Israel’s religious far right has a new settler target: Tel Aviv

Lily Galili

Middle East Eye  /  September 28, 2023

Violent confrontations over gender-segregated prayers have exposed an uncomfortable truth for liberal Israelis – the religious Zionist community is here to stay.

First we take Hebron/Al-Khalil, then we take Tel Aviv.

Though this line may echo Leonard Cohen’s famous words “First we take Manhatten, then we take Berlin”, it is not a take on a popular song.

Instead it is a master plan meticulously designed by the religious Zionist community over the years – a plan now implemented using the political power of two parties within Israel’s government: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power.

Do not make the mistake of thinking “take Tel Aviv” is a metaphor. It is an elaborate program to seize the one city in Israel that has become a symbol of liberalism and openness, and change it to its core.

The best way to describe the nature of this far-reaching plan is to compare it to the ongoing process of Judaization – where Jewish citizens are sent to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to settle and chase out Palestinian residents, a process that later targeted mixed Palestinian-Jewish cities in Israel in a bid to change the demographics there too.

The case of Tel Aviv is of course different, since most of the residents are Jewish, but, crucially, mainly secular or religious liberals. That, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s cadre believe, needs to change, spreading instead a creed of religious Zionism that is nationalistic, homophobic, xenophobic and racist.

Religion here is just a tool to achieve a greater, political cause. Young religious Zionist families collaborate to move en masse to locations chosen by political leaders behind the scenes. Just like Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories and mixed cities, they settle in the heart of Tel Aviv’s secular population.

The process is spreading rapidly. Today there are more than 80 groups pursuing religious Zionist settlement in majority-secular communities across Israel. Some representatives of these groups have made their way into several municipal councils, with the intention of changing the very nature of their carefully picked place of residence.

They are on a mission. In fact, they are missionaries, a local version of Jewish Crusaders, now openly empowered by their representation in the government. Many of them come from the illegal settlements in the West Bank, having accomplished their demographic mission there. It’s time to move on.

The same people who expropriate Palestinian land now expropriate Israel’s liberal public sphere. Like in the West Bank, these settlers have state backing. Minister of Settlements and National Missions Orit Strook secured 600m shekels from the budget just for this cause. Her office also has 1.6bn shekels allocated to spread and impose Judaism by other means.

There are other ministers in the government dedicated to the same mission, holding portfolios with names like “Jewish tradition” and “Jewish identity”. In essence it all boils down to Jewish supremacy. And Jewish supremacy needs more nationalist religious Jews.

Settlers turn inwards

It’s an intricate religious-political operation. “Judaizing” secular Jews is part of their messianic vision, one necessary step towards salvation.

And while it happened in the periphery, Tel Aviv’s indifferent residents were able to largely ignore it. Then it erupted out of the blue in the heart of their city at the most unexpected time: the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and the holiest day in all Judaism.

This is also the one day when religious customs are obeyed in Israel with no coercion – no cars, no commerce, no entertainment. Everyday life is put on hold. Most secular Jews respect the tradition and do not even eat or drink in public, showing respect to the high percentage of those who do fast on this day.

For several years now, parallel to prayers in all synagogues there have been organized public prayers. These laid-back affairs draw many non-observant Jews and have become a much-loved ritual.

All that changed dramatically this year when an organization called Rosh Yehudi (Jewish Head) organized a public prayer promising gender segregation, in accordance with strict Orthodox Judaism.

Gender segregation has become a sensitive issue under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-orthodox government, which is almost women-free itself. Women are now finding themselves sent to the back of buses, publicly reprimanded to “dress properly” and literally removed from the public sphere, where images of women are torn down and ripped to shreds.

Some liberal groups filed a petition against the gender segregation at the prayer Rosh Yehudi organized in the heart of Tel Aviv, and the high court ruled in their favour. The organizers went ahead and segregated men and women anyway, then all hell broke loose.

In a second, on the holiest of all days, a physical confrontation erupted between religious Zionists gathered by the organizers and secular protesters. There were no casualties, but everyone was soaked in hate.

Neither side had really come to pray. It was a carefully preconceived provocation, answered by rage fueled by months of Israelis watching their country changing in front of their eyes. Tel Aviv is secular Israel’s Bastille. It cannot fall.

Netanyahu responded by saying “left-wing demonstrators rioted against Jews during their prayer” – which to many was taken as insinuating that liberal Israelis are not actually Jewish.

For many religious Zionists, this is indeed the case. And they want to fix it.

Jewish Crusaders

Israel Zeira is the owner and CEO of Be Emuna, a real estate company. He’s also head of Rosh Yehudi, the NGO that organized the Tel Aviv prayer and describes itself as dedicated to spreading and deepening of Jewish values and identity.

The organization was established in the Jewish settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron, post-Oslo Accords. Its main aim was then to prevent the Jewish settlement, which is in the heart of the city, from being evacuated.

Yet Zeira and other Rosh Yehudi leaders decided their mission would be better served from Tel Aviv rather than Hebron, defining its base of operations as a “centre for self-consciousness” that “provides an answer to the growing demand for Jewish identity”.

Sounds quite harmless. It is not. Just a month ago, Zeira was recorded giving a lecture. In it, he addressed his audience asking: “What does a national religious Zionist think when he sees a secular Jew?”

 “To befriend him?” Zeira continued. “That stage belongs to the past… now we have reached the point when we want to befriend him in order to change him, to fix him. We want all Jews to become religious. Every secular ‘fixed’ Jew who becomes religious brings us closer to salvation.”

In recent years, Zeira has been offering a series of courses for graduates of the religious Zionist education system to prepare them for their mission: to move to Tel Aviv and plant roots in its society.

Smotrich himself came to bless recent graduates. He referred to those young missionaries as “our emissaries” and urged them not to fear, not to be embarrassed – just go and get as many souls as possible and make them “born again Jews”.

If that was not enough, as CEO of a construction company Zeira oversaw a building project for the religious Zionist community in the southern city of Kiryat-Gat. As part of an advertising campaign for the project, a short video was released showing a religious family cheerfully dining and celebrating. There’s a knock on the door, announcing an uninvited neighbour: loud, vulgar and – crucially – clearly Sephadric.

What a disaster for the quiet, well-behaved Ashkenazi family. A voiceover promoting Zeira’s new housing project appeals: “If you want to live surrounded by people like you.” Ashkenazi, of course.

This campaign was deemed too openly racist, and was forced to desist, but it is an excellent example of the discriminatory nature of the religious Zionist sector.

Existential questions

Thirty-eight weeks into the demonstrations against the government’s highly controversial judicial overhaul, Israel finds itself in an all-out clash of civilizations. Yet it’s not just a war for the future of Judaism, but for the future of Israel.

The state established on the principle that all Jews are bound by their shared fate now faces a major conflict defining its covenant of destiny and mission. What is Israel to be? Who are Israelis? Even, who is a Jew?

Before Israelis’ eyes, the equation they tried to adopt defining their country as a Jewish democratic state is crumbling before their eyes. There are some who believe Israel can be redeemed by redefining the state as one that gives Jews the right to self-determination. But that, too, cannot be realized amid domestic chaos where hate and violence prevail.

The incident in Tel Aviv on the eve of Yom Kippur is an integral part of the story of the anti-judicial reform protest movement. Holding gender-segregated prayers right where anti-government protests are held weekly was a knowing provocation, and provided a trigger.

The seeds of the next calamity are planted in the reaction of both sides of the political spectrum. Rosh Yehudi launched a campaign titled “Now more than ever Tel Aviv needs a Jewish head”.

 “Rosh Yehudi is at the frontline now. Help us grow, and thanks to you we will be able to spread the light of Torah and repentance in Tel Aviv,” the campaign’s website reads. It’s already raised over 1.5m shekels, and aims to double that.

This is exactly what worries the liberal camp, which is up in arms and ready to fight back. Many now regret the submissiveness they have long displayed when confronted with ardent believers.

However, there are others who look back at the Yom Kippur confrontation and fear their camp might have chosen the wrong cause and the wrong timing. Leading figures in the protest movement expressed concern that this aggressive approach might mark the first cracks in the unity of their cause.

There are worries in the other camp too. Itamar Ben-Gvir cancelled the retaliatory Tel Aviv “prayer rally” he planned to hold on Thursday, under pressure from his coalition partners.

There is a lesson to learn for the liberal camp in Israel. Picking on the ultra-orthodox, focusing anger and frustration on this community, has always been a big mistake.

Liberals are offended by the amounts of money the ultra-orthodox demand and receive from the state. They are exasperated by the community’s refusal to serve in the army. But the ultra-orthodox do not want to change others, they just don’t want to change themselves. In truth, their cause is no real threat to the liberal and secular Israelis.

The true enemy of liberal Israelis are instead the settler movement and the religious Zionist sector behind it.

It is not a matter of strategy, it’s a matter of survival. Tel Aviv cannot become a Maginot Line and fall at the first test. Not because it is more important than other locations, just because it’s symbolic. Symbols do matter in this fight for the future.  

Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel