Secular lessons from a 7-year-old religious folly

Minorities can’t stop any change the majority decides is worth setting aside its differences for.

Disengagement orange jewish star 370 (photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
Disengagement orange jewish star 370
(photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
To a certain segment of the Israeli public, the Tisha B’Av fast that fell last week will always recall the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, which began the following day according to the Jewish calendar. This year’s memorial events included publication of a collection of articles and responsa by the evicted settlers’ rabbis, which inter alia addresses the question of how God could have let it happen.
My own answer to that question is simple: It appears repeatedly in the Bible, most saliently in a section of Deuteronomy incorporated into the Shema prayer, which religious men recite twice daily. Because of these verses, I always found it incredible that leading rabbis assured their flocks the pullout wouldn’t happen. But one needn’t be a believing Jew for their message to resonate; it has been echoed frequently by some of the world’s greatest (non-Jewish) statesmen. And it’s a message Israelis urgently need to recall today.
Deuteronomy 11:13-21 may at first glance seem irrelevant to nonbelievers: If you obey My commandments, says God, you will have ample rain and good harvests; if you don’t, you will suffer drought and poor harvests, and “quickly perish from the good land that the Lord gives you.” Therefore, keep the commandments and teach them to your children, “that your life and the life of your children may be prolonged in the land.”
But two points are worth highlighting. First, this doesn’t refer only – or arguably even primarily – to ritual commandments such as prayer or kosher dietary laws. Biblical commandments cover a host of economic, social and political issues directly relevant to any nation’s life, from caring for the poor to unbiased courts, and prophets like Isaiah often viewed these latter issues as more important in averting national destruction.
Second, there’s a subtlety in the Hebrew that doesn’t translate into English: The “you” in Deuteronomy is plural, not singular. In other words, it doesn’t matter how righteous any given individual or community is; the Jewish people’s continued presence in its homeland depends on how the nation as a whole behaves.
That a nation’s fate stands or falls on the behavior of its people as a whole is, of course, plain common sense. Benjamin Franklin expressed the same sentiment when he warned his fellow Americans that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately;” so did Abraham Lincoln when he warned that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
At its most basic level, their point was that no nation can long survive if it is so disunited as to be incapable of collective action. More broadly, however, it was that for better or for worse, the majority’s behavior ultimately determines the outcome: Franklin, for instance, was warning that no one state, or group of states, could win the Revolution alone; victory would require the majority’s collective efforts.
Certainly, minorities can and often do succeed in changing the majority’s opinions. But short of a military coup, they can’t determine national policy unless the majority acquiesces.
Before dismissing this as mere truism, let’s return briefly to the disengagement. Prior to the pullout, polls consistently showed a roughly 60 percent majority in favor of the move, among both Israelis in general and Israeli Jews in particular. These findings were reaffirmed by the results of the election held seven months later: Not only did Kadima, the new party formed by those who spearheaded the disengagement, win half again as many seats as its nearest rival, but Zionist parties that supported the pullout collectively outpolled those that opposed it. Or to put it in terms religious Zionists might have used, a majority of Israeli Jews favored spurning the territorial gift God gave us in the 1967 Six-Day War.
So how, given the collective responsibility so clearly outlined in Deuteronomy, could any religious Jew have believed God would miraculously rescue us from our collective folly (as I and other disengagement opponents viewed it) for the sake of that minority of Israelis, however righteous, who inhabited Gush Katif?
“Messianic delusion,” many secularists would undoubtedly reply. Yet a great many Israelis, religious and secular alike, seem to be making exactly the same mistake today.
Regardless of whether they root collective national responsibility in the Bible or Western political tradition, all Israelis have pet subgroups whom they accuse of shirking this common responsibility (greedy tycoons and haredi draft-dodgers being two of the current favorite targets). And it’s certainly true that Israel would be better served if all its subgroups devoted a bit less energy to pursuing their own narrow interests and a bit more to worrying about the collective welfare.
Nevertheless, it’s a cheap evasion to say the problem is “the haredim” or “the settlers” or “the leftists” or any other subsector of Israeli society; ascribing such power to any minority is just the Gush Katif delusion in different guise. The truth is, no one group has the power to prevent any decision that the majority has pursued long enough and has been willing to set aside its disagreements for: Settlers couldn’t prevent the disengagement; haredim couldn’t prevent a unity government from slashing child allowances in 2003; leftists couldn’t prevent the reoccupation of the West Bank in response to the intifada.
But just as no miracle occurred to save Gush Katif once We-the-People chose to destroy it, no miracle will spare us the consequences of any other bad decision We-the-People make. And that includes a decision that we’d rather let all our problems fester than set aside our differences on some long enough to make common cause on others.
Clearly, resolving our multitudinous disagreements won’t be easy. But a good first step would be to tone down the abusive rhetoric and recognize that many of those who disagree with us care no less than we do about the Jewish state and/or the Jewish people. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to find enough common ground to fulfill our collective responsibilities on any issue.
And if we choose instead to tear ourselves apart over our differences, no miracle will save us from the consequences of that decision, either.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.