The reserve infantry unit I served in for 18 years is currently performing several weeks of active duty in the West Bank. When the call-up orders went out some months ago, the timing left no question about the nature of the soldiers' mission. At that time, early July was the time Israel planned to withdraw its army, and its civilian settlements, from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the northern West Bank-a move that has since been postponed until August.

For many years, I was the company clerk--the soldier who processes requests to be released from service and who makes up the daily duty roster. My successor in that job-I'll call him Avraham-told me that, when the orders went out, he had expected that a number of the Orthodox religious soldiers in the unit would ask to be excused from this round of duty because they believed that Jewish religious law grants Jews an inalienable right to live everywhere in the biblical land of Israel. Removing Jews from their homes in Gaza and the West Bank would thus be a violation of their religious principles.

Avraham and I are both Orthodox Jews. He thinks that soldiers who feel they cannot participate in the evacuation of Israeli settlements should follow the dictates of their conscience. I believe that the military duty to follow orders should in this instance take precedence over their opposition to the withdrawal policy-just as I followed orders for many years to protect Israeli settlements in the West Bank, although I thought that it was wrong for Israel to have built them.

How can this be, if we both follow the same creed and we both live in accordance with its precepts? After all, Orthodox Jews believe that God made a gift of the Holy Land to the Jewish people. Therefore, Orthodox Jews must oppose handing over any part of that land to foreigners not as a practical matter of policy but as a matter of religious principle. And they must oppose removing Jews from their homes in these God-given territories. That is, indeed, the logic of a large majority of Orthodox Jews today. So on what basis can I argue that Avraham, and most of my fellow believers, are wrong?

To understand why the settlers and their religious supporters see disengagement as a violation of God's precepts, one must understand their theology. Any modern Jewish theology must address the significance of the Jewish state in Zion. The Jews have returned to their land-and have established their rule over it-after two millennia of exile. To many believing Jews, it seems obvious that this fulfillment of prophecy and of age-long yearning must have religious meaning.

The lion's share of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip identify themselves as part of a larger group of observant Jews who call themselves "religious Zionists" and "modern Orthodox." Religious Zionism embraces a spectrum of religious approaches and philosophies. But in the 1960s and 1970s a large portion of the community's younger generation was attracted to a particular religious Zionist philosophy associated with the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. These two men developed a comprehensive theology that viewed the Jewish return to Israel as part of a divine process that would lead inevitably to the arrival of the Messiah.

From the point of view of their theology, the process was one of irreversible progress. First the establishment of a Jewish polity in the nation's ancient land in 1948, then the ingathering of Jewish exiles from throughout the world, then the victory against the Arab armies in the Six Day War of 1967, which gave Israel control of the ancient heartland of biblical Israel-the area they call Judea and Samaria and which most of the world calls the West Bank.

The younger Rabbi Kook called on his followers to establish settlements in these territories, because it was God's command that Jews live in all parts of the land he gave them. Since Israel was the instrument of a divine plan, its government need take no account of the practicalities of strategy, diplomacy, and geopolitics. Quite the opposite-those who worried about such considerations were displaying a lack of faith in God.

It's not surprising, then, that an Israeli government that wants to withdraw from territories is a crisis for this community. Of course, the settlers face the practical, and very real, crisis of leaving homes to which they are deeply attached and in which they have brought up children who have known no other home. But beyond that, it is a theological crisis, for the country to which they have sworn loyalty is now acting contrary to its divine purpose, as they understand it. An Israel that hands over territory to non-Jews is something that just cannot be.

Thus, each time an Israeli government has withdrawn from occupied territories, the religious Zionist community has begun to question its loyalty to the state. It happened in the early 1980s when Israel withdrew from Sinai, and it happened again in the mid-1990s when Israel handed over territory to the Palestinians in the framework of the Oslo peace accords.

In important ways, the current crisis over the pending withdrawal is even greater than those earlier confrontations. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin-assassinated in 1995 by an Orthodox Jew for his advocacy of the Oslo peace process-evacuated no settlements. And, while Israeli settlements were dismantled when Sinai was returned to Egypt in the 1980s, Sinai's status as a part of the biblical land of Israel was more tenuous. It's clear to everyone that if the settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northwestern West Bank are dismantled, it will set a precedent for the evacuation of settlements elsewhere in the West Bank.

My first home in Israel was in Kiryat Shmonah, a town near the country's northern border with Lebanon. When I lived there, in 1978, Kiryat Shmonah was regularly hit by rockets launched by Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon, just a couple of miles away. In June 1982, just before I began basic training, Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon aimed at rooting out the Palestinian forces there. Then, too, Israeli forces gained control of territories that, according to the Bible, are part of the land God gave the Jews.

Several months later, when I was part of an army unit serving in Lebanon, I passed through Kiryat Shmonah on my way to rejoining my unit after a few days home. Tacked up on several lampposts around town were signs announcing the formation of a group of young religious couples and singles who planned to establish an Israeli settlement in southern Lebanon, in the biblical territories of the tribes of Asher and Naftali. The imperative to settle all parts of the ancient land of Israel applied no less to these territories than to those in the Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the sign declared.

By the next time I reached Kiryat Shmonah two weeks later, the signs were gone. The religious and secular leaders of the settlement movement quickly squelched this and a few other nascent plans to settle the biblical lands to the north of the current state of Israel. The time was not ripe, they said, the military situation was tenuous, and there was enough settlement work to do elsewhere.

This little-remembered attempt to take Rabbi Kook's theology to its logical conclusion in Lebanon is worth recalling now, because it shows that even the leaders of the settler movement realize that there are practical limits to the application of their irredentist beliefs.

Israel's current process of disengagement from the Gaza Strip is not a failure of faith. It's a public policy decided on by Israel's government. The country's leaders have come to the conclusion that Israel has no vital interests in that territory and that the task of defending the settlements and the roads leading to them are straining a seriously overtaxed army facing a Palestinian rebellion that probably cannot be brought to a peaceful resolution any time soon. It's all the more telling that this conclusion has been reached by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the former general who spent most of his political career pushing for the establishment of as many settlements as possible.

Sharon is not a religious man, but religious Jews should in principle have no problem with taking practical considerations into account when making decisions of policy, even in a Jewish state. One only has to open a page of Talmud or a Jewish legal treatise to see how sages and rabbis have always balanced belief and precept against the practicalities of specific times, places, and concepts. Judaism is a legal religion, and the Jewish legal literature is in large part case law-rabbis addressing specific cases and problems rather than conducting rarefied philosophical discussions.

That's why I can believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and at the same time argue that that general principle does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the current state of Israel must control and settle Jews in all parts of that land. God gave us the land but he also gave us minds and powers of judgment.

As the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehoshua declared two millennia ago, the answers to current dilemmas do not come from heaven. We must carefully consider the evidence before us and make our own decisions. By advocating a rational defense policy that involves withdrawing Israeli forces and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip and northwestern West Bank, I am not violating Jewish religious principles. I am observing them.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad