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Rabbinic Ruling on Settlements Poses Test for Zionist Orthodox

Israel’s Zionist Orthodox community is in the throes of a major social and political crisis, as the question of removing settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip looms large in public debate here.

The settlement question took a heightened profile after the February massacre of Palestinians in Hebron by a settler from nearby Kiryat Arba, and after the 100,000 Arab residents of Hebron were subsequently kept under curfew to protect the safety of the 415 Jewish settlers there.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last weekend that while the idea of concentrating the Jews of Hebron into one single residential quarter “has come up, it is not on our agenda at this time.”

This did not reassure settlers, particularly those affiliated with the Gush Emunim movement, which has spearheaded settlement in the territories over the past 20 years out of a conviction that it hastens God’s redemption of the Jewish people.

Now, as the prospect of undoing that work becomes more real, a conflict is developing for many in the religious Zionist community between their religious commitment to the Land of Israel and their practical loyalty to the State of Israel.

The issue came to the fore recently, when three of the most prominent rabbis of the Orthodox Zionist community ruled that soldiers must disobey orders rather than evict Jewish settlers from their home.

Rabbis Avraham Shapira, Shaul Yisraeli and Moshe Zvi Neria held that the Torah bars doing anything toward evicting a Jew from the Holy Land — any place in the Holy Land. They explicitly held that both civilians and soldiers are bound by this ruling of halachah, or Jewish law.

Shapira is the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel and is a leading scholar at the Merkaz Harav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the ideological birthplace of Gush Emunim and many of the Hebron settlers.

QUTSPOKENLY STRONG REACTIONS

Yisraeli is a former member of the Rabbinical Supreme Court. Neria is the founder of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school network and has served in the Knesset, representing the National Religious Party.

All three are close to the NRP and are considered its foremost sages.

A similar ruling was issued some time earlier by another former Ashkenazie chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren.

The ruling triggered outspokenly strong reactions from government circles — led off by Rabin himself, who termed it “irresponsible.” The premier said such views undermine the very existence of Israel’s government and democratic system.

He noted that he himself had consistently opposed any form of refusal to obey legitimate military orders — whether in Lebanon in the early 1980s or in the administered territories during the intifada. By that same standpoint, he now wholly rejects the rabbis’ stance.

On the right, too, political leaders — especially those with military backgrounds — voiced reservations over the three rabbis’ ruling. Here, though, the criticism was laced with demands that the government avoid bringing the situation to one of “a split in the nation,” in the words of Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud party.

There was also a great deal of tut-tutting within the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community, which does not accept the authority of the Zionist Orthodox rabbis. This week the premier haredi sage, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, published his own view that to remove Jewish settlers is not neccessarily against the halachah. (He added, however, that on political grounds he does not favor removing settlers at this time.)

PROFOUND AND PERVASIVE EMBARRASMENT

In NRP circles, however, embarrassment is profound and pervasive.

Party leader Zevulun Hammer openly criticized the ruling, and he was joined by other Knesset members and by the former party leader, Yosef Burg.

“I am a rabbi too,” Burg told reporters. “And I say that this is not an halachically justiciable issue.”

Burg said he is politically against any evacuation, but that is not the point. He wholly opposes and rejects the tenor of the rabbis’ ruling, which could pit soldiers against their officers.

The Chief Rabbinate Council, the highest-ranking body of the state’s official rabbinate, has tried diplomatically to sidestep this loaded issue. After a lengthy meeting Monday, the council announced that it will rule only when the question becomes of immediate practical significance.

“When the time comes, we will see,” declared Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau.

His Sephardic counterpart, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, said that “if, God forfend, the matter comes before us, only then will we address it.”

The council heard a lengthy presentation from the deputy defense minister, Mordechai Gur. It included in its official statement a passage expressing its gratification at the information that the government does not, at this stage, plan any eviction or displacement of Jewish settlers in Hebron or elsewhere in the territories.

Within the army, the halachic ruling raised serious doubts as to the reliability of units with a high proportion of religious soldiers, and most especially the “hesder yeshiva” units. These comprise young men who spend five years alternately studying and serving, instead of the regular three straight years in uniform.

Some of these religious soldiers have said openly that they would have a problem if ordered to evacuate settlers.

Gen. Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, shocked the Zionist-Orthodox community when he stated that the army ought to review its relationship to the entire “hesder” system. NRP leaders denounced the comment as offensively anti-religious.

But beneath their rhetoric, they too recognized the explosive situation their rabbis caused and sought, in an NRP executive meeting, to play down the seriousness of the ruling. NRP Knesset member Yigal Bibi said his son was an officer and that he would on no account urge him to disobey an order legally and legitimately given.

In some NRP and settler circles, however, there is a sense of quiet gratification this week. Many people believe that Rabin backed down from his original intention to move the Hebron settlers because of the NRP rabbis.

Government sources labored hard to discount that theory.

But plainly the trying weeks ahead — weeks in which the army will withdraw from Gaza and Jericho, and the Palestine Liberation Organization will begin to move in — will be all the more trying and tense in the wake of the three rabbis’ ruling and the profound and worrying debates it has stirred up.

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