Religious Zionists Facing Deep Rifts After Evacuation of Amona Outpost

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — The crowd at Zion Square was young, extremely young, and surprisingly sparse. A half-hour after the planned start of the demonstration, just a block from the temporary stage with its huge sign reading “Olmert Is Bad for the Jews,” there was still plenty of open pavement separating the big knots of girls in blue-jean skirts and the pairs and trios of teenage boys with crocheted skullcaps.

On video screens set up on the streets, blurred snapshots alternated: Police swinging batons, wounded kids on stretchers. The photos were intended as evidence of police brutality during the February 1 demolition of nine uninhabited houses at the West Bank settlement outpost of Amona. More broadly, the pictures were meant as evidence that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had declared open season against the religious Zionist community. The slideshow did not include shots of hundreds of teens on the roofs of the illegally built houses, barricaded behind barbed wire, hurling stones, light bulbs and cinder blocks at police lines.

The organizers of the February 5 demonstration, including the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, could feel satisfied with the image they had projected in the media. Press reports said that tens of thousands came, making it the biggest protest since last summer’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements. As veterans of Zion Square rallies, the organizers have less reason to be happy with the reality. The crowd was thinner than in the past. The median age appeared to be about 16. The modern Orthodox burghers of Jerusalem, and even of veteran West Bank settlements, were almost entirely AWOL.

Nor was the settlement council itself popular among the protesters. The council is known in Hebrew as “Yesha” — an acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza that happens to mean “salvation.” But pre-teen girls held up hand-scrawled signs saying, “Get rid of the Pesha Council,” using the Hebrew word for “crime.” The pun appeared as a headline on fliers that boys were handing out to passersby, charging the council’s adult leaders with preventing “any violent friction” between protesters and troops during last summer’s pullout, and with willingness to dismantle some West Bank outposts to preserve others. The elders stood accused of classic offenses: hypocrisy, moderation and corruption.

The demonstration is an example of a larger image gap. The Amona showdown has generated a new wave of media discussion of a divorce between “the religious Zionist public” and secular Israel. Most religious Zionists, it’s true, are right of center politically. Most, though not all, opposed the Gaza pullout. That said, most still see the state, army service and secular education as assumed parts of life.

But there is a religious Zionist crisis, or two overlapping ones. One crack runs through the intensely ideological minority that has dominated the politics and education of the Orthodox Zionist community for at least three decades, and that includes prominent rabbis, politicians and settlement activists. Another crack runs between generations.

The activists’ ideology was adapted from the ideas of pre-state rabbinic sage Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, who asserted that secular Zionists were fulfilling God’s plan. His son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, took that idea a step further and labeled the establishment of Israel and the conquests of the Six-Day War as leaps toward the Messianic age; he became the mentor of the Orthodox settlement movement, which he saw as another step in the divine plan.

For such believers, the Gaza disengagement came as an earthquake, revealing a structural weakness in their beliefs: the state and the secular majority — even the secular right — have stopped playing their assigned role. The sanctity of settlement and the sanctity of working with other Jews no longer fit together.

The demolition at Amona last week redoubled the shock. At issue, rather than a score of settlements in Gaza, were nine houses, built at the edge of an unauthorized settlement near Ramallah on private Palestinian land. Under the pressure of a lawsuit filed by Peace Now, the government had committed itself to implementing demolition orders. Olmert chose to keep that commitment.

But for several thousand young people, mobilized by the settlement council, trying to stop the demolition represented an opportunity to erase the “shame” of the relatively peaceful evacuation last summer, and to show the price of further disengagement. The army failed to keep them out of Amona, and the police assigned to the demolition showed that last summer’s ultra-restrained crowd control methods were a fluke.

What happened instead was the most violent clash in recent memory between the settlers and the authorities. The police, held back for hours by last-minute legal wrangling, showered with stones and cursed as “Nazis,” pushed their way to the houses with baton blows, some rendered from horseback. More than 200 police and demonstrators were injured. Settler leaders, placing the onus for confrontation entirely on the government, are now demanding a state commission of inquiry.

Yet Amona’s practical significance is still unclear. In a television interview February 7, Olmert said that if he is reelected on March 28, his goal is “to separate from most of the Palestinian population” by withdrawing from large parts of the West Bank. Three large settlement blocs, he said, would remain part of Israel — Ma’aleh Adumim east of Jerusalem, the Etzion area south of the capital, and the Ariel sector in the northern West Bank. That implies evacuating many other settlements, and not just tiny outposts like Amona. Meanwhile, though, Interior Ministry figures show that the West Bank settler population grew by more than 6,000 in the second half of 2005. The age of settlement isn’t over, but its future is cloudy.

The alienation among ideological settlers is palpable. The slogan “Olmert Is Bad for the Jews” plays on a semantic shift noticeable in settler circles since last summer, in which “Jews” means those faithful to land and Torah, as opposed to “Israelis.” There is an exclusive claim to legitimacy, but also a hint of defeat, in this formulation, since “Israelis” vastly outnumber “Jews.” The refrain by young people at Sunday’s rally in Jerusalem, that Olmert went ahead with the Amona demolition “just to get votes,” is an admission that settlers have lost the public.

“Good and evil always struggle,” said one 25-year-old yeshiva student at the rally, turning the alienation into theology. During galut, or exile, he said, “evil dominates. We’re trying to silence it.” The sentiment, voiced by other settler ideologues as well, carries startling echoes of the classic ultra-Orthodox retort to religious Zionism: that even in the Land of Israel, religious Jews are in exile under secular rule. At the same time, the student insisted the current crisis constituted “birth pains” of impending redemption. In contrast to Kook’s Zionism, secular Jews have become the roadblock to salvation, not the unwitting fellow travelers in getting there.

Religious Zionism “is in a huge storm,” said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the 48-year-old head of a yeshivah in Petah Tikvah that combines study and army service. Cherlow, considered a moderate among right-wing rabbis, said in an interview that what concerns him most at the moment is not ideology but the danger that “we are raising an anarchistic generation. They hate everyone —– the institutions of the state of Israel, the army… It continues with the collapse of rabbinic authority, and parental authority, and the final stop is hating themselves.” The older generation, he said, is more tied to the state.

What Cherlow did not say is that some members of the older generation have repeatedly recruited youth for confrontations with authorities — and now have lost control.

Only a fraction of the religious Zionist community is caught directly in the storm that Cherlow describes. Pictures of a downtown rally do not show the people who did not come. Most religious Zionists “live between Netanya and Rehovot,” meaning the secular, urban center of Israel, said political scientist Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on religious Zionism. Most, he said, belong to the pragmatic right. If they were angry at the police at Amona, they were also offended by kids throwing cinder blocks. And, he said, “For every kid at Amona, there were five surfing the Net or playing soccer or at a Bnei Akiva meeting.”

And that, too, is part of the alienation. The most radical of the pro-settler youth feel spurned by secular Israel, including erstwhile right-wing allies like Ehud Olmert. Most members of their own community are learning to accept that some land will be given up. The Yesha (“salvation”) Council has become the Pesha (“crime”) Council, even as it continues to defend them. The police batons at Amona added the potent flavor of victimhood. Precisely when a protest movement loses mass support, some of the angry and disappointed turn violent. The anger, not the numbers, is where the danger lies.

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