Editor’s Notes: Religious Zionism’s crumbling partnership

By David Horovitz August 12, 2005

A plea for moderation from the president of Bar-Ilan University

Moshe Kaveh believes that the internal Jewish dispute over the rights and wrongs of evacuating Gaza’s settlements, now reaching its climax, marks the most profound strain ever on the relationship between the democratic state and its religious Zionist partners. And the leaders of religious Zionism, he fears, are failing to meet the challenge.

A few influential rabbis, most notably the former chief rabbi and National Religious Party mentor Avraham Shapira, he warns, are mistakenly and dangerously invoking an unbending halachic interpretation to order those of their followers who are in the army to refuse to participate in the pullout. And what he believes to be a ‘majority’ of religious Zionist rabbis, who do cling to the original partnership and do recognize the sovereign government’s legitimate right to determine the policies of the Jewish state, are largely keeping silent, lacking the courage to speak out.

Prof. Kaveh says it may be easier for him than that silent majority of rabbis to sound the warning because, he recalls lightly, after a protracted vacillation between the rabbinate and academic research, he chose to become a physicist.

And it may also be, he readily acknowledges, that he is particularly sensitive to the dangers that lurk in times of crisis like these. In a few months’ time Kaveh will mark his 10th anniversary as president of Bar-Ilan University, now the country’s largest with 32,000 students. It was a post he took up in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Bar-Ilan student Yigal Amir. ‘I think [I'm more aware of the dangers] as a consequence, and I’m not ashamed to say so,’ he says, heavily. ‘That was an act that taught us no one is immune.’

In a long interview this week in which he repeatedly expressed his admiration for the Gaza settlers and their pioneering spirit and his empathy for their pain and trauma, I didn’t ask Kaveh whether he supported or opposed disengagement, he didn’t volunteer an opinion, and it didn’t really matter. His personal assessment of the efficacy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies was not the point of our conversation.

What Kaveh speaks about with such anxiety, rather, is, firstly, the crumbling of the framework under which what he calls ‘the world’s only schizophrenic country’ has hitherto managed to maintain a near-impossible balance between its democratic imperatives and its religious underpinnings; and secondly, the acute threat that rabbis like Shapira now pose to the very ideology of religious Zionism. They are teaching their followers that disengagement will not happen, he notes, that God will not permit it to happen. And this is false messianism. If the pullout does go ahead nonetheless, an entire belief system will be shattered, its followers will feel betrayed, and there’s no knowing the consequences. Excerpts from the interview:

As president of the university of ‘religious Zionism,’ what most concerns you about the struggle against disengagement?

The whole country needs to regard those in Gush Katif as heroes. They were sent there and should be respected, and they deserve our sympathy.

Around this there is a full ideological camp with different colors. Most of its colors are reasonable, but the loudest part dominates and causes damage. Sometimes when, on the margins, you have a phenomenon like [the recent killing of four Israeli Arabs by a Jewish extremist at] Shfaram, it immediately stains [the whole camp]. There’s a tendency in the media to generalize.

There’s a group of rabbis which has crossed the red line. Religious Zionism took on itself the laws of the land and its democracy… But [these rabbis] are presenting soldiers with the traumatic dilemma over whether to heed a rabbi’s ruling to refuse orders or a lieutenant-general’s command to follow orders. That’s an impossible trauma. This call [to refuse army orders] crosses the red line of religious Zionism and will destroy religious Zionism. Most adherents of religious Zionism oppose this.

Last Shabbat I was with a group of religious Zionist rabbis. There is a lot of pain and a lot of uncertainty. This is an entire camp that believed [settlement] was the right way to be an orthodox Zionist in the state of Israel. The state sent them there and then the state suddenly changed its mind, as is its right. For all the pain, most accept this. Overall, I believe disengagement will pass quietly. The great danger relates to those on the margins, whom no one can control.

So I say to these rabbis, who have contributed so much to the Torah of Israel and religious Zionism: Be careful with your words. Extremists only need the smallest sense of justification.

Apart from extreme cases, I am convinced that soldiers from the religious Zionist camp will not refuse orders. The army is a supreme value for them. I don’t like it, but there are those who even think of the IDF as God’s army. Religious Zionism, unlike the haredim, ideologically decided that it is a mitzva to serve in the army, to protect Israel. That 30 percent of IDF officers come from the religious Zionist camp is an amazing educational achievement.

Now to place some of those boys in that dilemma [over following orders] is dangerous. It is wrong. And a reasonable man has to speak out against it.

Ninety-eight percent of the religious Zionist camp is reasonable and thinks as I do. But that silent majority isn’t talking. If this interview wakes up even a small proportion of this silent public, those on the margins will understand that they are acting against the majority. Jewish law requires that you not bolt away from the public. The public is firmly opposed to verbal violence, never mind physical violence, and certainly anything that counters the basic law of a democratic state.

What are the halachic arguments cited by the rabbis you are criticizing, and what is the halachic justification for your position?

The wisdom of Halacha is that it is not monolithic. It offers different opportunities for interpretation. Rabbi Shapira, not a marginal rabbi, speaks from pain. But a leader needs to distinguish between pain and Halacha.

His Halacha is that it is written that no body, not even a government, has the authority to voluntarily relinquish territory that was promised to the people of Israel. There’s another nuance: that in a peace negotiation, since peace has value, there are rabbis who say prefer peace to land, rabbis like Ovadia Yosef. There are rabbis who say it depends on what land and what kind of peace. But the political ideology here, even among those who favor disengagement, is that disengagement will not lead directly to peace. It is defined as a unilateral move.

On the other hand, there is a decision here that relates to the security of Israel. [It is argued] that fewer soldiers will have to be deployed and fewer will be killed. Lives are at stake. And so there are many rabbis who say, for that cause relinquishing land is justified.

If you take statistics of rabbis for and against, you’ll find a majority that feels the sovereign government of Israel is entitled to take this decision, because if not, there is no meaning to religious Zionism. The moment that religious Zionism decided this was a democratic Jewish state, it gave the government this mandate.

[There are those who say that] ‘if the majority, in a referendum, had voted for disengagement, then we wouldn’t have opposed it.’ But according to the extreme claim, according to the claim that Halacha utterly forbids relinquishing Gaza, a referendum wouldn’t be relevant anyway…

The argument over disengagement is also dividing the right-wing ideological camp. A large part supports it and believes that ultimately it’s beneficial… But there too, there’s a split. The finance minister has resigned. And the fact is that there are nuances within Halacha… But only one opinion is being heard, there are extremist rabbis, and the majority is silent.

I was with [Beit El's] Rabbi Shlomo Aviner [of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva] on Shabbat, and he gave me the courage to say these things to you. He is absolutely opposed to disengagement, but he stands up and says: ‘Gentlemen, we have to follow orders. We cannot refuse. If the order comes, we must immediately evacuate to avoid any possible conflict between a soldier ordered to evacuate and one who is to be evacuated.

If most rabbis believe what you say they believe, why aren’t they speaking out?

Last Shabbat there were 100-150 rabbis at this conference in Zichron Ya’acov. It’s a responsible group. They oppose refusal of orders. [But] they’re in pain and they find it hard to come out against one of the great halachic authorities of the generation, Rabbi Shapira.

It’s hard. When I was doing research in physics and my teacher made a mistake, it took me a while to muster the courage to say, ‘You made a mistake,’ and that’s essentially the situation.

At the same time I have to say that the political establishment doesn’t know how to handle the religious Zionist rabbis. They’ve been through a crisis. Sharon and his camp were their ideological partners. They retained their ideology and Sharon headed off into the area of Israeli security.

Now these rabbis [from the Zichron conference] are going back to their publics. Rabbi Aviner is going around the whole country. He’s castigated in some places, unjustly. And via this interview I want to support Rabbi Aviner and Rabbi [Yuval] Cherlow and other rabbis who have the courage to speak out and to express criticism before it is too late.

It takes real courage to say ‘We feel the pain, we cry, but we don’t refuse orders’ – and I expect religious Zionism to say it. It is the need of the hour. Ideological leadership, rabbinical leadership, is tested in times of crisis. This is a crisis.

If its voice is not heard now, at this historic hour, at the time of unprecedented tension in the world’s only schizophrenic state – a state that is both Jewish and democratic – then religious Zionism loses its basic, democratic ideology. And it will be hard to rehabilitate an ideology that goes to the very end: If the rabbis have said there won’t be disengagement, and disengagement happens, it’s like a case of false prophecy. It can cause a revolution, prompting people to leave the ideological camp.

Rabbi Aviner said on Shabbat that he’s almost certain the people of Israel will face further catastrophes, and that there’s no prayer that can prevent that. There’s no guarantee that the future will be good. A person who cannot face the fact that life has its crises is putting himself into a dangerous hothouse, and can break. An entire Zionist camp may despair of the army, may despair of all the institutions. It’s an immense danger.

Which scenarios concern you, given the discipline of protests and opposition to date?

You can’t know what an extremist will do. When you have ideological disappointment of this kind it brings instability. The papers are full of people losing control in a moment of extreme crisis. In this kind of crisis someone unstable may take action and seek justification in this or that statement.

And rabbis, by saying disengagement won’t happen, risk prompting an extreme action?

[They] risk prompting an extremist [to act] to ensure that it doesn’t happen – in an extreme way that the rabbi, of course, does not intend.

Why do rabbis say [disengagement] won’t happen? It’s like a parent to a child, to encourage them in a moment of crisis, to say, ‘It will pass, it will be okay.’ That’s human nature. The rabbis are basically well-intentioned, trying to encourage people whose spirit is broken.

But it’s dangerous because on the extremes it can be misinterpreted. And beyond the margins, if a rabbi of standing says disengagement is not going to happen and yet it happens, then plainly something is wrong. And that prompts people to reexamine their ideology. It certainly boosts the extreme margins to behavior that cannot be controlled.

The lunatic who did that despicable deed in Shfaram is not a part of the ordinary ideological camp. But these are moments of crisis… It only takes a few insane people to cause disaster to the whole ideology and its environment.

Has the fact that a former student here carried out the killing of Yitzhak Rabin 10 years ago made you particularly sensitive?

I think so, and I’m not ashamed to say so. I was appointed president of the university after that act and because of that act.

It was an act on the margins and it taught that no one is immune… It can happen in any ideology. It happened here in the religious Zionist camp. If you burn your hand once in boiling water, you’re more careful the second time. In times of crisis you need to be cautious.

The greatness of Bar-Ilan University is that it bridges between camps – Right and Left, Orthodox and secular. And we are therefore more immunized today than the rest of Israeli society. We had the traumatic crisis of Yigal Amir, which taught the university that it, too, was vulnerable to acts of extremism. And we opened dialogue groups between Orthodox and secular, forums of tolerance…

A student who comes here has been in a certain educational environment for 18 years. Can the university, in four years, change extremists? I doubt it. But it can influence the culture, the debate.

The whole religious Zionism camp has to open itself to more doubt, internal debate. The moment when an ideology outlaws doubt and internal debate, that whole ideology is in danger. When you have reasoned argument, that strengthens the ideology.

Why aren’t the rabbinical leaders you criticize as aware as you are of the dangers? Only two weeks ago, in Shfaram, something terrible happened again.

It’s a matter of courage. The courage to speak. Responsibility. A rabbi sees his general goal, and calculates the price [of speaking out]. I say there is a price that is not worth paying for any ideology – if the price is the price of moral unfairness, the killing of groups of innocents.

When they see the enthusiasm that has motivated this whole camp to be pioneers in settlement they are afraid to reduce it. And you reduce it by introducing doubt. Doubt and enthusiasm don’t go together.

Rabbi Aviner is using enthusiasm as a positive tool, but introducing a framework. Aviner, who lives in Beit El, who in the language of the Left is a settler to his soul, who speaks out day and night against disengagement and the ‘non-democratic’ processes, and who gets up and says that ‘the moment a soldier comes in, get up and leave,’ is almost unique.

Why aren’t others, more renowned than him, doing the same? I have no answer. I can’t justify it. I assume they have their reasons. But it’s dangerous. It’s wrong… I cry when I see those leaders not taking responsibility and not speaking out, not giving interviews, not drawing the red lines. It’s a tragedy. I hope we will get though it. I hope we’ll learn from it. I hope the whole camp won’t have to apologize for the extremists… We went through this 10 years ago.

Are we immune to another murder?

There are shocking murders here all the time.

Would the saying of this or that rabbi stop the most extreme? I’m not sure. But there is still an obligation to say clearly that anyone who does this is despicable, a criminal, anti-Orthodox, anti-Torah, anti-the state.
Protest in a democratic state – of course. But never violent protest.

My fear is that the rift is so serious that people are using the term betrayal. ‘They sent us’ [to live in Gaza]. That’s a legitimate feeling, but one that on the extremes can lead a man to actions no rabbi would have thought of. No teacher. No parents would have thought they had a son like that. There’s no controlling it.

Is Rabbi Shapira, whether he means it or not, opening the door for another extremist to think he has justification for murder?

I think not. Rabbi Shapira, in the same article where he advocated refusal, wrote not to raise a hand against a soldier. Any extremist who does anything violent is acting against Rabbi Shapira, against all rabbis. There is a vocal consensus against violence.

But, of course, the extremist hears what he wants to hear, and closes his ears to what he doesn’t want to hear.

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