Prayer and Protest Show Tensions in Israel

  • Jewish congregational prayer is a demonstration of the love of the Jewish people for God, who is their king.
  • Democracy should give equal recognition of the importance of prayer as it gives political demonstration.
  • Democracy and Religion conflict, but Coronavirus is to blame, not Netanyahu.

Democracy gives the right of the people to demonstrate and should also give the right for its people to pray together. This is the complaint of the religious parties and communities in Israel, faced with a lockdown during the holiday season, which began the day before the Jewish new year.

The religious in Israel demonstrate against lockdown during the Jewish holidays.

Coronavirus infections are on a very high level per capita, more than almost every country in the world. The Israeli government, under the supervision of Ronni Gamzu, the Coronavirus Czar, has initiated a lockdown, which started on the day before New Years Day.

In Judaism, New Year’s Day, called Rosh Hashanah, is a holy day of prayer. The prayers on Rosh Hashanah are lengthier than other days during the year.  On Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar, or ram’s horn, is also blown. This is symbolic of an awakening of mercy for the New Year.

On Rosh Hashanah, even during the lockdown, the synagogues were open for limited attendance. With the daily increase of infections, hospitalizations from Coronavirus, and deaths, the Israeli government met to employ further restrictions on the population to prevent more Coronavirus cases and deaths. The hospitals have also become filled.

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah until the major fast day, called Yom Kippur, are called the ten days of repentance. These are days for prayer and correction.

When the government met this week on Wednesday to expand the lockdown, which threatened the closing of synagogues and limitation of prayer gatherings, the leaders of the religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, threatened to leave the government if there would be more limitation on prayer gatherings and synagogue closings.

The former Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, an MK from UTJ, left his position of Minister of Housing in opposition to the lockdown before Rosh Hashanah and the holiday season. Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, also threatened to leave the government if the synagogues would be closed on Yom Kippur.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Health, were faced with a crisis which could bring down the government. They had to make a decision about the future of prayers in synagogues and prayer gatherings outside, which they considered to be a problem in controlling the spread of the virus.

The religious parties complained that the government allows public demonstrations, but public prayers they prohibit or limit. The demonstration have gone on in front of the home of Netanyahu for the last few weeks. Thousands of Israelis have been allowed to gather in front of his home, with or without masks, and without following the regulations of two meter distancing.

Demonstrations are part of democracy, and in a democracy, they cannot be stopped, as long as they are peaceful. Sometimes, they become destructive, like the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in America.  The religious parties felt that allowing demonstrations, but prohibiting prayer gatherings, is injustice and anti-religion.

The question was raised in the Knesset and in the Israeli media: Prayer? Protest? What sort of State does Israel want to be? Is Israel a Jewish State, with a Biblical heritage, or a democratic state without religion?

The right to demonstrate has been abused in Israel, America, and throughout the world. Democracy guarantees its people the right to demonstrate peacefully. In America, in various cities, demonstrations have become abused by anarchists and criminals.

Demonstrations in Israel have also become violent. There have been many arrests at demonstrations, but not for breaking the regulations of the Ministry of Health to wear masks and to keep social distancing. The religious parties complain that the government gives favoritism to demonstrators before prayer gatherings, which are limited to smaller amounts of people— 250 in a large courtyard, and much less in a synagogue, or not at all.

Police and protesters clash in Seattle.

Jewish congregational prayer is a demonstration of the love of the Jewish people for God, who is their king. Prayer is a demonstration for the purpose of peace and unity. Demonstrations in Balfour, next to the house of Netanyahu, were against the Prime Minister of Israel, and also against the Coronavirus Czar.

The people believe Netanyahu and Gamzu have failed to stop Coronavirus from spreading, causing many people to be out of work, and causing inconvenience for the whole society. Prayer is a more constructive approach toward demonstration with a higher divine purpose than those demonstrations at Balfour, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in America.

Under the pressure of the religious parties, the government finally decided to leave the synagogues open on Yom Kippur, the high holy fast day. Synagogues will be closed as of Friday, and prayer gatherings will be outside to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

These prayer gatherings outside also will be limited, and according to the regulations of the Ministry of Health, with masks and social distancing. Demonstrations will continue without a firm decision to enforce the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other restrictions.

The Israel’s left-leaning newspaper, Haaretz writes: Netanyahu Pits Protests against Prayers. The compromise won’t come from him. There is tension in Israel between democracy and religion.

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David Wexelman

Author of 5 books on the internet on topics of Jewish mysticism, managing two websites.

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