Ideological Crisis in the Religious Right
By sticking to his plan, says the Gush, he is causing a rift in the Jewish people. Sharon returns the accusation.
There are at least four rifts:
- The old one that surfaces whenever the world pulls Israel leftward and its right wing pulls it back.
- The new rift between Sharon and the settlers, allies since 1967.
- A rift within the Likud, between those who support the disengagement plan and those who side with the settlers against it.
- An old but widening rift between the settlers and the national consensus.
The immediate cause of all the rifts is the fact that for the first time in history, an Israeli government intends to dismantle settlements within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The disengagement plan will not directly help the prospects for peace. Cut off from the West Bank and under a different rule, Gaza will remain a prison: tanks at its borders, no economy, no gateways to the world. The mere mouthing of the plan has already led Washington to shelve the “Road Map”; it has secured the first endorsement by an American president for Israeli annexation of most big West Bank settlements; it has upstaged the Geneva Agreement; and it has taken the wind from the sails of the refusal movement on the Left.
Within Israel, nonetheless, the plan does change the political map:
Israeli governments have a record of yielding to the settlers. Labor caved in when Moshe Levinger, in 1968, took over the Park Hotel in Hebron; it then permitted him and his followers to establish Kiryat Arba overlooking Hebron. In the early 1970’s, Labor built its own settlements in occupied Jerusalem, in the Gaza Strip, and along the Jordan, avoiding the heavily populated heart of the West Bank. Gush Emunim challenged this limitation in 1974 near Nablus. In a confrontation with the army there, retired general Ariel Sharon took his stand beside the settlers, saying that the order to disband them was immoral and soldiers should refuse. Gush Emunim finally won this battle, establishing Elon Moreh. After the Likud took power in 1977, Sharon (as head of the Settlement Committee) founded 62 new settlements within four years, mostly in the heartland. His alliance with Gush Emunim created a new reality in the Territories, deemed by many to be irreversible.
These were bedfellows of convenience. In effect, for a long time, their views dovetailed, but the underlying impulses have always been different. Those of the Gush are religious. Their depth has not been understood by most secular commentators and politicians, including Sharon, who speaks of them as of some kind of mental tic (“a messianic complex”); these motives will form the main topic of the present article.
Sharon’s intentions, on the other hand, have had nothing religious about them. During the last quarter of the 20th century, his military and political behavior embodied two principles: that security depends on territory; and that Arabs only understand brute force (which he employed – as a soldier and later as Defense Minister – more brutally than any other Israeli). Both principles, as said, were long congenial to Gush Emunim, which sees settlement as a biblical injunction and negotiation with the Palestinians (“Canaanites”) as sin. Yet now the paths divide.
What has happened to break the alliance? Sharon became Prime Minister. From his new vantage point, he sees 1) that the Gaza settlements have become a liability in terms of their security-value, cost, and international pressure. He sees, furthermore, that 2) Israel’s economy is linked to the world’s with an intensity such as the Likud’s old guard had never envisioned. Even without American participation, international sanctions could be lethal. The European reaction to the separation barrier in the West Bank brings this threat home. What is more, Sharon sees that 3) chaos today grips the Territories, and Israel is again, in effect, the direct Occupier. After 37 years, how much longer can it dominate nearly four million people – while the world looks on – without granting them citizenship or self-determination? In Gaza there are 1.3 million Palestinians and 7500 settlers (0.6%). In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, there are 2.6 million Palestinians and 400,000 settlers. It makes sense, given Sharon’s concern for security, to withdraw from Gaza, thus reducing international pressure and saving the 400,000 for Israel – not to mention saving Israel itself.
Among Likud members, some share Sharon’s view, some are stuck in a pre-globalization concept of security, and some line up with one or the other camp according to extraneous political motives. But the alliance with Gush Emunim is gone forever; if part of the Likud remains with the settlers on the question of disengagement, the Likud will split.
It is necessary to explore this faith – and the reasons for its extraordinary hold on believers – in order to gauge the depth of the danger. As an indicator of what can happen, recall Yamit. This settlement in northwest Sinai is the only one ever to have been dismantled (in 1982, by Likud Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, as part of the peace with Egypt). When God did not intervene to prevent the evacuation, Gush Emunim underwent a trauma. Out of the soul-searching, two approaches developed. One was moderate: to reach out to other Israelis in search of a consensus, moving little by little, emphasizing security rather than faith. The other response was to form a Jewish underground that would work with God in implementing his will. Until it was stopped in 1984, this group mutilated Palestinian mayors, made preparations for destroying the main Muslim sanctuaries in Jerusalem, and planned to blow up Arab buses. Its members were respected figures in Gush Emunim.2
Ten years later, the Gush environment produced Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who single-handedly derailed the Oslo Accords by massacring 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron. PM Yitzhak Rabin, in response, prepared to remove the small and troublesome Jewish settlement in that city. The right-wing, however, expressed its outrage at such an idea; fearing civil war, Rabin backed down. In November 1995, a right-wing believer assassinated him.
Where should we locate these plots, mutilations and murders in relation to the faith of Gush Emunim? Are they sinful aberrations? Or do the killers stand in the same category as the zealous Levites who slew the worshipers of the golden calf? In order to see the answer, we shall need to delve into areas that are unusual for this political magazine.
At the core of Gush Emunim is faith in the biblical God. It is an archaic variety of faith, which ignores some biblical commandments while emphasizing others. The archaism occurs in reaction against challenges to faith that gathered momentum for centuries and culminated in the Holocaust.
The Bible lays an extraordinary emphasis on divine justice. God makes a covenant with the people of Israel, promising that if they obey his commandments, things will go well for them, but if not, they will be punished. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17.)
There was a time, lasting a century or more, when the principle of divine retribution held true quite literally. This was Israel’s formative period (which in the guise of the Book of Joshua captivates the archaizing settlers). Lacking a king to unite them, the proto-Israelites had to focus on one god in order to become one people. Thus united, they had sufficient power to keep their foothold in the highlands of Canaan. Faith paid because it unified.
Nor was there a problem of divine justice, in this formative period, on the “individual level.” The individual did not count as the basic unit of human existence. Family ties were so strong and far-reaching that the boundaries of the person were fluid, both in space (with the members of one’s extended family) and in time (with ancestors and descendants). If an innocent person suffered, one could defend divine justice by supposing that his family members or ancestors had sinned: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
The situation changed radically as soon as a major empire entered the arena. In 722 BCE the Assyrians deported the northern tribes, leaving only Judah. Had Israel’s God been defeated? There was another option: to see him as the lord of the entire world, directing the course of history, using the nations to punish Israel for its sins. Here we find the first great expression of pure monotheism. It appears in the prophet Isaiah, through whom God calls Assyria “the rod of my anger!” (10:5) (About 2800 years later, the ideologues of Gush Emunim will apply this same interpretive tactic to Nazi Germany.)
A revolt against Assyria in 701 BCE resulted in the deportation of almost the entire rural population of Judah. As for those who stayed, their extended families and clans were broken up, and their connection to the ancestral lands was cut. No large kinship structures now intervened between person and state. The person lost those “fluid boundaries in space and time.” It could no longer make sense, therefore, to defend divine justice by saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Rather, “each shall die for his own sins” (Jeremiah 31:29-30). The whole of Ezekiel 18 is devoted to this principle of individual liability: God commands that no one shall be punished for sins that he himself has not committed. (Orthodox interpretations of the Holocaust, including that of Gush Emunim, disregard this commandment.3)
Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived at the time of the Babylonian exile (early 6th century BCE). In 538, when Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return, some did. The returnees did not worship idols (a fact attested by archaeology). According to the covenant faith, things ought to have gone well for them.
Things did not go well. In 63 BCE, the Romans arrived. The stark imbalance of power seemed to contradict the covenant faith: We aren’t worshiping idols – why then this Roman domination? Using an old prophetic text (Micah 5:3), pious Jews found an answer: We are living amid the birth pangs of the Messiah! Just as a woman undergoes great pain before the joyous event, so our pain is a prelude. It derives from the fact that the demonic forces are gathering for their last stand, because God has re-entered history. He is about to overcome them and bring redemption.
The idea of the birth pangs produced Christianity and two disastrous revolts against Rome. (Today, we shall see, the luminaries of Gush Emunim interpret the Holocaust as the birth pangs of the Messiah.)
When it became clear that the pangs had spawned no redemption, the defenders of biblical faith, Jewish and Christian, could still find refuge in the notion of an afterlife, where God would finally mete out justice to the good and the wicked. It is difficult to disprove this belief, since death is a country from whose bourn no traveler returns. For the same reason, however – lack of verifiability – the belief proved vulnerable when, in later centuries, new challenges to faith arose. The revolutions (philosophical, scientific, industrial and political) of the 17th and 18th centuries upset traditional ideas about God and the universe. The discovery of different cultures led to a notion of the relativity of all values, including biblical commandments. The text of the Bible was subjected to critical scrutiny. Then came Frazer, Darwin, Marx, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud. The Western world went seasick. The notion of an individual afterlife came to seem, in the hearts of many, as doubtful as the medieval version of the cosmos to which that notion had belonged. Multitudes abandoned biblical faith.
And now we reach the 20th century, with its massive examples of innocent suffering. Each group tends to focus on its own. For Jews (and many others) the epitome is the Holocaust: here basic evil was conducted systematically on a massive scale for five years without hindrance. If God could have intervened and did not, how can one forgive him? If God could not intervene, what difference does it make whether he exists or not?
When people assert their faith in the biblical God despite these questions, the questions do not go away. Where the Holocaust is concerned, however, the members of Gush Emunim have an answer:
In a valuable study of the movement, Ian S. Lustick cites Harold Fisch, former rector of Bar Ilan University and the only member of the Gush elite to have published a systematic treatment of the movement’s views. Fisch “characterizes the Holocaust…as an example of God’s discipline – ‘a commandment written in blood upon the soil of Europe.’ God thereby instructed his people that the emancipation, in which so many Jews had placed their hopes for a future of equality within a liberal democratic Europe, could not provide them with an escape route from the burdens of their covenant [namely, to settle the Land of Israel – SL].”4
Lustick continues his summary: “Thus, the Holocaust is seen as God’s way of coercing his chosen people back to the Promised Land and of convincing them of the cosmic urgency of its complete reunification – the whole people of Israel in the whole Land of Israel. Best known for this interpretation of the Holocaust is Menachem Kasher, who argued that by entailing the destruction of more Jews than the loss of the First and Second Temples combined, the Holocaust must be understood as the ‘birthpangs of the Messianic Age (which) fell upon our generation and thus opened for us the way to Redemption.'”5
After the Holocaust, two “miracles” stand out: the creation of Israel in 1948 and the War of 1967, which put the entire land again under Jewish control. “None of this is by accident!” wrote Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who taught and inspired the founders of Gush Emunim. “There is no mysticism here, rather open eyes that can see the hand of God. Our holy land, that was exhausted and asleep, its power blocked up, has arisen… And now, with the help of God, the land is in our hands, and the Temple Mount is in our hands.”6
Kook’s personification of the land is not just rhetoric. Gush teachings stress the indissoluble bond between God, the land, and the Jewish people. The meaning of life is to be found in that bond. “The chosen land and the chosen people comprise one completed, divine unity, joined together at the creation of the world and the creation of history. They comprise one vital and integral unit.”7
God is at work: first the birth pangs, now the actual process of birth, the restoration of Israel in its promised borders, to be followed by the redemption of the world. Within Gush Emunim there are differences as to where the promised borders are, but minimally they include southern Lebanon and much of Jordan. Many in the Gush understand that it may take time, even generations, for the birth process to be complete. Concerning the areas already under Jewish control, however, there is strong agreement. The “indissoluble bond” cannot be partly dissolved. Others may use the sterile phrase “dismantling of settlements,” but “these settlements are the essence of our existence and flesh of our flesh. We shall not accept the amputation of our living flesh.”8
Here for example is Moshe Levinger, writing in 1985:
“The public that is faithful to the Land of Israel has begun to worry. Perhaps, in spite of everything, the danger is real that the Yamit precedent will be repeated, God forbid, in parts of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. I must say, taking full responsibility, that such simplistic and absolutist comparisons between what happened in Sinai and the infrastructure we have established here in the heart of our forefathers’ inheritance: Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, are exaggerated and totally unjustified.”9
Now Yamit is to be repeated, if the disengagement plan goes through, for all 21 of the Gaza settlements and four in holy Samaria. What kind of glitch is this? Gush Emunim has envisioned delay, but this would be worse: it would be reversal – something never contemplated. The God of the Gush does not hiccup on the path to salvation. Archaizing faith cannot endure the hems and haws of humdrum history. Sharon’s plan would dismantle the movement’s whole interpretation of events. But if God is not at work in Gaza and Samaria, then the members of Gush Emunim lose their answer to the Holocaust. Their faith becomes vulnerable to the terrible questions. That is their stake in the settlements.
I have singled out Gush Emunim because of the danger it poses, but let me close by noting that the post-Auschwitz attempt to rediscover God’s work in the birth of Israel is extremely widespread. Gush Emunim is the logical extension of a norm, the tip of an iceberg.10 One finds this notion in synagogue worship (“Bless thou the state of Israel, the beginning of the dawn of our redemption….”). At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the exhibit culminates in the creation of the State. The implicit message is this: since Israel arose thus in holiness – out of the dry bones, the ash, the mass graves – opposition is forbidden.
Post-Auschwitz theologians (Joseph Soloveitchik, Irving Greenberg, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits) find God’s hand at work in the survival of the Jewish people and the rebirth of Israel. One can explain such things on less edifying grounds. And besides! Try saying that to an Armenian, a Tutsi, a refugee from Darfur, or to any of the myriad instances of unredeemed innocent suffering, including those from the Holocaust.
Fackenheim tells Jews not to abandon their faith or Israel, because that would mean granting Hitler posthumous victories.11 I cannot agree. Let the dead do posthumous bookkeeping. The victory of the living is to find meaning in one another – without illusions and opiates.