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Withdrawal from Gaza


There have been so many different reactions from all over the world to the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of Samaria, focusing on different and often totally opposite perspectives. This is my personal response and, as usual, it is concerned primarily with the religious aspect.

If one is going to take a religious position, then I stand fair and square with the Hassidic Satmar anti-Zionists. They argue that the religious ideal of a return to Zion is in the hands of God. Any attempt to return to Zion formally and officially is, to them, a blasphemy which they reject totally. This doesn’t mean they do not continue to want have a presence in the Holy Land, but whether that presence is under Crusade, Ottoman, or Jordanian rule has never much mattered to them (except that under the Crusades they would have all been massacred).

I agree with the Satmar point of view only in so far as it removes religion from Zionism. Any return to Zion which is not Divine Intervention, is more political than religious, even if there is a religious motivation. Where we part company is that they see no value in the political whereas I do. And, of course, I am in no way supporting the crazies of the extreme and minute organization, Neturei Karta, who actively side with those who wish to demolish the Jewish State, even if in reality it is only a State for Jews.

The reason I oppose religion being used as the foundation of Zionism is that I find it offensive when people claim to know how God (or Allah) works. I find it offensive when people tell me they know when the Messiah is coming. For two thousand years we have been told the Messiah is coming tomorrow. Belief in the possibility that God might intervene in Human Affairs is essential to Jewish thinking, but it is not an idea that lends itself to human prediction. Yet every Tom, Dick and Moishe seems to know with certainty that this or that is the start of the redemption, or the end of exile, or the birth pains of redemption.

Zionism (as opposed to Ahavat Zion, the Love of Zion) is, for me, a political movement that grew out of Nineteenth Century nationalism. Herzl and his allies consciously detached themselves from Jewish religious thinking, even though some religious Zionists tried bravely to maintain a religious ingredient.

I totally support the political aims of establishing a Jewish homeland, negatively, to try to deal with the effects of anti-Semitism and to have a refuge in an antagonistic world, and positively, to help our traditions and religion thrive. But I do so politically, not religiously. When religion is added to a political situation it is invariably catastrophic.

Throughout Jewish history, “holy” as “land” might have been and remains, human life has always taken priority. Whether it was Bar Goria or Bar Cochba, those who fought in the name of Judaism for a religious cause have invariably lost, and manifestly with Divine approval.

So those settlers who thought that God would intervene to strike down Sharon or to prevent army intervention, or who swore that God was on their side, or invoked halacha to resist the withdrawal, were simply wrong and clearly God thought so too. Pure and simple. If the trauma of the withdrawal stops this misuse of religion I am pleased, though I doubt it will, any more than the death of a great Rebbe stops some followers believing he is the messiah.

Despite my disagreement with their opposition, on purely pragmatic grounds, I was really moved to see how strongly people felt and adhered to a cause, even if a lost one. The peaceful demonstrations were a positive example of protest that others would do well to follow. Of course, I did not feel anything but anger for those hooligans on rooftops in tzitzit and kippot hurling missiles and noxious material at unarmed police and soldiers. Their abuse of religious gear once again shows that appearances in no way indicate true religiosity. I hope they and everyone who abused the soldiers and policemen feel the full weight of the law.

I was moved by the way the Israeli police and soldiers calmly took the abuse and the blows and did not retaliate. It was a side of the Israeli military and police I had never seen before (having often in my youth been beaten by Mishmar HaGvul simply for peacefully protesting on and for Shabbat).

But I was sad to read the vituperation and profound hostility of several secular Israelis, notably Amira Hass, Amoz Oz and Uri Avnery. It was not their depiction of the withdrawal as an insincere stunt by Sharon to ensure he never gives another, they were never willing to consider that the Sharon they vilified might actually withdraw altogether. It was rather that hey were incapable of seeing a pragmatist, and yet only pragmatism will find a solution in the end. Only time will tell if Sharon has started something or not.

I agree with their legitimate complaint that the lot of the average Palestinian is awful. The contrast of settlers with swimming pools and villas as opposed to Gazans without enough drinking water was telling (although Arafat’s cronies with their villas and swimming pools and billions in Swiss accounts is also an issue). But most of this has to do with the UN and the Palestinians, themselves. After 1967 Israel offered to rebuild Gaza, but UNRWA blocked it because the Arab world wanted to keep the Palestinians in camps as a tool to use against Israel. It’s hardly surprising that Israel built settlements to use as a tool back. You can’t blame the settlers for the cesspit of Gaza City.

These secular Israelis, like all prejudiced people, just generalized about those they disagree with. Avnery even compared the settlers to Ghetto Jews and made Nazi comparisons. According to these secular critics, all religious Zionists are extreme. All religious Zionists hate all Arabs. All settlers were religious. Forget the fact that there are religious settlers and secular settlers, economic settlers and idealistic settlers. No, they were all religious fanatics.

These people delude themselves that the Arab world or the Left Wing world will like them or accept them more because they plead that they really belong with them, and understand them, and are on their side. They will be expelled or done away with just as quickly as the religious Zionists if they’re on the losing side to Hezbolla or Hamas.

They claim that the withdrawal spells the end of religious Zionism. It doesn’t and it won’t. Firstly, religious passion will be kept alive regardless of loss of land. It always has. Secondly, Zionism of any sort is about politics, and politics means accommodation. It always did. Zionism was prepared to consider Uganda, Partition, Withdrawal from Sinai; political Zionism is healthy precisely because it is pragmatic. It has a positive, passionate cause, unlike secularism.

My reservation is that when religious ideology mixes with politics it becomes a problem precisely because of its inevitable stasis and reliance on non-rational external justifications. This is what happened over the withdrawal. And there are too many dangerous, murderous extremists on the West Bank ready to scupper any deal who have been allowed to get away with blue murder, literally.

Yet I believe that this crisis might just teach the religious Zionists to try being more pragmatic, to reach out to try to bridge the gap between religious and secular in Israel. If it does, it might succeed in creating a healthy modern Judaism, rooted in Israel and in halacha—healthy because it relates to modern political and social realities. Then it can present itself as a viable alternative to the extreme ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist world, many (though not all) of whom only use the State for their benefit, giving precious little back to the wider community beyond their narrow confines and interests.

Some of my friends argue that the gap between religious and secular is unbridgeable, the hatred is too deep and irrational. But I am optimistic. The religious world has shown both vigour and adaptability, and I believe that from a purely Jewish point of view this withdrawal will turn into something positive.

But as for peace in the Middle East, let us see how the Palestinians respond. If they show they can run their own affairs fairly, without corruption, and reign in their fanatics, then the pressure will indeed be on Israel to give more and rightly so. Otherwise, fortress Israel will retreat behind its fences and its walls.

As a PS, I believe that genuine peace with Egypt should have allowed the settlers of Yamit a choice. Just as Arabs can live as free and voting citizens under Israeli rule, so Jews should be able to live as free and voting citizens in Arab countries. Genuine peace means that Jews should have been offered the possibility of staying on as citizens in a Palestinian State. If the land is holy, it is holy no matter who controls it. But this didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened now. That is the litmus test. Until this happens, we know that genuine peace is a very long way off. But we must strive for it, and not wait for God. God helps those who help themselves and I don’t think we should rely on Divine Intervention as a policy. A spiritual reality, perhaps. A policy, no!

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