Yossi Klein Halevi

The state of our brokenness

Something elemental has been desecrated in our shared Israeliness, and Yom Kippur has again forced us to face ourselves
Activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 25, 2023. (Itai Ron/ Flash90)
Activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 25, 2023. (Itai Ron/ Flash90)

Though Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av are both fast days, the most serious of the Jewish calendar, they represent opposite religious sensibilities. Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Divine Presence from Israel and the end of Jewish sovereignty, is the black hole of Jewish history, a day that begins with despair and only gradually, toward the end of the fast, manages to restore some hope.

Yom Kippur, by contrast, is about spiritual optimism: the power of penitence to evoke forgiveness. Not of God’s distance but closeness to Israel.

This year, in Tel Aviv, Yom Kippur turned into Tisha B’Av, an intimation of destruction.

This Yom Kippur was also the 50th anniversary of that Yom Kippur. Unlike any other of Israel’s wars, Yom Kippur 1973 continues to haunt us. It is the war that never ended, that still grips us in that stunned moment when we came face to face with our collective mortality, when the roads to Tel Aviv and Haifa were open to the invaders and we realized that we could lose it all. We obsessively review the latest revelations from the archives, continue to debate the role of Golda and Dayan and Dado, as though it were still the winter of 1974.

The eerie tendency of the Israeli calendar to converge with the Jewish calendar, as it did on Yom Kippur 1973, is once again trying to tell us something urgent. The message 50 years ago was that we had become complacent, arrogant, self-satisfied. What is the message of this year’s Yom Kippur?

Over the last year, something elemental has been desecrated in our shared Israeliness, and Yom Kippur has forced us to face ourselves.

I don’t know if the following observations add up to a coherent argument, nor am I sure they should. Some of my points may appear to contradict other points. This is not the moment for definitive declarations, but for heshbon nefesh, a collective self-accounting. Just as Yom Kippur 1973 never ended, we are likely to linger in Yom Kippur 2023.

  1. The scenes of Jews shutting down Jewish prayer in a Jewish state are unbearable. The anguish experienced by religious and traditional Jews is not the result of political manipulation (though the government and its supporters are certainly attempting to do that). The religious sensibility has experienced a profound desecration. It was a relief to see the statement from protest leaders distancing themselves from the event: “We’re all pained by the events on Yom Kippur…We won’t assume the role of the police or the courts even when the heart is anguished, and especially not on Yom Kippur, the day that unites us all.”
  2. Rosh Yehudi, the extremist Orthodox group that insisted on praying publicly in Tel Aviv with a mechitzah, or gender barrier, despite a court ruling, didn’t come to pray as much as to “demonstrate a presence,” in army parlance, to challenge the authority of the court. The group regards Tel Aviv as the next fortress to conquer — after the hilltops of Samaria, after the mixed Arab-Jewish towns of Lod and Acre where small communities of militant Orthodox Jews have “settled,” often exacerbating tensions between Arabs and Jews. “When you see the secular world, you have to think of how to change it,” said Yisrael Zaira, head of Rosh Yehudi. In the current atmosphere, “settling” in the heart of Tel Aviv – and that is how the organization perceives its aggressive outreach – is a declaration of war.
  3. The Supreme Court did not rule that it is forbidden to place a mechitzah in a public space, but that each municipality may set its own rules. Tel Aviv has the right to determine the nature of its public space, just as ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak does. There are dozens of Orthodox synagogues in Tel Aviv and, despite the demagogic claims on the right, no one is threatening their right to pray.
  4. In past years, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur was a model of tolerance. There was no secular outrage against a mechitzah in the streets. What changed this year is the government’s war against liberal Israelis, who are fighting for the survival of their Israel, their ability to continue living in this country. This year a public mechitzah in Tel Aviv was especially provocative, given the growing phenomenon of women being pushed to the back of the bus – metaphorically and sometimes literally – around the country. I wish the protesters had resisted the provocation of Rosh Yehudi, but I understand their desperation.
  5. Orthodox Jews understandably outraged at the breakup of a prayer service need to reconsider the scenes of Haredim physically attacking members of the Women of the Wall and ripping apart their prayer books. Those assaults have been going on for years, without protest from almost any part of the Orthodox community.
  6. One politician saw the Yom Kippur desecration not as a tragedy but an opportunity. Prime Minister Netanyahu could scarcely wait until the end of the fast to tweet that “leftists had rioted against Jews.” There is a direct line connecting Netanyahu’s infamous whisper into the ear of a prominent rabbi two decades ago that “the left has forgotten how to be Jews” to his post-Yom Kippur tweet. Netanyahu has escalated his hateful rhetoric: it is now “the left” against “the Jews.” Not only have leftists forgotten how to be Jews, they aren’t really Jews at all. No Israeli leader has done more to turn Jew against Jew. Doing so on Yom Kippur is the culminating moment of his career as inciter-in-chief.
  7. Over the last years, since the Second Intifada, there was a softening of tensions, even a kind of convergence, between secular and religious Israelis. The militant secularism of the state’s early years seemed to be fading, replaced with a softening toward religion, a longing for spirituality. That process has been most dramatically expressed in Israeli popular music, with its embrace of religious themes. It has extended to other areas of culture too. Yet now this government has revived a desperate form of militant secularism. That is not the least of its sins against the Jewish people.
  8. For me, one of the most painful scenes was the break-up of Chabad’s outdoor Yom Kippur services in north Tel Aviv. Chabad should not be conflated with Rosh Yehudi. Its approach is not aggressive, but embracing. Chabad deserves gratitude, not contempt.
  9. As a passionate participant in the pro-democracy movement, I fear that, as a result of the Tel Aviv confrontation, we have lost stature among some parts of the public that had been sympathetic to us. Still, next Saturday night, I intend to be back on the streets with my fellow demonstrators, no less determined to stop this government’s moral and political corruption of Israel, though now a little more tentative when I chant our slogan, “Busha!” — shame. The shame has touched us all.
About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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