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Last week, the chair of the National Union Knesset faction, Rabbi Benny Elon, was forced to cut short his participation in a parliamentary delegation to Canada and the United States, in order to return to Israel immediately. In one week, his nephew, the son of Rabbi Moti Elon, was injured in a traffic accident, and his parents' home in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood was broken into and burglarized. And these are not the only troubles that have befallen him recently. About a year ago, he fell ill with cancer, which he is only now recovering from.

Some opponents of the disengagement tend to see the disappearance from the political arena of the plan's architects - Ariel Sharon, Dan Halutz, Yonatan Bassi and Haim Ramon - as a divine punishment. They do not attribute the troubles that have befallen Elon to divine intervention, apparently, because he belongs to the "correct" side of the political map. Elon himself does not accept this, particularly when it comes to Yonatan Bassi.

The announcement by Bassi, the head of the Sela disengagement administration, about a month ago that he was leaving Sde Eliyahu, in the wake of harassment by other members of the kibbutz, surprised Elon, but he says that he feels no schadenfreude, only sorrow.

He admires Bassi and does not consider him a traitor. Shaking his head from side to side in surprise, Elon says that he "cannot understand this business. That Yonatan Bassi should leave Sde Eliyahu? It is incomprehensible that he, the son of one of the founding families of the kibbutz, a member of the kibbutz, feels like a stranger in his home." He says that "if in the synagogue there is a worshipper who does not feel at home, that is a badge of shame for the community. I wouldn't agree to let that happen in the synagogue where I pray. That's fanaticism."

Nevertheless, Elon does not condemn those who harassed Bassi, and does not apologize for them. The fact is that he understands them as well. "We are people like anyone else. If someone harms us, we are insulted. If someone hits us, we want to hit back. That's a healthy reaction and it will pass," he says.

The big picture

Elon believes that Bassi's tragedy is that he did not understand the big picture and the cynical system into which he was thrown. His explanation for Bassi's departure is frustration resulting from a belated understanding of the situation in which he found himself. Thus, in his soft-spoken manner, Elon places the blame back on Bassi. "He had the image of a winner," he says. "Everything he touched until then succeeded - the positions in which he served, the rescue of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. He thought that he was strong, that he could provide a solution and minimize the damage, at least the emotional damage. He had a sense that he was taking part in historical processes. But this time he took upon himself something at which he couldn't succeed."

Elon believes that Bassi fell into the trap that Sharon set for him. "We spoke several times after he took the job," he says. "I told him, 'at least carry out an uprooting that gives rise to a new region.' To his credit it should be said that it was important to him that the communal framework be preserved, but he didn't act. He should have insisted ... and said that there was no time to prepare the places that would absorb those communities. He was a scapegoat.

"Bassi felt honored to be chosen, but what Sharon saw before him was the skullcap. He wanted a religious man to handle religious people. Actually the choice of Bassi hurt people more, that one of their own was doing the uprooting. Whom did they admire in the end? Haim Oron and [Avraham] Beiga Shohat, ideological rivals, who behaved humanely in the Knesset Finance Committee."

Bassi, says Elon, discovered only after the uprooting that the system had not placed resources at his disposal and that the bureaucracy presented a serious obstacle. Above all, he says, Bassi did not know that "the government was determined to act quickly. Its policy was to crush. There wasn't much he could do to fight that. They should have learned from Begin. The new community of Netiv Ha'asara stood ready for the evacuees for three years until the evacuation of Sinai."

Elon looks back nostalgically on the evacuation of Yamit. He says that in Gush Katif, "they would have been willing to suffer had they known that there was something here for which they were sacrificing. The guys from Yamit said to themselves, 'the Jewish people have decided to make peace with the largest Arab country. We think that it's a mistake, but it's their right.' Here there is no diplomatic achievement. Their houses became ruins, Sderot is being shelled, Hamas came into power, and the feeling is that it was all in vain."

"Yonatan Bassi became a loser," says Elon. "He became a part of something that is not a source of pride. The system exploited him like a sort of Shabbes goy [a non-Jew who performs menial chores for Jews on Shabbat]. That's his tragedy. That's what's eating him up." Elon feels that the community rejection is of secondary importance, that "had Bassi thought that the truth was really on his side, had he gone with his ideology and fought for his honor, then others would have risen and fought alongside him. The decision to leave Sde Eliyahu is typical of his morality."

The movement lost its direction

Elon has known Bassi and his family well since childhood, when Elon's father was invited to lecture at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu and took Benny with him. He later taught in the high school of the religious kibbutzim in the Beit Shean Valley, where the children of Sde Eliyahu study, and from 1978-1982 he served as the rabbi of Kibbutz Shluhot in the Beit Shean Valley. He was one of the first rabbis in the Religious Kibbutz Movement, and his appointment was preceded by a tumultuous general meeting of the kibbutz.

Dr. Aviad Hacohen, a religious Zionist and dean of the Sha'arei Mishpat Law College, explains that over the years the Religious Kibbutz Movement refrained from appointing rabbis, out of a liberal and pluralistic concept of religion. Education was coed, girls wore pants and served in the army - at a time when outside the kibbutzim, army service for religious girls was inconceivable.

In the wake of the Hardali (an acronym meaning Haredi-nationalist) revolution in religious Zionism, the insistence on the uniqueness of the religious kibbutzim weakened, says Hacohen. The stronger the Hardali, Torah-oriented and isolationist education became, and because the young people who were educated in this new fashion demanded it, the kibbutzim began, one after another, to appoint rabbis. Among the rabbis were graduates of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, from which the Hardali philosophy emerged, and their viewpoint infiltrated the kibbutz.

Sde Eliyahu appointed a rabbi about a decade ago. To many religious Zionists, who considered the Religious Kibbutz Movement a Jewish and social symbol, this change signaled the loss of the movement's religious and ethical direction. Hacohen says that this change was also reflected in political viewpoints, and influenced the fact that "the kibbutz, which had always had a clear leftist majority, moved to the right."

What shocks many about the Bassi affair is the manifestation of intolerance in the bastion of the movement that has always been characterized by tolerance, on religious as well other issues. Elon says that during the period when he served as a rabbi in Shluhot, the evacuation of Yamit took place, and he illegally boarded a boat to protest the evacuation, and that was accepted, even though "it was no secret that I was also a right-wing activist."

According to Hacohen, "there were always right-wingers in the kibbutzim, but there was never a situation in which people left the prayer service when a person with right-wing opinions was called up to the Torah, as happened to Bassi."

Elon believes, however, that in the Religious Kibbutz Movement, as in any kibbutz, there is a built-in tendency to be closed to new ideas. "The kibbutzim did not demonstrate tolerance towards the broader religious Zionist community, nor towards Gush Emunim. They were not very upset that their children would remove their skullcaps in the army, the main thing was that they were opposed to their sons going to a hesder yeshiva [that combines abbreviated army service with Torah studies]. Together with a group of young people, we breached that barrier when we raised the issue in a referendum at the general meeting and succeeded."

He sees the change as an unavoidable process. "Why did they call me to Shluhot? Because children started becoming secular," he explains. "The tragedy of the Religious Kibbutz Movement was that the founders cut the kibbutzim off from religious society, and the movement did not succeed in becoming more relevant. The kibbutzim were dear to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook [of Merkaz Harav]. But they didn't understand that there was a desire for more Torah-oriented studies, for hesder yeshivas. Those same founders in the South, like Yoske Ahituv and others, should have opened their society and their yeshivas to more profound Torah study. Then the Religious Kibbutz Movement could have become the avant-garde of religious Zionism."