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Showdown in Tel Aviv tomorrow evening

Protestors scuffle with Orthodox Jews during a Yom Kippur gender-segregated prayer service, Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Sept. 24, 2023. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In response to Sunday night’s planned Yom Kippur Eve prayer service, where secular and religious groups clashed as a result of dividers being erected to separate genders (despite a ruling by the High Court and municipality which banned them), National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir announced that he will hold an opposition prayer service on Thursday evening.

Ben Gvir's opposition prayer service, scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. in the very same location as the first, is intended to be a personal message from the minister, which he recorded in a video, stating: “I say to those anarchists, we, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) are coming on Thursday for evening prayers in that same place, and let’s see you try to remove us.” 

Following Sunday night’s confrontation, Tel Aviv mayor, Ron Huldai stated that “gender segregation, in the public sphere, goes against the city’s nature, and that he would not allow it, adding that anyone who couldn’t respect that tenet wouldn’t get municipal approval for events in the city’s public spaces.”

Consequently, in preparation for tomorrow’s showdown, the mayor has “sent a letter to Israel Police Tel Aviv District Commander Asst.-Chair Omer Peretz, telling him he expected the police to allow Ben-Gvir service only if it complied with municipal regulations.” 

Of course, this means that no one will be permitted to erect gender dividers, but that seems to be the whole point of having a do-over prayer meeting.

So, what will it mean if there is an attempt to separate men from women who seek to pray?

According to the mayor’s instructions, it means the police will have no choice but to prevent the meeting from happening. It means the police will be pitted against the religious who would defy a court ruling, yet again, as well as municipality instructions.  

It is not possible that Ben Gvir would not know all of this, since it has been well-publicized in the media, but is it also clear that any prayer service that would be conducted by Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit Orthodox political party would naturally include gender dividers, since that is the only way that their prayer is observed.

Given the very wide rift that has existed, since this ultra-religious, ideologically driven government has been in power, as well as the undeniable fact that the divide continues to grow and deepen, why would any government minister think that it is helpful, in any way, to have a showdown in order to make a statement of strength? If anything, such a provocation, especially with yet another attempt to erect barriers, will only serve to enflame passions on both sides and do nothing to advance any kind of healing process in a deeply split Israeli nation.

Even those, on the same political aisle as Ben Gvir recognize the folly of such a move. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself, said, “After the difficult incident in Tel Aviv, the most important thing is to work to calm the situation. Therefore, it is expected of all public leaders to be responsible and not do anything to make it worse.” 

Although falling short of clarifying his message, to be more specific by naming Ben Gvir and forbidding him to hold such a prayer service, it’s still unequivocal that he was referring to only one person who stubbornly wants this show of force. 

But that show of force comes with a price, and the price is the igniting of brother against brother. If the national security minister really cared about Israel’s security and well-being, which is the definition of his job, then he would abandon his need to try to pull rank on everyone and sacrifice his own ego and personal aspirations, which are not shared by a very large percentage of the population, in favor of advancing peace, brotherhood and Jewish unity.

Ben Gvir has revealed his hand by not preferring his fellow Jews over his own agenda, and now everyone has seen him for the self-interested, power-hungry, intolerant individual that he is. In fact, his popularity has dropped down to 4 mandates, a huge drop from the 14 mandates he won, together with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party back in December 2022.  

Others, who normally share his sentiments, have also cautioned him from going forward with his plan. Religious Zionism party member Ohad Tal stated, “Prayer doesn’t need to become a battlefield. Period. Judaism will not be built on this provocation.”

Likewise, Knesset Member Simcha Rothman, of the same party and known for his tireless advancement of the proposed reforms, also told Ben Gvir that while “his intentions were good, his actions weren’t.” 

In fact, he warned that such an opposing provocation “will lead the fire and hate to grow.” Adding to the warnings was Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who recommended that prayer should be done inside of a synagogue. Obviously, each house of worship has its own rules, style and customs, with which no one can argue. It is only when bringing prayer out to the general public on their city turf that these issues become the object of a showdown.

In the case of Tel Aviv, the most progressive city in the entire Middle East, which boasts an extremely large homosexual population, any attempt to bring Orthodox practices, by force, will surely be met with much resistance, but maybe that was the point. If the idea is to see just how far the ultra-Orthodox can go, in terms of pushing their brand of values down everyone’s throat, why not go for the jugular – in this case, Tel Aviv!

Perhaps it was best expressed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog who, in a speech, lamented, “How did we get to this awful situation? Fifty years after that horrible war, brothers and sisters are facing each other from both sides of the barricade. Those who pour oil on the flames actively threaten Israeli unity. This needs to stop.”

No one can argue with that! Israel is at a literal crossroads. If a showdown takes place tomorrow evening, it will only serve to solidify who is willing to seriously harm the Jewish homeland at any price.  

It was God who spoke through the prophet Jeremiah when referring to Israel, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore, with lovingkindness, I have drawn you." (Jer. 31:3). 

Should not Ben Gvir heed these words which constitute the pattern of real love for his people and their land and do his best to walk them out in his own life? 

If not, some of us may come to the conclusion that he loves power far greater than he does Eretz Israel!    

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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