Land vs. State

Religious Zionists misgivings about serving in the IDF in a post-disengagement Israel have been exacerbated by the war against Hizbullah.

synagogue 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
synagogue 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avi Abelow, a religious soldier from Efrat serving in an IDF demolition unit, abandoned his post on the Lebanese border last week in protest against what he called Israel's morally corrupt leadership. Abelow had his doubts when he received his call to reserve duty. "Expelling Jews from Gaza and Northern Samaria caused the war in the North. We taught our enemies that terrorism works. So I did not like the idea of fighting under a chief of general staff and a prime minister who were responsible for the expulsion. But ever since I was a kid I've wanted to be a soldier in the IDF," says Abelow, 32, who grew up in New York City and immigrated to Israel in 1990. The last straw, says Abelow, was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent comment to Reuters that the present war in the North would create the momentum for launching the realignment plan, which includes the dismantling of tens of settlements in Judea and Samaria. "After he said that, I realized every advance in the North would bring closer the expulsion of my brothers and sisters in Judea and Samaria. The war itself is justified, but what this government wants to do with the victory is immoral. "I was not alone. A lot of the religious guys were outraged," says Abelow, speaking from outside the Prime Minister's Office where he is demonstrating for the immediate resignations of IDF Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "About 70 of us signed a petition demanding that Olmert retract his statement. When Olmert apologized, my friends were satisfied, but I was not. I could not escape the feeling that this government wants to sacrifice more Jews on the altar of additional expulsions." Yigal Amitai, spokesman for Yitzhar, a settlement near Nablus, says that if he is called to do reserve duty he will refuse. He also forbade his son, who reached military age this year, to enlist. "There are enough religious soldiers filling our military cemeteries," says Amitai. "Why should we contribute disproportionately high numbers of combat soldiers and middle and low rank officers but be blocked from upper echelon IDF command? "It's taxation without representation. We are the Uncle Toms of the state." Amitai says his negative approach to army service is the ideological fallout from disengagement. "I realized that the whole purpose of the expulsion was to destroy the settlement movement. It had nothing to do with peace with the Palestinians." ABELOW, AN American immigrant, and Amitai, whose settlement represents a unique strain of Orthodox theology that has consciously deviated from mainstream religious Zionism, are not representative. But their opinions strike a chord of sympathy in the hearts of many religious Zionists, even if Abelow's and Amitai's operative conclusions are rejected. The vast majority of religious Zionist soldiers have joined the war effort against Hizbullah. But they fulfill their duty to the state and people with varying degrees of internal conflict. Reverberating in their minds are the questions raised against the government by Abelow and Amitai and others: Can we trust political and military leaders who expelled their own people - the Jews of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria - but did nothing to stop Hizbullah's missile stockpiling on the northern border? Shouldn't we be concerned that military achievements, paid for with the lives of our soldiers, will later be squandered by foreign policy makers who appear to be devoid of Jewish pride? Won't a victory in the North be used by the government as leverage for more territorial compromises? Eliezer Melamed, rabbi of Har Bracha that neighbors with Yitzhar, and head of a Hesder Yeshiva, devoted his weekly column in the settler newspaper Besheva to answering his perplexed students and readership. "Despite all our difficulties and our questions there remains a holy commandment to protect the people and the land with our lives," wrote Melamed, who says 45 of his Hesder students enlisted in the IDF this summer. "Only within a national military framework can we protect the Jewish people. Even if the senior command is problematic it is better to stand unified against an enemy than to foster division. After all the criticism, justified as it may be, our politicians' and military leaders' main goal is to protect the Jewish people. "The danger we risk of fighting under these leaders is less than the danger resulting from weakening our armed forces with insubordination. In the periods when we did not have an army of our own the Jewish people was mocked and belittled by the nations, we were like sheep brought to slaughter. Therefore, we must join forces and strengthen ourselves in the mitzva to battle our enemies." RABBI YISHAI Babad, secretary of the Yesha Council of Rabbis, which includes some of the most respected religious Zionist spiritual leaders including Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba-Hebron, Rabbi Zalman Melamed of Beit El, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh and Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitz of Ma'aleh Adumim, is presently on reserve duty in the North. Babad's internal conflict is great. He has a deep religious conviction that the State of Israel is a holy vehicle for ushering in the Messianic era. But this faith clashes with the reality of last summer. The IDF, one of the holy state's most important institutions, was used to reverse the process of redemption by destroying Jewish settlements and ceding land to gentiles. Now Babad is risking his life to serve in that same IDF. "The redemption process includes the mixing of light and darkness," says Babad. "What happened in Gush Katif and Northern Samaria is part of this dialectic of opposing forces which make up the historical processes leading to redemption." "As a religious person I believe with unfailing faith in the coming of the redemption," says Babad. "But I do not pretend to understand how that redemption unfolds. I just know that God is running the show and Olmert, whether he knows it or not, is just a pawn inadvertently bringing closer the Messianic era. Right now there is a war going on in the North. The Torah commands me to fight in that war to protect the Jewish people." In contrast to Babad and the Yesha Council of Rabbis, the ideologues of Yitzhar and Rabbi Shmuel Tal, head of Yeshivat Torat Haim, which was uprooted from Gush Katif and relocated in Yad Binyamin, reject the basic theological premises of mainstream religious Zionism. The state of Israel is no longer a vehicle for bringing the Messianic era; it is no longer a catalyst of redemption, they say. Rather it is inimical to redemption; it destroys Jewish settlements instead of building them. Like some haredi communities, the ideologues of Yitzhar and Torat Haim view the contemporary Zionist state as morally corrupt. It does not represent the Jewish people's real interests as stipulated in the Torah. Mainstream religious Zionists counter that a clear separation must be made between the state, which still retains its holiness as a means of ensuring the safety of Jews in Israel and elsewhere, and of facilitating the ingathering of the exiles, and the government, which can be led by evil individuals. THE TALMUD states in Sotah that in a time of war that threatens the Jewish people's very existence, even a bride standing under her wedding canopy goes to battle. The union between husband and wife is not consummated, the wedding feast is left behind, plans for the future are put on hold. The dangers facing the nation take precedence. Rabbi Yigal Kaminsky, former rabbi of Gush Katif, presently living in a prefab in Nitzan and awaiting a permanent home, quoted this Talmud to prove why Abelow and Amitai are wrong. "It's a very complicated situation," says Kaminsky, unemployed since disengagement, his community scattered. "We suffered a tremendous loss at the hands of the government. Over half of us have no work. Our futures are uncertain. "But now is not the time to settle scores. The people of Israel are in life-threatening danger. The fact that our leaders were irresponsible does not change that reality." Kaminsky admitted that there were several former Gush Katif residents who disagreed. Eran Sternberg, former Gush Katif spokesman, is one of them. Last week he announced that he would not answer a call to do reserve duty in the North. "Not only don't I regret what I said," replied Sternberg to a question this week. "I am more convinced than ever that I am right." Families are split over the issue. Shoshi Greenfeld, a writer for the right-wing newspaper Mekor Rishon and Internet site Arutz Sheva, has written numerous opinion pieces against supporting the war effort over the past month. This week, her brother, a settler from Ma'aleh Michmash, was killed by a missile strike in Kfar Giladi while serving in reserve duty. In her eulogy, standing over her brother's grave, Greenfeld made a passionate call to all religious Zionists to abandon their posts immediately. "Stop providing the Hizbullah with cannon fodder." Addressing her deceased brother, Greenfeld added, "I begged you just the other day to come home, but you didn't listen to me." Abelow says he has received tens of supportive phone calls since he decided to abandon his post. "A lot of people did what I did secretly without any media coverage. Others got out of reserve service by complaining of back pains. "But I wanted to make my statement known. Somebody had to stand up and say in a clear voice that our present leaders must go. This war is justified but it is not being fought to destroy our enemies." Abelow paid a high price for his insubordination. His commander expelled him from his unit. "I loved my unit," says Abelow. "We were a group of guys who fought shoulder to shoulder." But Abelow seems to have no regrets. "What I did was drastic. I know that. But I am willing to suffer the consequences." Nevertheless, Abelow did not say whether he thought all IDF soldiers serving in the North should follow in his footsteps. "That's a tough question. I can't say. I don't know."