Disengage From Turning Religion Into a Political Slogan

When disengagement from Gaza is over, this much is clear: Relations between religious Zionism and the State of Israel will never be quite the same. The rules of the game that have regulated the relationship between the national religious camp and Israel’s secular population have been shattered beyond repair.

Most Israelis, it should be said, sympathize with the plight of Gaza residents who are being evacuated from their homes. They sympathize, too, with Orthodox soldiers who are distressed by the prospect of participating in the evacuation.

When a religious soldier says that his commitment to Torah must come first, I understand, even if I disagree with his reading of Torah. As a religious Jew, I know that all nation states — including the Jewish state — are imperfect human creations, and that my ultimate loyalty must be to God and God’s law. Indeed, the Israeli press reports that commanders of army units have found ways to be supportive of individual soldiers who are uneasy about their orders but do not incite others or exploit their personal distress for political purposes.

But events of recent weeks have destroyed much of this sympathy. A soldier struggling with his conscience is one thing; prominent rabbis calling for civil rebellion is something else altogether. A number of West Bank rabbis and heads of hesder yeshivot — the religious programs that combine army service with Torah study — have called on their students to refuse orders to evacuate settlers.

But the turning point was the recent declaration of Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Shapira instructing soldiers to refrain from participating in Gaza roadblocks. No longer was it possible to see rabbinic incitement as an isolated phenomenon. As former chief rabbis and pillars of the national religious establishment, Eliyahu and Shapira succeeded in placing every Orthodox soldier in the army under suspicion, in creating a true crisis for the military and in generating outrage and dismay among large segments of Israel’s non-religious population.

Why should religious soldiers refuse to carry out orders, Israelis ask, when for years those on the left have served in the territories, manned roadblocks and protected settlers — despite their opposition to the occupation? In 35 years, not a single significant Israeli politician on the left has called on Israelis to refuse to serve in the territories; the assumption was that political differences were to be fought out in the political arena, while the army remained common ground and often the only meeting place for religious and secular Jews.

Israelis also wondered about the company that the rabbis were keeping. As the date for disengagement nears, much of the demonstrating has been done by young people who, simply put, are religious hooligans. In contrast to the Gaza residents themselves, who have generally acted with dignity and restraint, these teenagers have rioted, cursed, punctured tires, kicked soldiers and pummeled Arabs whenever the occasion arose.

Exactly what kind of Torah education have these young people received? While Eliyahu and Shapira and most other rabbinic opponents of disengagement spoke out against the violence, their voices were neither loud nor convincing, and not surprisingly, their young charges failed to respond.

Public opinion was further inflamed when Hamas and Islamic Jihad renewed their rocket attacks and suicide bombings. Israelis found it hard to understand why the army that was fighting Palestinian terrorism had to worry both about the loyalty of its religious soldiers and a second front opened by Jews. If Eliyahu and Shapira had hoped to build support for their cause, they failed; the result, instead, was greater support for disengagement.

These events have generated deep anger and bitterness among large segments of the Israeli population. Religious Zionism has always enjoyed a favored place in Israeli society, in return for which it has been expected to be supportive of the central institutions of the state. The actions of Eliyahu and Shapiro violate the terms of that covenant, which must now be recreated. If Orthodox and secular Jews are to live together in harmony, I suggest that the following steps be considered.

First, the hesder yeshivot need to be disbanded. The primary reason is not, as senior army officials have suggested, to punish the yeshivot for encouraging their students to disobey orders. The real problem is the near total separation that exists between the Orthodox and secular worlds in Israel.

For the first 30 years of Israel’s existence, residential neighborhoods were far more integrated than they currently are and more Orthodox families sent their children to secular government schools. Beginning in the 1970s, these patterns began to change; educational and residential segregation is now almost total. The army remains one of the few venues in which the two communities can interact. The Orthodox world suggests that it is ignored and misunderstood; if so, it would benefit all Israelis if army service became a time for young Orthodox and secular Jews to live and work together.

Second, Israel needs to reform its balkanized educational system. In every democratic country, there are public schools that teach students the principles of democracy as well as the language, values and culture of the state. Private schools exist as well, but these schools, too, are required to transmit basic national values and the fundamentals of democracy.

In Israel, however, there are three separate school systems for Jews, and the two religious school systems operate with minimal supervision — if any at all — from the government. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that some religious young people lack understanding of the requirements of citizenship in a democratic state. Studies indicate, in fact, that commitment to democratic values is low among all Israeli students. Neither is it a surprise that secular students learn little or nothing about Jewish religion and culture.

The time has come for the State of Israel to create a core curriculum for all of its schools. It would be pluralistic and tolerant, but also openly and assertively Jewish, while promoting the central symbols and values of the democratic State of Israel. Demands need to be made on all groups. In particular, in religious schools, both Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, democratic values would be emphasized. In secular schools, Jewish religion, culture and peoplehood would be promoted.

Third, the Chief Rabbinate needs to be abolished or radically reorganized. Created by the British in the 1920s as an instrument of colonial rule, it has long since outlived its usefulness. The current chief rabbis have both struggled with scandal. And the anger at Eliyahu and Shapira derives in part from the fact that those who earned their livelihood from state coffers display a particular kind of arrogance when they turn against the democratic institutions from which they benefited so handsomely.

I am not suggesting synagogue-state separation on the American model; such a system is impossible in Israel. But Israel would be well served by a decentralized, democratically elected religious bureaucracy in which rabbis were chosen on the basis of learning and personal piety — and not by backroom, political horse-trading.

Israel is in the midst of a religious crisis. Distrust between religious and non-religious segments of the population is at an all-time high. All who love Torah and cherish the Jewish religious tradition must view this situation with profound concern. But if steps such as those noted above are taken, it may be possible to overcome distrust, to revive religious commitment among all Israelis and to transform Torah into more than just a political slogan.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


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Disengage From Turning Religion Into a Political Slogan

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