The Loss of Naïveté: The Impact of the Withdrawal from Gaza on Religious Zionism

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Ten years after the disengagement from Gaza, Yair Sheleg, head of IDI's Religion and State program, explores the impact of the withdrawal from Gush Katif under the leadership of Ariel Sharon on the Religious Zionist community in Israel.

While the disengagement from the Gaza Strip was a traumatic event for all of Israeli society, it was particularly so for the Religious Zionist movement, for the simple reason that most of the people who were evacuated from their homes in Gush Katifbelonged to that movement. Some Religious Zionists claimed that the actual purpose of the disengagement had nothing to do with diplomacy or security (since it was carried out unilaterally, in the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians or receiving anything from them in return); rather, they maintained that its true goal was to strike a blow at Religious Zionism and thwart the aspirations of its members to play a leadership role in Israeli society.

During the period surrounding the disengagement, accordingly, some voices in the Religious Zionist movement called for adopting an isolationist position toward the State of Israel, a stance similar to the ultra-Orthodox view. The state, they argued, should no longer be seen as a sacred value, the Hallel psalms recited on Israel Independence Day should be abandoned, and the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel should be dropped from the synagogue service; moreover, the alliance with Israel's secular elites should be replaced with a new alliance with the ultra-Orthodox sector. Others, in contrast, called for the opposite, expressing a desire to “takeover” the country’s leadership (in a democratic manner) and to play a greater role in its government.

A decade later, none of these radical scenarios actually happened. Religious Zionism in 2015 is still Zionist and remains an inseparable part of Israeli society; the Zionism that characterizes this community, however, is generally far less romantic and Messianic than it had been.
The impact of the disengagement on the Religious Zionist community can be seen in the following realms:

  • The relationship with the state: The threat that the Religious Zionist community would isolate itself from the state was never fulfilled. National identity and the vision of Israel as the Jewish state is the core of Religious Zionist identity—to a large extent even more than religious identity itself. For this reason, it was not realistic to expect the threat of isolationism to actually come true. However, the respect for the state, its symbols, and its institutions that typified Religious Zionism has lost some of its luster, and in some instances even became an object of ridicule. The religious sanctity that had been attributed to the state has also vanished from religious discourse. The members of the Religious Zionist movement, particularly the younger members, came to recognize that the state is capable of doing evil. Having come to this realization, the new generation of Religious Zionism is willing to resort to more extreme means in their struggles than previous generations. Just six months after the disengagement, a violent conflict took place in Amona over the removal of several families from their homes. In addition, according to various polls, the support for disobeying a military order to evacuate a settlement is approximately 40% in the Religious Zionist community, and is particularly high among young people.
  • The relationship to leadership: The authority of the Yesha Council, the political leadership of the settlers, was severely compromised as a result of the disengagement. Many even accused the Council of betraying the struggle due to the moderate spirit that the Council embodied and its desire to remain on good terms with the government. The authority of the rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement was also damaged—not only because their repeated assurances that the disengagement would not actually take place proved to be false, but also because the rabbis were seen as part of the same establishment that had failed to “deliver the goods.”
  • Relationship to religious belief: For many years “prophets of doom,” particularly the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, predicted that a large-scale evacuation of settlements would cause an extreme crisis of faith among many people. While this did not happen, a change in the nature of faith within the Religious Zionist community did become evident over the past decade: Less emphasis began to be placed on religious law and the religious establishment, and more emphasis was placed on the spiritual aspects of faith. This shift, of course, stems from many causes and cannot be attributed primarily to the disengagement. But the move toward more spiritual aspects and away from more legalistic aspects of religious identities seems to have dovetailed with the processes that the disengagement set in motion.
  • Attitude toward the left wing: The militancy of the political discourse of the Religious Zionist movement, and especially the settler community, toward its political rivals on the left has intensified greatly over the past decade. This was especially evident during the recent election campaign, when the Samaria Settlers Committee produced a video that compared left-wing Israeli groups to Jews who had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Similarly, journalist Hagai Huberman referred to Michal Kedar, whose husband was killed in action in Operation Protective Edge, as “a woman who kills her husband and then cries that she is a widow,” because he saw Kedar’s support for the disengagement as having necessitated the IDF operation in Gaza. From this perspective, the disengagement undid the trend toward more moderate discourse that had taken place within Religious Zionism following the trauma of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
  • Attitude toward Arabs: The last decade has also witnessed a significant move toward extremism in this area. The scope and intensity of "price tag" attacks against Arabs on both sides of the Green Line have increased dramatically. Although the mainstream of the Religious Zionist movement utterly condemns these acts, which are committed by people on the fringes of the movement, the increase in the number and severity of the attacks is significant.

The above phenomena may be seen as a reflection of what is happening in Israeli society at large: there has been a decline in respect for the state, its symbols, and its institutions, a radicalization of political discourse, and a rise in the general level of violence. It is hard to attribute these trends specifically to the disengagement and Religious Zionism. On the contrary, it seems that the disengagement brought about trends within the Religious Zionist movement that had already taken place in other sectors of the population. It is likely that these changes would have taken place within the Religious Zionist movement even if the disengagement had never happened. But if nothing else, it is obvious that the disengagement accelerated and intensified these processes within the Religious Zionist community.

Yair Sheleg is the head of IDI's Religion and State program and is a columnist and journalist for the Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon.

For the author's full analysis of the phenomena described in this article, click here (Hebrew).