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Yom Kippur and the fight for Israel’s soul 

Israelis have been content for too long to let Orthodox Judaism define what is considered legitimate Jewish practice
The orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider, amidst protests, during a public prayer on Dizengoff Square for Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)
The orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider, amidst protests, during a public prayer on Dizengoff Square for Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

This Yom Kippur, a religious war broke out in Tel Aviv. The extremist national religious group Rosh Yehudi requested a permit from the city to conduct an Orthodox Kol Nidre service with a mechitza (a barrier between men and women erected mostly in Orthodox synagogues) in Dizengoff Square in the heart of Tel Aviv. The municipality permitted the prayer but refused to allow the placement of any physical barriers such as a mechitzah. Petitions to the District Court and an appeal to the Supreme Court were rejected. The court ruled that the public sphere should be equal and accessible to all without discrimination and without gender segregation. Despite the court ruling, Rosh Yehudi went forward with their gender-segregated service and installed a temporary mechitzah of metal polls on which they hung Israeli flags. 

Dozens of Israelis came to Dizengoff to protest this attempt to force gender segregation in the heart of Tel Aviv and to protest Rosh Yehudi’s blatant disregard of the court’s decision, which was symbolic of the government’s disregard for the rule of law and its rejection of fundamental values of democracy. The scenes of violence between Jews on Yom Kippur that ensued are hard to watch and are heartbreaking. But this incident clarifies some important truths that the public has not paid sufficient attention to until now.

Gender segregation outside of the synagogue has nothing to do with freedom of religion. We are entitled to participate in our own religious practices but this does not give us license to impose restrictions on others while using public space. 

For decades, we at the Reform movement have been leading a two-pronged struggle for the democratic soul of the State of Israel. We are simultaneously fighting for religious pluralism and fighting against gender segregation in the public sphere. For many years we struggled alone, but the pro-democracy protest of the past nine months has brought millions of Israelis to understand that fighting for Israel’s democracy also means that we must fight for its Jewish identity as well, and not leave Judaism in the hands of Orthodox extremists. 

The claims from Rosh Yehudi and their supporters – that denying them “the right” to enforce gender segregation in Dizengoff Square violates their right to freedom of religion – is nothing less than hypocrisy. The Rosh Yehudi supporters are the same ones  who support the ongoing violent harassment of Women of the Wall at the Western Wall. They are the same people who believe that there is only one way to be Jewish and that Reform and Conservative Judaism are not legitimate.

Just last week, Rosh Yehudi hosted a lecture by homophobic Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who has called members of the LGBTQ community “deviant.” When we talk about the Rosh Yehudi organization and numerous others like them, we must remember that they do not advocate for equal rights for all. They incite against others on a regular basis. 

In the same manner, the “Status Quo” argument is always invoked and always applied to benefit one side of the equation, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox side, while forcing those who advocate for liberal values and pluralism to relent.  And their demands are increasingly more extreme as liberal Jewish values are increasingly pushed away from the public sphere. 

For too long, most Israelis have been content to let Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism define what is considered legitimate Jewish practice. For many years the saying was that for most Israelis (who are secular) the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox. This is not the situation anymore. On the one hand, the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements have grown dramatically over the last decade. According to a 2018 Jewish Peoplehood Policy Institute survey, 13% of Jewish Israelis identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism. That translated to around 800,000 Israelis who chose to celebrate holidays and lifecycle events such as weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in egalitarian synagogues. On the other hand, Israelis are no longer willing to accept the attempts of National Orthodox bodies to gain control over the public sphere, such as the secular school system or attempts to impose gender segregation in public spaces. The awakening of Israelis, who oppose the most extreme government in Israel’s history, also led many to question basic issues confronting Israeli society. 

The Reform movement’s banner under which we stand, as we have taken part in the pro-democracy protests for the past nine months, is “Protecting Democracy in the name of Judaism.” Some Israelis did not relate to this slogan, because the Judaism they had in mind was the extremist, racist, misogynistic and homophobic version that the government is promoting rather than Liberal Judaism which believes in complete equality for all, regardless of gender, religion or race.

We stand at a critical intersection which will define Israel’s identity for years to come. This is the time for Israelis to take responsibility for their Judaism. This is the time for liberal Jews outside of Israel to raise a voice not only for a democratic state but also for a state that is the home for all Jews, that rejects the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Judaism, equally respecting all forms of Judaism.

About the Author
Orly Erez Likhovski is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public advocacy arm of the Israeli Reform movement.
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