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A day of atonement turns tense in Israel as secular-religious divide heats up

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Israel, the usually solemn day of atonement, Yom Kippur, saw new controversy over the fate of the country's democracy. Protesters drove out a religious group that was seeking to pray in an iconic secular location and to conduct those prayers while segregating men and women. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It took place Sunday night, the eve of Yom Kippur, in Tel Aviv, Israel's most secular liberal city. Several hundred protesters chanted shame at an Orthodox Jewish group setting up a Yom Kippur prayer service in a main public square at the heart of the city. The religious group's aim is to spread Judaism among Tel Aviv's youth. And the municipality allowed it to hold the prayers, but the city and Israel's Supreme Court had ruled the group could not set up a physical partition to separate men from women, as is Orthodox custom. They did it anyway. And protesters tore down the divider, made of string and Israeli flags, and also blocked other public gender partitions in other cities. Orly Erez-Likhovski of the liberal Israeli Religious Action Center celebrated this as a victory. She's won legal battles against ultra-Orthodox Jewish discrimination against women on buses, public health clinics and on the radio.

ORLY EREZ-LIKHOVSKI: Seeing the sights was heartbreaking, you know, for me. It was very, very hard to see in Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day for Jews. But I think we have to understand most Israelis are no longer willing to accept not only the extremist version of this government trying to destroy Israel's democratic nature, but also, we're not going to allow, you know, extremist Orthodox to control our public sphere.

ESTRIN: This really goes back to efforts by Israel's far-right Orthodox Jewish government to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, which it sees as too liberal. That has sparked nearly 10 months of street protests from Israelis who fear the government will erode protections for women and minorities and impose an ultraconservative version of Judaism on the public. As Yom Kippur ended, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against, quote, "leftist protesters rioting against Jews." His far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has upped the ante.

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ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said he'll hold prayers at that Tel Aviv square later this week. "Anarchists," he said, "we'll see you try to drive us out." Opposition leaders in parliament are accusing Netanyahu of stoking religious civil war. The battle over the role of religion in the streets of Israeli cities is shaping up to be a key issue on the ballot when Israelis vote in municipal elections next month. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.