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Pressure mounts on Ben Gvir to ‘lower the flames,’ call off Tel Aviv prayer rally

Members of the coalition called Wednesday on far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to cancel his planned Orthodox prayer service at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Thursday evening, seeking to avoid fanning the flames in the aftermath of heated confrontations that broke out there on Yom Kippur between secularist activists and people who assembled there to pray with a diver in place to separate men from women in violation of a municipal order.

A rival prayer service planned by anti-government protest organizations, including Kaplan Force, also drew internal criticism as voices on both sides of the religious and political divide sought to lower the tensions that reached a boiling point on Sunday evening and Monday.

Altercations were sparked in Tel Aviv and other locations after organizers of services in public areas attempted to observe the segregation of men and women during Yom Kippur prayers in accordance with the requirement of Orthodox Jewish law, sparking backlash from the secular activists who view the practice as an illegitimate sidelining of women.

The events are seen by some as fresh proof of the rippling effect of the societal conflict unleashed by the government’s judicial overhaul, which has spread to multiple areas of life and overlaps with divergent visions for the country’s character.

At the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the current situation “requires that we make an effort to reduce the friction between us — and increase unity between us.”

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Netanyahu on Tuesday had called for sides to “lower the flames” and implored “leaders to act responsibly.” But the premier initially issued a fiery statement contending that “left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews,” adding: “It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms and no limitations on hatred from the extremists on the left.”

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)

MK Almog Cohen, from Ben Gvir’s own Otzma Yehudit party, was among those calling for the event to be called off, as the country also faces ongoing tensions on the Gaza border.

“Precisely in these days when there is division in a society fueled by extremist elements, as we saw in the events in Tel Aviv, we need to focus the fire on the real enemy,” Cohen told Channel 12 news.

The network reported that Ben Gvir’s electoral partner, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who leads the Religious Zionism party, had told his associates that the prayers “play into the hands of Kaplan Force and the Brothers and Sisters in Arms,” referencing groups protesting the government’s judicial overhaul, and adding that “this is not the time for unnecessary provocations.”

Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a member of Religious Zionism, told Ben Gvir in a letter that even though his intentions were good, his “actions are unwelcome.”

“There is no doubt that the activities of a small and violent minority that attacked worshipers on Yom Kippur are heartbreaking for all of us, but the answer to the provocation of a progressive, extremist minority and their noise must not be a counter-provocation that will lead to the expansion of hatred,” he wrote.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, explicitly called on Ben Gvir “to not go to the prayers at Dizengoff,” before entering the cabinet meeting.

In an interview with the Knesset channel, Shas party chair Aryeh Deri said that would-be participants should instead pray at a synagogue, because “we don’t need an unnecessary war.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) also told reporters at the cabinet meeting that Ben Gvir should move the prayer service to one of the synagogues near Dizengoff Square.

“These are very sad days for the Jewish people, in Israel and in the Diaspora. I suggest that the Israeli leadership stop with the bombastic statements and calm the flames,” he said.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein tweeted: “On one side Ben Gvir, on the other [former prime minister and current anti-government protest figure] Ehud Barak and his emissaries. In the middle, there is a whole nation that is just fed up with extremism.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, chair of the Yesh Atid party, urged people to not protest Ben Gvir’s appearance at Dizengoff Square.

“Let him stand there with La Familia and have them demonstrate against themselves. There is no greater punishment than ignoring this media-obsessed man. After all, he came looking for a fight, why give him one?” Lapid tweeted, referencing an extremist ultranationalist group.

National Unity party chair Benny Gantz called on Netanyahu to fire Ben Gvir, noting that while a daylight shooting occurred in Haifa on Wednesday, the national security minister “is preoccupied with provocations rather than with saving lives.”

Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen called on Ben Gvir to stop “provoking” trouble.

“Cancel the prayers on Thursday. This is the time to calm down and not to provoke. Maybe it is preferable that you invest your spare time in your office and take care of the rising crime,” he said.

However, some in the coalition backed Ben Gvir’s planned service.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, also of Otzma Yehudit, said that people should not have to pray in synagogues rather than public places “because of a group of bullies that threaten us.”

“We cannot allow people to exclude Judaism from the public sphere. We cannot surrender to this terror and violence,” he told Channel 12.

File: Likud MK Tally Gotliv speaks during a Knesset committee meeting on August 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Firebrand Likud MK Tally Gotliv urged Ben Gvir not to give in to the pressure.

“If the media is demonizing you… you are probably doing something right. You are a very proud right-winger and are paying a heavy price for your important values,” she tweeted.

The Tel Aviv municipality has threatened to stop permitting events by Rosh Yehudi, the Orthodox group that had organized the Yom Kippur services at Dizengoff Square, which devolved into loud protests and furious altercations on a day considered sacrosanct by most Israeli Jews.

The Tel Aviv municipality prohibited organizers from Rosh Yehudi from placing a physical barrier, as they had done in previous street prayers that they have been organizing on Yom Kippur, starting in 2020. The Supreme Court affirmed the municipality’s right to do so in a ruling on a petition filed by the organizers.

Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that states that it encourages greater adherence by Jews to halacha, installed a bamboo frame with Israeli flags hanging down from the top side, which it contended satisfied halacha without violating the city’s rules.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai wrote on Facebook that the frame did violate the law, and while police did not remove the bamboo frame and deemed it not a physical barrier, angry protesters pulled it down and broke it apart as both sides exchanged angry words.

On Tuesday, Ben Gvir announced the event and dared activists to “eject us,” leading to denunciations from the coalition and opposition.

Huldai instructed police to make sure that Ben Gvir’s prayer event doesn’t have any gender segregation, Haaretz reported.

The protests over the Yom Kippur prayer service largely dovetailed with concerns from activists that the government’s judicial overhaul program will lead to diminishing religious freedoms and increased Orthodox coercion in the public sphere. The overhaul would significantly weaken courts’ ability to block, among other things, legislation and policies that allegedly don’t align with Western democratic values on religious freedoms.

Supporters of the overhaul say it enhances democratic principles by giving more power to accountable officials at the expense of a secular elite they say dominates a judiciary and bureaucracy that are not sufficiently representative of the majority.

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.