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Orthodox Jews in Israel Oppose Withdrawal, but Differ on Protest

March 21, 2005
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At Orthodox synagogues across Israel and the territories, a short prayer is being recited against the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the northern West Bank. The prayer asks for divine blessing for those “sons who are living selflessly and with perseverance in all parts of Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” asking to “uplift their spirits and strengthen their heart” as they stand up against those who would wish them harm.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, a former Sephardi chief rabbi in Israel, has asked congregations to recite the prayer as a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip and a section of the northern West Bank unilaterally, evacuating some 8,000 Jewish settlers from their homes.

For many Orthodox Jews in Israel, the prayer taps into a deeply personal issue. Many of the Jewish settlers themselves are Orthodox. And many Orthodox Jews who live within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 borders, have relatives and friends who are settlers.

Across Israel’s Orthodox spectrum, the majority of voices are solidly against the withdrawal plan. What varies is the degree of resistance that leading Orthodox figures are supporting.

Eliahu and another former chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, have been among the most high-profile voices to call on soldiers and police to refuse orders to evacuate settlers, a tactic that is gaining popularity in national religious circles.

Shapira, considered by many to be the top figure in the national-religious community, compared the possible evacuations to desecrating the Sabbath and eating unkosher food.

The highly influential spiritual leader of the Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, another former chief rabbi, made headlines recently when he called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “evil” because of the disengagement plan. He added, “God will strike him with one blow and he will die. He will sleep and not awake.” Yosef later said those comments had been misunderstood.

Many Orthodox rabbis maintain that Israelis now are living in messianic times and so should be promoting Jewish expansion in biblical Israel aggressively. Those rabbis see Gaza as a biblical birthright, promised to the Jews by God.

However, many scholars say that during biblical times Gaza was part of the land promised to the Jews but never was part of the land actually conquered and inhabited by them. There are, however, contradicting references on this issue. One passage in Judges often cited by Jewish settlers and their supporters says the tribe of Judah did take control of the area.

Questions of Israel’s historical ties to Gaza aside, there are top Israeli rabbis, both within Israel proper and in the territories, who are calling for restraint and a focus on Jewish unity.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the co-head of Yeshiva Har Etzion in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, is one of the leading Orthodox leaders to have come out against soldiers defying orders to evacuate settlements.

Members of Israel’s national religious community are split on whether or not to disobey orders.

“I have spoken very clearly. I think that this kind of insubordination is intolerable in these circumstances. I think those soldiers there should obey” orders, Lichtenstein told JTA.

Lichtenstein does not oppose the idea of protest, but cautions against any protest that crosses the line into what he calls “frustrating the ability of the government to govern.”

Lichtenstein is among those leading Orthodox rabbis who say there is something that must be respected in a decision made by the government of the Jewish state.

Most religious lawmakers are against disengagement but have also been careful not to call for violence as a means of protest.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, like Lichtenstein and other rabbis, has warned of the dangers to Israeli society that could grow out of rabbis advising soldiers to refuse orders.

“I am unalterably opposed to those rabbinic voices which call upon the soldiers of the IDF to refuse to obey military orders of evacuation claiming that such orders are against absolute Torah law,” Riskin wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post. “I humbly insist that such is not the case, that Torah law grants the right to a sovereign State of Israel to determine its borders, and that a call to refusal on religious grounds is tantamount to a call to civil war. The State of Israel can withstand the evacuation of settlers from Gaza; it cannot withstand a civil war.”

Inside Israel proper, Rabbi Yuval Shirlogh, a popular young rabbi who heads a major yeshiva, Petach Tikvah, has come out against disengagement as a policy while remaining outspoken in his call that religious Jews not act against the state and its institutions.

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former Knesset member of the Meimad Party who now heads the Yeshiva Maale Gilboa in the north of Israel, is one of the few Orthodox rabbis to give grudging support to the Gaza withdrawal.

“I am far from satisfied with the plan and how it was reached,” he said, saying he would have preferred to see a national referendum. “But at the end of the day I don’t see a way a Jewish state can be democratic and Jewish while remaining in control of 2.5 million Palestinians.” That’s the number of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

Daniel Tropper, the founder of the Gesher Foundation, an Israeli organization that seeks to bridge the gaps between the secular and the religious in Israel, said that because so many Orthodox Jews in Israel have ties to the settlements, the idea of disengagement is especially difficult for them to accept.

“While Zionism is very much weakened in the secular world, it is still very strong in the religious world, so dismantling settlements is very, very painful,” Tropper said.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the chief rabbis of the Beit El settlement and the head of the Ateret HaCohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, received attention in Israel for his moderate words when he called on settlers not to resist if security forces come to evacuate them from their homes.

Aviner is against the idea of any kind of evacuation of Jews, but said that an internecine conflict should be avoided at all costs.

“I don’t want a civil war, but to do protests is OK,” Aviner said. “I don’t want even one person to die here. I don’t want to see hatred.”

His opinions are sharply different from those held by Rabbi Zalman Melamed, the other chief rabbi at Beit El. Melamed, like Aviner, is a major halachic figure, who has publicly and repeatedly called on soldiers not to take part in anything related to the disengagement. His stance has received much support.

Lichtenstein, meanwhile, tries to give voice to the conflict facing the country and the Orthodox.

“From a national standpoint the country is undergoing surgery,” he said. “That is always painful — but the question is what is going to be gained at the other end.”

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