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At a Tel Aviv prayer rally, anti-government protesters channel ‘a different Judaism’

Wearing a rhinestone tiara on a white niqab emblazoned with biblical verses in Hebrew, Hila Galili made a striking sight as she stood in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Thursday.

Galili wore the outfit — complete with ropes around her wrists and a sash that read “A woman of valor, who can find” — to a left-wing rally as a warning against Israel becoming a theocracy, she explained to those who asked. It was a Torah-specific adaptation of the “Handmaid’s Tale” outfits that feminist activists have been wearing at protests against conservatism in Israel and other countries.

But unlike many of the left-wing rallies that Israel has seen in recent months, the one attended by Galili on Thursday wasn’t about promoting secularism or limiting religion. Rather, it was part political rally and part Jewish prayer service, led by a rabbi who blew a shofar as hundreds of participants applauded.

Many of the attendees at the rally — likely the largest religious-themed pushback to date against the right-wing government — welcomed its harnessing of liberal Judaism to the protest movement. But it also triggered unease in some secular participants with an aversion to institutionalized Judaism, and underlined how that sentiment could pose obstacles to establishing a robust religious response to the government’s actions.

The event, where rainbow flags and anti-government slogans were prominent, constituted a “reclaiming of Judaism” from the conservative right, said one of the organizers, Yaya Fink, a national-religious Labor party activist.

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The Reform rabbi who led the prayer service, Galia Sadan, said the rally was meant to show “another kind of Judaism” that jibes with left-wing secular values fueling the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Israelis attend a rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on September 28, 2023. The larger sign reads: “Love religion, hate the Rabbinate.” (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Thursday’s event came as a response to another protest prayer rally announced, and then canceled, by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who had urged his followers to hold a gender-segregated prayer service at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Thursday in defiance of the city’s ban on placing barriers between men and women on public grounds.

The move came in response to an altercation over segregated prayer that boiled over into a national dispute and dialogue about Israel’s religious character.

On Sunday and Monday, secular Tel Aviv residents prevented Orthodox worshipers from praying on Yom Kippur with a gender divider at Dizengoff Square. Ben Gvir, a far-right politician, sought to protest this by announcing the segregated prayer event.

Following Ben Gvir’s announcement, several activist groups said they would hold a non-segregated prayer event on Thursday to rival Ben Gvir’s gathering. Amid fears of violent clashes between the groups, Ben Gvir canceled. The protest groups then moved their prayer event from Dizengoff Square to Habima.

But some protest supporters would have preferred that prayer never entered the picture.

Protesters shout at Israel Zeira, founder of the Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi, which set up a gender divider for a public prayer event on Yom Kippur in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

“What stupidity,” Naomi Alon, an investigative journalist, wrote on Facebook about the protest activists’ decision to hold a prayer rally. “Instead of rejecting the idea of prayer in public spaces and demanding a separation of religion and state, they’re going to prove they’re holier than Ben Gvir.”

Tuvi Pollack, a writer and podcaster who supports the protest movement, also rejected the turn toward religion. “There’s no God and never was,” he wrote on X. “I’m outraged that they’re dragging me, and the whole country, into this insanity. And these are supposedly our people, no less secular than me.”

Natan Daskal, a 71-year-old professor of molecular neurobiology at Tel Aviv University, attended the prayer rally despite having some ambivalence about religion.

Secular and Orthodox Israelis at a contested public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I’m secular. I’m Jewish because they hated me for being Jewish,” said Daskal, who was born in the former Soviet Union. Asked whether he connected emotionally or spiritually to the prayer for the State of Israel led by Sadan, he said: “It was much more of a political act for me.”

“I’m trying not to resist religion. Because I’ve been inculcated to resist religion since childhood. There are many reasons [to resist] religion generally and its clergy and establishment in Israel and globally,” Daskal added.

Daskal, who lives in central Israel’s Ramat Hasharon, said half his family has become devoutly religious. He has learned to “accept the good things in religion along with the bad,” he said.

Orthodox Jews pray while activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer service on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 25, 2023. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Galili, the activist in the tiara and a Jewish version of a niqab, said she does not oppose religion. But Galili, whose estranged husband has forced her to undergo divorce in a religious family court instead of a secular one, has “issues with the religious establishment,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s right that this country has two competing court systems,” Galili said, referring to the Israeli judiciary’s so-called “authorities race,” in which the spouse who files for divorce first may get to determine whether the process happens in a civil family court or a state-recognized rabbinic court. Many view the procedure as biased against women.

Rabbinical judges recently interrogated Galili about her sexual activities, leaving her feeling “raped,” she said. But Galili was able to connect to the prayer, the blowing of the shofar and the religious hymns sung at the rally.

“It does resonate on some level. Certainly with a lot of people who believe in God but also in many who don’t. We’re all Jews, at the end of the day, we all grew up on this heritage to some degree,” she said.

Sadan, the Reform rabbi, prefaced her speech with an admission that, “Granted, in a tradition dating back 3,500 years, there are racist, discriminatory, exclusionary voices and, sadly, there are men and women who choose to sound those voices above all others.”

Rabbi Galia Sadan blows the shofar at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 28, 20223. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But, Sadan assured listeners, “there is another kind of Judaism” than the Orthodox variant championed by Netanyahy’s Likud party and its religious coalition partners. “An inclusive and tolerant one, based on human dignity and on de-mo-cracy,” she shouted, using a slogan of anti-government protesters. Hundreds of her listeners answered by repeating the call for several long minutes.

The rally also featured a Haredi speaker, Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, the founder of Jerusalem’s Chachmei Lev yeshiva, who is currently promoting a project that aims to educate Haredi Jews about democratic values. He was the only speaker who appeared to criticize the actions of secularists who disrupted the sex-segregated prayers at Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Bezalel Cohen. (Courtesy)

“We are living through very difficult times of great division,” Cohen said. “This division has brought us to a place where we saw very difficult sights on Yom Kippur. We’ve come here to come together but peace requires hard work and concessions.”

“We can do our best, and ask God almighty to help us achieve our goals,” he said.