Accusing left of forsaking Jewishness, Likud campaigns with Otzma Yehudit in Tel Aviv

Despite PM’s calls for unity during war, parties tap into secular-religious divisions in the metropolis, urge preservation of its ‘Jewish heritage and character’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Arguing that the liberal Israel has “forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has joined the far-right Otzma Yehudit party in a unified electoral campaign aimed at preserving Tel Aviv’s “Jewish heritage and character.”

Tapping into deep divisions between religious and secular Israelis, the two nationalist parties — which are running on a joint slate— have launched repeated attacks against what they describe as the left’s efforts to minimize public expressions of Judaism in the largely secular city, ahead of next week’s nationwide municipal elections.

“Tel Aviv does not belong only to leftists,” the campaign stated in a recent Facebook post, accusing the city’s secular liberal residents of trying to push out their religious counterparts.

The campaign’s language is particularly striking at a time when politicians, and Netanyahu in particular, have repeatedly called for moderation, conciliatory rhetoric and unity amid the grueling war against Hamas.

In 2022, Netanyahu brought Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane on the fringes of Israeli politics, into his coalition, prompting widespread criticism, including from US President Joe Biden, who said several members of the Israeli government were some “of the most extreme” he had seen in his political career.

Since then Ben Gvir, who became national security minister, has repeatedly butted heads with both the White House and Netanyahu, threatening to bolt the government if Israel’s military offensive in Gaza doesn’t “continue at full strength.”

Despite occasional tensions within the coalition, Ben Gvir touted the partnership between the two parties in Tel Aviv in a recent campaign video featuring prominent Likud imagery, declaring that their joint efforts would “strengthen Tel Aviv.”

A Likud-Otzmah Yehudit campaign van bearing the slogan “you have forgotten what Judaism is” stands parked in Tel Aviv ahead of the 2024 municipal elections. (Facebook)

Otzma Yehudit is running in “dozens of cities across the country, in some of them alone and some of them collaboratively,” a party spokesman told The Times of Israel, adding that wherever there is an opportunity to “advance the agenda of Minister Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit to strengthen security, Zionism and Judaism,” they are “the first to cooperate.”

Otzma Yehudit is also running with Likud in the southern towns of Yeruham and Netivot, and with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in several other municipalities.

The first year of the current government’s tenure saw growing fissures between religious and secular Jews in Tel Aviv, and the two parties’ campaign has sought to capitalize on anger stemming from religious controversies — though these have been largely pushed to the side following Hamas’s shock onslaught on southern Israel on October 7, as the population has been encouraged to focus on what unites it rather than what divides it.

The elections had originally been set for October 31, but were postponed until February 27 due to the ongoing fighting in the south and along the Lebanese border.

“Likud-Otzma Yehudit in Tel Aviv-Jaffa is here to preserve Jewish tradition, the synagogues, the religious institutions of the city, and a public space where you can put on tefillin and pray without being humiliated or prevented by force,” the two parties wrote in a statement on Facebook earlier this month.

The campaign was likely referring to city activists’ efforts to prevent members of the Chabad Hasidic sect from setting up tefillin stands near schools in the city, as well as a highly publicized incident in which a school principal was filmed telling a student to stop putting on the ritual items in a public space (though students are allowed to do so inside classrooms, and Likud’s own education minister defended the principal on the matter).

The issue of public prayer is one that has bitterly divided Tel Avivians, sparking protests and clashes in the city’s streets.

In September, hundreds of protesters surrounded a synagogue in central Tel Aviv where a controversial rabbi with a history of sexist and homophobic comments was speaking, leading to chaotic scenes as the rabbi was escorted out under heavy police protection.

The protest outside the synagogue of the Rosh Yehudi organization, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, came as the group fought for the right to hold gender-segregated prayers in a public square.

Secular and Orthodox activists clash after the religious Rosh Yehudi group sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a municipality decision at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Several days later, the group defied the Tel Aviv municipality and an order from the Supreme Court and set up an improvised gender divider made out of Israeli flags at a mass prayer event in central Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square at the start of Yom Kippur.

Protesters then pulled down the flags and removed the chairs that organizers had set up, effectively preventing the service.

Similar clashes occurred at the same location again on October 6, a day before Hamas’s deadly attack, when municipal employees dismantled a divider that worshipers had placed, and several protesters used loudspeakers to chant slogans against religious coercion.

Spokespeople for Likud declined to respond to The Times of Israel’s inquiries regarding the party’s partnership with Otzma Yehudit.

The two parties’ joint run gave “rise to more extreme incitement than we have been exposed to in the past,” the New Contract slate, comprising the leftist Meretz and the Greens, was quoted as stating earlier this month by the Maariv daily.

“We… will not let any of these extremists decide who is Jewish, not in Israel [at large] nor in Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” the liberal ticket declared. “We have to stand up to this group of crazy extremists who dare to try to dictate to us who is Jewish and who is not, during wartime when we are all mobilized to protect the country.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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