Rabbi Benny Lau denounces dark, coercive approach to Judaism

‘You won’t divide us’: Protesters against overhaul rally for a 39th weekend

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv block Ayalon freeway with sukkah after week that saw clashes between religious and secular Jews on Yom Kippur

Protesters blocking the Ayalon freeway with a sukkah in Tel Aviv, Sept. 30, 2023. (Eitan Shley / Protest organizers)
Protesters blocking the Ayalon freeway with a sukkah in Tel Aviv, Sept. 30, 2023. (Eitan Shley / Protest organizers)

Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied nationwide on Saturday night against the government’s judicial overhaul for the 39th week, after Yom Kippur saw the country’s religious-secular divide bitterly exposed at a public prayer service in Tel Aviv.

Demonstrations were held across approximately 150 locations throughout the country, organizers said.

Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked off the Ayalon freeway by putting up a sukkah plastered with anti-government posters in honor of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which began Friday night. They were eventually forced out by police and traffic resumed.

Police arrested two protesters who blocked the freeway and issued fines of NIS 1,000 ($260) to seven others, Hebrew media outlets reported.

Channel 13, citing the CrowdSolutions firm, estimated that some 85,000 rallied in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street. At the center of the crowd, a large sign declared, “You won’t divide us!” in an apparent reference to Yom Kippur’s divisive events.

Organizers had said that this week’s protests would highlight what they called the fractious and destructive nature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.

“He is an expert in dividing and splitting people on sectarian lines, religious vs. secular, left against right — divide and conquer,” the organizers said in a statement ahead of the protests. “The economy is collapsing and all we get is provocations and the continued dismantling of democracy.”

The protests came days after a religious organization attempted to hold a public Yom Kippur prayer service in the heart of Tel Aviv with an improvised gender divider after the courts had forbidden it to separate the sexes in a public location, sparking bitter confrontations between attendees and protesters, and unprecedented scenes of anger and accusations on the Jewish Day of Atonement.

“I have never seen our national security in a worse state,” Dan Harel, a former deputy IDF chief of staff, said in a speech in Tel Aviv. “This wicked government is leading to the disintegration of the IDF and posing a real existential threat. The steps the government has taken to weaken the High Court of Justice have already caused significant damage to the reserves of the most critical units in the IDF, leading to a loss of readiness and significant operational capability.”

In Kfar Saba, retired Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia spoke, saying: “The regime has betrayed us. This betrayal resonates deeply in the souls of the free public. This public will not rest until the regime’s allegiance returns to us, the citizens.”

In anti-overhaul protests in Haifa, dozens demonstrated against the skyrocketing violence in the Arab community that has seen 190 people killed since the beginning of the year.

Gadir Ha’ani speaking about the outbreak of violence in the Arab community in Kiryat Tivon, September 30. 2023. (Gal Mosenson)

This week’s events have been seen by many as an extension of the societal conflict unleashed by the government’s judicial overhaul, which has spread to multiple areas of life and overlaps with sharply divergent visions of the country’s future and its character.

In Jerusalem, former Knesset Member Dov Khenin touched on the matter in his speech, saying the government “has been using the old Roman strategy on us: divide and conquer. This time, it’s secular against religious. We won’t fall for this trap. Just as we didn’t fall for the trap of Ashkenazi Jews against Mizrahi Jews, and we won’t fall for the trap of Jews against Arabs.”

The Jerusalem protest organizers denounced both the violence against Yom Kippur worshippers in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, and the organizers of the prayer event for bringing politics into a religious event and showing “contempt” for the High Court ruling that backed Tel Aviv municipality’s right to outlaw gender-segregated prayer in the public space.

Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent community leader and activist, spoke at the Jerusalem rally for the first time, commending the demonstrators while lamenting that their shouts of “democracy” and “shame” haven’t healed the chasm in Israeli society.

“For months, I’ve been telling the organizers that I have no words to say,” Lau said, explaining why he had not previously addressed the “Save Our Shared Home” Jerusalem protests outside the President’s Residence. He added that “we’re on the brink of the abyss — what more has to happen so that we wake up?”

Rabbi Benny Lau speaks at an anti-overhaul rally in Jerusalem on September 30, 2023. (Screenshot: Facebook; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Lau said those around him had been disappointed by his silence, but spoke now in the wake of the shameful support being given by some ostensibly Orthodox politicians and others for the convicted Jewish murderer of an Arab family that included a baby.

He denounced extreme-right elements he said had given the Jewish religion a dark, fundamentalist, coercive image, saying this wasn’t the Judaism he was raised on, which advocates mutual solidarity and caring and “can be a lighthouse of morality to the whole world.”

Lau unveiled an initiative (Hebrew link) dubbed “Meet in the Sukkah,” which will run over the coming week and will see people with different worldviews come together in dialogue in the traditional temporary structures built for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

“Maybe in that space, we will manage for one week to breathe some togetherness, to exit the rigidity of the private home and escape the stubbornness of the obstructive walls,” he said, and end up “with more hope for a shared life.”

The protests also came as the High Court deliberates petitions against several contentious laws passed by the government, including one that restricts judicial review of government decisions using the rubric of reasonableness, and another barring the courts or attorney general from ordering a prime minister to step aside.

Anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations at Tzemach Junction, September 30, 2023. (Niv Garber)

Hearings have concluded on both pieces of legislation, both amendments to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which have never before been struck down by the High Court.

Members of the coalition have repeatedly threatened not to abide by such a ruling if it comes, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to commit to doing so.

Rulings on both matters are not expected for some time, but could set up an unprecedented clash with the government if they do reject parts or all of the legislation, and could precipitate an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

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