A Modern-day Judah

In the whole Bible there isn't a mythical figure, hero or anti-hero, who did what Yonatan Bassi did when he joined the Sela disengagement administration and actively participated in the disengagement plan. In the Book of Books, which ceaselessly judges leaders and nations, individuals and groups for their deeds, for good or for ill, it is impossible to point to a precise analogy for Bassi's tragedy, who, one year after the "expulsion," as the Jewish settlers in the territories call it, has himself apparently been expelled from his home in Sde Eliyahu. Is this the story of someone who followed his belief all the way and has been shunned by his brethren, or is it, to adopt the opposite perspective for a moment, the story of someone who "sold" his brethren, betrayed his people and brought destruction down upon them? The absence of a biblical parallel is perhaps the reason why the national-religious society, from the Religious Kibbutz Movement to the "hilltop youth," was painted in a uniform hue - orange - during the summer of 2005.

There simply is no language to contain the deviant act of this individual, Yonatan Bassi; and without a familiar lingo in which to excoriate such a person so all might see and fear, the opponents of the disengagement resort to extreme terminology like Judenrat or Kapo. However, this could also explain the silence of the moderates in religious Zionism, for whose unreserved support Bassi had hoped.

Dr. Hagai Dagan, a researcher of Judaism and Jewish thought at Sapir College, says the settlers' ideology is based on a kind of mythological story. "Their attitude toward the land and toward the other who dwells at their side has deep roots in the Jewish ethos. Their consciousness is based on the notion that the Jewish people is an extraordinary people, compared to which the other is inferior. When someone adopts an alternative story, he is a traitor. Bassi, who can perhaps be compared to the moderates in the days of the Great Revolt because he adopted a sober view, betrayed the formative story."

The facts are common knowledge: Bassi, 57, who was born in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, held a series of positions in the Religious Kibbutz Movement, the most prominent of which was director-general of the Agriculture Ministry in Yitzhak Rabin's government, which established him as an authority in national-religious society. "They didn't make any significant decision without him in the Religious Kibbutz Movement," says Binyamin Lau, who was the rabbi of the religious Kibbutz Sa'ad for six years.

Bassi never perceived himself as having a marginal, administrative role in the events that led to the disengagement. He never tried to evade responsibility and say "I was just obeying an order." Thus, even though he was not considered a community leader, he branded himself as the lone hero who takes full responsibility upon himself. His motive, he told Ari Shavit in an interview with Haaretz in July 2005, was to obey the command of his heart and his belief and to save religious Zionism from destruction. But while the movement's extremist rabbis called for refusing the evacuation order, he opposed his brethren - at least in the eyes of his own public -, and ultimately in his own eyes as well. In the end, before the last Rosh Hashanah he asked forgiveness of the settlers.

What do settlers see when they look at Bassi? A typical National Religious Party voter. One of us. Even the skullcap on his head is at a familiar angle. They have been betrayed, and for this reason they are now talking of payment and punishment in religious terms. Measure for measure. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Tzohar rabbis' organization talks about the mood at the Web sites of religious youth and youngsters, to the effect that "there is judgment and there is a judge": "Anyone who touched the disengagement gets it: [Ariel] Sharon, [Dan] Halutz, Bassi. They all forget that Yuri Stern and Adir Zik also died of cancer. My disgust with this matter is connected to the fact that an interpretation has been given to acts of G-d."

But already long before that, there appear to have been signs of differences imprinted in Bassi's personality. In one interview he said his Italian origin provided the key to these differences: His parents immigrated to Israel from Venice and founded Sde Eliyahu during the "tower and stockade" period under the British Mandate. The tradition of Italian Jewry has always been different, based on integrity and characterized by religious moderation. No one imagined how far Bassi would go with this integrity.

Avi Gisser, the rabbi of Ofra, in the West Bank, asks why Bassi did not understand that he would have to deal with the implications of his deed. On the eve of the disengagement, Bassi wanted to attend a family celebration in Ofra, and he was told - directly - that he was "persona non grata" there. Gisser says he was opposed to this, but he asserts that "it was possible to understand this." Bassi should not be talked about in terms of betrayal, he says. But in the same breath he argues that what happened at Sde Eliyahu symbolizes the essence of the Torah: "If you do good, then your life is good. If you do ill and even if in your eyes the act is good, your life is bad."

Does Bassi himself also accept this morality? In dealing with his deed, has he accepted the shunning? According to Rabbi Lau, only a small group made Bassi's life at the kibbutz a misery. A few people would walk out when he read from the Torah. Things like that. So then what broke him? What brought about his departure and his feeling of being shunned?

Rabbi Lau finds a connection between Bassi's story and the fate of Judah in the Vayeshev Torah portion in the Book of Genesis (Chapters 37-40). This is the fate of exile and shunning that can be followed only in the interpretive tradition. The story begins with the sale of Joseph. "Joseph is a person who has vision and leadership, the favorite son, which arouses the envy of his brothers and they want to kill him. In contrast to the eldest son, Reuven, who wants to save Joseph and throw him in the pit, Judah is a realistic leader who doesn't want to dirty his hands (not because he wants to save him). He directs the strategy of selling Joseph, and in the end the brothers dip Joseph's shirt in blood and show it to their father. Jacob mourns his son for many days and refuses to be comforted. Immediately afterward, in Chapter 38, it says: 'And it came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brethren.' When the brothers' see Jacob's terrible mourning they have regrets and blame Judah for having led them to the destruction - he, after all, could have chosen to save him. And then he leaves them. A kind of self-exile."

"And it came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brethren." In the classical interpretations and exegeses, they paused over the word for "went down:" "This is a geographical going down, because he left for the Adullam region, but also a going down in terms of status," says Lau. "The translation into Aramaic tells us that he separated himself from his family. This is the sort of thing they didn't tell us in the biblical text. In the Talmud in the Sotah Tractate (page 13, side B) it also says, 'He went down from his greatness.' "Judah marries the daughter of a Canaanite man and three sons are born to them. The Canaanite woman is a symbol of bad culture, the antithesis to the house of Jacob. The going down, then, is dramatic and it is in a place of total loss. The Sages, who could not stand this, explain that he married the daughter of a merchant in Canaan. I say Canaanite with the whole connotation that goes along with it. Later on, he goes further and further down and also gets in trouble with his daughter-in-law Tamar, whom he thinks is a prostitute and he sleeps with her."

On the eve of the disengagement, Rabbi Lau took an unusual stance when, frustrated by the strength with which the Bnei Akiva youth were swept away, stood up and warned against mass refusal to obey an order. Yet despite this, he says that he cannot identify with Bassi. "I couldn't understand why a person needs to volunteer for a deed like that. Unlike police and soldiers, why do you have to get involved with a mission like that?" he says. "As far as I am concerned, this is without a doubt an ungrateful mission, the good man in the bad place. However, the administration made mistakes and caused damage."

Nevertheless, Lau, employing the story of Judah, wants to remain optimistic and expects Bassi's return: "Judah became a local leader in Adullam. He lived in a place where he was shunned by his family for 20 years. What happened at home during this time? There is no hint. But in the end his leadership will overcome the test of Tamar, pave his way back to his fathers' home and prepare him to take responsibility for the brothers again, when they go down to Egypt, and to establish himself as a leader."