Fundamentalism in crisis - the response of the Gush Emunim rabbinical authorities to the theological dilemmas raised by Israel's Disengagement plan.

Author:Inbari, Motti

In August 2005, Israel vacated the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip--mainly in Gush Katif--as well as four settlements in northern Samaria. This action, known as the "Disengagement," constituted a profound crisis for a significant section of the Israeli population that is most closely identified with religious Zionism and with the settlement movement in the Territories. The crisis was not only on the national level, as the state destroyed communities that it had established and nurtured for decades, but also on the community level, as thousands of people were removed from their homes. The Disengagement also caused a religious crisis, testing the very foundation of the beliefs guiding the political and religious behavior for the population. Accordingly, the Disengagement provides a test case for the way in which the religious Zionist public as a whole laced this crisis of faith, and, more specifically, the manner in which the Halachic guides of this public--those responsible for shaping its religious behavior--responded to the crisis.

This article examines the attitude of the rabbinical leadership of Gush Emunim ("Bloc of the Faithful") toward the Disengagement, and whether the political processes led to any change in attitudes among these circles regarding the status and religious significance of the State of Israel as a secular Zionist nation. Consideration will also be given to the modalities by which the Gush Emunim rabbis reconcile the discrepancy between their religious ideal and events on the ground. In this respect, therefore, the article will constitute a case study of the religious response to crises of faith. It will also provide a test case for examining the circumstances in which religious institutions change their attitude toward the secular state and engage in a strategy to win state control.

The Six Day War (June 1967) created a new reality in the Middle East. During the course of the war, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. These areas were not annexed to Israel, and continued to have the status of occupied territories administered by Israel pending their return in the framework of a peace agreement. Accordingly, immediately after the war, Israel did not, on the whole, initiate Jewish settlement in the occupied areas, with the exception of East Jerusalem, which was formally annexed to the State of Israel. From the outset, however, this principle was not strictly applied. Soon after the war, a number of Jewish settlements were established in the occupied territory. The first settlement in the West Bank was founded in 1967, in Kfar Etzion. The first settlement in the Gaza Strip was Kfar Darom, established in 1970. Both settlements were not typical in that they were established on the ruins of earlier Jewish settlements destroyed by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies during the War of Independence (1948). After 1967, the Israeli government also initiated the establishment of several settlements in the Jordan Valley and in the Yamit region in Sinai, as part of the security-oriented Alon Plan.

Jewish settlement activities increased dramatically after the establishment of Gush Emunim in February 1974. A group of young religious Zionists, who advocated the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, founded the movement. This extra-parliamentary movement also managed to secure the support of a number of prominent secular public figures, such as the songwriter Naomi Shemer and General Ariel Sharon (retired), who saw the settlers as continuing the work of the early Zionist pioneers.

The first settlement action undertaken by activists from the organization, whose members were drawn from graduates of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva under the leadership of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook, came when they entered a site in Sebastia without official permission. The authorities evicted the settlement several times, but the settlers then reached an agreement with Minister of Defense Shimon Peres that they would be housed in a neighboring IDF base--a decision that effectively led to the establishment of the settlement, despite some opposition within the Israeli government led by Yitzhak Rabin. After the Likud came to power in 1977, the pace of construction in the settlements increased, and they enjoyed enthusiastic support, including financial benefits, the construction of infrastructures, and legal protection. Ariel Sharon, minister of agriculture at the time, was a key source of support. In 1978, the Amana movement was established as the settlement arm of Gush Emunim. The number of Israeli citizens living in the settlements has risen steadily since then. (1) At the beginning of 2004, the population of the settlements was estimated at 250,000, and approximately 40 percent of the territory of Judea and Samaria was included in the municipal areas of jurisdiction of the settlements.

The Six Day War created fervent hope among the younger generation of religious Zionists. The dominant school within this population, the graduates of Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, propagated the perception that the Israeli victory in this war reflected God's will to redeem His people. The post-war era, therefore, represented a higher stage in the process of redemption. Accordingly, the graduates perceived the State of Israel as imbued with absolute sanctity. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Hacohen Kook, the leader of this group, went so far as to state: "We must remember for once and all: that which is sacred is sacred! [...] The State of Israel and the arrangement of government in Israel are sacred. And everything that belongs to observing this commandment, all the tanks and other weapons [...]--all belong to this sanctity." (2) The Gush Emunim mass settlement movement aimed to settle the territories occupied by the IDF in order to establish facts on the ground, and to settle file biblical Land of Israel with Jews. The movement saw settlement as a manifestation of the redemption of God's people.

Since the 1980s, however, the Gush Emunim settlement movement has seen an increasing conscience of crisis due to the discrepancy between their underlying religious belief, which considers the State of Israel to be the first step toward full redemption, portraying an image of the state involved in a process of redemption, and the actual reality of concessions and withdrawals.

After the peace process between Israel and Egypt (1978), and the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai (1982), man Gush Emunim supporters were forced to confront the increasing erosion of their basic-beliefs regarding the character and destiny of the State of Israel. The Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, and the subsequent Madrid talks (1990) and Oslo process (1993), which led to an Israeli withdrawal from parts of Judea and Samaria, provoked a profound theological crisis, intensified by the demolition of Jewish settlements during the Disengagement (2005). The fundamental religious dilemma is profound: how can a state that uproots settlements and hands over parts of the biblical Land of Israel to Arab rule be considered "absolutely sacred?" What sublime religious meaning can be attributed to the actions of a secular state unaware of its purpose of serving as "the foundation for God's throne in the world," which threatens to destroy by its own hands the chance of realizing the messianic hope?

The events that took place during the Disengagement are still fresh and it is too early to foresee the long term outcomes. Still a profound question has to be raised: will the Disengagement make a change in the long term attitude of the rabbinic leadership of Gush Emunim toward the state of Israel, or will a crisis be overcome?

Although religious Zionists account for less than 15 percent of the population, they maintain a disproportionate influence due to the nature of Israel's parliamentary system, which allows religious coalition partners to exert strong influence over government policies.

The examination of the activist wing of rabbis from the Mercaz Harav school does not reflect the positions of the entire settlement movement. Moreover, despite the militant calls from certain circles within this elite rabbinical group to refuse to obey the order to evict settlements and to engage in physical opposition, in reality these calls were not heeded. In particular, and with few exceptions, religious Zionist soldiers who were graduates of the Gush Emunim yeshivot did not heed militant calls. The number of cases in which soldiers refused to obey army orders relating to the Disengagement itself did not exceed 130, (3) so the scale o-f this phenomenon can be considered negligible. The failure of the militant struggle may also be due to ambivalent and mixed messages, as discussed below. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of this rabbinical group, if only because its members are the teachers and guides of many young religious Zionists. The education and values these young men receive in the "national yeshivot" will form the foundation for the next generation of leaders of religious Zionism as a whole. It can be assumed that the Disengagement will constitute a formative event for this generation.


Soon after its emergence, religious Zionism has been required to consider dialectical perspectives that seek to imbue the Zionist enterprise with covert messianic significance. These approaches are identified, in particular, with the religious philosophy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935). According to Dov Schwartz, many Orthodox Jews found it difficult to identify with the Zionist movement and act within the classic Zionist definitions. Zionist rhetoric spoke of the need to "normalize" the Jewish people and make it "a nation like all the others." The essence of Zionism was described as being "to build a safe haven for the Jewish people." All these definitions are...

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