The scene was surreal and heartbreaking. It desecrated the holiest day of the Jewish year. And it epitomized the deep unrest, resentment and rage that is tearing Israel apart. The disturbing confrontation played out in downtown Tel Aviv in the famed Dizengoff Square, on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The event was an Orthodox Kol Nidre service — a religious event that has occurred annually for several years in the heart of Israel’s largest, mainly secular city. It was run by an organization named Rosh Yehudi, which seeks to introduce religious practice to the secular population.
As part of its planned prayer service, Rosh Yehudi arranged for a portion of Dizengoff Square to be gender-separated by a makeshift “mechitza” or divider, constructed from poles draped with Israeli flags. Rosh Yehudi chose to separate men and women in its service notwithstanding a city ruling which was upheld in the courts that no gender-separated events could take place in public venues in the city, including in Dizengoff Square.
The gender-separated event outraged secular protesters — including many from the mass protest movement that has mounted weekly demonstrations against the government for the past nine months — who stormed the service, chanted “Shame! Shame!” and sought to forcibly dismantle the offending mechitza. What followed was an ugly confrontation between those seeking to pray and those bent on protesting, complete with disturbing accusations and epithets. The police intervened. The services were halted. And Rosh Yehudi left the area.
Reactions were predictable. Political leaders on Israel’s right decried the senseless desecration of the holiest day of the Jewish year, and leaders on the left were indignant over efforts by religious fundamentalists to impose religious practice on others and the violation of court rulings that prohibited the offending practice.
As is increasingly his role, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog sought to walk the middle path, saying: “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.”
Rosh Yehudi was wrong to arrange a gender-segregated prayer service in the public square after being told by the District Court and the Israeli Supreme Court that such activity is forbidden. At the same time, the protesters overstepped the bounds of civility and comity by taking matters into their own hands, physically disrupting Kol Nidre prayers and acting to “enforce” the court rulings. Nothing in the court rulings authorized the remedy of self-help. And no amount of righteous indignation justifies the intimidation and tyranny of mob rule.
For the protesters, their remedy was to seek police intervention to enforce the city regulations and court rulings. And for Rosh Yehudi and its supporters, after losing their court challenge there was no reason to add fuel to the already flaming civil unrest by ignoring the law under the guise of religious freedom.
Both sides need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether they really want to keep hurting themselves and those around them.