This is the story of what I experienced Sunday night, Yom Kippur eve, at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. I know everything is now seen as “political” in one way or another, but this was not written to be political. It’s simply the story of what happened to me – what I saw with my own eyes.
On Sunday night, they chased me away. They physically and repeatedly shoved my wife. They threatened to punch me in the face as I held my 18-month-old daughter in my arms.
They said to my wife “Your unborn fetus will be ashamed to be born to a mother like you,” and proceeded to harass and menace her, following for over 300 feet with a cell phone shoved in her phone, screaming, “You’re being recorded! You’re being recorded! You’re being recorded!”
We walked around the corner from our home to pray.
When we arrived at Kikar Dizengoff on Sunday night, I was in shock. Dozens of people with eyes seething with hate, screaming with spittle flying out of their mouths at 150 human beings who had just come to pray. To pray in their own neighborhood – a short walk from where they, like I, live – on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” They bellowed at the crowd assembled to pray.
They weren’t shouting at Rosh Yehudi, the organization that organized and got the permit for the prayer service, and not once did they yell about the mechitzot, the dividers between men and women.
They spouted hate at regular people. At fathers, at mothers, at children (yes). At grandparents, at secular people who decided they wanted a Yom Kippur prayer experience, whatever meaning that holds for them. At traditional Jews who may not keep Shabbat, but for whom Yom Kippur is incredibly special.
The hate being spewed by these zealots had no connection whatsoever to the issue of gender segregation. They were there because of their hate of others, not because they opposed a contentious policy. They were there, really, for one reason: to tell us we don’t “belong.” We, the people who wear kippahs, the people who pray, don’t belong in “their” neighborhood, in their city, Tel Aviv. Because this is a secular city, right?
Even a member of my own family said to me, “Why don’t you just pray somewhere quiet outside the city where you won’t be bothering anyone?” Sound familiar? Perhaps because those were the sentiments expressed decades ago — and sadly sometimes to this day – to certain kinds of people in Israel. And outside of Israel. And around the world.
I want to be crystal clear: I know full well the problem of religious coercion in Israel. There are terrible things happening every day here that go against the very soul of the country: the baseless and disgusting attacks on Women of the Wall, the silencing of women’s voices on army bases around the country, women on buses being forcibly sent to the back, the erasure of women from magazines and ads, and a million other things. My head is far from being in the sand, I know exactly what’s going on, and I object to it a million times over. These are some of the most despicable and infuriating things I’ve ever seen, and I will always stand up and say that we need to uproot them from our country.
As for mechitzot in Dizengoff Square? I understand that there are differing perspectives and that it stirs the passions and emotions of many people. But let’s have a conversation. Let’s discuss it. I have no doubt we’ll find a solution – or many. But that’s not what happened here. There was no conversation. No dialogue. No discussion.
Maybe you saw edited videos on the news, or misleading clips posted by activists, and said to yourself “Eh, it looks normal, like every other protest.”
I’ve been to the weekly protests. I’ve walked with tens of thousands of other Israelis, some with whom I agree, others with whom I don’t. I’ve seen the beauty of a people united, pushing to be heard by their government. I’ve seen Israeli flags waved in the air as a call to national unity.
What I never saw was screaming at children. I never saw a pregnant mother shoved and harassed while hundreds of people looked on and did nothing. I never heard utter lies being spouted right next to me. Jews, trying to pray in the Jewish State, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, in their own neighborhood, who didn’t ask anyone else to join them, who didn’t try to recruit a single soul standing nearby, who were preparing themselves to bring in Yom Kippur with family and friends – attacked for their beliefs.
I grew up in the country that gave the world the KKK and I’ve never experienced hate the way I did on Sunday night. Instead of meaningful prayer on this holy day, there was screaming, sirens, horns, megaphones, drums. Rioters shoved phones in the faces of Jews who came to pray, Jews for whom interacting with electronic devices on this holiday is forbidden (a fact of which every single one of these rioters is well aware).
Would they behave this way to Christians? To Muslims? To Hindus? To Sikhs? Or just to Jews? They talk about pluralism, about inclusion, about equality – where did that disappear to on Sunday night?
“Ok so here’s what’s happening here,” a protestors right next to us told an American interviewer. “Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] are trying to take over Tel Aviv. Everyone you see here – everyone! – they brought them in from the outside. Not a single one of them lives here. They came here to make a political statement. This is religious coercion!” (No mention of mechitza gender dividers.)
I literally live around the corner from Kikar Dizengoff. It’s a 2-minute walk. There are two other religiously observant families just in our own building. There’s a synagogue less than a 2-minute walk from Kikar Dizengoff, and four others within a 1,500-foot radius.
Am I not allowed to make use of public spaces in Tel Aviv just like you? Do I not pay income taxes? Arnona property tax? Did I not serve in the army, eating shit while I trained to be a combat soldier, doing guard duty shifts of 2 hours on / 4 hours off on the Lebanese for weeks on end?
Who gives you the right to decide who’s allowed to live in Tel Aviv and who isn’t?
You claim that religious Jews are ‘taking over your neighborhood’ because of a single prayer service on the holiest day of the year in a public space that their tax shekels also fund? When cars aren’t allowed in the streets of Tel Aviv? When Israel’s airspace is completely closed? When restaurants, bars and shops are all closed anyway?
How is that taking over?
There wasn’t a single barricade blocking the flow of foot traffic. Not a single person was asked to move because of their gender. Did we “steal” the site from something else that was supposed to happen on that same day, at that same time, in that same place?
That’s taking over?
As for your statements about us making a “political statement” by praying there: Jews have been celebrating Yom Kippur for 2,000 years. All of a sudden doing it this year is a political statement? And even Yom Kippur prayers haven’t been taking place in Kikar Dizengoff for 2,000 years, it has been happening for the last four years with no problems. No wild protests, no screaming at children, no pushing pregnant mothers. What changed?
As for her last point about Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), I didn’t see a single Haredi there. And what if there had been – so what? Are they forbidden from being in Tel Aviv? Is it permissible to discriminate against them? If so, then who else? And who gets to decide where discrimination is okay, and where it’s not?
I have a friend who works in Israeli venture capital. We met up a few months ago and got to the topic of politics, which I generally try to avoid because it’s so combustible. He started telling me about the “Poison Machine” that one of the political parties he’s opposed to here in Israel had built to spread their message and rile up their base. Think bots on social networks, coordinated posting of the same text, language designed to inflame, etc.
“My side is way behind on this,” he said. “The time has come to fight fire with fire.”
My friend – is this what you meant? Despicable people shoving and harassing people simply trying to pray? Disgusting speech targeted at mothers? Lies, conspiracies?
What this screaming horde did was no different from what the Women of the Wall experience. How can you condone one without condemning the other? If what happened at Kikar Dizengoff doesn’t bother you but you’re the first to speak up when the Women of the Wall are attacked, you have a lot to think about. (And again, just so I’m 100% clear: both of these are disgusting and should be denounced.)
The only religious coercion I saw on Sunday night was the Jews being coerced to hide their Jewish practices.
I’ve been watching an Israeli sitcom called Kupah Rashit recently in order to improve my Hebrew (it’s like The Office, but set in a supermarket). There’s a character named Kochava Shavit from Yavneh, a city in central Israel, and in one of the episodes of Season 1 the topic is the phenomenon of “shaming”.
In this episode, we see a customer who starts filming all of the supermarket workers while threatening to “shame” them on social networks if they don’t fulfill every one of her ridiculous requests. This happens to them one by one and one by one they comply.
But not Kochava Shavit from Yavneh.
Kochava turns the tables on this customer because she knows she’s in the right. She calls this customer a prime example of a ישראלי מכוער – an “ugly Israeli.”
Two days ago – to my enormous regret – I finally came to understand the meaning of that phrase.
“Shame!” “Shame!” “Shame!” They yelled at us over and over and over. I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Game of Thrones. And you know what?
They were right. That was the right word.
It was just being said in the wrong direction.
Today, two days after I just wanted to cry, scream or both, I sit here with a full heart.
The stain on Tel Aviv has been erased with the OxyClean of Judaism: תשובה. ותפילה. וצדקה. Repentance, Prayer, and Charity,. The words we say throughout Yom Kippur.
There’s a prayer at the end of Yom Kippur just before the sun sets and the stars come out called Neilah. For Neilah this Yom Kippur, I walked to a different public location, a big, open square – that sits just above the beautiful beach of Tel Aviv.
I stood there with over 1,000 others, religious Jews, secular Jews, traditional Jews, random people who just happened to walk by, and wanted to partake in the special thing that was happening at that moment. Some stood with only other men. Some stood with only other women. But most stood mixed. It was incredible.
This won’t always be the solution, but for now, I’m going with it.
This country isn’t perfect — far from it – but I won’t let zealots and fanatics, even those who attack my family, define my life here.