Disaffected, Some Religious Zionists Turn Against Israel

For three-and-a-half months, Tzvia Sariel refused to identify herself in an Israeli court after being arrested for allegedly assaulting Palestinian farmers. Instead, the 18-year-old sat in jail and held firm: She would not cooperate with a judicial system she viewed as illegitimate.

When Sariel, who lives in the Jewish West Bank town of Elon Moreh, was released from custody in March, dozens of her classmates were on hand to greet her as a hero.

“God is my final authority, and we don’t recognize you,” another teenage Jewish settler reportedly shouted at a Jerusalem court earlier this year.

The girl was one of seven 14-year-old girls from the West Bank settlement of Beit El arrested for occupying an illegal outpost.

These stories may be exceptional, but they represent a significant shift taking place in Israel’s religious Zionist community.

Religious Zionists once revered state institutions almost as if they were holy vessels, part of God’s plan for restoring Jewish hegemony in the Land of Israel and creating an Israeli state as a precursor to the messianic era.

Indeed, the prayer for the state published in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which for decades was repeated every Sabbath in religious Zionist synagogues, referred to the State of Israel as the beginning of the “flowering of the redemption.”

But now a few religious Zionists are turning against the state.

They’re still smarting from the evacuation nearly three years ago of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which many describe as a betrayal by the state, and ongoing clashes with police at West Bank settlements and outposts that likely will be dismantled in any future government peace deal with the Palestinians.

“The ideology of the religious Zionists was that cooperation with secular Israel came from being part of the Zionist enterprise, but when people were taken out of their homes this brand of Zionism was wounded,” said Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

“Since then, the outlook of some on the right has become that if the vision of a Zionist goal has ended, so too has the cooperation.”

To be sure, the vast majority of religious Zionists — settlers, their supporters and other religious Israelis who identify as Zionists — do not reject the state’s authority. But observers say those who do, mostly young people from the settler community, are gaining legitimacy.

The term religious Zionist covers a wide spectrum of modern Orthodox Israelis, ranging from urbanites to those from politically centrist religious kibbutzim to highly ideological settlers in the West Bank. They are united in the belief that the Zionist mission of building a Jewish state is justified and rooted in Judaism. Most, but not all, are politically right of center.

Perhaps encouraged by disaffected adults, some religious Zionist youths are expressing their sense of alienation from the state by confronting police at West Bank settlement outposts and declaring that they reject the right of the courts to prosecute them.

Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, a moderate in the religious Zionist community, warned that youths are drawn to rejectionism partly due to the romanticism they attach to expressing their frustration in bold steps against state authorities.

“I think that our role as rabbis is to strengthen the mainstream camp, which is in danger because the youth are seen as strong and idealistic and the mainstream seems gray and boring,” he said.

Sherlow also noted that today’s young people are not old enough to remember the state for its heroism, such as the 1967 Six-Day War or the Entebbe rescue mission. Instead, their formative years saw a government that pulled their compatriots out of Gaza, failed to protect the northern front in the Second Lebanon War and has been unable to stem rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on southern Israel.

A stark example of the strains between the religious Zionist community and the state surfaced last month after eight students at Jerusalem’s prominent Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, the settler movement’s flagship yeshiva, were gunned down by a Palestinian from eastern Jerusalem.

Thousands filled Jerusalem’s streets for the emotional funerals, but no government officials were present — something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago, according to Sheleg.

Later, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated he planned to pay a condolence call to the yeshiva, he reportedly was rebuffed by the yeshiva’s leaders.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir did visit the yeshiva to talk to students, but hecklers mocked her as a “murderer” and an “Oslo criminal.”

Responding to this palpable sense of alienation from the state, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent rabbi from the religious Zionist community, wrote an appeal to youth in a pamphlet distributed at synagogues on Shabbat and posted online. The pamphlet pleaded for unity with the state rather than division.

His call was met with bitter replies, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

“A whole worldview, ‘the statehood view,’ which has an impressive record of achievement, is found today in a crisis, while beneath it a new, more determined worldview is growing,” one young person responded to Aviner’s plea. “We are in a new reality.”

Despite fears that the religious Zionist community would turn against the army after the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, most religious Zionist 18-year-olds continue to serve, with a high percentage in elite combat units.

Many of them, however, have told their commanders they would refuse to carry out orders to evacuate Jews from settlements.

Some settler youth said after the withdrawal from Gaza that the community’s adult leadership had been too passive in their resistance to Israeli authorities.

In February 2006, when police came to clear out the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, settler youth took a more aggressive stance. About 4,000 of them faced off against security forces sent to demolish nine houses, throwing stones and cinder blocks at authorities in what became one of the most violent clashes ever between Jewish Israelis. More than 200 people were injured.

Rabbi Yair Frank, the former rabbi of Amona, told the youths at the time that government plans for territorial withdrawals were part of the state’s disengagement from the Torah and its teachings.

In an interview with JTA, Frank said it’s not just the youth but also adults who are asking tough questions about the relationship between their community and the state.

“The entire public is going through a difficult period,” Frank said. “Believing Jews know that the state of today is not what we once expected.”

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