Jeffrey Schrager

Fifty Years Later

Fifty Years. Half a century ago, Israel was caught off guard by its enemies and had to fight tooth and nail to stave off invasion from the North and South. Egyptian and Syrian armies rolled through Israeli held territory, the country panicked, and only by the virtue of incredible sacrifice, valor, and great fortune, did Israel manage to turn the tide and re-secure its borders.

The country’s psyche was another matter. A political “revolution” that followed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War ushered in the government of Menachem Begin, the first non-Labor led government in the nation’s short history. The aura of Israeli invincibility, largely a product of the Six Day War, evaporated. The Israel of Yom Kippur eve 1973 evaporated with the sun’s setting, and a new, I would even say more complex, Israel came into being.

Fifty years later, a different, wholly predictable, and thankfully less deadly, war broke out in the heart of Tel Aviv. A Yom Kippur minyan (prayer service), one of the most natural expressions of the holiest day in Judaism, became a battleground. As long as I can remember, Jews shared images of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, when even completely secular Israelis ride bicycles down six lane highways, respecting the peace of the day. “Look!” they would say, “this is what it means to have a Jewish State!” Now the images shared are of secular and religious Jews fighting one another in Dizengoff Square, the most public of places in the world’s first “Modern Hebrew City.”

As the sun rises on the days after Yom Kippur, we awake only to blame. The Right, led by no less than the Prime Minister of Israel, blamed “Leftist extremists.” Politicians and activists on the Left point the finger at religious fanatics who insisted on holding a gender-segregated minyan in defiance of the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Israeli justice system. Of course, every claim has its context. Many religious Jews feel the country, and particularly the judicial system, borders on anti-Semetic, and will do just about anything to undermine religious observance. Secular Israelis fear steps being taken to suppress the authority of the Supreme Court and, thus, threaten the democratic nature of the country. And even those descriptions fail to adequately express the deep distrust and hostility on both sides.

Honestly, I’m left confused. I deeply value prayer, and especially prayer on Yom Kippur. To defile a day meant to instill humility in every heart as we collectively approach the Divine sickens every part of my Jewish consciousness. Turning Kol Nidre into political theater seems one of the most, if not the most, horrific forms of defaming the concept of holiness. Jews fighting other Jews in the streets of the Jewish Homeland seems to me an undoing of any prophecy describing the return of joy to the public spaces of Israel.

Sadly, readers of the previous paragraph will likely think it describes the “other” side. And therein lies the true crisis. Each pole is so convinced of their righteousness that they are willing to trounce on anything sacred, in both religious and secular senses. Organizers of the service knew very well they were courting more than controversy. They knew the courts had ruled gender-separation in public spaces illegal. And they knew that when they constructed a makeshift mechitza, out of Israeli flags no less, they were bringing discord into Yom Kippur tefillot (prayers). They used a thousand year heritage as a political weapon and a challenge to Israel’s system of laws. Any defenders of the event’s organizers who will not admit these facts do the same.

Protesters, though, assaulted a public prayer service. It seems few, if any, reflected on that very basic fact. They brought violence into a space that, at least on paper, was designed to create a genuine connection with the Divine. The image, if not necessarily the reality, of people violently standing opposed to Jewish prayer awakens memories of anti-Semites from across history, memories that should haunt all Jews regardless of religious leanings.

There’s a lot of fear in Israel this morning. Fear of what this means for the future of a united country. Fear that we’ve crossed a rubicon and may never be able to reconcile. It’s an existential fear, not dissimilar from the terror felt fifty years ago when we were attacked by foreign nations.

While I, too, lose sleep over those fears, one haunts every moment: That nothing has changed. That the same Israel will awaken tomorrow, with the same vilification of the “other side.” That leaders will continue to stoke the fears of their respective constituents to maintain power and avoid accountability. That religion will continue to be used as a cudgel for power.

During my own Yom Kippur davening, when I was blissfully unaware of events in Tel Aviv, I kept getting stuck during viduy, the confession of sins. I wondered how many people struck their chest, so sure that the words they were saying were applicable to others. We ask pardon for sins including coercion, taking bribes, passing judgment, and stubbornness. As we move into our new Jewish year, perhaps adding “being certain of my righteousness, closing my ear to others, and vilifying ‘the other’” would behoove us all.

Fifty years ago we suffered from a war in which we refused to confront reality. The cost of that war was horrific and echoes across Israel decades later. The questions we must ask this motzei Yom Kippur run much deeper, and confronting them will take a heroism on the part of average Israelis that surpasses even that of the Yom Kippur War’s greatest figures.

I have to believe we can walk back from the brink. I deeply hope the events of the last few days reflect a loud and radical minority of each faction. Most of all, I hope we can at least agree to pray, each in our own way, for the united future of this country; a future for which millions of Jews have hoped, prayed, and fought.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel with his family, Jeffrey Schrager was the Middle School Judaic Studies Coordinator at the Akiba Academy of Dallas, TX. He has developed curricula, particularly for teaching Tanakh and Jewish genealogy, and has published several articles on Jewish education. He is also the founder of L'dor Vador, an organization promoting the use of Jewish genealogy in education and a professional genealogist.
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