Bridging the Post-Gaza Divide

By Ruth Gavison

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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Now that Israel has completed its evacuation of settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, many uncertainties that plagued us for the past several months have been resolved. The Israeli government showed that it could successfully implement its disengagement policy in the face of tumultuous public protests. And it did so with remarkable compassion and efficiency. Meanwhile, most opponents of disengagement, instead of mounting a deep challenge to the state’s authority, ultimately chose the path of responsibility and democracy. Although many expected widespread violent resistance by settlers and massive refusal to carry out orders by religious soldiers, these did not occur.

Still, even though our worst fears did not come to pass, the disengagement opened real rifts in Israeli society. The question now is how to mend them.

Much has been said about the need for soul-searching. And there is much soul-searching to be done. This is particularly true for opponents of disengagement. The verbal violence some displayed toward political leaders and the security forces on the ground is too dangerous to tolerate. Disengagement’s foes need to examine how their rhetoric contributed to the instances of violence that did occur — from the objects thrown at soldiers participating in the evacuation to the two deadly attacks by Jewish extremists on Arabs in Israel and the West Bank. These issues must be confronted to heal the divisions in Israeli society.

But those of us who supported the disengagement also have a role to play in bridging the divide. Part of the problem is a sense among many of disengagement’s opponents that supporters of the policy do not really care about Israel as a state that is both Jewish and democratic. And their fears cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.

In the Israeli media and elsewhere, we often heard the voices of those who presented disengagement as a victory of democracy over the Jewish element of the state. This sort of talk only served to fuel the fears of those who opposed disengagement and saw it as part of an assault on the Jewishness of the state.

Most supporters of disengagement (myself included), however, backed it because we thought it was critical to ensuring Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. We must now work to show how the disengagement was a way of strengthening this ideal and not of robbing Israel of its Jewish character — that it is a Zionist act and not a post-Zionist act.

First, we need to strengthen the democratic pedigree of major decisions connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The introduction of such guarantees is not a simple matter. But disengagement taught us we need those mechanisms for the smooth operation of our political system and for maintaining its legitimacy when faced with hard and divisive decisions. Vocal minorities should not be allowed to paralyze Israeli democracy in the name of their political preferences or their interpretation of God’s will. But they are entitled to a procedure that will guarantee that such decisions are indeed supported by a large majority of the population.

Second, we need to work, in a variety of ways, to give substance to our claim that what we are after is a democratic Israel that maintains its distinctly Jewish character. Many non-Orthodox Israelis spend their political energies fighting the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over religious affairs and its sometimes coercive influence in the social sphere. This is a just and worthy cause. But we should spend much more energy on articulating a positive, inclusive sense of Israel’s Jewishness. We need to show that we care about the welfare of the Jewish people — broadly conceived — and its prospects for survival. In contrast to the settlement enterprise, this is a national project that a wide spectrum of Israeli Jews — disengagement supporters and opponents alike — can take part in building.

Third, those who approach these issues in part from the standpoint of humanism and universal human rights (as I do) should not make the terrible mistake of seeing the force of these principles only when they relate to “the Other.” True, we have a special responsibility to minimize wrongs done in the name of the one-and-only Jewish state. But this same one-and-only Jewish state is essential to the right of Jews to self-determination. It is not fascism or racism — as some on the far left would argue — to seek to promote the security and strength of this state and maintain its Jewish distinctness. Rather, it is yet another implication of the very same discourse of humanism and human rights.

If we take all of these imperatives seriously, I believe the disengagement will turn out to be a source of strength for Israel, leading to a sober new appreciation of how a Jewish state, whose citizens hold diverse views on how best to secure its well being, can negotiate its future challenges. If we do not, it may be the beginning of a chasm so wide that it could endanger Israel’s ability to survive.

Ruth Gavison is the Haim Cohn Professor of Human Rights in the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a former president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the co-author of the “Gavison-Medad Covenant: A New Covenant on State and Religion Issues Among Jews in Israel.”

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