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Is Israel being torn apart? Does the protest campaign of the disengagement opponents signal a deep internal rift? Has the process of dividing the land become a challenge to Israeli sovereignty?

Rabbi Yaakov Meidan is not one of the extremist rabbis of Yesha (acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza). On the contrary, over the years he has been engaged in attempts at dialogue with the secular public. He and Prof. Ruth Gavison of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Faculty of Law drew up a pact concerning religion-state affairs. Together with Major General (res.) Uzi Dayan, he formulated the "Brothers Dialogue" covenant to prevent refusal by soldiers to obey certain orders. Over the past few months, he also tried to draw up another covenant to cool down the struggle and define its rules.

But now, after the attempt at dialogue has failed, Rabbi Meidan is on fire. He is trying to control himself, but has difficulty doing so. He is mood-swinging between the desire to preserve the linchpin of the state framework and his feeling that a severe wrong has been done. Between the desire to express vigorous opposition to the uprooting and the desire not to refuse an order. Between disengagement and settlement. Between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.

Recently, he set forth his position on the disengagement question in terms drawn from the story of "King Solomon's judgment" - except that in his commentary, which is based on the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the real mother has to avoid simultaneously the rending of the child and giving him up altogether.

Meidan settled in Gush Etzion - a bloc of settlements south of Bethlehem - 36 years ago and is a graduate of the first class of the large Har Etzion hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies and military service) in the settlement of Alon Shvut. He will become the yeshiva head at Hanukkah. Fifty-five years old and the father of seven children, Rabbi Meidan is tall, light of foot, energetic and sharp. Even though he is not as well well-known as Rabbis Moshe Levinger, Yoel Bin-Nun and Menachem Fruman, his influence today is far greater than theirs. He is a member of the inner team of settler leaders trying to reach agreements with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on limiting and restraining the anti-disengagement struggle. He is the rabbinical authority who is the source of legitimization for those in the territories who are trying not to burn all the bridges and not enter into a total confrontation with the state and the army. Nevertheless, even Meidan finds himself being pushed into a corner. Hoping and despairing. Believing and distraught. On the brink of the abyss.

Rabbi Meidan, how difficult is this moment?

It is beyond terrible. Beyond terrible. Understand: we are being judged as the ruined city, of which it is said that it shall not be rebuilt. We are being judged as a camp of lepers.

How severe is the crisis?

"The crisis is of dual significance. One is to take Jews who finally arrived here after 2,000 years of exile so that they would never again be driven from their homes and to drive them from their homes forcefully. After 2,000 years of exile, in which we dreamed of having a state from which we would not be driven out, that dream has been shattered. Suddenly it turns out that Jews can be expelled. Suddenly it turns out that homes of Jews can be laid waste. That Jewish graves can be uprooted. After 50 years in which we thought that none of this was possible, this act returns us in large measure to the tragic Jewish situation of pre-Zionist times.

"But there is also a second crisis. Decades ago, our public, the religious-Zionist public, made a strategic decision to live together with secular Zionism; together with the public that is not religiously observant. We decided to forge an alliance. An alliance based on love for this land. On the desire for the revival of the state. Now that alliance has been broken. Those who went with us hand in hand to every place, including into the fire, have plunged a knife in our back."

Who plunged a knife in your back?

"I would prefer not to name names. That is the lesson I drew from what happened 10 years ago, before Rabin's assassination. But I say that there were those who were out to get religious Zionism in order to plunge a knife into its back. There were those who decided to thrust religious Zionism 30 years back, to restore it to its natural size, to its previous place."

What you are saying is very grave. You are saying that disengagement is not only the evacuation of territory and of settlements; that it is also an attempt by the secular public in Israel to assault the national-religious public.

"I am very sensitive to the word 'evacuation.' We are not dust. We are not hametz of Passover eve. We are not some dirt on the table that is evacuated. We have roots. We struck deep roots both in the dunes of Gush Katif [the Gaza Strip settlement bloc] and also in the hard rocks of Gush Etzion and other places. So this is not an evacuation. We are not being wiped off the table; we are being uprooted. And uprooted with great difficulty.

"To address your substantive point: my complaints are not against the secular public as a whole. In our meetings with the broad public, there is a good, warm feeling, which encourages support. Had it not been for that support, I would have found it difficult to survive these last months. The problem is with the secular elites. In the attitude of those elites I have the feeling of a knife in the back."

Do you truly believe the secular elite has risen up against you in order to destroy you?

"Yes."

So from your point of view the disengagement is not a strategic move - justified or not - but a deliberate attempt to break the religious Zionist movement?

"I must be accurate: for part of the secular elites breaking religious Zionism is the goal. For others, breaking us is not the goal, but a price they are willing to pay. And to pay easily. When someone rises up against you, it is a pain of a particular kind. When someone does not care at all whether you are broken and does not care where you will wallow after being broken, that is pain of a different kind."

For years you conducted a dialogue with the democratic-secular elite. That dialogue was important to you. You invested quite a bit in it. Do you feel today that the dialogue was a lie?

"There were a great many falsities in our alliance with the secular elites. In retrospect, it turns out that a great many of those who sat with us and dialogued with us were pretending. When the test came, they did not meet it. They turned their back on us."

Do you feel you have been betrayed?

"My dialogue with Prof. Ruth Gavison was good and remains good. Even when we did not reach agreement, she met the test. But when I sat in the Israel Democracy Institute with her reference group - senior jurists and senior academics and left-wing leaders - I had the feeling that I was meeting with people who are living in a glass tower. People who are looking at an entire public being uprooted from its life project and from everything it believes in and being thrown to who-knows where - without having the slightest understanding of what is facing them. When I sat across from them, I had the feeling they were looking at me the way you watch a movie and examining everything according to the minutiae of the law. As though the orders and the law have become God. Without justice, without morality, without anything. Only the order and the law.

"I felt that I was facing a sealed glittering wall. That I was being looked at through thick glass. Our public was observed like a laboratory animal. People raise their hand against me and tell me, If you want to shout, fine, but not between 2 and 4, during the siesta. That is something I could not accept. I could not accept it."

Did you draw operative conclusions?

"Yes. In order to forge an alliance with the secular elites, we neglected our more natural alliance with the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] public. Today I think that was a mistake. In the future we will behave differently. In the past, with all the disagreements, I thought there was also something we could learn from the secular elite. After I saw the secular elite stick a knife in my back and turn away from its own values - democracy and human rights - I have no more to learn from them. After all, from the standpoint of democracy, what happened here is a disgrace; and what happened here from the viewpoint of the judicial system's protection of human rights is a shame. The courts, the press, the research institutes - no one heard us. No one heard our outcry. But it is not just us. The democratic elite did not remain loyal to the values in the name of which it spoke all these years. Therefore there are no positive values I can get from them. I have a serious problem with them."

If so, your next dialogue will not be with the Democracy Institute but with the leader of Haredi Judaism, Rabbi Elyashiv.

"Correct. Only then, when religious Zionism and the Haredi public stand together, will our place be different, will we be treated differently."

What is the purpose of your large protest campaign this week?

"Our feeling is that our outcry is not being heard. [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon does not hear it, the courts do not hear it, north Tel Aviv does not hear it. Our feeling is that we are crying out and they are shutting their ears. Therefore, in this campaign we want to let forth an outcry that will not allow them to shut their ears any longer. It is a march of outcry. It is meant to breach the wall of your insensitivity."

But you are not marching against the Knesset. You are not marching against Sharon's ranch. You are marching against the IDF. You are endangering the IDF.

"The IDF is precious to us. It is not a hostage in our struggle. But whoever decided on the uprooting and whoever decided not to hold a referendum on the uprooting stole democracy. And when he stole democracy, he should have been aware that this would have a price. That price will trickle down into the army. After all, they are sending IDF equipment to destroy Jewish homes. They are sending the army rabbinate to uproot Jewish graves. They are sending the army to turn 50 synagogues into heaps of ruins. Obviously this is going to have a price."

Do you consider these acts to be transgressions, to be forbidden acts?

"Let us not say it is a transgression. Let us say it is a great commandment. But did anyone think about what effect deeds like these have on a Jewish soul? Look what happens to us when someone scrawls one slogan on one synagogue in Germany. And here they are going to destroy dozens of synagogues. They are going to do what the goyim did not dare do to us for 50 years anywhere. Understand the meaning of this. Understand the feeling of hurban [destruction]."

But there was a sovereign decision here, a decision by the government and the Knesset, a majority decision.

"Do you know what the meaning is of an IDF bulldozer driven by a soldier who was conscripted to defend the Jewish people smashing and breaking the walls of a synagogue and reducing it to rubble? And trampling with the treads the place where the Holy Ark stood, where Torah scrolls were placed. If I were that soldier, my soul would be so torn that I do not know how I would be able to withstand it. I do not know what I would do."

What would you do?

"That is a very difficult question. Very difficult. It is a question that touches also on dragging people from the home in which they have lived for 30 years. Dragging children, dragging mothers. Let me ask you: If your mothers were there, would you drag them out?"

What you are actually telling us is that if you were a soldier and you were ordered to demolish a synagogue structure, you would not carry out the order. You would not do it.

"I find it very difficult to see how I would be capable of doing it."

And when a student of yours asks you how he should behave during the disengagement?

"I hope the IDF will have the wisdom now to have soldiers who feel this is their milk and their blood do it. I am against refusing orders. I think it is important for our soldiers to be there. Especially so they can calm down the situation. But whoever sends soldiers to drag people from their homes is assuming a very heavy responsibility. He is committing an act without both reason and heart. I want to see [Chief of Staff] Dan Halutz drag his mother from her house. Is he capable of that? Let him not demand that others do what he is not capable of doing."

Effectively, you are preaching `gray disobedience.' On the face of it you are against refusal to obey, but in practice you are encouraging every religious soldier to go to his commanding officer and say: I can't do it.

"The IDF has enough soldiers who will do the dragging and the demolition without their hearts being wounded. It will be hard for them, too, but for our soldiers it is difficult to impossible."

The importance of what you are saying is that there will be a lone soldier who will say "I can't" and then another lone soldier who will say "I can't," until there will be an entire public of lone soldiers who do not carry out the army's orders and do not implement the decisions of an elected government.

"There will be a great many lone soldiers who might even total a large percentage of the army. But they will not be a public. And they will not refuse. They will ask to be assigned to a different task."

There is refusal already now. Rabbis are inciting soldiers and the spiritual leadership of the religious Zionist movement is bringing the IDF to a situation of crisis.

"One way or the other, the IDF is in a difficult situation. And it will find itself in a very difficult situation. But the responsibility lies with the prime minister and the defense minister, who are the father and mother of the IDF. They know what the IDF is made of. They know who its soldiers are. They created the crisis.

"Our goal is not to break the IDF. But we cannot prevent the difficulty for the IDF; that is impossible. We want to bring the IDF to a situation in which things will be difficult, but not to a situation in which it will not be able to cope."

Rabbi Meidan, you are pressuring the IDF to make it cry for help. You are trying to make the army tell the political echelon that it cannot carry out the mission. Your approach is a danger to life and limb.

"We will stay 2,000 cubits from any act of violence."

The problem is not only violence. The problem is disobedience that will break up the army.

"The IDF is being broken from two directions. The breaking begins when one sends soldiers to execute missions they are incapable of executing. In contrast, we are taking steps that the IDF can deal with.

"But allow me to ask you a left-wing question: What is your alternative? That's what people on the left like to ask, isn't it? `What is the alternative?' To tell the soldiers to break their hearts and do something totally contrary to everything they have been educated to believe?"

The alternative is to tell your students that they are soldiers of Israeli sovereignty and must carry out every legal decision made by that sovereign state.

"Our soldiers are certainly soldiers of Israeli sovereignty. But that is not a reason to shatter the values in which they were raised. To drag the people of Gush Katif from their homes is to trample our values without a justified reason."

Rabbi Meidan, because of your ideology, I, Ari Shavit, served in a detention facility for Palestinians. I did what ran contrary to my deepest beliefs in order to be loyal to the one Israeli sovereignty and to the alliance between us. Now, when your turn has come to fulfill your part in the sovereign alliance, you are not doing it.

"When you served as a warder it was no harder for you than for anyone else, it was required for the security of us all. On the other hand, here there is a specific matter of many people, perhaps a quarter of the army, who are being asked to do something contrary to their belief. I do not think it is right to break their belief."

For years people on the left manned checkpoints because of the settlers, served as warders because of them, guarded your settlements. That seared their hearts no less than the disengagement is searing your hearts.

"There is no resemblance. The checkpoints guarded Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The detention facilities did not protect the occupation, but security. It is true that left-wing people guarded the settlements, but there is no comparison between the difficulty they had and the difficulty of removing good people from their homes and demolishing them."

You show consideration for the feelings of your public, but have no pity at all for the feelings of others.

"Uzi Dayan told me explicitly that if he received an order to remove Arabs from their homes, he would refuse to obey it. And he was a candidate for chief of staff. Everyone on the left and in the center says that if he were told to expel Arabs from their homes, he would refuse. We are not even talking about refusal. We are only asking you not to force us to trample our values."

Your comments paint a harsh picture - two opposing Israeli stories are engaged in a frontal clash. Like two cars speeding toward each other, with neither of them willing to move to the shoulder.

"There will be a confrontation. There will be a serious jolt. But I believe that it will be a chassis accident, not a total loss. After a chassis accident, a car can still keep going. It sputters, it is damaged, but it still runs."

You are taking a tremendous responsibility on yourself: it is a very thin line.

"The line is thin because we were left only a thin line. We are doing what we are doing with a heavy heart. And we are taking care and making every effort not to cross the line that would mean the ruin of the IDF. But we have no choice. The alternative is not to protest the destruction of the major tenets of Zionism. That is impossible from our point of view. It would mean a donkey's burial for Zionism."

Where is the maturity the Zionist left showed for years? Where is the greatness that [Menachem] Begin showed in the "Altalena" episode? [In June 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF to open fire on a gunship named "Altalena" which was off the Tel Aviv shore. The ship was carrying arms for the Irgun, a pre-state underground organization.] You are ready to risk everything.

"We are against violence. Heaven forbid that anyone should raise a hand against a soldier. Heaven forbid that anyone should verbally abuse a soldier. Under no circumstances will there be any form of violence. But like Rabbi Kook, I too think that even in the case of Solomon's Judgment, the real mother does not agree to her child being cut in half, but also does not yield. A son whose mother gave him up will not forgive her. And in this case, too, the son will not forgive us if we forgo everything for the sake of peace and tranquillity. And the son is not just Gush Katif. This son is the Land of Israel. This is the whole ideology of Zionism and settlement. And that ideology will not forgive us if we forgo it. Nor will we forgive ourselves if we give up so quickly. Therefore we will not bring things to a crisis point which has no remedy, but neither will we yield."

You are absolutely walking on the brink. You are endangering Israeli statehood. The rabbis of religious Zionism - Rabbi Eliahu and Rabbi Shapira - are encouraging refusal on the part of soldiers.

"With all my smallness, with all the fact that I am ignorant and small compared to them, I am ready to say the complete opposite of what those rabbis said. I think a religiously observant soldier should not refuse to obey an order. I say so explicitly: I do not accept refusal to obey an order. It is totally unacceptable to me. But when I am asked whether I would be capable of doing these terrible things I say that I do not know whether I would be capable. And I think when I say that I am not crossing the red line. Because if I do nothing, that will also have a price. If we are too afraid and leave Gush Katif without opposition, that will mean the destruction of Zionism. That is something we are forbidden to do. It is forbidden. Our loyalty to the land and to settlement obligates us to carry out a large protest."

Your campaign this week places Israeli democracy in jeopardy.

"On the contrary: it is a campaign in favor of democracy, a campaign against the destruction of democracy."

But you are not protesting; you are trying to scuttle a legal political decision by force.

"We are trying to execute a democratic preemption. To force the Knesset and the government to think again. After all, this is a move that contradicts Zionism. It involves the razing of an entire bloc of settlements. A decision like this could have been made in a referendum. Responsibility rests with whoever decided not to let the decision be made by a referendum. It is he who brought the dispute into the IDF, who created the rift in the nation. And he did it for malicious reasons, out of malicious intent."

Is the government of Israel a malicious government?

"No. I did not say that. But there was malice here."

What do you mean?

"Regrettably, Sharon is acting out of a feeling that the prevention of violence is not his highest priority. In a cold analysis, one can arrive at the conclusion that from his point of view, if there is bloodshed, it will ensure the success of the uprooting and also ensure the success of the acts of uprooting to come."

What you are saying is extremely grave.

"I will put it cautiously. I know preventing violence is the chief consideration of the Yesha Council. Preventing violence is very high among the IDF's considerations. I am afraid that in the prime minister's milieu, the prevention of violence does not have the highest priority. I heard the assessment of a senior intelligence person who maintains that Sharon has an interest in the eruption of violence, because it will reduce the pressures for additional withdrawals. And I add: also because violence will send an internal signal that only Sharon is capable of coping with the settlers. That is why I agreed to this interview: because what is now incumbent on all of us - on the IDF, on the elites of the left and on us - is to prevent violence. To prevent bloodshed."

But it is your struggle that is liable to bring bloodshed. It is liable to endanger the very existence of Zionism.

"Our struggle is a last attempt to save Zionism. To save Zionism. Without Zionism we have no existence here. And Zionism is the belief that Jews come to their homeland and redeem it so that no one will move them. That is Zionism. I am not familiar with any other Zionism. And the act of uprooting strikes down Zionism.

"I do not want to think about the possibility of the annulment of Zionism. That possibility is beyond my line of thought. But to send the IDF to raze Gush Katif is to deliver a very severe blow to Zionism, a very severe blow. And what we are doing now is trying to prevent that. Until the last minute to try and prevent it."

In fact, the real danger is that the disengagement is turning into a religious war.

"`Religious war' is an incorrect term. But this summer will be a very dramatic period in the contest for the internal identity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel."

And where will you and we be at the end of this summer?

"You will certainly interview all kinds of people about the determination with which they carried out the act. I may be in prison."

Do you really think it will come to that?

"I do not flinch from that possibility. I am taking it into account. I will not be violent. I will carry out deeds I consider legitimate. But if the law wants to punish me for them, I will go to prison without batting an eyelash."

In other words, one casualty of this campaign is already the supremacy of the law.

"I have never recognized the supremacy of the law. Justice and morality are far more important to me than the supremacy of the law. When the law stands opposite justice and morality, I stand on the other side."n