Politicians waded into a growing furor on Monday evening after a religious group, defying a municipality order backed up by the Supreme Court, set up an improvised gender divider for Yom Kippur prayers in a central Tel Aviv square, prompting protests from liberal residents.
Similar events, and similar protests, took place in public spaces across the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacked the secular activists who demonstrated when the Orthodox groups set up physical barriers in public spaces to separate men and women, accusing them of “rioting against Jews.”
“The people of Israel sought to unite on Yom Kippur by asking for forgiveness and unity among us,” Netanyahu said in a statement after the conclusion of the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
“To our astonishment, specifically in the Jewish state, on the holiest day for the Jewish people, left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews during their prayer,” Netanyahu said.
“It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms and no limitations on hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like most Israeli citizens, reject this. Such violent behavior has no place among us,” Netanyahu said.
The premier then tweeted his statement along with a photo taken by a Haaretz photographer of a man apparently comforting his son, with an added caption saying the image was taken “as worshipers were expelled from Yom Kippur prayers by Jews.”
Later, after an outcry and a threat of legal action by the photographer, he deleted the tweet, reposting it without the photo.
While Netanyahu attacked the protesters, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid decried the “messianic” Judaism of the nationalist groups that “decided to bring war” to the Tel Aviv neighborhood.
“The Orthodox ultra-nationalist nucleus that came to the neighborhood decided to bring the war to us as well,” Lapid said, referring to religious nationalist groups that move into secular and Arab cities claiming to be promoting Jewish values.
“They make sure to explain to us that there is only one version of Judaism, their version. They demand that in the name of tolerance, even in our neighborhood, they will decide what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Lapid said.
Lapid noted that he goes to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and that the day is an example of why Judaism “does not need to be enforced.”
“We are the flagbearers of a Judaism that is not messianic, not racist, neither arrogant nor violent,” Lapid said.
National Unity leader Benny Gantz attacked Netanyahu for his statement, saying the premier was “the biggest generator of hatred, and is the one who now chooses to fan the fire.”
“Whoever decided to separate us succeeded in desecrating this holy day with coercion and gratuitous hatred,” Gantz wrote on X.
“For 75 years, a large majority of Israelis managed to reach agreements on the public space on Yom Kippur, so that it would be adjusted according to each community,” Gantz wrote.
“For 75 years, communities managed to respect each other despite their differences, and did not bring politics into Yom Kippur.”
The opposition lawmaker additionally said that he believed it was important that the character of public spaces be determined by those who live there, and that the court ruling was correct in authorizing the Tel Aviv municipality to set regulations for its city.
Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai also called the organizers of the segregated event “messianists,” but defended his decision not to send municipal inspectors on Yom Kippur to ensure that order was not defied, saying that he “didn’t want to fan the flames.”
“Tel Aviv-Jaffa will remain free and we won’t let these extremists dictate what happens in the public spaces anymore,” he told Channel 12 news.
“I’ve said for years that there are forces that are working to turn this into a halachic state, and if we don’t all wake up, it will be too late,” he said. “I call on everyone to behave differently, to educate differently, and to stand up for ourselves.”
In a social media post, Huldai noted that the attempt to use gender dividers was in defiance of a High Court ruling, and tied the incident to the fact that Netanyahu has thus far refused to commit to abide by an upcoming court decision on the reasonableness law, part of his judicial overhaul.
“When our leadership itself refrains from saying outright that High Court rulings must be upheld, it opens the door for extremist elements to take the law into their own hands,” Huldai wrote. “The events of Yom Kippur are another sad and worrying example of division in our society,” he said.
Labor MK Gilad Kariv also decried Netanyahu for attacking the liberal activists, rather than those who tried to violate a Supreme Court ruling.
“Even before he broke his fast, Prime Minister Netanyahu launched into wild incitement and bloodletting attack. Instead of condemning the blatant attempt to violate the court’s ruling, the national instigator chooses to back disdain for the rule of law,” Kariv, a Reform rabbi, posted on X.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is the last elected official who should be condemning the interruption of prayer, after being silent on the incessant attacks on the Women of the Wall and egalitarian prayer,” Kariv said.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir decried what he called the “haters who tried to expel Judaism from the public sphere,” and said that he would hold evening prayers in the square on Thursday.
Yair Netanyahu, the premier’s son, likened the incident to antisemitic pogroms, writing in a Facebook post: “Leftists go wild against praying Jews (secular and religious, by the way) on Yom Kippur, and then justify this violence and blame their victims. This is reminiscent of how antisemites in Europe would blame the Jews after committing pogroms against them.”
Gideon Sa’ar, No. 2 in Gantz’s National Unity party and the leader of the right-wing New Hope faction, launched a rare public attack on Lapid, accusing both him and Netanyahu of “inflaming civil war.”
In a statement Tuesday, Sa’ar denounced the “ugly reactions” expressed by Netanyahu, Ben Gvir and Lapid: “Every one of them tried to add fuel to the fire, instead of trying to put it out.”
Commenting on the incident itself, Sa’ar said: “Those who curse and humiliate religious Jews aren’t defending Tel Aviv’s liberal identity — on the contrary, they are increasing divisions between the parts of our nation.” He warned against transforming the major protest movement against the current hardline government into a “war on religion and Jewish tradition.”
Israel Zeira, the leader of the Rosh Yehudi religious group that defied the Tel Aviv municipality and an order from the Supreme Court by setting up the improvised gender divider on Sunday evening, said he “forgave those who destroyed the prayers.”
At Sunday’s event opening the Yom Kippur services, Rosh Yehudi activists strung up Israeli flags as a makeshift barrier, or mechitzah, between the male and female worshippers in Dizengoff Square.
Protesters then pulled down the flags and removed the chairs that organizers had set up, effectively preventing the service.
The incident sparked angry exchanges of words between activists on both sides and one secular demonstrator was detained by police for some three hours before being released.
Hundreds of demonstrators could be seen standing next to the area of the prayer service and chanting “shame, shame,” at the participants. Most of the worshipers left shortly afterward.
Similar scenes played out again in Dizengoff Square, in a number of Tel Aviv neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the country as the fast day ended Monday evening, when groups attempted to erect gender dividers at public events despite the court ruling and activists intervened.
Rosh Yehudi has been holding two Yom Kippur prayers on Dizengoff Square since 2020 when indoor gatherings were limited due to the coronavirus pandemic: the relatively small Kol Nidre prayer that opens the fast, and the Ne’ilah prayer at the end of the holiday, which has drawn about 2,000 worshipers in recent years.
On Friday, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to allow gender-segregated prayers in the square. The justices thus sided with the ruling of a lower court in favor of the Tel Aviv municipality, which forbade Rosh Yehudi from holding the event with a gender divider.
The conflict around the prayer service comes amid a growing national debate over the role of religion in public spaces that has become exacerbated as part of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul, and amid concerns from women that their rights may no longer be protected.