Israel’s secular-religious divide highlighted in holiday incidents

JERUSALEM — In a year of unprecedented public discord, the high-holiday period in Israel has devolved into a rhetorical — and occasionally physical — battle between secular and religious Israelis, with protesters disrupting gender-segregated public prayer services and one of the country’s chief rabbis lamenting that nonobservant citizens have grown stupid due to their nonreligious diets.

Secular protesters, objecting to the use of public funds and facilities for events that require men and women to be separated, disrupted a women’s-only film event in Jerusalem Sunday. On Yom Kippur — Judaism’s deeply solemn day of atonement — the protesters pulled down barriers dividing male and female worshipers at a prayer service in a public square in Tel Aviv after municipal authorities had ruled against such segregation.

Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, of Judaism’s Sephardic branch, blamed the growing objections to religious influence on a lack of understanding among secular Israelis.

“A person who eats non-kosher food, his brain gets stupid, he can’t understand things, doesn’t get it,” Yosef said in a recorded sermon that circulated on social media Sunday, referring to the religion’s dietary requirements. “As soon as he starts keeping kosher, you can start to influence him.”

Yosef is one of two chief rabbis who wield government-sanctioned authority over many aspects of civic life, including marriage and divorce laws applying to all Israeli Jews.

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Opposition Leader Yair Lapid slammed the rabbi for demeaning his nonreligious countrymen.

“He was right about one thing,” Lapid posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, “they felt a little stupid tonight when they remembered that they were the ones paying his salary.”

The weeks-long holiday period ends Friday, and many leaders have beseeched Israelis on all sides to act with greater tolerance during the holiest stretch of the Jewish calendar. Those pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears during a time unprecedented political division.

Avinoam Rosenak, of Hebrew University’s Jewish Studies Institute, said the fight reflects divisions over religion’s role in society going back to the founding of the country.

“What’s going on is a cultural-identity war,” he said. “The state of Israel is still trying to define for itself what it means to be a Jewish state and a liberal democratic state.”

The rancor reflects long-standing tensions in Israel over the role of religion in public life and the special status afforded to the country’s growing ultra-Orthodox population.

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi as they are known in Hebrew, are largely shielded from the country’s mandatory draft and educational standards. Their families benefit from heavy public subsidies that allow boys and men to devote years to religious study instead of working and paying taxes in the mainstream economy.

Although more Haredi Israelis, men and women, are joining the workforce, resentment against them has grown as they have become Israel’s fastest growing demographic, now accounting for roughly 13 percent of the population.

Religious parties provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the majority he needs to keep his 9-month-old coalition in power. In exchange, critics say, the government has taken steps to funnel billions to ultra-Orthodox institutions, housing developments, and schools which largely do not adhere to national standards for teaching math, science and other core subjects.

Haredi lawmakers are pushing legislation that would expand their exemption from army service to be passed by the end of the current parliamentary session.

The hostilities between secular and religious Israelis have been exacerbated by the government’s plan to limit the power of Israel’s judiciary and Supreme Court, which has been a check on religious power. In the run-up to Yom Kippur, the court backed the right of municipalities such as Tel Aviv to prohibit gender-segregated events on city property.

The protests that have rocked Israel since January regularly warn that the judicial overhaul would pave the way for Israel to become a “theocracy.”

“We firmly reject the religious monopoly maintained by ultra-Orthodox groups, and we emphasize that religion and spirituality should be accessible to all, not restricted to a select few,” said Josh Drill, one of the protest leaders.

Officials have fought back, accusing protesters of being anti-Jewish and even anti-Semitic.

“On the holiest Jewish day, left-wing protesters rioted against Jews as they prayed,” Netanyahu posted after the clash on Yom Kippur. “It seems that there are no limits, no norms, and there is no exception from hatred for the left-wing extremists.”

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