With the demonstrations in Beit El and attempts to return to the evacuated West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur last week, I’ve been thinking about where I was 10 years ago when the disengagement from Gaza took place. At the time, I was 18 years old and spending the year at Yeshivat Hakotel, one of the flagship religious Zionist yeshivas in the hesder yeshiva program (in which young Israeli men combine Torah study with military service).
That academic year, from 2004 to 2005, Rabbi Mordechai "Moti" Elon was still head of the yeshiva and at the height of his popularity. (A scandal later broke out and he was convicted in 2013 for sexually assaulting two of his students.) The son of a Supreme Court judge and brother of a former Knesset member for a religious Zionist political party, Rav Elon served as a bridge between the religious and secular in Israel. He was one of the leading lights of the religious Zionist world; with a popular TV program and thousands of students attending his classes each week.
The public debate in the religious Zionist community revolved around the question of whether soldiers should disobey orders if they were told to evacuate the settlements. In a memorable public class, Rav Elon presented his decision that a solider should obey the orders, but gave special permission to refuse orders to a soldier who said his wife would divorce him if he obeyed them.
The color orange – the national symbol against the disengagement plan – decked the yeshiva's main hall. At every opportunity, the entire yeshiva would decamp to Gush Katif to show solidarity with the people there. At various points in the year, the entire yeshiva would even move their classes to outside the Knesset, linking the day's learning to protesting the government's decision to evacuate the settlements.
I vividly remember being terrified that at one of the public demonstrations against the disengagement Rav Elon would be arrested and his students would respond with a violent riot. I was so upset by this concern that I went to Rav Elon and begged him to stop leading demonstrations. With compassion, he spoke to me about the need to ensure his students were all leaders and that all of them understood they were not just representing themselves, but the entire religious Zionist community.
It was also during this time that I was starting to become very politically conscious. I was uncomfortable with the activism that the yeshiva was taking and chose to not go to Gush Katif to protest alongside my fellow classmates. I also skipped the Knesset protest.
I did however go to Gush Katif on an educational trip with Bnei Akiva, the youth movement who was managing my yeshiva program, three months before the disengagement, to meet those who were going to be evacuated and ask them questions. Upon entering Gush Katif, I was struck by the beauty of the place alongside the absurdity of the situation. There were blocks of picturesque houses with a tank sitting on the corner of the settlement, looking out over what was an eerie, empty field, and Palestinian villages just a few hundred meters beyond that. The organizer of the trip was terrified that a Qassam rocket would hit our bus, as it was Gush Katif that had been the main target of rocket and mortar attacks up until that point.
Two things remain fresh in my mind about that visit to the Gush Katif settlements. The first was meeting a farmer who was working in his greenhouse. When we asked if he had made any preparation for the evacuation in three months, he told us that one does not speak about a funeral when a patient is lying on their deathbed. The second was seeing another resident digging to prepare the foundations of a house. When we asked why he was building a house when the government was evacuating them in three months' time, he told us that there was utterly no way that it would happen, that G-d would reverse the evil of the decree. Seeing his children playing behind, him we asked if he had let his children know that they might be moving. He looked at us as though we were crazy.
The disengagement was traumatic for the evacuees, with many subsequently suffering from emotional and physical health problems. The state's mistreatment of evacuees, including leaving them to live in temporary housing for years thereafter, contributed to the bedrock of mistrust between many in the settler community and the government. Beyond its impact on the individuals, the disengagement sparked a conversation within the religious Zionist community about whether the state is an object of divine intervention – a vehicle for redemption – or whether it just a secular thing that could prolong the coming of the Messiah.
Watching religious Zionist protesters in Beit El last week as they screamed, "War, this is war," and urged one another to push back the Border Police, I can’t help but think that the State of Israel is facing a new constituency who refuses to accept the law of the land. I remember the time when Israel managed to dismantle multiple settlements with minimal violence and worrying back then that I was living though the moment where the state’s sovereignty over the religious Zionist community was being torn asunder.
Joel Braunold is the U.S. Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. The views expressed are not necessarily the views of the entire membership of the alliance.
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