I am a few days removed from the disturbing events at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur. For the past several years on Yom Kippur, a kiruv organization ran a neilah service for mostly secular Israelis and the service had a mechitza separating the men from the women. This year, the court ruled based on a Tel Aviv municipality law that there cannot be any mechitza at this event. The organizers had the prayer service anyway and they made a makeshift mechitza with Israeli flags that would hopefully not offend those who supported the law and the court decision. Many activists verbally attacked those attending this service and tore down the makeshift mechitza and members of this service had to stop and continue their service at a nearby shul. This event touched a raw nerve in the country that even on the holiest day of the year we Jews are simply fighting each other.
What happened was very disturbing, but unfortunately, it is not unsurprising considering the social climate in the country. Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state and there currently is a very public battle for the soul of the Jew in the State of Israel about what this character looks like in practice. A year before the creation of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, sent a letter to Agudath Israel stating that Shabbat will be the legal of day of rest in the Jewish state, all means should be pursued so that every state-run kitchen for the use of Jews serves kosher food, the Agency Executive will do whatever possible to satisfy the deep need of the religiously observant regarding marital law, and full autonomy will be guaranteed to every educational network. This letter reflected an attempt to create a compromise between the religious and secular Jews in Israel in the area of Shabbat, kashrut, family law, and education. Indeed, many laws were enacted after the creation of the State of Israel in furtherance of this goal.
However, with the passage of time, many Israelis felt that a change in the religious status quo was necessary. They believed that there was too much religious coercion in Israel. In 2003, the Gavison-Medan Covenant was drafted. It is a proposal to retain the state’s Jewish character while minimizing religious coercion. It was named after Professor Ruth Gavison and Rav Yaakov Medan. Professor Ruth Gavison was an Israeli expert of human rights and Professor of Law at Hebrew University. Rav Yaakov Medan is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion. In the area of Shabbat, their proposal was that government offices and commercial establishments would be closed on Shabbat, but cultural events, entertainment events and a reduced schedule of public transportation would be permitted depending on the particular community. There are halachic arguments for and against these types of agreements. Do we feel like we should compromise certain halachic standards to get agreement from the secular public on some matters of religion, or are we forbidden to engage in compromise of any kind when it comes to halacha because doing so is tantamount to giving a hechsher to sinful behavior?
But there is really another question. It is a question of trust. Will compromise in one area lead to goodwill or will compromise be viewed as a sign of weakness? For the religious Jews, the concern is that once we legislate that certain types of chillul Shabbat are permitted according to Israeli law, secular Jews will push for further Shabbat violations. Similarly, once we allow non-orthodox prayer services at the Kotel, the non-orthodox will have a foothold on religious life in Israel and will try to undo more laws in Israel that reflect orthodox practice. Therefore, we must fight any Israeli law that rejects halachic practice. For the secular Jews, once we allow some religious prayers with a mechitza in the public square then who knows what will be next? We are scared of more and more religion encroaching on our community, especially with the religious parties gaining more political power with the passage of time. Within both the religious and secular communities, there is much distrust of the other and much fear of the other and the concern of slippery slope, that any concession is perceived as weakness which will lead to further concessions.
I know it was only a small group that acted in a very abusive and hateful manner towards those who simply wanted to pray at Dizengoff’s Square. But they are scared and they are distrustful, just as many in the religious community are scared and distrustful. And that’s why, unfortunately, this behavior is unsurprising, just as it is unsurprising for some in the religious community who verbally abuse Women of the Wall every Rosh Chodesh. It is only a small group that acts inappropriately, and they, too, are scared and distrustful.
Unfortunate situations like what happened at Dizengoff Square will happen again when a group of people feel threatened, distrustful and fearful of the other side. So how do we respond? We can respond by blaming the extremists who engage in this behavior and feel good about ourselves that we took a stand. Or maybe we can ask ourselves about the social climate in the State of Israel that facilitates this type of behavior. We can reflect on how we demonize secular Jews, religious Jews or politicians in Israel who are not aligned with our religious or political philosophy. We can reflect on how we fight intolerance with more intolerance and we justify our behavior of criticism and demonization by saying that we are fighting a battle for the soul of our beloved country so our rhetoric is a necessary evil to achieve our goals.
We can decide to blame the extremists when, in fact, sometimes we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves who is giving fuel to the extreme behavior by our constant demonization of the other. That is why I am not going to post about how absolutely evil certain people were who did not even allow their Jewish brethren pray in the streets on the holiest day of the year even though I categorically reject their behavior. I am going to post about how extreme rhetoric by the mainstream on both sides contributes to these unfortunate acts in society and hopefully this event can be a wakeup call to stop demonizing, start humanizing, care less about slippery slope arguments and care more about compromise leading to trust. And if I really wanted to make an impact on society, then I would be more critical when my political or religious allies do something that I find objectionable than if my political or religious opponents do something that I find objectionable. I can have more of an impact by criticizing my allies than by criticizing my opponents. This is how we can effectuate meaningful change.