JERUSALEM — As Israel’s political and security establishment moves closer to disengagement from Gaza, hammering out details of the day after, a furious debate has erupted among settler leaders and their rabbis over whether it is permitted even to suggest cooperating with the planned evacuation.
Government ministers were negotiating this week with representatives of the Gush Katif settlements, among the most militant in Gaza, over a plan to relocate the main settlements en bloc in the Nitzanim dunes north of Ashkelon.
While they negotiated, however, rabbis and politicians traded accusations over a call by a ranking Knesset member for mass civil disobedience, which some critics said crossed the line into incitement.
The Knesset member, Aryeh Eldad of the right-wing National Union party, issued his call at an anti-disengagement rally held in Gush Katif on April 27, during the Passover holiday. “I’m waiting for the civil servants of Israel to declare that they’re no longer willing to serve as screws in this demolition machine,” Eldad, chairman of the Knesset Ethics Committee, told the estimated 50,000 protesters. “I’m calling for a civilian rebellion.”
The declaration prompted a storm of condemnation. Labor Party Cabinet minister Matan Vilnai called for Eldad to be indicted, and opposition leader Yosef Lapid of Shinui said that the rightist leader would “be responsible if Jewish blood is spilled.” Even the firmly anti-disengagement speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin of Likud, said that Eldad had “crossed the line.”
However, it’s less noticed in the general media that an equally fierce debate is raging among Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate over whether soldiers may obey orders on evacuation day or are religiously obligated to refuse — and, indeed, whether it is legitimate for rabbis even to suggest that soldiers may obey orders.
Two former Israeli chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, have called repeatedly for soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements. The two are regarded as the senior spiritual mentors of the religious Zionist camp, Israel’s equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy.
Most Modern Orthodox rabbis are believed to agree with them. Dozens of yeshiva deans and settlement rabbis have signed calls for soldiers to disobey. Only a handful has spoken out publicly against disobeying orders.
Rabbis in the smaller Haredi or ultra-Orthodox community, which opposes army service on principle, have been largely silent on the disengagement and refusal issues.
The refusal calls have prompted some protests from politicians on the left, who argue that the government should forbid rabbis on its payroll — including yeshiva heads and municipal rabbis — to advocate military insubordination.
The current chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, broke a long silence during Passover to declare in a television interview that while they opposed the planned withdrawal on religious grounds, soldiers should not disobey orders.
But the influence of the former chief rabbis is tremendous — particularly that of Shapira, who heads Israel’s most influential Modern Orthodox yeshiva, Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav.
The chief rabbi of the military, Rabbi Israel Weiss, told a television interviewer in this past December that if he were to receive a request from Shapira to shed his uniform, “you’d be interviewing someone else here.”
Another leading rabbi with military links, Moshe Hagar, a reserve colonel who heads the association of premilitary yeshivas, told a reporter last fall that although his yeshivas “are firmly opposed to refusal in our teachings,” he personally, “as a religious Jew, can’t speak out forcefully against the ruling of a great rabbi.”
The one leading settler rabbi who has spoken out against disobeying orders, Shlomo Aviner of the Beit El settlement in the West Bank, has drawn a hail of condemnation. A leader of the Yesha Council of Rabbis, the main settlement group, Aviner signed a joint letter in February, with three other rabbis, saying that mass disobedience would undermine the military and threaten Israeli security. The other three are known for their relative liberalism.
Since signing the letter, Aviner has faced ostracism from his longtime colleagues and allies. His popular weekly class at the Beit-El Yeshiva, which his friend and neighbor, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, heads, has been canceled. At a gathering of rabbis at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva last winter he was condemned repeatedly as having abandoned Orthodoxy.
Shapira himself was quoted as saying that Aviner “must be informed that it could be he is misleading the public…. It’s a sin to uproot [settlements] and therefore forbidden to everyone.” Disciple Rabbi Aharon Trop, head of Yeshivat Bnei Tzvi high school, quoted him. The rabbi said he had received Shapira’s permission to publicize his words in an Orthodox weekly. Shapira does not speak to the press directly.
Until his call to obey orders, Aviner had been considered a relative militant in the settler movement. He heads a yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, Ateret Cohanim, that has repeatedly sparked unrest with its efforts to acquire properties in traditionally Muslim sections of the city. The yeshiva teaches the ancient priestly rituals in hope that the end of days is near.
A group of Ateret Cohanim students sparked an international incident in 1990 by taking over a Christian hospice near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, St. John’s Hospice, prompting worldwide protests. In 1997, Ateret Cohanim students were involved in the controversial purchase of a house in Ras al-Amud, just opposite the Mount of Olives.
Aviner’s students also participated in a protest that turned violent last year when soldiers attempted to dismantle the illegal settlement outpost at Migron in the West Bank.
He told the Forward in an interview last week that the army — where “the aggregate soul of the Jewish people is being renewed in all its glory” — would be dealt a serious blow by mass refusal. This, he said, eventually would endanger the lives of Jews and is therefore prohibited.
Aviner said that the “great mitzvah of retaining sovereignty over the land is incumbent on the community” — and not the individual.
“Although I think the disengagement is a terrible thing it does not give the right to wage civil war or to disobey an order,” Aviner said. “We must foreswear violence, ridicule and hatred. There can be no name-calling, no pulling, no tugging. The soldiers must obey orders, and the civilians need to get up and go peacefully.”