Caution: Idealists Ahead

Religious Zionists are making a broad cultural and ethical comparison that doesn't just pit politicians against rabbis, but contrasts the norms prevalent among the 'Tel Aviv elite' as a whole to those prevalent among religious Zionists.

At the height of the dispute that erupted between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Har Bracha yeshiva and its head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the Makor Rishon religious weekly published an interesting cartoon that took up nearly the entire width of a page. The cartoon showed Barak comfortably seated in an easy chair, while telling his Filipina housekeeper: "As long as you don't express support for refusal [of IDF orders], it's all legal." As if to say, how dare Barak preach to Rabbi Melamed about the rule of law, or official or ethical norms?

The cartoon, as well as the decision to give it so much prominence, reveal that despite the prevailing image, the vehement opposition of many religious Zionists to the evacuation of settlements is not motivated solely by an ideological resistance to evacuation itself. While that is the primary reason, the intensity of that opposition and the willingness to deepen the rift with Israeli society as a whole also stem from an increasing repugnance of the hypocrisy of the larger society's dominant elite. That elite is demanding that the settlers honor the rule of law and the principles of governance, even though the same group does not, in many other instances, deign to do the same.

But religious Zionists are not just talking about double standards, which Israel Harel has also discussed recently in these pages. In effect, they are making a broad cultural and ethical comparison that doesn't just pit the politicians against the rabbis, but contrasts the norms prevalent among the "Tel Aviv elite" as a whole to those prevalent among religious Zionists. In other words, how dare the hedonistic and degenerate Tel Avivians - whose sons seek to join combat units less and less - judge the idealistic camp? Those they are judging are prepared not just to live in "caravans" for many years for the sake of settling the land, but are continuing - even after the disengagement - to volunteer en masse for the best combat units, and for other national missions, including helping economically deprived cities and working for the Magen David Adom rescue service.

Precisely because this comparison is quite alluring from an ethical perspective, and because many are indeed seduced into supporting the settlers for this reason (even if they do so silently), it is important to warn others that idealism is not equivalent to justice. Those who are corrupt may actually be right every once in a while, and idealists can wreak major disasters out of a values-based zealotry - as took place during the Second Temple period. Public debate must therefore stick to the crux of the issue, not veer off into ethical comparisons of the debaters.

Judaism, in its wisdom, distinguished in ancient times between just and topical decisions, and external, irrelevant considerations. The Torah established the impressive rule that "neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause" - meaning reverse discrimination has no place in the law. The State of Israel suffers today from failure to abide by this rule.

The heart of the international community instinctively goes out to the Palestinians, not necessarily because of well-reasoned recognition that they are in the right, but primarily because they look more unfortunate on television. The rule of judging the parties based on the substance of their positions must be upheld - not only in the face of socioeconomic gaps, but also in the face of ethical ones.

Nonetheless, as it will clearly be difficult to maintain such a rational position over time, it's important to draw the inverse conclusion as well: Corruption, even when it appears "only" as immodesty and not as a criminal offense, is not just an ethical problem, but also hampers the ability of those in power to win public legitimacy for their decisions and impairs their ability to enforce those decisions. This is particularly true when it comes to difficult decisions like the evacuation of settlements, which should be enough to make politicians very cautious about how they conduct themselves, and to make society at large view the fight against corruption as an existential matter.