Yom-Kippur in 1973 was a defining moment. Will Yom-Kippur 2023  prove to be another?

By David E. Kaplan

It is 50 years this October since the Yom-Kippur War of 1973 and Israel is again at war – this time with itself.  As Israel over the years since ’73 tamed threats from without, today its greatest threat may lie from within.

According to the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI)’ in its 2023 Annual Assessment published on Wednesday, about 37% of Israelis currently hold or plan to acquire a foreign passport with the intention of emigrating. This figure is ALARMING, ringing like the all-too familiar siren warning of an incoming missile. According to the JPPI, this staggering high percentage from a country that in recent years featured high in polls of the ‘top happiest countries in the world” underscores the deepening crisis within Israel and raises questions about the nation’s resilience. The discontent on the street is not as Justice minister, Yariv Levin sees it that “They failed at the ballot box, and now they want to cancel election results.” On the contrary, the “they” as L:evin calls the protestors, feel that in 2023, they suddenly feel they are on the wrong train, going in the wrong direction! One option is to get off before it crashes.

Tumult in Tel Aviv.  While Jews praying, activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom-Kippur on September 25, 2023.(Photo: ITAI RON/FLASH90)

In a year marked by significant turmoil and polarization, due to the governing coalition’s judicial overhaul  coupled with turbulence in areas of religion and state, the JPPI report paints a troubling picture of Israeli society.

An increasing number of Israeli citizens of 2023 see the real danger to their country lying not in Tehran but in Jerusalem. As a metaphor of this change in perspective, Netanyahu’s address at the UN was before a near empty auditorium. This is a marked change from previous appearances before the General Assembly. Even listeners at home who used to hang at his every word, not this year. Few bothered to tune in as too few believe and trust him anymore. His words may still be polished parlance but they are the parlance of a Pinocchio.

And here lies a quirky irony that as the Jewish state reaches out to former enemies striking glorious accords, within Israel today the present government of Netanyahu now sows inglorious discord.

Prayer as Protest.  To defy a Tel Aviv municipal ban against gender segregation in public spaces upheld by the Supreme Court, the Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in Dizengoff Square on Yom-Kippur on September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Encapsulating this scenario in a timely metaphor of the ‘State of the Nation’ was again an outbreak of hostilities on Yom-Kippur. This time not on border battlefields, but on the streets of Tel Aviv and between Jews. The largest confrontation was on Dizengoff Square as worshipers began the opening prayer of Kol Nidre. Extremists from the religious right-wing camp, supporters of the Netanyahu governing coalition, attempted (in defiance of municipal and High Court rulings barring gender segregated prayers in PUBLIC places)  to forcibly set up a partition to separate men and woman. In response, counter-protesters disrupted the segregated prayers and the issue devolved into fisticuffs with two arrests.

Division on Dizengoff. 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)

Even though the ban on gender segregation had been issued by the Tel-Aviv municipality and upheld by the Supreme Court,  this proved no impediment for Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right Minister of National Security from calling for a protest prayer later in the week in Tel Aviv. He has since under pressure from his more responsible colleagues called it off. Instead of fulfilling the role of his portfolio by providing ‘security’, Ben-Gvir was typically doing the exact opposite. Displaying disrespect for the judiciary and disdain for those not sharing his views, Ben-Gvir said in a video posted Tuesday on X:

I say to those anarchists that tried to eject worshipers on Yom-Kippur — I and my friends from Otzma Yehudit are coming on Thursday to the same spot, let’s see you try and eject us.”

And this is Israel’s Minister of National Security who is himself a threat to  national security.

Menacing Minister. Israel’s rabble-rousing Minister of National Security was fanning the flames of turmoil by inciting his base to return to Tel Aviv in another protest prayer, which he later called off.

And so, the usually solemn Day of Atonement – Yom-Kippur – saw new controversy over the fate of Israel’s democracy. After nearly 10 months of street protests from Israelis who fear the government is on a tragic trajectory to erode protections for women and minorities and impose an ultraconservative version of Judaism on the public, the flare up on Yom-Kippur added fuel to the fire. If any further evidence was needed to show that the wounds Israel today suffers are sell-inflicted, we have to look no further than its leadership. What the chaos in Tel Aviv did not need need was Ben-Gvir fanning the flames with his rabble-rousing rhetoric nor the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu who characterized what transpired as “leftist protesters rioting against Jews.”

Where does Israel go from here with a government which is failing to read the landscape? Is this not what happened in 1973 when it failed to read the military machinations of Egypt and Syria? Today it fails to read the mood on the street as it embarks on policies that are anathema to far too many people. Impervious to entreaties from Israelis and Jews across the world, this extreme right-wing coalition persists on its judicial overhaul that is set to overhaul the Israel we know and it’s relationship with the Jewish diaspora. At a time when we should be strengthening our ties with Jewish communities around the world, this government is alienating them.

The situation reminds this writer of the war room in Tel Aviv in October 1973, captured so brilliantly in the recently released movie ‘Golda’ with Helen Mirren superbly cast as Golda Meir. Taken by surprise in attacks on its two major fronts with Egypt and Syria, Israel faced annihilation.  “We came so close Henry,” says Golda to US Secretary of State Kissinger at one of their meetings. Most of the action in the movie takes place not on the battlefields but in in the underground command centre in Tel Aviv, not too far  from Kaplan Street, the epicenter of today’s protest movement. Was it the directors intent or was it coincidental that the war room in one sense was visually like a battlefield with so much smoke that it was a struggle to see clearly. In the battlefield it’s from the conduct of war, in Golda’s war room it was from incessant cigarette smoke.  Was the smoke the director’s metaphor for a blinding fog –  failing to see beyond the lurking dangers?

Seeing through the Smoke. A smoky war room during the Yom-Kippur War of 1973 from the movie Golda with Helen Mirren as Golda (left).  (Sean Gleason, Courtesy of Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures)


Fifty years later from that defining war, are our leaders today again failing to see the damage they are inflicting on the nation and the Jewish people by their misguided proposals and policies?

Writing in the Times of Israel, Canaan Lidor writes that “Seen more broadly, the dispute over the Dizengoff Square prayer service is a sobering example of how an initiative that once transcended Israel’s religious-secular divide has this year deepened it, amid the ideological clash over religion and state in connection with the government’s judicial overhaul.”

As this country moves and trips after one self-inflicted crises after another, what this Yom-Kippur has shown is that people should really pray for is for reason to prevail! The signs are not good.

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,” said Aldous Huxley. 

It’s a lesson that Israel’s present leadership is failing to grasp as it careers headlong  along its “March of Folly”.

Mayhem erupts in Tel Aviv over segregated Yom Kippur Prayers

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).


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