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Who is really guilty of inciting an Israeli civil war?

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)

Ynet, an online Israeli news service of Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s top Hebrew newspaper, has reported that Knesset Member Gideon Sa'ar has blamed Yair Lapid, head of the opposition party, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for inciting a civil war, following the Tel Aviv protest that took place when men and women sought to pray together on Yom Kippur eve in a public square.

And what exactly was said to make a claim of incitement? After the close of Yom Kippur, Lapid posted the following: “It’s a pity that in the name of God, Yom Kippur was ruined. For years, I have been giving Yom Kippur as an example of this – that Judaism doesn’t need to be enforced. It’s supposed to be for all of us. We just need to be sensitive to one another. Until this year when the national religious sector came and tried to enforce how people should pray in their neighborhood – by dividing the sexes.”  

The incident began, with the intent of the religious, to conduct open, public prayer in Dizengoff Square, the main public square in the secular city of Tel Aviv, to observe the Yom Kippur holiday. They petitioned the court to set up dividers so that mixed-gender prayer would not be possible (in accordance with the rules of Orthodox Judaism). However, the High Court, as well as the municipality, rejected the request because the observance was to take place in a public venue.

At the onset of “Kol Nidre,” the opening prayer, a skirmish took place between the secular and the religious, who, nonetheless set up the dividers, in direct opposition to what had already been decided by the municipality and Israel's High Court.

In this case, since the worship was taking place in a public space, they determined that no religious group was able to dictate how the observance should be conducted as it was not happening in a private synagogue, which would be able to enforce its own rules.  

Prime Minister Netanyahu also expressed deep criticism at the end of the holiday observance, with his anger being solely directed at the secular. Joining him was Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who weighed in by saying: “While millions of Jews in Israel prayed in synagogues and in public spaces, fasted, united, asked forgiveness and connected to the roots of our culture, a handful of violent barn burners backed by opposition leader Yair Lapid lit a fire and disgraced the holy day.”

While he called on everyone “not to get dragged into these provocations and the continuation of hate and discord,” he certainly did his part to further enlarge the months-long rift by insinuating that secular Israelis, who had the ruling of the High Court and municipality on their side, were inciting a riot backed by Lapid.

What really happened was a classic case of coercion and force. Religious groups, after being turned down by the proper authorities who denied them the ability to erect dividers in a public space, attempted to do so, anyway, knowing that Tel Aviv is a city that values inclusion and pluralism, where many non-Orthodox Jews prefer to pray together as men and women, without dividers. However, wanting to impose their will on the city’s residents, the ultra-religious chose to erect their barriers, which some may very well view as “incitement.”

The fact that this was done as a deliberate move, to force the observance of the holiday to be conducted in one singular way – according to Orthodox law, is an obvious attempt at trying to exert power intended clearly to provoke a harsh response. 

Incitement is defined as the encouragement or urging of something to stimulate or prompt action. When taking into consideration that this “urging” was done by the religious, in full knowledge of the type of people who live in Tel Aviv, there is no other conclusion than to say the incitement was on the side of the religious who, despite their request having been rejected by the authorities, chose to do what they wanted anyway.

Why is that ignored by both the prime minister and the finance minister, not to mention Knesset Member, Gideon Sa'ar who, rather than blame the religious, places the responsibility for inciting a civil war on the predictable reactions made by two leaders?

Can anyone be honest, just a day after Yom Kippur and squarely place the blame where it belongs? Why is there such an intolerance for any expression of Jewish observance other than the Orthodox brand? Why must anyone seeking to encounter a spiritual experience do so in accordance with one set of rules? 

It’s hard to make a case for dividers when they are never mentioned in the Bible at any time or place that public prayer took place. Nor is there any instance of men and women not being permitted to stand together in order to worship or observe a holy event.

Yet, this is just another attempt at religious intolerance of those who fail to recognize that they do not have a monopoly on what they believe is proper access to God. 

Unbeknownst to the pious guardians of the faith, God is so much more inclusive, merciful, forgiving and accessible than what He is given credit for! His ear is much more attentive to the heart than the words, and He erects no barriers to those who earnestly seek Him.

It is, rather, those whose claim to holiness is actually repelling the seekers, who are being told their efforts are insufficient and illegitimate. They are doing more damage to their cause than they know.

Have we learned nothing, even after the holiest day of the year? Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes in thinking that God is as rigid as some claim?

Before anyone blames someone for incitement of a civil war, perhaps they should look at their own stubborn insistence that access to God comes with a prescribed formula. It doesn’t! 

Until that is fully realized, incitement will continue, because it is a byproduct of not understanding the greatness of God! 

We can only hope that those who are drawn to the Almighty will get a real taste of what it means to have encountered true godliness that is not dependent upon man-made rules.

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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