unwanted.” Rothman wrote on X that the “response to the extremist, vociferous progressive minority that does not want a Jewish state here is not through a counter-provocation that would further enflame hatred,” Rothman wrote on X.

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich said Ben Gvir was “playing into the hands of Koach Kaplan,”adding that “we don’t need unnecessary battles,” Channel 12 news reported.

Ohad Tal, another lawmaker from the Religious Zionism party allied with Otzma Yehudit, called on Ben Gvir to cancel the event. “Prayer should not be a battleground, period,” Tal wrote on X.

Israel Zeira, head of Rosh Yehudi, an Orthodox group, speaks with police officers as the group sets up a gender divider, amid protests, during a Yom Kippur public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

While both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid shot off statements decrying the secular protesters and religious group respectively Monday night, both appeared to seek to lower the friction on Tuesday.

Hebrew media reports quoted Netanyahu saying that “after what happened in Tel Aviv, the most important thing is to lower the flames. Therefore, I expect all leaders to act responsibly.” The statement did not mention Ben Gvir by name.

Lapid called on the public to ignore Ben Gvir’s prayer rally. “I urge everyone to ignore Ben Gvir’s ‘prayer’ on Thursday at the Square. Leave him alone there. There’s no greater punishment for him,” Lapid wrote on Facebook.

Lapid also wrote in the same post that “the sights we saw on Dizengoff Square must not repeat themselves. One of the things that Yom Kippur signifies is assuming responsibility. If you only say ‘they started it,’ then Yom Kippur is no atonement.”

Israel Zeira, the founder of the Rosh Yehudi group, also sought to distance himself from Ben Gvir, widely considered a firebrand with a penchant for high-profile media stunts.

“It appears to associate us with Ben Gvir, when this is not true at all,” he told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “We don’t hold prayers as a political statement, it’s not our way and we don’t agree with this,” added Zeira.

File: Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai speaks during a protest march as part of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Tel Aviv, November 24, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai instructed police to make sure that Ben Gvir’s prayer event doesn’t feature sex segregation, Haaretz reported.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, an influential Modern-Orthodox rabbi who heads the Orot Shaul yeshiva in Tel Aviv, said he is “always against using prayer as a political tool” when asked about Ben Gvir’s plan.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians in Netanyahu’s coalition also criticized Ben Gvir for seeking to score political points with a prayer rally.

The plan by Koach Kaplan and other anti-government groups to make the protest against Ben Gvir into a prayer service also drew flak from secularists.

Shoham Smith protests against sex-segregated prayer in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

“The fact that Koach Kaplan and others need to label their protest a prayer, it’s self-effacement and I find it difficult to watch,” Shoham Smith, an author who opposes sex-segregated prayer and Ben Gvir’s planned event, told The Times of Israel.

Elnathan Weissert, a Hebrew University lecturer on The Bible and the Ancient Near East, wrote on Facebook: “Dear protest people, you’re losing your marbles and get dragged into the silliest, most hypocritical position imaginable.”

The protests over the Yom Kippur prayer service largely dovetailed with concerns from activists that the government’s judicial overhaul program will lead to diminishing religious freedoms and increased tolerance for Orthodox coercion in the public sphere. The overhaul would significantly weaken courts’ ability to block, among other things, legislation and policies that allegedly don’t align with Western democratic values on religious freedoms.

Supporters of the overhaul say it enhances democratic principles by giving more power to accountable officials at the expense of a secular elite they say dominates a judiciary and bureaucracy that are not sufficiently representative of the majority.