Court affirms Tel Aviv’s right to yank Orthodox group’s permits for Sukkot

Rosh Yehudi plans fresh Supreme Court petition following the ruling on the municipality’s decision to deny permission to hold events over holiday after Yom Kippur clashes

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Israel Zeira (R), the head of Rosh Yehudi, arrives for an arbitration hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court in Tel Aviv, October 4, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israel Zeira (R), the head of Rosh Yehudi, arrives for an arbitration hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court in Tel Aviv, October 4, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A Tel Aviv court affirmed on Wednesday evening the municipality’s right to revoke a permit that it had given to a controversial Jewish Orthodox group to hold Sukkot and Simhat Torah events on public grounds.

The ruling by the district court followed an unsuccessful arbitration process between the municipality and Rosh Yehudi, a conservative religious organization that got into a dispute with the municipality over a previous religious event last month for Yom Kippur.

Rosh Yehudi said it will appeal to the Supreme Court against the municipality, in a replay of the Yom Kippur dispute over worship in public. That event provoked uproar across Israel’s polarized society.

“When it comes to a private event on unleased public grounds, one cannot argue that the decision to cancel the event is unreasonable or that it compromises the basic rights of the petitioner,” the judge wrote in the ruling.

The municipality’s lawyers, during a hearing Wednesday at the Tel Aviv District Court, defended the mayor’s decision to yank the permit for the Simhat Torah event that the city had given Rosh Yehudi this year, as it had done in previous years.

According to the municipality, Rosh Yehudi violated the terms of the permit that the city had given it ahead of the September 24 event for Yom Kippur. For this reason, the municipality said, it did not have confidence that Rosh Yehudi would respect city regulations at the Simhat Torah event, which had been scheduled to take place on Saturday.

The municipality, which has authorized dozens of protests against the government  despite repeated disturbances and road blockages in some of those events, cited the need to “maintain public order” in revoking Rosh Yehudi’s permit.

On Yom Kippur, Rosh Yehudi placed a bamboo frame with flags hanging down from the top section and used it as a mechitza, a divider between men and women, which is a requirement of Orthodox Jewish law for prayers.

Rosh Yehudi, which openly encourages Jews to lead more Orthodox lifestyles, said that the traversable divider did not violate the terms of the permit, which forbade placing barriers between the sexes. Police authorized the divider but the city said it was a violation of its ban on a barrier between the sexes, which the city says is discriminatory.

Activists from the Rosh Yehudi organization set up a ‘mechitza’ divider made of Israeli flags ahead of a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Local seculars took apart the frame on September 24 and disrupted the prayers, which Rosh Yehudi had been holding annually in Dizengoff Square since 2020. This year was the first time the city introduced the anti-divider stipulation. Seculars disrupted a second prayer on September 25, although it featured no dividers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other politicians condemned the seculars’ actions. Opposition Leader Yair Lapid justified their actions but said the scenes on display in Dizengoff Square “must not repeat themselves.”

The dispute was an unprecedented display of anti-religious sentiment that coincided and corresponded with a wave of protests against Netanyahu’s right-wing government, comprising his Likud party and five religious ones.

Many of the seculars who led the protest action in Dizengoff Square said the issue of sex segregation was part of a broader government policy of religious coercion that excludes and oppresses women. Many Israeli men and women dispute this view.

After the city yanked its permit for Rosh Yehudi events on Sukkot and Simhat Torah — a holiday that celebrates the Jewish People’s connection to the Torah — Rosh Yehudi petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to issue an injunction. The judge declined to do so, saying he lacked jurisdiction, but asked the sides to meet “in the spirit of the holidays” to work out an agreed solution.

The city declined to compromise, and Rosh Yehudi claimed it was being singled out by the municipality. But the judge wrote in his ruling that “the consideration of maintaining public order and safety under the conditions specified [by the municipality] at the time of its decision is not flawed, illegitimate, discriminatory or one that affords the court the authority to intervene.”

Rosh Yehudi in a statement wrote that it, too, finds maintaining public order important, “and that’s not the reason the Simhat Torah event is being canceled.”

Israel Zeira, the founder of Rosh Yehudi, told reporters at the District Court: “We’re not ashamed of what we want: We want the People of Israel to become religious. Promoting the Torah is legitimate and we’re doing it without an ounce of coercion or provocation, we’ve never hidden it.”

The Supreme Court dismissed Rosh Yehudi’s appeal ahead of the Yom Kippur event, stating that issuing permits, as well as denying or revoking them, was within the city’s purview.

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