'Cool down the consuming fire eating away at our souls'

Activists on both sides of overhaul debate hold mass Western Wall prayer for unity

Ahead of Tisha B’Av, organizers of gathering and subsequent march in Jerusalem plead with sparring parties to think of the destruction brought on by discord

Pro- and anti-overhaul demonstrators hold prayers at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Charlie Summers/The Times of Israel)
Pro- and anti-overhaul demonstrators hold prayers at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Charlie Summers/The Times of Israel)

Thousands of worshipers attended a Sunday prayer event at the Western Wall for unity held by Jews on opposite sides of the judicial overhaul, as the Knesset began its debate ahead of a vote on the first bill in the contentious legislative package.

Many participants in the prayer event in Jerusalem, co-organized by politicians and rabbis from across the political spectrum, then proceeded to march from the holy site to a rally for unity outside the Israel Museum, near the Knesset.

The event is one of several organized and promoted in recent months for people with opposing views of the overhaul, in attempts to encourage unity amid polarization around the government’s plan to dramatically weaken the judiciary.

Among the organizers of Sunday’s prayer and rally were moderate rabbis and conservatives, including Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar group, as well as prominent individuals, including Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party and opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its judicial overhaul.

“As we near Tisha B’Av, we are in dire straits, at the edge of a precipice,” Stav told The Times of Israel en route to the rally.

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and then of its replacement in 421 or 423 BCE. The date, which is widely seen as a reminder of ruination owing to national disunity, this year falls on July 27.

“At times like this, we cannot let such a date pass by without calling on every Jew to contemplate its significance in the current context,” Stav said.

A ‘human chain’ is formed after a special prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 23, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Malka Puterkovsky, an influential teacher of the Talmud who lives in the settlement of Tekoa, described the event as “a rare source of optimism these days.”

Puterkovsky said she was inspired by “the diversity of participants, ranging from Orthodox rabbis to leaders of the protest including Shikma Bressler.”

A supporter of addressing perceived flaws in the judicial system, Puterkovsky is nonetheless opposed to the overhaul as it is being implemented, she said.

“The attendance of many people critical of the judiciary shows a growing understanding that the current government’s ramming through [legislative] changes [to the judiciary] is not the way forward,” Puterkovsky said.

Stav described the prayer event as “a plea to the Almighty to send wisdom and good counsel to our leaders so that our state makes it intact out of this situation. The rally is a reminder of all we have to lose if this fails,” said Stav, who added that he is neither in favor nor against the overhaul.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, an outspoken supporter of the overhaul and a leader of the prestigious Yeshivat Har Etzion seminary in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, called on people on both sides of the debate to unite around the event.

Pro- and anti-overhaul activists attend a special prayer gathering at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“We will gather for morning prayers before the Almighty, secular and devout, and we will pray for Him to cool down the consuming fire eating away at our souls,” Medan said in a statement ahead of the event. “Our goal is to say that we are many, and that’s a good thing. There are two views here, but what we share is greater than what divides us: The continued existence of the Jewish People and that of the Israel Defense Forces that protect all of us.”

After the prayer – Shacharit shel Shabbat, which is normally recited on Saturday morning and features a prayer for the State of Israel and fraternity among Jews wherever they live – many participants sang songs, including Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Kol Ha’olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od” by Rabbi Nachman.

Some of the worshipers, many of them carrying Israeli flags, then marched to the Israel Museum near the Knesset, about four kilometers (two miles) away from the Western Wall.

Pro and anti-overhaul demonstrators hold a “unity march,” in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Charlie Summers/The Times of Israel)

Elad Adar, a supporter of the overhaul, traveled to Jerusalem for the prayer and rally from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu near Beit She’an in Israel’s northeast, to advocate for national unity.

“We need to guard the borders of our people,” Adar said. “If we conduct ourselves irresponsibly, there won’t be anything to reform in the first place.” He held a sign  reading: “The nation is the true sovereign, take responsibility for unity.”

Ido Katz, who lives in Kibbutz Gevim near the Gaza Strip, came to Jerusalem to support the anti-overhaul effort. But he joined the rally at the Israel Museum because he nonetheless believes in unity despite the dispute. Diaspora Jews, Katz said, are “hearing only parts of the truth about the judicial overhaul, and aren’t seeing these things from up close.” He said he hoped they would “come closer and listen to the things that are being said from inside the country.”

The prayer coincides with a fateful week for the debate on the overhaul. The Knesset is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would limit the judiciary’s ability to use reasonableness as a benchmark for evaluating government practices and policies. Critics of that judicial practice say that reasonableness is meant to allow the court examine procedural issues rather than policy-related ones, which they say lie beyond the court’s jurisdiction. Opponents of the push to limit reasonableness say it would dispense with a significant safeguard against abuse of power by the executive branch.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched into Jerusalem to demonstrate against the overhaul, which critics say would compromise democratic practices because it would make the judiciary subservient to the executive and legislative branches. It was one of hundreds of rallies that have taken place nationwide in recent months against the overhaul.

National Unity chair Benny Gantz attends a special prayer of anti-overhaul activists at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators in favor of the overhaul are expected to convene in Tel Aviv in the latest show of support for it.

Organizers, endorsers and participants of Sunday’s prayer event included supporters of the overhaul like Medan as well as Rabbi Yitzchak Sheilat, Ronen Shoval and Ron Shapira, alongside critics like Gantz, war hero and former politician Avigdor Kahalani, and Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Shin Bet. Others pulled out, reportedly after overhaul architect far-right Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman expressed his displeasure over the gathering.

Organizers encouraged participants to hold hands and form a human chain extending from the Western Wall to the Israel Museum.

This will “illustrate the unbreakable bond between Judaism and democracy,” the organizers wrote in a statement.

Asked about his own position on the overhaul, Stav said that the push “is not important enough to form an opinion about.” He cited the reasonableness issue as an example, claiming that many of those who have studied it “agree that whether it passes or not will make very little difference.”

The discord over the overhaul “is not really at all about the overhaul, whose details are unknown to the vast majority of demonstrators on both sides,” Stav said. “What’s driving the polarization is fear: fear that the Supreme Court will run this place as it sees fit, and, on the other side, of living in a theocracy governed according to halacha” — Jewish Orthodox law — Stav said.

External threats no longer keep Israeli society united, he added, as those threats are not perceived as existential. “So a shared fate is our only path to a viable society,” Stav said. But, he opined, “to pursue shared destiny, we must nurture trust and hope for leadership that can inspire this trust. Right now, we have neither.”

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