Territorial Concessions as an Issue of Religion and State

Policy Paper No. 96

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  • Cover Type: Softcover
  • Number Of Pages: 125 Pages
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A policy paper that explores the religious dimension of the public controversy regarding the definition of Israel's borders that has raged in Israel since the Six Day War and reviews the history of the public debate about soldiers who refuse orders to evacuate territories and settlements.

Studies have shown that the higher the degree of religiosity, the greater the opposition to territorial concessions as part of a political agreement. Is this correlation derived from a specific interpretation of Judaism? What arguments against evacuating settlements and handing over territories are invoked in the name of Jewish law and what are the arguments against them? What is the halakhic basis for refusing military orders and, conversely, for opposing conscientious objection?

Secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews not only have different views of religion, but also represent distinct sectors of Israeli society. This situation creates an overlap between the religious-secular divide and the right-left divide. The result is an apparent "culture war" that could exacerbate the rift between religious and secular and intensify the rhetoric of the public debate about Israel's borders.

How, then, do positions on territorial concessions, evacuating settlements, and refusal of orders impact religious-secular relations and how does that, in turn, impact the general issue of relations between religion and state in Israel?

On the cusp between religion and politics, this policy paper by IDI researcher Dr. Kalman Neuman surveys the religious dimension of the controversy regarding the definition of Israel's borders that has raged in Israel since the Six-Day War. It reveals that on the issue of territorial concessions are related to views of the nature of the Land of Israel, to halakhic rulings that prohibit or permit withdrawal from parts of Israel, and to a perception that the issue of Israel's borders is part of the struggle over the Jewish nature of the state. It reviews the history of the public debate about soldiers who refuse orders to evacuate territories and settlements, and puts forward a series of recommendations for weakening the connection that has been made in Israeli society between the question of the desired Jewish character of the State of Israel and the public debate about the country's borders.

Over the last four decades and more, the controversy regarding the definition of Israel’s borders and the future of the “territories” (whether called “occupied,” “administered” or “liberated”) has been a central part of Israeli public life. In time, a clear correlation has manifested itself among Israeli Jews between religiosity and political positions. Study after study has shown that those who define themselves as “religious” or as ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) are clearly on the right wing/hawkish side of the issue, and oppose territorial concessions. In addition to this statistical correlation, many of the claims against withdrawal are based on religious principles. As a result, the resolution of this dilemma does not only relate to security, strategy and ideology but also entails a potential tension in the relations between religion and state. This tension is especially manifest in the Religious Zionist community, as many other religion/state issues have been tempered by arrangements that have reduced tensions without forgoing symbolic aspects of the link between Judaism and the State. For example, Israelis who do not wish to be married by the Orthodox Rabbinate may do so outside of Israel and have those marriages recognized by Israeli law. In contrast, the resolution of the territorial question, a central question regarding Israel’s future, is dependent on the participation and cooperation of third parties and as such is not amenable to such internal arrangements.

What are the factors that inform the religious attitude regarding the territorial issue? Despite the centrality of the Land of Israel in the biblical narrative, Jewish thinkers have offered different perspectives on the territorial aspect of Judaism, ranging from those who do not see it as apivotal element of religious life to those who describe the Holy Land as containing unique metaphysical qualities which make settling in it a necessary condition for the fulfillment of Jewish destiny. It would seem that the predominant understanding which speaks of the Jewish people as the eternal possessors of the Land—as reflected in the opening of the popular and classic commentary of Rashi to the book of Genesis—is influential in motivating opposition to territorial concessions. In addition, a significant trend in Jewish thought (which again may be illustrated by the writings of Rashi) describes the relationship between the Jewish people and the peoples of the world as that of unending conflict. Such an understanding, buttressed by the historical experience of the last century, could clearly support a political stance apprehensive of any concession and skeptical of the possibility of eventually achieving peace between the Jewish state and its neighbors. This skepticism is clearly prevalent among the religious and Haredi communities.

Beyond these ideological considerations, the claim has also been made that relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel to foreign control is proscribed by Jewish law (Halakhah). This assertion has been based on various halakhic principles: the prohibition to allow non-Jews to settle the land, the obligation to engage in war to conquer the Holy Land, the desecration of God’s name involved in relinquishing land under duress, and endangering the Jewish people by withdrawal.

In the context of these claims (all of which have been challenged by those who oppose the ruling) the halakhic decisors have confronted two additional questions: What are the conditions in which withdrawal would be permitted (such as relinquishing land for the sake of peace) and who is qualified to determine if these conditions have been met?

An examination of the various rabbinic positions shows that there is controversy over whether withdrawal could be justified in order to prevent loss of life or for the wellbeing of the State, or if it would only be permitted in the case of a clear danger to the State’s very existence. There are also differences as to who is to determine when such conditions arise—an elected government, military experts or the rabbis themselves. For example, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has expressed his opinion that withdrawal is called for if it will bring true peace and prevent bloodshed. On the other hand, he does not think that a government decision to trade “land for peace” has halakhic validity, until the rabbis are indeed convinced that true peace will be achieved. The different approach of Rabbi Avraham Shapiro is that political decisions based on long-term strategic considerations have no halakhic status, and therefore only a military determination that holding a certain position is futile could counter the legal prohibition to relinquish land. This position severely limits the flexibility of an elected government and as a result, a decision to make concessions could be seen as halakhically illegitimate. This, in turn, could and did lead to a halakhic ruling that soldiers ordered to take part in such actions should disobey those commands.

The majority of rabbinic figures who see withdrawal as a categorical prohibition belong to the Religious Zionist community. Some rabbis of that community dissent and see the possibility of strategic considerations of a legitimate government as sufficient grounds for such action. As opposed to the hawkish positions of the majority of Religious Zionist rabbis, most of the haredi authorities do not see the question of the territories as a clear-cut issue of Jewish law, but tend to emphasize its strategic-security aspect.

The correlation between religiosity and right-wing political stances regarding the territorial issue may create and indeed has already created a gap between the secular-liberal camp which supports compromise and withdrawal and the religious-traditional camp which is opposed to them. Even if this description is simplistic and much of Israeli society occupies a middle ground on the question of the territories and on questions of religion and tradition, the image of polarization and an ensuing kulturkampf influences public discourse and views in both the religious and the secular camp. It is suggested that the hawkish positions that have been observed among the haredi rank-and-file (more so than among the rabbinic and the political leadership of the community) are a result of their identification of supporters of withdrawal with the most secular and anti-religious elements in Israeli society. The fact that the project of the settlements is identified in the public eye with the Religious Zionist community (despite the tens of thousands of non-religious Israelis in towns such as Maaleh Adumim and Ariel) compounds the identification of the Religious Zionist community as such with the political right. This perception has created a view (manifested for example, in wake of the disengagement from Gush Katif in 2005) that the supporters of withdrawal and evacuation of settlements do this in order to intentionally harm the religious community.

What can be done to lessen the danger of the public debate on the territories from becoming a culture war?

On one hand, the broad public as well as public figures should constantly be aware that the religious issue is part of the discourse, and policy decisions should take this into account. On the other hand, efforts should be made to defuse the connection.

  • The public debate regarding the territorial question should be carried out independent of cultural-religious issues. There should be transparency regarding the security-strategic considerations without use of romantic slogans by either side. The fact, for instance, the then-Prime Minister Sharon did not systematically present his motivation for initiating the disengagement from Gaza (after opposing such a move for all his life) allowed some to suggest that it was directed against the religious community. In order for public discourse to flourish, the religious community must be aware of the complexity of the issue and adopt a position which, while grounded in religious texts, does not delegitimize the range of policy options.
  • In order to weaken the link between the cultural-religious question and the security-strategic question, policy makers should avoid steps that reinforce the link. For example, initiatives for far-reaching changes in the religious/secular status quo such as adopting separation between religion and state, if combined with a political move incorporating extensive territorial concessions, would strengthen the impression that the move is motivated by animosity toward religion and the religious community. Similarly, expansion of settlements should not be linked to a policy of extending religious coercion or of benefits to the ultra-Orthodox community. Such a connection could be seen as cases of arm-twisting of secular Israelis by the religious community.
  • It would be recommended that any decision on territorial concession (and evacuation of Jewish settlements) be part of a comprehensive policy to strengthen the Jewish character of the state. Such a program might soften the cultural-religious opposition to such a decision because it would not be seen as an abdication of the Jewish-Zionist ethos.

Moderating the linkage between the religious world view and the strategic aspects of the territorial debate will hopefully allow an open, transparent and balanced public discussion both of the Jewish character of the State as well as of its borders.

Dr. Kalman Neuman is a researcher in IDI's Religion and State project, an ordained rabbi, and a lecturer at Herzog College in Gush Etzion.

Interview with Dr. Kalman Neuman