Seven Years After Gaza Pullout, Settlers' Faith in God Has Changed

After the evacuation many national religious youths lost their faith, and many of them were furious at the rabbis. Others became even more religious and found their faith strengthening.

The residents of Gush Katif were known to love God very much, but when the moment of truth came in 2005 - when the army knocked on their doors - the Messiah did not come for them and didn't even telephone, as the well-known Israeli song goes.

Next week will mark the seventh anniversary of the Hebrew date of the evacuation of Gush Katif, an event with many crises of faith entwined. At the center of these dilemmas is the question: "Why did we deserve this?" In preparation for the anniversary, the council of settlements from Gush Katif published a thick book called "The Torah of Katif," which include decisions of religious law, commentaries and articles from rabbis from the region over the years. The main section deals with the period following then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's February 2004 announcement of the disengagement, and deals in depth with the question of how God could have allowed the evacuation - or "expulsion," as opponents still call it - to happen.

Until the disengagement, many in the national religious camp were completely sure the evacuation would not take place and a miracle would happen at the last moment to prevent it. The position of their revered Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was well-known: It won't happen. In March 2005, the rabbi of Gush Katif, Yigal Kamenetsky, published a book of halakhic responsa (questions and answers in Jewish religious law ) in which he explained his faith that the evacuation would not happen. "I am not a prophet, and to my regret anything can happen," he wrote, while explaining that there were deep reasons to believe that "Gush Katif would remain in place forever and be a symbol and miracle of faith, steadfastness and sanctification of God's name for eternity." Kamenetsky even offered evidence that strengthened his belief, such as the rarity of serious injuries from the daily bombardment of the settlements, which he called a miracle.

The rabbi of the Ganei Tal settlement, Gabi Kadosh, viewed life in Gush Katif as a "divine mission." "From every setback came great salvation," he wrote - even after a Knesset bill to require a popular referendum on the disengagement failed to pass. After the trauma of the evacuation, Kadosh wrote a letter to his congregation and asked a number of questions about the "wound that is still so open." "What does God want from us? That is the question of questions." He wrote he had no answer that could be published for everyone since every individual needed a personal answer.

Loss of faith

But only after the evacuation did the great rupture occur. Many national religious youths lost their faith, and many of them were furious at the rabbis. Others became even more religious and found their faith strengthening, such as Rabbi Shmuel Tal from Neveh Dekalim, who became Haredi. Others took the opposite view and decided the disengagement really was a miracle, and that "the good of the Jewish people required the disengagement," said Rabbi Nadiv Turgeman of Tel Katifa.

Others found it hard to find a divine reason for the evacuation. Rabbi Reuven Netanel of Atzmona wrote: "I do not have a spiritual answer why the Holy One, Blessed Be He brought this trial upon us. ... Faith is not saying, 'You promised me there would not be a disengagement. The residents of Gush Katif are worthy of having miracles done for them, but God is not required to."

Rabbi Kobi Borshtein, one of the rabbis of the hesder (army-affiliated ) yeshiva in Neveh Dekalim and one of the editors of the book, told Haaretz this week that the rabbis of Gush Katif were careful not to tell residents the evacuation would not happen. He said there was a feeling that the settlers were working for God, and not that he was working for the settlers. Borshtein does not deny that the disengagement affected his faith. "Before the evacuation I knew to say in theory that 'Father knows how to say no,' but when the evacuation happened I felt a weakening of faith," he said. For a small number of Gush Katif youths, the disengagement caused a major crisis of faith, he added.

Kamenetsky agrees that the crisis of faith after the disengagement was limited. "It was a difficult process, but it did not change beliefs," he said. Those whose faith was weak before saw it weaken even further, while those who believed deeply were strengthened in their faith, he said. "The reality was very difficult, but today, after seven years, I do not see significant changes within the public," said Kamenetsky.