Last Night at the Disengagement

A post-traumatic review.

The setting

Whether it's a new neighborhood or a settlement that has been razed, whether it's Netzarim or Savyon, whether among the secular types in the north or the fanatics in a fleeting southern outpost - the stage props of our lives do not change and are always familiar. There is always a white Keter Plastics chair, always a stucco wall, always the same green or blue plastic sheeting used as a barrier or replacing a hedge, always the same stuck-on grass, always the same tree sign with a yellow inscription, always the same tropical plant at the entrance - always the same totality of the props of Israeliness, which somehow add up to more than the sum of their parts. The two of us may not be from the same village, as the song goes, but we are for sure from the same Home Center.

The importance of being earnest

Concerned and tense, we followed the tempestuous spectacles of the evacuation of Gush Katif this week, and during the evacuation of the settlement of Atzmona, our concern morphed into true fear. How intense was the tension we felt as we sat in front of the TV and watched the charging masses on that hard, hot, humid day in August! How we strained our eyes with genuine anxiety, lest we spot, among the sea of skullcaps and kerchiefs, amid the sweat and the crying and the tears, a certain rectangular piece of furniture. Lest we succeed to identify a particular figure who has captured our hearts. Maybe he is dancing there on one of the rooftops - grief-stricken, covered with ashes and sackcloth - or maybe he is taking a running dive into some empty pool? Is all well with the most militant, crazed, sweating and serious - yes, serious - figure among the orange messianists?

To grasp the meaning of our worries, we have to go back a year and a half, to an interview which Vered Levy-Barzilai conducted in these pages with the object of our concern: Haggai Ben-Artzi, one of the most extreme individuals on the religious right, the brother of Sara Netanyahu and holder of a Ph.D. In the interview he declared unequivocally that he was moving to the settlement of Atzmona "and from there the Israel Defense Forces soldiers will only take me out in a coffin."

"I am an earnest person and I say what I mean," Ben-Artzi stated and promised faithfully: "From there I will leave only in a coffin! ... The uprooting of one person from the Land of Israel is the end of my path ... The end of the settlements in Gush Katif is the end of spiritual life. And when one comes to the end of spiritual life, physical life no longer has any point ... Am I making myself clearer now? ... I will be taken out only in a coffin, together with the Torah scrolls ... That is a promise!

"For years we have talked about self-sacrifice," he added. "The time has come to act. The doomsday weapon is needed here. This is the time to load the missiles ... At Masada 969 Jews gave their lives. In Gush Katif we will be 970. I believe that many of those who are with me on the path will join in the act ... In the halakha [Jewish law] there are things that one must die for, and uprooting settlements from the Land of Israel is one such situation. Only one thing is important to me - the word of God ... and if God says, `for this you too shall sacrifice your life,' I am ready ... This struggle requires self-sacrifice in practice."

To show us just how serious he was, the speaker published an article a few months earlier in an organ of the "national camp," in which he promised: "We will lie on the roads, tens of thousands of Jews will give their lives and their bodies ... The uprooting of Jews from their land will be over our bodies. Not as a metaphor or as rhetoric, but over our actual bodies. Literally!"

"Literally." So is it any wonder that we sat with bated breath, with hearts pounding, that whole day? Surely he is wallowing there in the dirt, we thought, allowing himself to be trampled under the hobnailed boots of the Zionist enemy, like Elazar the Maccabee under the elephant's feet.

And then - a miracle! It is hard to describe in words our vast relief when, as we zapped worriedly among the channels, on Channel 10, on the London & Kirschenbaum program, at the height of these turbulent, militant, fateful hours in Gush Katif, we saw - is it possible? We rubbed our eyes. Is it him? In the air-conditioned studio? In the center of the country? In a starched light-blue shirt? Sweat-free? As fresh as a groom who has just emerged from under the canopy?

Yes, it was him, the same Ben-Artzi! Not only alive and kicking, but attacking and assaulting - with the same language of the twisting sword, the same militancy - the left, Sharon, the secular public, the media - just like that! As though he had not said, just a year ago, "If, heaven forbid, the [settlement] project collapses, then I raise the question: How is it possible? After all we did? What kind of God is this? It will bring about a crisis of faith in me, the collapse of my faith." But also: "I believe a miracle will occur. The Lord will stop it. I believe that."

Yet now we discover that not only was there no miracle - there is also no spiritual soul-searching. On the contrary: The man seems to be even more attached to his faith, at least if we can judge by the volume of sulfuric verbal abuse he heaped on the left and on the center as in days of yore.

We must not blame Ben-Artzi for what he said - neither him nor his comrades of the big mouth and the tongue that keeps turning over - the Uzi Landaus, the Aryeh Yitzhakis, the Aryeh Eldads, those junkies of the big words and the dramatic gestures, perched on the boundary between the sublime and the ridiculous and beyond. On the contrary: May they have a long life and dampen our lives with pathos and bathos. But next time, when we come, say, to the evacuation of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim, we will take them with a grain of salt, not to mention a little parsley on the side.

The choreography

We were not surprised when a few heroes of the play, who in their day were evacuated from Yamit or from Sinai and chose to settle in Gush Katif, of all places, announced that they had learned their lesson: After the present evacuation, the second traumatic one of their lives, in which they were again shorn of their roots and everything they built was again destroyed, they want only tranquillity and rest. In other words, they are going to settle in Ariel or on the Golan Heights. And this time it's final!

It goes to show that there is consistency, both in the plot and in the dramaturgical structure of the characters. A new Hebrew race has arisen in our land - the Wandering Israeli, the successor of the Wandering Jew. The Israeli who brought with him from the Diaspora, as part of the denial of the very meaning of the state's existence, the genes of nomadism and of the temporal: maybe even without intending to, subconsciously, they will always "settle" exactly in a place whose permanence is not guaranteed.

It's a kind of germ. Even in as small a country as this, there are some who have already managed to be uprooted twice; not to mention those who have made the nomad's life a career and a profession. Their whole life they wander from mobile home to mobile home, from outpost to settlement. With great ease, overnight, they take up their bundle of goods and "settle" in any place that is going to be evacuated and on top of it utter noble sentiments about "rootedness," singing "do not uproot what has been planted" as they lead the life of the homeless. They have no exact address, because "the whole Land of Israel" is their home. They have made a mockery of the very term "settlement," as in the children's song, "We will move around all day until we find a place - to sit down, to get up! To sit down, to get up!"

A settler from Netzarim explained things this week and summed up the entire "settlement-ist" anomaly: "A person does not choose his place of residence based on considerations of comfort. Therefore, we chose to be here." If not according to considerations of comfort, then according to which considerations, if you please? Maybe considerations of disrupting every attempt at normality and causing discomfort to others?

Magical stage moments

- Look me in the eyes, Nebuchadnezzar.

- I was your soldier in Golani. Uh ... Givati.

- My mother-in-law is second generation of the Holocaust. So - a kiss!

- A mortar shell fell here - I want a hug!

The tragic denouement

After all the zany, terrifying, over-baked words, amid all the extraordinarily dramatic gestures, what caused a pang in the heart was the understatement of the entire evacuation. Strangely, it was delivered by one of the most salient champions of overstatement: MK Zvi Hendel.

For years he unleashed a blistering battery of words. Yet now, of all times, at the moment of truth, at the peak, as he watched his own home being demolished by a bulldozer, all he could say was: "To say I had a good night's sleep would be a bit of an exaggeration."