Sharon's Lasting Legacy: Proving That Rabbis and Settlers Can Be Defied

In the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon - no great democrat - proved that democracy and Zionism are stronger than any rabbinical edict.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Morag, February 2002 – At the very tip of the Israeli-controlled zone in the Gaza Strip, between Rafah and Khan Younis, 30 Jewish families farm and live surrounded by circles of concrete and a ring of "preventive fire," an infantry company, a platoon of tanks, a team of combat engineers, trackers and sniffer dogs. Overwhelming military might and a settlement creating irrevocable facts on the ground.

Tell the young believer brought up hearing teachers and rabbis say that the course of redemption will never be reversed and that those who "scheme a scheme" will be foiled. Tell the young man on the barricades who fiercely opposes the Oslo Accords and saw a hidden hand thwart that scheme and remove Rabin from this world and Peres from office. Or the reservist who, for 15 years, spent a month per year on average patrolling the alleyways of Jabalya and Dir al-Balah and around the fortified settlements of Gush Katif. Tell them that their entire reality can be transformed in one week – and that, of all people, Ariel Sharon will be the one to shatter it to pieces.

Morag, August 2005 – One morning, a battalion of air force officers arrives at the first settlement to be forcibly evacuated during the "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip. Aside from a handful of symbolic resisters, all the families are quietly removed within five hours. So many resources were poured into perpetuating the settlement; then, in one morning, it just ceased to exist.

It doesn't matter whether Ariel Sharon carried out the disengagement from Gaza and settlement blocs in the northern West Bank because he feared international pressure, or in the hope it would provide a buffer from corruption investigations against his sons. Or because he was impressed by letters from elite Israel Defense Forces soldiers and pilots refusing to fight the Palestinians in the Second Intifada, or he believed the move would ensure a Jewish majority and perpetuate Israeli control of the West Bank. The result remains the same: He is the only Israeli leader to successfully have forced the pragmatic Zionist course of history on a large, powerful community that believed itself superior to history. Rabin, Peres, Barak and Olmert couldn't bring themselves to do that to the religious settlers. Sharon, as prime minister and Likud leader, could.

It's impossible to exaggerate the depth of the ideological crisis Sharon wrought on what was until then the national-religious sector. The groups that comprise that sector continue to try and present a unified front, plastering over the gaping cracks; but, in reality, the disengagement hastened the estrangement of two, three, even four separate communities, who differ in their attitudes to the state and Zionism, in their observance of halakha and subservience to their rabbis, and in their aspiration (or not) to be part of Israeli society.

Sharon's dispassionate uprooting unintentionally exposed and rattled every individual in this group. It didn't matter whether they believed the rabbis' hollow promises that "it would not come to pass" and that "the people of eternity are not afraid of a long road," or whether they had joined the protests that summer or remained at home, despite the indoctrination. Sharon ultimately forced tens of thousands of religious soldiers to show their true colors – and aside from a tiny fraction, they all continued to follow their commanders' orders, disobeying the rabbis.

The settlers and their supporters say they "have learned the lesson of the disengagement" and will never allow a government to remove a Jewish home from the Land of Israel. But they are deluding themselves. The real lesson Sharon taught Israel is that a sovereign government headed by a determined, ruthless leader cannot be stopped. This lesson was drummed into every religious man and woman who, perhaps internally, rebelled against the hopeless future the rabbis had to offer. Sharon, no great democrat himself, proved that democracy and Zionism are stronger than any rabbinical edict and the course of redemption.

The Sharon legacy is complicated, bitter and full of moral contradictions. Few of us would choose to bring up our children in his image. But his belated refutation of the Greater Israel ethos was complete, and remains unequivocal. It will serve the future prime minister who makes the unavoidable decision to retreat from the West Bank. Sharon already proved that reality is reversible, and that no leader need fear the settlers' threats or the rabbis' curses.

An Israeli settler being evacuated from the synagogue in Morag, August 2005.Credit: Miki Kratsman
A bulldozer destroys a house in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the central Gaza Strip, Aug. 29, 2005.Credit: AP

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