Why secular Jews need to reclaim Tisha B’Av

With our secular values being increasingly under attack in Israel today, our response needs to reclaim, rather than ignore, the saddest day in the Jewish Calendar.

Tel Aviv Restaurant with a sign reading “Open on Tisha Be’Av.” (Image: Facebook page of the green movement “Let Live”)

In the lead up to the municipal elections in Tel Aviv, the secular green movement “Let Live,” have called on businesses to affix a sticker on their windows declaring them open on the ninth day of the Jewish calendar month of Av, known as Tisha B’Av. This day is considered by religious Jews to be the saddest day in the year, commemorating a myriad of tragedies that befell the Jews throughout history.

“Business owners: Are you open on Tisha B’Av? The ‘Open on Tisha B’Av’ sticker will bring you more customers. Come take one!” the faction posted on their Facebook page. Attorney Reuven Ladiansky, a Tel Aviv city councilor and head of the green movement “Let Live,” wrote on his facebook page, “Let businesses and secular people in Tel Aviv live. Leave them open on Tisha B’Av! Enough with the intimidation, the threats, the reports and the fines!”

To understand the motivation behind this call, which has offended both religious and a fair few secular Israelis, one needs to understand that Israel is currently in the midst of an intense civil conflict about whether the values of the secular or religious Jewish communities will be dominant in the future of this country.

Many atheist or agnostic Jews who call this place home, myself included, watch the news each day and feel like characters in the early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale before the theocratic revolution of Gilead over the United States.

At present in Israel, there is a denial of the basic liberty to marry, divorce or be buried without the involvement of religious authorities. On Thursday this week, Israeli police come to the home of a Haifa Rabbi at 5:30 in the morning and interrogated him for the “crime” of performing a wedding ceremony of a couple barred from marrying by the Israeli rabbinate.

Following the Supermarket Law, more business are being fined for staying open on Saturday, and there is still no public transport in most of the country on what for many is their only day off from work. There is great concern about the silencing of women’s voices in public events, and horrific behaviour by the Haredi protesters at the Kotel over womens’ prayer.

This Hadata (Religionization) is seen in almost every corner of Israeli Society. Just this week, the Israel Women’s Network has released a disturbing video highlighting the marginalization of female IDF soldiers. From a ban on women wearing white shirts at the Shizafon training base, to the order that tights be worn under shorts, modesty rules are being institutionalised and enforced throughout the army.

For some secular Jews, the response to these many decrees against our liberal, humanist and feminist values is to fight back by disregarding the values of the Orthodox establishment.

Whilst I can appreciate the sentiment behind this, as a Secular Humanist Jew that shares many of the environmental and social concerns of the’ Let Live’ faction, I feel this campaign is ultimately misguided.

Open on Tisha Be’Av (Image: Facebook page the green movement “Let Live”

Unlike other fast days like Yom Kippur, a day focussed on sin, recounting Temple sacrifices, repentance and requests for divine intervention which a secular Jew may find it hard to connect to, Tisha B’Av has its roots more firmly based on real events of Jewish history. By contrast to the Jewish festivals that are centred around a covenant with God, Tisha Be’Av should be the easiest of days in the calendar for which a non-halachik Jew can find meaning.

The ninth day of Av commemorates the destruction of the two Temples and the Bar Kochba revolt that ultimately led to the end of Jewish self determination in this ancient land for close to 2000 years. It also marks the start of the First Crusade in 1096 where 10,000 Jews were killed in the first month with many Jewish communities being destroyed in France and the Rhineland; the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492; the beginning of mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, en route to Treblinka in 1942; and the AMIA bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed killed 85 people in 1994.

As a Secular Jew whose identity is tied to the history of my people, enjoying a beer by the beach is not the way I would want to mark the anniversary of these events.

Israelis with humanistic values are deeply offended when a minority of Haredim disregard the ritual of a minute’s silence during the wailing of the siren on Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaShoah. Orthodox Israelis who adhere to Halacha are likewise offended by seeing members of their own faith dining to the sounds of live music on the footpath on the night they mourn the greatest tragedies in Jewish history. Both camps need to be more sensitive to the other. This doesn’t mean that restaurants should close – but perhaps, should not flaunt their ‘openness’ with stickers on their windows.

In this regard, we can learn from what happens in the Old City of Jerusalem where many restaurants are still open during Ramadan, but few will have tables on the footpath and doors wide open like they do the rest of the year out of respect for the month of fasting observed by many residents of the city.

Given that we are living in an era where, through the blessing and the curse that is social media, acrimony and rivalry between different sects of Judaism is particularly intense and confronting, having a day devoted to acknowledging the impact of hatreds towards each other – that in some cases led to enormous catastrophes (read what Josephus writes about intra Jewish tensions under Roman rule to see what I mean) – is especially needed.

To their immense credit, there are some secular Jews that have adapted this thinking, which will be expressed this year in Jerusalem through a special event facilitated by Meeting Place called “How do we build a conversation? Tisha Be’Av in memory of Shira Banki.” Shira was just 16 when she was murdered at the Jerusalem pride march by a Haredi extremist a few days after Tisha Be’Av in 2015. The event in Kikar Safra will feature dozens of dialogue circles about all the burning issues of the day to enable participants to reflect on the lessons of the past in order to create a better future.

In Tel Aviv, there will be a number of demonstrations as part of a national strike called by The Aguda – The Israeli national LGBT Taskforce in protest to the government passing a bill denying surrogacy rights to gay men. In the facebook event they write, “Now it’s our turn to say NO! In Israel today, lesbian women cannot register their children to school, transgenders are stabbed on the streets, LGBTQ teens are running into homophobia every day in schools.” This expression of solidarity and rage at the direction Israel has taken in the past week where a Jewish Nation State Bill has passed with no reference to the words ‘democracy’ or ‘equality’,  seems like a very appropriate secular expression of Tisha B’Av.

For the sake of a strong and vibrant secular Judaism in Israel, I hope that we can create more events, protests and gatherings like these centered around our liberal values of diversity, dialogue and tolerance. We need to reclaim Jewish festivals and texts, rituals and symbols and imbue them with meanings and interpretations that respect human rights and freedoms. Because for us to survive here, we must better understand, celebrate and advocate what we are for as much as what we are against.

About the Author
Ittay Flescher is a freelance journalist and educator in Jerusalem.