Wielding ideology

The extreme fringe of the Orthodox far-Right is employing rhetoric that mirrors political Islam.

By SAM SER
September 27, 2005 21:29

In one of the most oft-repeated video clips on Israeli television in recent weeks, Moshe Feiglin addresses a crowd of supporters who are preparing to fight disengagement from the Gaza Strip, then a few weeks away. "There will be no disengagement," Feiglin shrieks into a microphone, "because we will not allow it!" The sound bite repeats, and echoes. "We will not allow it!" Ostensibly, Feiglin is a Chabadnik of sorts. He merely wants the Jewish people to act more Jewish. "I want to reach a point where a person will close his shop for Shabbat not because of any law I could pass, but because that's his culture," Feiglin said in a telephone interview this week. Exactly what this culture is is it Jewish in the Eastern European sense? The Moroccan sense? The Indian sense? Feiglin couldn't say. Instead, he answered that Judaism is much more than a religion; it is a guide to proper societal living. "My starting point," said Feiglin, "is Judaism, not politics." Yet, it is at politics that he ended up, declaring that Religious Zionism "is an idea whose time has passed." Beginning an argument that he has obviously delivered many times before, Feiglin added: "Zionism's stated goal was to solve the problem of the Jewish people. But in doing so, it merely made us into a people like all others. The real solution is settlement and aliya... but aliya has been used to bring non-Jews here instead of Jews. So, paradoxically, in order to perpetuate Zionism, we have to stop it." The political program of Feiglin's Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction is devoted almost entirely to promoting "Jewish identity and pride," with little in the way of concrete policies. Its platform amounts to a complaint against "the crisis" of Zionism and the simple hope that Israel's Jews will follow Feiglin. Pressed for details, he became contradictory. Feiglin insisted that Manhigut Yehudit is a thinking man's party. "No other party in the country has the kind of intellectualism and breadth of thought that Manhigut Yehudit has," he said. Nonetheless, Feiglin and the Manhigut Yehudit membership chose to register as members of the Likud Party, rather than run independently. "Well, you see, whether you like it or not, the Likudnik is the average Israeli, and it is the average Israeli whom we want to influence," he explained. Since Likud is Israel's largest party and its leader is the prime minister, Feiglin smartly identified control of Likud as a shortcut to the premiership. He is sticking by Likud, too, even though it was Likud leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who brought the "evil decree" of the disengagement plan to fruition. "Um, the evil decree came from the Knesset," he answered. Perhaps Manhigut Yehudit will one day attract enough people that it can "disengage" from Likud; Feiglin is unsure. Neither is he sure whether to endorse a total separation from the Zionist enterprise. Is that because he thinks that would be wrong, or because he fears that rejecting the army, for example, would cost him politically? "I am allowed to be conflicted with myself about some things," he answered angrily. Feiglin, however, is absolutely clear that he is prepared "to die or to conquer the hill," as the old Revisionist cry goes. Reversing himself again, he said, "Now is not the time to die honorably... We must conquer the hill and become the authority that gives the orders." So he wants a revolution in theory at least, if not in practice. But whatever it is, Feiglin insisted that his revolt will not be the revolt of the Religious Zionists. "I reject this term 'Religious Zionist,'" said Feiglin finally. "I am not 'religious' and I am not a Zionist. I am Jewish." It's precisely the kind of statement that, according to Middle East commentator Daniel Pipes, betrays a view that is characteristic of Islamic totalitarian movements. "Whereas a traditional Muslim would say something like, 'We are not Jewish, we are not Christian, we are Muslim,'" Pipes said, "the Malaysian Islamist leader Anwar Ibrahim made a very different comparison: 'We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic.'" Feiglin does not relish the similarity. After all, how could he be anything but uniquely Jewish? "I have failed to teach you anything," he sighed, and hung up. FEIGLIN WAS NOT ALONE in prophesying the failure of disengagement. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu also declared that the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank would not come to pass, because the move opposed God's will. Of course, disengagement did take place, whether God willed it or people such as Feiglin "allowed it" to occur. And when it did happen when Jewish soldiers came to remove Jewish settlers from their homes on lands conquered by Israel in the "miracle" of the 1967 war the blow that it dealt to many religious Zionists was evident. Anyone who watched the coverage of the evacuation process saw repeated scenes of crisis for those involved, from settlers to soldiers to supporters of the settlement enterprise. Even before the evacuations began, during scuffles between soldiers and settlers at the Gush Katif settlement of Shirat Hayam, religious soldier Avi Bieber broke down and openly rebelled against his commanders. "Jews are beating Jews! Jews should not evacuate Jews from their homes!" he shouted, before his rifle was confiscated and he was removed from the scene. He became an instant role model for settler youths, who wore T-shirts with his likeness and the message "Avi Bieber, you are an Israeli hero!" Many of the settlers confronted the evacuation forces, calling them Nazis and demanding to know what had happened to their "Jewish hearts," while others clung to synagogues and wept as they were carried away, crying, "How?! How could this be?!" Now that is past and, rather than dwelling on what has already happened, Feiglin is focused on what will yet be. As he writes on the Manhigut Yehudit Web site, the most important question to ask now is, "What should be our attitude to this state that is devouring us?" Feiglin's attitude is decidedly hostile. "Everything is clear now," he writes in a post-disengagement letter. "We have seen the monster in all its ugliness and deceit... the Israeli dictatorship." This "dictatorship" must be fought with all the might that Israel's young, idealistic, religious citizens can muster. "Our weapon," he continues, "is our ideology." INCREASINGLY, THAT ideology resembles political Islam. That is not to say that anyone has advocated violence only opposition to the state. When Feiglin rails against the government, its military might and its "corrupt" leaders, for example, he uses the same language that Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi used in urging an Islamic political revolution in Pakistan. When he calls for "an authentically Jewish reality in Israel" ruled by a Torah-motivated leader and free of foreign ideological influences, he mimics the battle cry of Egyptians Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the key thinkers behind the Muslim Brotherhood, in their rejection of "anti-Muslim," "Western" political systems and agents. While these sentiments are similar to other, non-religious revolutionary ideologies, they are unique in that they present Judaism and Islam as comprehensive political, rather than solely moral, systems. They claim that their secular societies are sick and inherently corrosive, and that the only solution is a state guided by religious elites who can put it on track toward a foretold utopia. Feiglin is not the only one advocating a "Jewish leadership" program, either. Eliahu and fellow former (Ashkenazi) chief rabbi Avraham Shapira have called for an Israeli state governed by Halacha in the same manner that Islamists have called for states governed by Shari'a, Islamic law. They even go so far as to say that, without their imprimatur, the state has no authority. COULD RELIGIOUS Zionist and Islamist ideologies really be similar? Absolutely, according to Pipes. "While there are significant differences between them, there is a structural similarity between Halacha and Shari'a," said Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly. "It's not a coincidence that individuals who live their lives according to Jewish law will have ideologies that overlap with those who live their lives according to Islamic law. "These are universal laws, and the state has an ambiguous relationship with them," Pipes added. "And, when the state doesn't live in accordance with the sacred law, there is a tendency on the part of religious advocates to give precedence to the religious law." The parallel runs much deeper than that. Three recurring rhetorical themes that both sides share are (1) the belief in the absolute supremacy of religious law; (2) the contention that the secular regime, even though it may pay lip service to religious law, has rejected this law and relies instead on harmful foreign influences to guide the state; and (3) the insistence that the only way to restore the people to its rightful status and purpose is to wrest control and implement a "return" to the divinely-inspired code. (See sidebar). Still, sympathizers of radical movements require a lot of motivation to actually pursue a revolt. They must be convinced that the status quo is nothing less than a catastrophe. Here again, both sides have their answers ready. In Pakistan and Egypt, Maududi and Qutb blame the state and its institutions for every ill in society, from the lack of physical security to all kinds of moral depravity. Feiglin warned, "We are now witnessing a complete unraveling of the fabric of Israeli society," adding that "Israel's present political system has led to the deaths of thousands of Jews." And when Eliahu blamed last year's devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean on the world's support for the disengagement plan, it was an ominous statement for those in Israel who supported it as well. THE DANGER element, for Feiglin and the former chief rabbis, is inextricably tied to the Land of Israel and Jewish control of it another salient point of comparison between Islamists and the Religious Zionists. As Pipes explained, "Relinquishing land is a very important case for Muslims as well, and you can start with Israel itself. Control of land is key. Dar al-Islam [areas under Muslim control] and Dar al-Harb [areas under foreign control, to be fought for] are determined by control of the land." Furthermore, Pipes said, "Islam compels Muslims to two political projects. The first one is control of [a given] land so that Muslims are in charge. Once that is achieved, the second project is to get pious Muslims in charge." In the Israeli context, this is the same concern of Religious Zionists. The singular focus of Religious Zionists on settling all the Land of Israel following the conquest of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip in 1967, American anthropologist Kevin Avruch has written, was an extension of the messianic vision of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement. A state had already been won for the Jews, but then that state required further redemption. Now, the idea continues, the government of the Jewish state must complete the messianic destiny of the Jewish people by installing religious leaders under religious laws. That such an idea could persist until today is natural to Bar-Ilan University professor Shmuel Sandler, who believes the forerunner of Feiglin's Manhigut Yehudit was the violent "Jewish Underground" of terrorists that developed within Gush Emunim in the early 1980s. "This is where Feiglin is coming from," Sandler said. "If you're talking about fundamentalism, this is it. Their approach is, how do you hasten the coming of the messiah? You create a catastrophe. Even this ambition of conquering the Likud from the inside is very megalomaniacal." Like Banna and Qutb, Feiglin has spent time in jail for opposing the government. Since founding the Zo Artzenu (This is Our Land) movement to protest the Oslo Accords, Feiglin has been arrested several times, for sedition and for quarreling with security forces. It's the kind of renegade mystique that could help him connect the rabbis' scholarly rhetoric with the violent impulses of Kahanists who hope for the expulsion of the Arabs from all of the Land of Israel. ALL THIS paints a bleak picture. But it is not the entire picture. Gilles Keppel, a French expert on the modern Middle East and the author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, identified three core groups that are vital to the success of political Islam. "Islamist movements are in fact clusters of different social groups with different social agendas. They are strong when they manage to mobilize or coalesce these different components, until they actually seize power," Keppel wrote in a 2002 essay. "[But] the Islamist groups will never seize power if they cannot unite these social groups." The first group Keppel cites is the young urban poor people who have been exploited by "the establishment." In Arab countries, this seemingly endless crop of young, jobless, restless people provides an impressive mass from which an anti-government revolution could draw strength. Religious Zionism, though, has never made a case for class warfare. In fact, most of its modern proponents are well-educated, social elites of the middle class. And while a few of those who have chosen to live in the territories won in the Six Day War did so because of quality-of-life considerations, the settlements have never been portrayed or perceived as magnets for the poor or disenfranchised. If anything, Israel's Jewish lower class mostly haredim who don't work or the poorly educated from the periphery are more likely to support a somewhat more populist government than a zealous Religious Zionist one. Westernized middle-class Muslims, however, comprise the second group in Keppel's Islamist power structure. What makes them incompatible with the equivalent Religious Zionist demographic group is that, according to Keppel, their dissatisfaction stems from undemocratic regimes based on patronage and family ties. In Israel, despite similar complaints of cronyism, citizens needn't turn to drastic measures. They can rely on democratic means to counter inequality or to depose elected officials. The far right wing of Religious Zionism would also have a difficult time trying to make the case that Judaism itself is being repressed by the government. Such a complaint might have been more effective a decade ago, when the staunchly secular Meretz Party controlled the Education Ministry, with Shulamit Aloni shouting in the Knesset that haredim were snakes and leeches, "suckling from the darkest urges that the Nazi horror suckled from," and ridiculing the Jewish prophets. Now, though, Limor Livnat of Likud is education minister, and she has pushed a more "Jewish" agenda. Sharon also has stated that he is, first and foremost, a Jew. Keppel's third group is the religious intelligentsia people like rabbis Shapira and Eliahu. Under their guidance, the other two groups (especially the masses of the urban poor) are mobilized. This was, in fact, the scenario that Israel's left wing had described for ages the Frankenstein's monster of Religious Zionists bound to some day turn on the state at the command of their rabbis. A DEEPER analysis of Religious Zionism's roots shows why that should have been true. "Secular Zionism had a foundation that was problematic for classic Judaism, which depended on the principle of the whole the whole people in the whole land with the whole Torah," explained Prof. Aviezer Ravitsky, head of the Jewish philosophy department at Hebrew University and the author of Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism. "According to this principle, peace depends on a cosmic harmony. So when Zionism came along and said, 'We'll accept parts of this whole,' its opponents (like the Natorei Karta) said, 'You're wrong to divide up the whole.'" But where haredi Jews saw the partial return to Zion as imperfect and therefore not divine Religious Zionists saw the dawn of the messianic age, Ravitsky said. "Rabbi [Avraham Yitzhak] Kook" the spiritual father of Religious Zionism "saw Orthodoxy as standing with the eternal, the absolute," the professor continued. "But here, he said, was its weakness: It couldn't lead a historical breakthrough, and only Secular Zionism could. So the role of the Religious Zionist, he said, is to give the Zionist revolution a Jewish character." It was Kook, said Ravitsky, who countered the argument of Rabbi Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, regarding cooperation with the Secular Zionists. The Hazon Ish saw the secular and religious communities in Israel as wagon drivers, the secular wagon being empty and the religious one being full. Kook, continued Ravitsky, saw both wagons as only half full the secular wagon full of social concern and vigor for nation building, but empty of Jewish tradition and values, with the opposite being the case for the religious wagon. Kook, and his son Zvi Yehuda, encouraged Religious Zionists to join forces with the secular in the hopes that doing so would lead to Israel's ultimate redemption. After the West Bank and Gaza Strip were won and opened up to renewed Jewish settlement, this alliance reached its height. Now that settlements are being dismantled, the relationship between Religious Zionism and the state is on shaky ground. "As the gap between the dream and its fulfillment, between the hoped-for perfection and the partial manifestation of such, widens, the actual reality, comprised of the concrete state and its laws and practices, loses its power and authority," Ravitsky wrote in a recent essay. "This is true specifically vis-a-vis the most extreme proponents of the messianic interpretation of Zionism and the establishment of the state. For them, only the State of Israel that is the 'throne of God in the world' is sovereign, and not the shadow of such that presently exists. The ideology is the authority and the truth, and not its deficient, incomplete, illegitimate reflection. "Paradoxically, and unconsciously, it is this sublime significance granted by the believer to his absolute State of Israel that may lead to an undermining of the present State of Israel, and to the draining of its content and its authority," he added. "When the present state stands in contradiction to its destiny whether in terms of its loyalty to the ideals of the Greater Land of Israel or its total allegiance to the Torah its sovereignty suffers." BUT SOMETHING funny happened on the way to the revolution: no one showed up. Shapira's and Eliahu's calls to oppose the evacuation went largely unheeded. And the hundreds of thousands of protesters that people like Feiglin vowed would follow them into Gaza turned out to be but a few thousand at most. "What's really amazing to me is just how weak these groups turned out to be," said Sandler, the Bar-Ilan University expert. "Rabbi Shapira gave an order but, in effect, nobody listened to him. Eliahu's disciples describe him as a mysticist they call him a 'man of God' and so on and although he said disengagement wouldn't happen, it did happen. There are big question marks on their leadership. To me, this is the most interesting outcome of disengagement." "We were told that there would be mass refusal of orders," noted Ravitsky. "Rabbi Shapira even said that soldiers who didn't refuse evacuation orders would not be cleansed of their sin, not even in the next world. Well, how many religious officers are there? Twenty percent of the officer corps? Thirty percent? Forty? Not even half a percent refused!" In theory, disengagement should have been the breaking point for Religious Zionism's most extreme ideological adherents; they should have already declared then that they had "disengaged" from the state. But it didn't turn out that way and instead, it appears, Religious Zionism is disengaging from its most extreme ideology. "The real break came in Kfar Maimon," said Ravitsky, referring to the three-day standoff between protesters and police in which, rather than storm Gaza's barricades, the anti-disengagement forces simply went home. "There was a feeling that thousands would come, break into Gush Katif, and prevent the disengagement. It was the first time in 30 years that they had been refused." WHY, THEN, didn't disengagement cause the demise of Religious Zionism? Both Ravitsky and Sandler believe it came down to mainstream Religious Zionists' choice to remain in the consensus. "When I was younger, being a Religious Zionist was an unpopular thing. Only in the years since have Religious Zionists become accepted. Refusing orders would have returned religious youth to the outskirts, and most are not prepared to join the haredim and return to the fringe," said Ravitsky. "The majority won't give up on its 'Israeliness.' Only a small percentage will become estranged." "Total rejection of the state is not going to happen. It's heretical to most," said Sandler. "The state is a necessary organ for the Jewish people's body, and for the 'redemption' group, the state is also part of the redemption process. They can't reject it, lest they cease being Religious Zionists. It is part and parcel of their identity." Partial responsibility for the outcome of the disengagement is also due to people like Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a longtime spiritual leader of Religious Zionism who challenged Shapira on the issue of refusing orders. "The struggle against the deportation [disengagement] was a great mitzva. But it is forbidden to perform a mitzva by means of a transgression, which is why I forbade the refusal of orders," Aviner said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "The IDF remains Zionist; although it performed an anti-Zionist mission, an immoral mission, it remains important and it remains ours." The state, Aviner also said, "is a good thing. It did a bad thing, but it doesn't cease to be important because of this." Referring to Ravitsky's point about the conflict inherent in the ideal of the whole, Aviner noted that "the land has never been complete, not even before disengagement. Even after 1967, it wasn't complete." Sandler predicted that the Religious Zionist community would reevaluate its priorities. "Undoubtedly, Religious Zionism is going through a crisis. It's going to have to determine where it's heading," he said. "Some signs I see already, though: The National Religious Party" which represents the mainstream of Religious Zionism "doesn't want to remain a single-issue party. It has already started to take an interest, for example, in the discussions that are taking place now over a constitution for Israel." Aviner, who as Sandler noted, was an outspoken critic of the Jewish Underground, believes that Religious Zionists have focused too much on settlement issues and not enough on "faith in God." Despite the pain of disengagement, they are sure to rededicate themselves to building the Jewish state if, that is, Moshe Feiglin and his followers allow it.


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