1. The Disaster of Others
On the other side stood these soldiers, shamefaced, stonewalling the screams, occasionally withdrawing into a private corner, where the ubiquitous camera found them weeping. Everyone was torn, some from their homes, others in their conscience. (When it was all over, the soldiers got a gift package of a week’s holiday, including two days of workshops with psychologists.) The media’s hidden goal was to preserve, at all costs, the ethos of a “united people” – even if united only in sorrow. The reigning slogan from the settlers’ side was, “Jew doesn’t exile Jew!” Jew did, with trembling han
Among the TV audience were Palestinian refugees. Of the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza alone, refugees number 950,000. Like the four million others in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, they or their parents or grandparents were expelled from their homes and villages in 1948. They still hold the keys. About 30,000 of the Gazan refugees were recently uprooted again when Israel bulldozed their neighborhoods in Rafah and Khan Yunis (one house on top of its inhabitants). All the refugees were amazed, no doubt, by the sensitivity, delicacy and humanity of the Israeli soldiers during the disengagement. They did not recall such conscience-tormented faces at their own uprootings. “Where are the brutes,” they must have wondered, “who’ve been oppressing us for 38 years? Where did the Israeli army suddenly find so many tender-hearted soldiers and generals? They mew like kittens! They weep like babes! What a fine and noble thing – to be exiled by such an army!”
Avichai Sharon of “Breaking the Silence”2 responded to the media hype with a letter to Haaretz on August 16. He reviewed a statement by Dan Harel, general of Israel’s Northern Command. Harel had told journalist Ari Shavit of Haaretz, “I believe that most of our soldiers will come out of this scratched. Everyone who knocks on a door will take with him something for the years ahead. He’ll remember the face of the one whose door he knocked on. The look in the eyes. The mother with two children behind her.”
Avichai Sharon replies: “You can tell the general not to worry. His soldiers and commanders have had plenty of practice entering homes while families are eating dinner or invading their lives in the wee hours of the morning. His soldiers and commanders already live with scenes like a mother holding her crying baby, while twenty armed soldiers break in shouting. We already have experience like this, though with one important difference: those mothers didn’t understand a word of what we said.”
Journalist Shavit (who in recent years has straddled all sides of the political spectrum, thus seeming to incarnate an Israeli consensus) went overboard in amplifying the national trauma. Although on a number of occasions he mentioned the evil inherent in building the settlements and the need to be rid of them, he did not hesitate to launch his prophetic ire against the Israeli Left. From the doomed settlement of Netzer Hazani he wrote: “The dovish humanists weren’t here this week. Maybe they’re busy. But it is a fact of grave significance that the chief rabbis of secular Israeli morality did not see fit to make a truly human gesture toward the 8000 of their people who are being uprooted by force from their homes. This fact re-organizes the normative framework in Israel. In a short time they will learn that whoever fails to stand sympathetically beside his people in their time of disaster loses the moral right to preach to them about the disaster of others.” (“Heartless Disengagement,” Haaretz August 18, 2005.)
“The disaster of others”? The thing that most astonished me during the six days of disengagement was the almost complete absence of any reference, on TV or in print, to the disaster of others. For there had been another uprooting, of another people, in this land 57 years ago – only with certain differences, among them the lack of round-the-clock TV coverage. Here in the August heat of 2005 we were treated to scenes of heartbreak and grief. But what about that heartbreak, that grief – when you weren’t about to be compensated with an average of $450,000 per family, when you weren’t being moved to an air-conditioned hotel, when you weren’t being provided with food and schools and health care, when no one was apologizing? Wouldn’t some pundit make the point? Here we had a pale example. Take away the cameras, make the tears real, and multiply them by a million.
One of the few who drew the comparison was commentator Amnon Abramovich on Israel’s Channel Two: “If there’d been this kind of media coverage in 1948,” he said, “the State would not have come into being.”
Another exception was Danny Rubinstein in Haaretz: “The Palestinian people as a whole is living the uprooting suffered by about half of its members. …In this context it was possible to see the outburst of anger among Palestinians who were asked whether they didn’t have even a little bit of sympathy for the Jewish settlers in Gush Katif and northern Samaria (West Bank) who are losing their homes. No. They don’t have any sympathy or any understanding.” (“The Other Uprooting,” Haaretz August 15.)
Another thing that floored me was the abuse of Holocaust images and the cheapening of terms like “destruction,” “uprooting,” and “brokenness.” Exile is nothing new. We know what it looks like, we know how it sounds. Exile doesn’t shout. It chills by silence. The uprooted hold their tongues in the face of the uprooters. They don’t vilify them. They know it’ll mean a bullet in the head. The Jew doesn’t argue with the Nazi.
But Israeli leftists – could they not see? Why did they not point out the obvious? Perhaps because it would have raised the specter they fear: the Palestinian right of return.
Journalists would have needed, no doubt, a measure of courage and honesty to view the events of these six days in a deeper historical perspective, so that their audience might begin at last to cope with the source of the conflict. But this opportunity was wasted in an orgy of staged mass hysteria, for which reporters worked up crocodile tears to avoid being tarred and feathered. Ruled by consensus, they strengthened it.
2. Settler Invincibility: A Myth Deflated
A myth was broken: that Israel cannot evacuate its settlers. But another myth too collapsed, one that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had worked hard to cultivate: the myth that the process would be very difficult, so much so that no one would ever raise the possibility of further disengagement in the rest of the West Bank. The evacuation was accomplished in six days. The only fatalities were outside the scope of the action: one settler set herself on fire, and two others murdered eight Palestinians in Shfaram and Shiloh. The reservists among the settlers gave up their army weapons before the operation began, in this way signaling that there would be no civil war. It looked, indeed, as though they had cut a deal with the army: Permit us to thrash and weep and shout, but we’ll play by the rules. The settler leadership sought to oust Sharon – and no doubt this was the miracle they were praying for – but it did not happen. Maybe that will be Act Two.
Everything happened so quickly because the settlers had isolated themselves – not just from secular society, but from their fellow orthodox too. The age of greater Israel and its faithful adherents had passed, and they refused to believe it.
Yonatan Bassi, who headed the Disengagement Administration (which the settlers dub the Judenrat), hails from the heart of religious Zionism. He explains the rupture as follows:
“Since the Six-Day War, and more intensively since the Yom Kippur War, the national-religious public has undergone a dangerous process. It has rejected the rational element in the face of the irrational. Instead of going with [Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz and understanding that the concept of am sgula [a ‘chosen,’ ‘treasured’ or ‘special’ people; see Deuteronomy 7:6] is a demand, they went with Rabbi Kook and believed that am sgula is a promise. That we have the beginning of redemption. That we are promised that the third commonwealth will not be destroyed. That we are on track toward the Third Temple.
“I think one of the most important results of the disengagement is that it will force the religious Zionist movement to go back to making rational considerations. There will be a great crisis, a severe blow of faith. It is possible that we will see Haredization (a move to ultra-Orthodoxy) on the one hand, and the abandonment of religion on the other. But in the end, I believe that we will return to the correct balance between the rational basis and the irrational basis, between the metaphysical and the physical.” (Haaretz July 8, 2005)
Yair Sheleg, an expert on the settlers, continues in the same vein:
“The Israeli political ethos is the product of a balance between national fervor and sober political prudence. Without it, and without recognition of the authority of the elected leadership, the nation is liable to collapse from within even before shattering from without. The spirit of Bnei Akiva [a movement within religious Zionism – RBE] preserved the national fervor, but disturbed that which balances it – the political prudence. What’s more, over time it has also rebelled against the authority of the leadership.” (“Battle of the ‘Jews’ versus the ‘Israelis,’” Haaretz August 22.) Their mythic view of history, Sheleg claims, led the settlers to ignore both the Palestinians and the international community. They also thought they were authorized to dictate policy on the issue nearest their hearts: the settlement of “Yesha” (acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza).
In fact, writes Sheleg, after 1967 the religious right made a gentleman’s agreement with the liberal left: You let us have our way in settling Yesha, and we’ll respect your say-so when it comes to the way of life in Israel.
The comfortable winking bond with the entire Israeli leadership is something that the settlers today have difficulty giving up. The source of the rupture lies in a feeling of insult, felt by those who once belonged but belong no longer.
They have disengaged from much of the Likud as well. Ariel Sharon, their prop and support through the years, the man who always bent rules for them, who ushered them past the bureaucracy, who turned a blind eye to their anti-Palestinian rampages, their land-grabs, their water-grabs, this same Arik Sharon has now turned his back on them. They, who counted themselves superior – above the weak, self-indulgent secular types schmoozing time away in Tel Aviv cafés, above the hungry Jewish working class that silently watched while the big money oozed to the settlements, above the politicians they twirled on their pinkies – feel today like a downed empire.
They believed a miracle would prevent disengagement, and this faith kept them from reading the map. They believed that their fellow Israelis, opponents of withdrawal, would flood the settlements on Judgment Day by the tens of thousands, that soldiers would refuse en masse to carry out the dreaded order, that the State would discover where the real power was. But the miracle did not materialize. They were abandoned not only by their God, but also by the two other main currents in Israeli orthodoxy. The spiritual head of Shas (the party favored by orthodox Jews from Arab countries and their descendants), Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, decreed that the study of Torah took precedence over the struggle over the settlements. The leaders of the Ashkenazi orthodox decided that the settlers had exaggerated the importance of settling the land of Israel. There are other commandments, they said, that are no less vital.
We cannot conclude from this, however, that the State of Israel has suddenly taken a turn toward sanity. On the contrary, insanity has merely changed direction, as evinced in the consensus on keeping the settlement blocs and leaving the illegal outposts alone “for now.” It is also evinced in the building activity now underway in an area called E-1: it will join the settlement of Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem, while separating (cantonizing) the northern West Bank from the southern.
True, then: 8000 out of 440,000 Israeli settlers (including those in Jerusalem) have been displaced, but the blindness that first engendered the settlement project – the lack of political imagination in this dangerous corner of the Middle East – lives on.