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Herzog on Yom Kippur prayer clashes: Polarization a ‘true danger to Israeli society’

President Isaac Herzog sounded the alarm Tuesday over events this week in Tel Aviv in which secular and religious Israelis scuffled over gender segregation during public Yom Kippur prayer services, warning that the societal chasm poses a “true danger” to national security.

A religious group, defying a municipality order backed up by the Supreme Court, had set up an improvised gender divider for Yom Kippur prayers in a central Tel Aviv square, prompting angry protests from liberal residents that ended up thwarting the entire prayer service.

Similar events, and similar protests, took place in public spaces across the country.

Herzog spoke Tuesday alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery marking 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, which began with a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria that Israel’s intelligence and leadership infamously failed to anticipate.

Herzog noted that in 1973, Israelis were forced to “put all the disagreements aside and unite to punch back against enemies trying to eradicate them.”

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He added: “We must learn the lessons and truly understand that the internal threat within Israel is the most acute and dangerous threat of all.”

עכשיו בכיכר דיזנגוף.

— Or Kashti אור קשתי (@OrKashti) September 24, 2023

He referred to this year’s events in Tel Aviv as “a shocking and painful example of how the internal struggle within us is escalating and becoming extreme.”

“I know that I speak for the absolute majority of Israeli citizens when I express deep sorrow and shock at the sight of our own people fighting one another on a day that has always been a symbol of unity,” he said.

“How did we get to this terrible situation, in which 50 years after that bitter war, sisters and brothers stand on opposite sides of the divide? Those who pour fuel onto this fire are a real threat to Israeli unity. It has to stop here and now. The division, the polarization, the never-ending disputes — they are a true danger to Israeli society and to the security of the State of Israel,” the president warned.

“The enemies of Israel are commenting about this repeatedly and referring to the internal crisis within us as the beginning of the crumbling of the State of Israel; and even though they are completely wrong, we must come to our senses, soften the tone, listen, reach out, and end the internal crisis we are in through dialogue and agreement,” he urged.

Secular activists take down a gender divider made of Israeli flags that was set up by the Rosh Yehudi group in defiance of a municipality decision at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“These are not just empty words, but a historical obligation. So that, heaven forbid, historians and leaders [won’t] look at these days 50 years from now, and see the terrible price this rupture exacted from us, and ask: ‘How did they not understand the magnitude of the danger and the depth of the abyss? After all, it was right in front of their eyes.'”

Netanyahu, speaking after Herzog, similarly hailed the “heroic” rallying to battle of all parts of Israeli society back in 1973, which he said had saved the country.

“It was the glue that tied unit to unit, person to person — the uncompromising commitment to our nation, to our homeland,” the premier said. “The people won the war. The people — secular and religious, left-wing and right-wing, Jews and non-Jews — everyone proved back then that what connects us is greater than what divides us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a state ceremony marking 50 years since the Yom Kippur War at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Netanyahu, too, drew a parallel between 1973 and 2023: “I’m sure that today as well, if a war is forced upon us, what connects us will overcome what divides us, because in moments of crisis, we all know we have one nation, one military, one country. We have one past, and I have no doubt that we also have one joint future for all of us.”

The comments came after Netanyahu on Monday evening accused the secular activists of “rioting against Jews” and said: “It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms and no limitations on hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like most Israeli citizens, reject this. Such violent behavior has no place among us.”

Gallan, in his comments at the Tuesday ceremony, expressed a similar sentiment to Herzog and Netanyahu and said that “especially in these days, we must remind ourselves that we are brothers who carry thousands of years of history and common values.” He added that in future wars, “we will need them all.”

Secular and Orthodox activists clash after the religious Rosh Yehudi group sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a municipality decision at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

At Sunday’s event opening the Yom Kippur services, activists from the Rosh Yehudi religious group strung up Israeli flags as a makeshift barrier, or mechitzah, between the male and female worshipers in Dizengoff Square. Protesters then pulled down the flags and removed the chairs that organizers had set up, effectively preventing the service.

The incident sparked angry exchanges of words between activists on both sides and one secular demonstrator was detained by police for some three hours before being released.

Hundreds of demonstrators could be seen standing next to the area of the prayer service and chanting “shame, shame,” at the participants. Most of the worshipers left shortly afterward.

Similar scenes played out again in Dizengoff Square and in a number of Tel Aviv neighborhoods and elsewhere in the country as the fast day ended Monday evening, when groups attempted to erect gender dividers at public events and activists intervened.

Rosh Yehudi has been holding two Yom Kippur prayers in Dizengoff Square since 2020 when indoor gatherings were limited due to the coronavirus pandemic: the relatively small Kol Nidre prayer that opens the fast, and the Ne’ilah prayer at the end of the holiday, which has drawn about 2,000 worshipers in recent years.

Approximately 2,000 worshipers attend the Yom Kippur Neilah prayer on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a lower court in favor of the Tel Aviv municipality, which forbade Rosh Yehudi from holding the event with a gender divider.

The conflict around the prayer service comes amid a growing national debate over the role of religion in public spaces that has become exacerbated as part of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul, and amid concerns from women that their rights may no longer be protected.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.