Saving Zionism

Where Jewish terrorist Eden Natan-Zada lived — first in Rishon L’Tzion, then evidently in Tapuach — there is ostensibly an ideology that encourages the murders he committed last week in Shfaram. This so-called ideology is no more than a translucent patina that does not conceal the hate it overlays.

Natan-Zada, dressed as an Israeli soldier, fired indiscriminately inside a public bus, killing four Israeli Arabs. An enraged crowd then apparently boarded the bus, overpowered officers who’d taken Natan-Zada into custody and beat Natan-Zada to death.

There will be official inquiries and investigations; there will be protest marches — the day will live, for a time, in infamy. But we learn very little from what this 19-year-old deserter from the Israel Defense Forces did, save that the Jews in general, and Israeli Jews in particular, in this instance, are not immune from the disease of terrorism.

But we knew that already, didn’t we? Did we not learn it in 1994 (if not much earlier) when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Abraham? Or, more recently, from Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, whose action arguably changed the course of history.

These terrible and tragic outbursts preoccupy us, but can also divert us from matters of greater moment. For it is not the actions of crazed murderers that most immediately threaten Israel. It is, instead, the sober arguments of people who seem perfectly rational, arguments that have brought Israel to its gravest domestic crisis in the 57 years of its young life as an independent nation.

It turns out that there is a gathering and dangerous intellectual consensus among the opponents of Israel’s impending disengagement from Gaza. Its substance is, quite simply, that the withdrawal from Gaza is not about Gaza at all. It is about destroying the religious Zionist movement.

That sounds absurd, I know. But hear the argument out; internally, it is entirely coherent, as well-honed ideological arguments so often are.

According to dozens of essays that have run in major Israeli newspapers and been posted on Web sites, Israel’s left (usually termed “the secular elite”) is basically decrepit. It is played out, tired, rudderless. Its desire now, according to Rabbi Yigal Kaminetzky, is “to disengage … from the entire past of the Jewish people, from its history, from its values, from its beliefs, from the belief in the God of Israel, from the destiny of the people.”

At the same time, the elite witnesses the very substantial enthusiasm of the religious Zionist movement, recognizing that unless it does something to quash that contagious excitement, its own days in power (and privilege) are numbered.

What to do?

The alleged “solution,” the plot of the elites, is to dispossess the religious-Zionist movement.

But little did the elite imagine that the religious-Zionist movement, uprooted from the settlements for which it had won so much praise over the decades, would regard its “expulsion” from Gaza as equivalent to exile. And still less did it imagine the that the movement would consolidate to reject the “secular” state, while biding its time (the crazies excepted) until the public at large sees the corruption, the fatigue, the emptiness that afflicts the left. The State of the Faithful, no matter how long delayed, is not merely the goal of the movement; it is the destiny of the nation.

The pioneering role once played by the declining kibbutz movement has been revived and adopted by the religious Zionists, according to a common reading. Thus, the settlements in Gaza and in the West Bank have been quite widely seen as a renewal of the Zionist enterprise. And the religious Zionists who peopled them represented the vanguard for the transformation of Israel into a halachic state, a state governed by Jewish religious law, as their mandate.

Is the “secular elite” in fact played out? Has its day passed?

Crime rates are up, corruption is up, the exploitation of foreign workers is up, drug use is up, educational attainment is down, and on and on. One does not have to look far to prepare a telling indictment against the “secular elite,” for all this has happened on its watch. People may criticize Ariel Sharon or admire him, but scarcely anyone regards him as a man seriously committed to democracy. If this be democracy, then plainly halacha is to be preferred.

So goes the argument, and there are some hundreds of thousands of Israelis who subscribe to it. Never mind that there are even more hundreds of thousands who think it, on balance, preposterous. Here and there it hits close enough to home to dent the liberal resolve. And the casualty, for now, is the Judaism of the middle, the religious ethos that accepts pluralism as the oil that lubricates the wheels of a wildly heterogeneous society. In effect, the religious Zionist movement has hijacked Judaism even as the behavior of the crazies has discredited it.

The resolute close-mindedness of the religious Zionists is, indeed, noxious — but the open mindedness of the “secular elite” too often resembles nothing so much as a sieve. And no one, or so it seems, is listening to the sturdy advocates of “a third way.” These include Knesset member Yossi Beilin, leader of the Yachad party, a principal author of the Geneva Program for a permanent peace. His efforts and those of like-minded rational voices have, sadly, had trouble recently being heard over the din.

Leonard Fein’s latest book, “Against the Dying of the Light,” was published by Jewish Lights in 2001.