Losing Faith

The disengagement plan from Gaza and the northern Shomron communities has not yet begun, and yet, Israelis witness daily TV scenes of right-wing teenagers, mothers with children and yeshiva boys donning orange hats and T-shirts and struggling with young soldiers and policemen as they show common cause with the settlers in Gush Katif — and attempt to break through to stand side-by-side with them.

If all goes as scheduled, this solidarity will not deter the government. The displaced settlers will have to move to new homes that could take at least a year to build. Many will have to start from scratch re-establishing thriving agricultural and economic enterprises. In the meantime, their former homes and gardens will be reduced to rubble, a sight that will be broadcast to them and to the world. There are legitimate concerns over how and how well these settlers will adjust.

But there’s more at stake than the fate of the settlers. Disengagement has become a trauma for the entire religious-Zionist community. Tens of thousands of young people, identifying with the messianic ideals of the settlers, have been drafted to protest the disengagement. They’ve marched against soldiers whom they see as the messengers of an evil government.

“We will overwhelm the soldiers by our numbers,” said Eli, an otherwise gentle engineering student, who perceives as “other” his fellow Israelis, once comrades-in-arms, who have been ordered to stop the penetration of provocateurs into Gaza. “What kind of Jewish army is it that shoots at Jews,” he declared.

The government, of course, insists that it has no plans to shoot at anybody, even if recalcitrant settlers and outside demonstrators have to be removed one by one. But from the standpoint of religious Zionists, how can there be anything but alienation toward a government and army that an entire sector sees as having betrayed it.

What then will be the ideological fallout among religious Zionists?

Influenced by the writings of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, and the lightning capture of Gaza, the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula in 1967, many Orthodox Jews interpreted this era as hathalta d’geula, the harbinger of redemption.

A subterranean messianism undoubtedly already had existed in modern Zionism. But the emphasis was primarily on the miracle of statehood, the return of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years of the Diaspora. After the Six-Day War, however, many religious Zionists, perceiving themselves as the new pioneers, envisioned messianism almost entirely in terms of settlement of a greater Land of Israel.

“The religious-Zionist movement identified settlement with Zionism, forgetting that the primary definition of Zionism is creating a Jewish home in the Land of Israel,” said Ha’aretz journalist, Yair Sheleg. “It invested all its prestige in the settlements, and the connection to the Land of Israel. Destruction of the settlements is, for many religious Zionists, tantamount to the destruction of the State of Israel.”

For these Zionists, the Gaza withdrawal is, in a fundamental way, closing the door on the Messiah.

“We have heard the flutter of redemption but we have not rushed to receive it,” said Rabbi Yigal Ariel of the Golan Heights enclave of Moshav Nov in an interview in Eretz Aheret, a general-interest magazine that devoted an issue to religious Zionism.

The expressions of despair and disappointment with the State of Israel echo, in some respects, the disillusionment after false messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam in the 17th century. Zevi’s betrayal brought anguish in its wake, with many Jews giving up on their dreams. Some turned away from Judaism to Islam, or transitioned to an underground messianism. Today, in the wake of a pullout from Gaza, the question is whether religious Zionists will be left with a diminished faith or whether they will abandon Zionism, or whether a latter-day underground messianism will foment among them.

Kook, the intellectual pioneer of religious Zionists, put emphasis on love of all the Jewish people, insisting on tolerance and acceptance of nonreligious pioneers, for he saw them building the physical framework, preparing the way for messianic times. But it is difficult for religious Zionists to perceive today’s post-Zionist, secular left-leaning Israelis, seemingly triumphant in getting the government to evacuate settlers, as harbingers of messianic times. There is fear that today’s religious Zionists, the heirs of Kook’s message of love, are becoming increasingly alienated from mainstream Israeli society.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin of Yahad-Meretz has expressed disappointment at this possible development.

“This is too important a community to lose,” Beilin said.

Signs of this alienation abound.

In Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood stronghold of Rav Kook adherents, there were “fewer Israeli flags flying this Independence Day. Instead, orange banners protesting disengagement from Gush Katif had replaced them,” reported Rina Rosenberg, a psychologist who lives near Kiryat Moshe.

“There is disappointment with the state, and the way the Zionism has developed,” Rosenberg said.

Some religious Zionist rabbis declared that the recital of the Hallel prayer should be suspended. In the past, Hallel symbolized the sanctification of Independence Day, the attribution of religious significance to the establishment of the State of Israel after 2,000 years of dispersion. There are also rabbis who have called upon soldiers to refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlers. But this is a red line that most religious Zionists will not cross.

The sense of disenfranchisement also derives from a sense of the inadequate Jewishness of the Jewish state.

“It’s about disengagement from all the Land of Israel, from Jerusalem, and from Zionism and all Jewish history,” said Rabbi Yair Kaminetzky.

Kaminetzky, who has lived in Gush Katif for 25 years, sees Israelis today as having lost their Zionist ideals. But more than that, he questions the very Jewishness of the State of Israel, pointing to the imitation of western lifestyle and music associated with the modern city of Tel Aviv, as un-Jewish.

There is much speculation that after disengagement, many religious Zionists will move toward ultra-Orthodoxy. In the early decades of the State of Israel, religious Zionists looked over their right shoulder to the ultra-Orthodox as the “truly religious,” while they looked over their left shoulder to the Labor Zionist pioneers as the “truly Zionist.” With disengagement, and the sense that secular Zionism has lost its ideals, a sector of the religious Zionist movement feels that it might as well give up on Zionism, and return to the old religion that the secular Zionists rebelled against.

This process has already begun. A group of Kook adherents have already turned away from secular study and other expressions of modernity. In the spirit of the ultra-Orthodox community, they are acceding to greater separation between the sexes.

In the coverage by the Israeli magazine Eretz Aheret, journalist Yair Sheleg noted that religious Zionism has lived with many tensions, trying to balance the values of halacha, Zionism and modernism. The movement to haredi sectarianism would deprive Israeli society of an important bridge to its traditional sources. Secular Israelis would lose a partner that shares the common language of modernity.

In the same issue of the magazine, Rabbi Yigal Ariel blamed the religious Zionist movement for bringing about the growing sectarianism.

“We were unable to settle in the hearts of the people, talk the language of Israeli society, and attract Israelis to our approach,” he wrote. “We lived in areas disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and talked only to ourselves. The issue of settlement should have been in the interest of all Jews, but it became a sectarian issue.”

There are those, on the other hand, who believe that the religious Zionist community will not give up on the State of Israel or the army. Its identity is far too enmeshed with the nation and its survival.

Former Knesset member Alex Lubotzky, a Hebrew University math professor, believes in disengagement, but bridles at the undemocratic way he feels it was carried out. He says that the liberal elite betrayed the religious Zionists by adopting a triumphal tone rather than one characterized by dialogue and mutual understanding. Yet he doesn’t think religious Zionists will give up on the State of Israel and the army. They will simply become more critical of government, and the elite groups that are running the country: “They will make finer distinctions, not seeing everything the army and government do as holy.”

“Young religious Israelis don’t only define themselves in terms of the territories,” said Hananel Rosenberg, a youth worker. “In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox they see Torah fulfillment as involvement with all of life and society. And there are many, many new expressions of religious life in Israel today. There are the ‘children of the hills’ who have been characterized as extreme, but are often simply anti-bourgeois. There are Hasidic yeshivot, New Age groups. There are those involved in religious dialogue.”

One of the important outlets for idealistic energies is the movement for social justice, the need to bring tikkun olam. The organization Bemaagalay Tzedek, “circles of justice,” took wing a few years ago. Thousands of religious Zionist youth, both from the right and left sectors of the religious community, for example, gathered on the 17th of Tammuz Fast Day to study Jewish sources and hear lectures about the Torah’s vision of social justice, including how people should treat employees, and help the poor and disabled.

Circles of Justice is a lobby fighting the widening economic gap, and society’s failure to prevent the spread of drugs, prostitution and child labor. Alongside kashrut certificates, it has created “social insignias” indicating that a business adheres to minimum wage and fair employment practices, and has access for the disabled. This certification has only begun, but Circles of Justice represents great hope for new directions in Religious Zionism — a reaching out to other Israelis, and reconnecting with them.

Rochelle Furstenberg writes on literary and cultural issues for the Jerusalem Report in Israel and for Hadassah Magazine.