After Gaza Pullout, Religious Zionists Talk of Crisis

By Guy Leshem

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — Thousands of people arrived in Jerusalem last week to accompany the coffins of 14 former residents of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza as they were reburied in the capital’s Mount of Olives cemetery.

Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, addressed the mourners.

“We brought 14 of the Gush Katif evacuees to their final resting place on the Mount of Olives. This is really a farewell from all of Israel to Gush Katif, which has been left without its dead, those that are laid out in front of us here,” Lau said, at the September 1 ceremony.

“They were representative of the entire Gush — different beliefs, a story of varieties, of the entire world. It’s sad for me that I don’t see sections of the nation actively honoring the Gush Katif dead,” Lau said, adding, “We must unite and build bridges, and not follow those who wish to divide us.”

After some emotional eulogies by major rabbis, Reuven Rivlin, Knesset chairman and Likud lawmaker — the only formal representative of the State of Israel in attendance — asked forgiveness from the dead. He was interrupted by people shouting, “There is no forgiveness, there is no forgiveness, we won’t forgive and we won’t forget.”

In another part of Jerusalem, a more aggressive display of alienation and outrage over disengagement was on display: A mock-up memorial for “the 25 communities of Gush Katif and northern Samaria, destroyed by the evil enemy Ariel Sharon” was found by workers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. The people who broke into the memorial site had hung 25 models of orange houses — the number of Jewish settlements evacuated in Gaza and the northern West Bank last month.

What Lau hinted at in his soft-mannered eulogy seems more possible now than ever: Anger and alienation over the disengagement plan could tear the national religious camp from the rest of Israeli society. If nothing is done, some observers have said, such a split is just a matter of time.

But with the evacuation completed, some religious and secular leaders and thinkers are at least beginning to acknowledge the crisis.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading Orthodox dove and former deputy minister for Diaspora affairs, told the Forward that it was easy to understand the despair felt by his fellow religious Zionists.

“They feel that what is being done is to crush the ethos, the narrative of religious Zionism,” said Melchior, who is a member of Meimad, the liberal Orthodox faction of the Labor Party. “So disengagement is seen as a step against religious Zionism. It is seen as a breach of the narrative that goes into all fields of life, even theology.”

According to this view, Melchior said, “Sharon is interfering with the messianic process.”

Melchior said he’s “worried on both the political and strategic levels” about what the situation will be “the day after” disengagement.

“I’m most worried about the internal relationships. What will happen to religious Zionism?” Melchior said, adding that some in the religious Zionist camp are cutting their “connection to Zionism” and aligning themselves with the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox.

“I am not sure,” Melchior said, “that I can answer the question of ‘Will we despair and polarize, or will we be able to pull together and take responsibility?’”

Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, head of the religious Kibbutz Ein Tzorim, agreed that his community was facing a defining crisis. How it plays out, he said, would be determined primarily by the rabbis.

“Most of the people who follow the rabbis will continue following them,” Ben-Nun said. “They will blame it all on the prime minister, find a mystical-religious reason to explain it, and the large majority will buy it.”

After focusing their efforts on stopping disengagement — and, critics say, sowing the seeds for the current theological crisis — religious Zionist rabbis and leaders of the Yesha Settlement Council are starting to wrestle with the societal fallout from disengagement.

Two main trends are emerging: One, the short-term goal, is to do everything possible to topple Prime Minister Sharon, based on the theory that the next pullout — involving significant numbers in the West Bank — is only a matter of time. The idea is to topple Sharon from within the Likud, with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

The main long-term goal is to win over the broader Israeli public by resuming the “face-to-face” campaign, an effort that featured settlers knocking on people’s doors throughout Israel to make their case, in an effort to reconnect with a public that is largely disengaged not only from the settlement enterprise but also from Judaism. The primary aim of the campaign will be to encourage the development of a stronger Jewish identity among secular Israelis. As Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a prominent settler religious leader, wrote this week: “We are currently at the height of a ‘civil war’ — not between policemen and soldiers and the evacuees, but at the height of a bitter and difficult national culture war over the face of the nation, a war between faith-based nationalism and the religion of liberal democracy, a war between eternal values and short-term coalitions.”

Rosen believes that eventually, religious Zionism will profit from the crisis. “It will grow seven times stronger and full of national aspirations,” the rabbi argued. “The undercurrents will now rise and tunnel the energy of the movement into major state establishments that will eventually be concurred by them in the sense of the Jewish identity. The values of giving to the state without asking anything in return are basic for us, as we see the state as values and not just a framework of rules. I can predict the directing of our youth’s energy into influential integration in the fields of media, law, arts, economy, academia and other major fields.”

Rosen’s aim is the assumption of state leadership by religious Zionists.

“I don’t mean that we will turn Israel into a Saudi-like religious state,” Rosen said. “We always believed in adding our extra values into the structure of the state. We have democratic values. But we aim for a Jewish democratic state.”

Among those calling for a democratic revolution carried out by religious Zionists is Knesset member Effi Eitam, former head of the National Religious Party, who broke off to form a more hawkish faction. He is sending a loud and clear warning to Israel’s liberal establishment. “When the day comes, you will have to accept the decisions of another majority,” Eitam said. “We are working hard to build it. Those decisions will be accepted even if they are bitter as gall for you and turn your stomachs.”

Some rabbis are calling for a new slate of leaders, who would be even more aggressive in advancing the religious Zionist cause.

In an article titled “Religious Zionism Yom Kippur,” published by the pro-settler Arutz 7 News Service, Rabbi Avraham Vaserman, one of the most hardline religious Zionists, called for the replacement of the movement’s current leadership with a “braver new one, which is not afraid of the enemy.”

Vaserman, who called on soldiers to disobey orders and on settlers to resist violently, now says “We must get a grip on the state and make it work for us.”

Others in the more moderate religious Zionist circles are calling for soul-searching, telling people to look in the mirror and start asking some tough questions after three decades of denial.

Bambi Sheleg, the editor of Eretz Aheret, a magazine that aims to strengthen Jewish unity, is also one of the few religious columnists in the popular media. An article she wrote, titled “Dear Brothers,” was published recently in Ma’ariv and posted on the newspaper’s Web site, drawing a wave of responses. Sheleg referred to the disengagement as the heartbreak of her people, but she looked inward in placing blame. “This heartbreak will no doubt give rise to a great desire to lay the blame for this collective disaster on somebody,” she wrote. “But this disaster was also of our own making.”

Sheleg described the route that the religious Zionist movement took toward disaster. “In the years following the Yom Kippur War [in 1973] we came to believe, with true sincerity, that we were the flag-bearers of the Jewish people. We knew from whence we came and where we were going; we were imbued with faith,” she wrote.

She criticized the students and rabbis of Merkaz Harav yeshiva, who drove the religious Zionist camp following the 1967 Six-Day War, saying that their overarching emphasis on building settlements had the effect of “secluding our people from the rest of Israel.”

She blamed the rabbis for “being preoccupied with internal discussions and not trying to understand the real situation of Israeli society.” If they had done so, she argued, “Perhaps today we would not be facing the tragedy on our doorstep.”

In recent weeks, two prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis from America who immigrated to Israel, Aharon Lichtenstein and Shlomo Riskin, have attempted to chart a more moderate course for religious Zionism. Both rabbis are students of a late rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik, the religious leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America. He taught that the messianic process was an up-and-down journey and insisted that the Israeli government and the military were religiously permitted to make territorial comprises.

Lichtenstein, generally acknowledged to be Soloveitchik’s most respected ideological heir within Modern Orthodoxy, wrote a letter on the eve of the disengagement to Avraham Shapira, one of Israel’s former chief rabbis. The letter, written in a deferential tone and crafted as a series of questions, was interpreted widely as a rebuttal of Shapira’s call to soldiers to disobey orders.

Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, opposed disengagement but spoke out against those urging soldiers to refuse evacuation orders. Recently he sent out an essay urging members of his camp to take a lesson from the crisis. “Is this the end of Religious Zionism?” Riskin wrote. “Only if the definition of Religious Zionism is Greater Israel and only if ‘we want the Messiah now’ has become the description of our present historical reality.”

Riskin argued that the “main lessons of this Disengagement must be our return to normative Messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture.”






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