Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Religious Zionism Suffers a Crisis of Faith in Wake of Israeli Withdrawal

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Religious Zionism Suffers a Crisis of Faith in Wake of Israeli Withdrawal

Article excerpt

Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank has prompted an emotional and ideological self-examination for many religious Zionists who, for three decades, believed that by expanding settlements they were reclaiming the nation's biblical birthright and hastening the Messianic age. When Israel won control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, religious Zionists interpreted it as proof of their ideology.

According to some religious Zionists, such as Rabbi Yisrael Rosen of the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, leaving the settlements over the Green Line and returning to Israel proper means "going into exile."

In its Sept. 5 edition, The Jerusalem Report noted: "The disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank has undermined the relationship of many in the religious Zionist camp with the state they viewed as the vehicle for the Jewish people's redemption. As their shock and sense of betrayal deepen, the community faces gripping questions of where to turn and what to believe...After Sharon's pronouncement 18 months ago, displays of religious fury with the state escalated. Prosettler rabbis called on Orthodox soldiers to disobey orders connected with the withdrawal. Spiritual leaders delivered sermons questioning the secular state's authority to give up parts of the divinely granted homeland. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu declared that the disengagement simply would not happen. Orthodox women held nightly vigils at the Western Wall; tens of thousands prayed for miracles. But the prayers weren't answered...and the Whole Land of Israel idea has been repudiated by the state-which religious Zionists have seen as sacred and as a divine vehicle for fulfillment of Biblical prophecy-the crisis has only deepened."

Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal has sketched out four separate paths that this fractured community may take: A minority of religious Zionists, he predicts, will perceive the clash over the disengagement as a "culture war between Jews and Hellenizers, meaning gays or Russian immigrants." Sensing that living in Israel is some form of "internal exile," this minority will move toward ultra-Orthodoxy. Next, Halbertal says, a small extremist apocalyptic group will be determined to "force the redemption" by any means-even deliberately provoking a confrontation with the Muslim world. A third group is likely to start a "type of New Age Hasidism...as a replacement for the failed philosophy" of redemption through settling the land. The fourth, and largest, sector, according to Halbertal, will "not break the bond with mainstream Israel." His evidence is that the heads of the majority of hesderyeshivot, which combine military service with religious studies, did not support the call of some influential rabbis to disobey army orders to take part in the pullout.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading Orthodox dove and Israel's former deputy minister of diaspora affairs, told the Sept. 9 Forward: "They [religious Zionists] feel that what is being done is to crush the ethos, the narrative of religious Zionism. It is seen as a breach of the narrative that goes into all fields of life, even theology." According to this view, Melchior said, "Sharon is interfering with the messianic process."

So extreme are some religious Zionists that one prominent opponent of disengagement, former Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, preached a sermon in which he concluded that Hurricane Katrina was punishment from God in response to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the Bush administration's support for this policy. Katrina, he went on to say, was retribution not only for the Gaza withdrawal, but because black Americans do not study Torah. According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot, the rabbi declared: "There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn't enough Torah study. …

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