Spiritual schism

In the wake of war and disengagement, Religious Zionism splits on insubordination in the IDF.

minyan upfr 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
minyan upfr 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In June 1974, a hundred religious Zionists pitched tents near Nablus, with the hope that after a 2,000 year interruption, their modest endeavor would spark a renaissance of Jewish settlements in the geographic area known as Samaria. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of Gush Emunim, the modern religious Zionist settlement movement, was on hand. He was driven there by Ariel Sharon, who had personally chosen the site. It was one of the rare occasions when Kook personally accompanied his followers. This operation, carried out in broad daylight, quickly attracted the attention of Central Region Commander Yona Efrat. These religious ideologues were in clear violation of a government directive which forbade Israelis to stay more than 24 hours in Samaria. It also blatantly breached the Peres-Rabin government's policy against establishing Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. "I've been ordered to evacuate you," Efrat announced to Kook. "There are some orders you simply don't obey," responded Kook. But Efrat was persistent, holding out his hand to Kook to join him. The rabbi accepted and they walked hand in hand off the site. This story, told and retold by veteran settlers replete with diverse and sometimes contradictory exegesis and conclusions, is of tantamount importance to the thousands of followers of Kook, especially since his death in 1982. As an undisputed spiritual leader, Kook is seen as an interpreter of God's will. But Kook is gone. Only stories and writings remain. What Kook said to Efrat is not just a legend, it is a teaching, a precedent, say his followers, and it sheds light on what Kook would have said about insubordination or conscientious objection if he were alive during the evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza and Northern Samaria. It reveals, they say, what Kook would have advised those religious IDF soldiers who were ordered to take part in the expulsion of Jews during disengagement. As an extension, the story, say disciples, also sheds light on God's will as Kook saw it regarding insubordination, for in Jewish tradition, testimony of an act carries more legal weight than a verbal teaching because it implies a higher level of commitment. Not only did Kook think that insubordination was permitted in principle, they say, he tried convincing a high-ranking officer of it. But Kook's position on insubordination is disputed: Conflicting interpretations of Kook's teachings and actions were expressed before the evacuation of Yamit (which took place shortly after Kook's death) and during the implementation of the Oslo Accords, but most prominently last summer before and during disengagement. What did Kook mean when he said to Efrat, "There are some orders that you simply don't obey"? Did he mean in this particular instance after the Yom Kippur War when it seemed the majority of Israelis supported Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria? Or perhaps he was stating his support for insubordination even when the majority opposed settling Judea and Samaria? Further, little, if anything, can be gleaned from this story about Kook's position on insubordination as a form of demonstration. Is it legitimate to use insubordination to influence government policy? Was Kook concerned that insubordination would undermine democracy, thus upsetting the delicate balance of competing interests in Israel's diverse society? Finally, did Kook make the distinction made by military ethicists between blind obedience to authority as opposed to conscious ethical action based on loyalty to and faith in the ideals extolled by the nation, even if these contradict a specific military order? More than any other issue, dissent among rabbis on whether to call for insubordination - whether as a mass demonstration against political policies or as a matter of individual conciousness - has split religious Zionism. The recent war in the North has reopened the still festering wound created by last year's disengagement, a traumatic experience that brought many to question their allegience to an army whose ethos seemingly contradicts their own. In the wake of disengagement, a group of yeshiva students and rabbis launched a disparaging verbal attack on rabbis such Shlomo Aviner of Beit El, Eli Sadan, head of the pre-military Yeshiva Bnei David in Eli and Tzohar rabbis such as Yuval Cherlow, who opposed insubordination. These rabbis were called traitors and rebels. They were blamed for the failure of the anti-disengagement effort - as if the IDF could have been stopped had all religious soldiers refused to carry out expulsion orders. Criticism was so severely vociferous that Sadan published a pamphlet geared to religious youth entitled "Add Light" in defense of the rabbis who opposed insubordination. In the pamphlet Sadan argues that mass insubordination would create anarchy and lead to internecine war. "After a fratricidal war nothing would remain," writes Sadan. "Not Judea, not Samaria, not Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem - everything would be destroyed. We would fall like a ripe fruit right into the hands of our enemies..." Sadan calls for unity despite all the difficulties because "this is the only state we have." "When religious Zionists decided to become a part of the State of of Israel, we knew that many decisions made by the government would contradict our values in most fields," explains Sadan. "So why did we agree to take part in the building of the state? Because we believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is the beginning of our redemption. This means that God will redeem us through the state. The state is a vehicle for the ingathering of exiles... for settling the land." Sadan is the archetypical representative of "mamlachtiut," a Hebrew term that can be roughly translated as "statesmanship," but which implies the religious belief in the basic holiness of the State of Israel and its institutions as vehicles for bringing the Messianic redemption. The state, with all its imperfections, is the means chosen by God to bring redemption. For Sadan, cooperation with the state, including obeying an order which appears to reverse the process of redemption, is a religious duty because it ensures unity. Unity must be maintained between all parts of Jewish Israeli society no matter how diverse the opinions and bitter the dissent. Otherwise, says Sadan, infighting and anarchy will destroy God's vehicle for bringing redemption. Everything will be lost. Sadan's approach is based on the teachings of Kook and his father Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak, but his extreme emphasis on unity departs from other students of Kook's teachings. Tellingly, in his book entitled And His Hands were Faith, Sadan recounts the legendary story about Kook's confrontation with Efrat near Nablus without mentioning Kook's comment on insubordination. IN CONTRAST, Aviner, head of the Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva and Kook's most senior student who opposed calling for mass insubordination, makes a distinction between different types of military disobedience. Some are legitimate; others are not. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Aviner argues that sometimes an individual soldier's moral obligations transcend and surpass obligations owed to his immediate superiors and even his civilian superiors. "There are certain military orders that contradict the basic moral principles of a nation and, therefore, cannot be obeyed," explains Aviner. "Before the expulsion [of Jews from Gaza and Northern Samaria] I hoped that so many soldiers would be unable to obey their orders that the government would be forced to backtrack. I'm not talking about a revolt. I am talking about loyalty to the nation taking precedence over obedience to military and civilian superiors. Sometimes to be loyal to the nation and its principles one must be disloyal to one's superiors. "If the majority of soldiers had [independently] reached the conclusion that they could not obey orders to expel Jews from their homes in the Land of Israel, it would have proved that loyalty to Jewish values, which are the foundation of our nation, took precedence over blind obedience to military orders. It would have strengthened us as a nation. "But that did not happen. The government managed to brainwash soldiers. I'd say that 99 percent of the soldiers had tremendous difficulty carrying out the orders. But they told themselves 'we have an order and orders have to be obeyed.' The IDF was weakened because soldiers behaved like robots. "When soldiers blindly execute orders without knowing why, they are engaged only in acts of obedience. In contrast, ethical action involves judgment, choice and responsibility." But based on his understanding of Kook's teachings, Aviner rejects using mass insubordination as a form of protest. Aviner interprets Kook's statement to Efrat as one of optimism: "Rav Tzvi Yehuda hoped that Efrat and soldiers would be unable to bring themselves to evacuate settlers. In the end his hopes were dashed. But he never thought it was legitimate to try to convince soldiers to disobey military orders." Aviner reinforces Sadan's position on societal unity. "The IDF unites all of us, religious and secular, leftists and rightists, Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Flying the flag of insubordination as a means of protest undermines this unity. But on an individual level conscientious objection is legitimate," explains Aviner. But unlike Sadan, Aviner accepts, even welcomes, a situation in which soldiers are unable to obey a command when that command contradicts the nation's principles. In contrast to Sadan, Aviner rejects the possibility that conscientious objection undermines stability. But he admits that encouraging mass insubordination does. AVINER'S OPPOSITION to encouraging mass insubordination clashes with Rabbi Avraham Shapira, former chief rabbi and head of Kook's Yeshivat Merkaz Harav. Leading up to disengagement, Shapira ruled that Jewish law prohibits obeying orders to expel Jews. Therefore, every IDF soldier is obliged to refuse orders. Not only soldiers directly involved with evacuating Jews were told to disobey. So too were soldiers involved in secondary and tertiary functions indirectly connected to disengagement. Rabbis who openly disagreed with Shapira, religious Zionism's oldest and most respected halachic authority, were decried as disrespectful. But more than Sadan, who is seen primarily as an educator, Aviner was singled out by angry religious Zionists who blamed him for the failure of the anti-disengagement campaign. One of Aviner's critics is Imanuel Shilo, editor-in-chief of Besheva, a religious Zionist weekly written by and for Kook's followers. Shilo, whose paper ardently supported insubordination during disengagement, says that the dissent of anti-insubordination rabbis dealt a severe blow to rabbinic authority. "My estimate is that if the rabbis had been united on the issue of insubordination, if they had all supported Rabbi Avraham Shapira, then Shoshi Greenfeld would never have reacted the way she did," said Shilo referring to Greenfeld's passionate call in a eulogy for her brother, killed while fighting Hizbullah, for massive insubordination. "If not for the dissent during the expulsion, more people would be willing to listen to the rabbis' call to join the war effort. But Sadan, Cherlow and other younger rabbis allowed themselves to dissent. So people got accustomed to making up their own rules. They decided to take things into their own hands." Greenfeld was not alone. She was joined by Eran Sternberg, former spokesman for Gush Katif and Avi Abelow, a soldier who abandoned his post in protest over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's comment that victory against the Hizbullah would create momentum for evacuating Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. Shilo believes mass insubordination could have stopped disengagement. The fact that it was not stopped set off a chain of events that began with the Kassam missile attack on settlements in the South, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and the conflagration in the North. "The expulsion weakened the nation in its war against Islam. It encouraged Muslim terrorism," says Shilo. For Shilo the failure of insubordination revealed the ugly underbelly of the IDF. "The herd mentality showed that officers preferred to put their own professional advancement before the interests of the nation. They were afraid that disobeying orders would hurt their military careers. Graduates of pre-military yeshivot like Sadan's could have stopped the expulsion but instead they chose to conform with the mistaken conception fed to them by the Sharon government. "The same conformist thinking allowed the Hizbullah to stockpile missiles for six years," says Shilo. Shilo admits that the deterioration of military discipline is dangerous. But it is one value of many that should be weighed when considering insubordination. "In the case of disengagement," argues Shilo, "the dangers of obeying military orders outstripped the dangers of anarchy and disunity. After all, the IDF was not fighting an enemy." Shilo also rejects Aviner's opposition to insubordination as a form of demonstration. "Interest groups, big businesses and unions use demonstrations and lobbying to change government policy. I don't see anyone worrying that their activities might undermine democracy. "Military insubordination is just another type of demonstration. And it works. Sharon once said that the left-wing Pilots' Letter [calling for insubordination in protest against targeted killings in Gaza] influenced his decision to push the disengagement plan." Thinkers like Shilo would probably say that Kook's statement to Efrat that "there are certain orders that you simply don't obey" is proof of his support for insubordination. In his book The Accidental Empire Gershom Gorenberg recounts the story of Kook's 1974 confrontation with the IDF near Nablus. In Gorenberg's version, Kook does not appeal to Efrat to refuse orders. But someone else does. "Soldiers rushed forward... They had orders to avoid violence, but found themselves dragging men who kicked, pushed and shouted, lying on the ground, holding on to rocks... Through the melee stormed [Ariel] Sharon, 'seized by immense fury,' and roaring, 'Refuse orders! Refuse orders!... This is an immoral order and you have to disobey that kind of order. I wouldn't follow an order like that."