JERUSALEM: Ever since the Obama administration insisted upon the settlement freeze, the Israeli public in general and religious Zionists in particular have been concerned (again) with the issue of whether religious Zionist soldiers and officers in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) would obey orders to reinforce US policy.
This question is not just an internal religious Zionist issue. The high percentage of religious Zionists in the IDF means that if they choose to disobey orders to dismantle settlements it could have significant implications for any attempt to reach a land for peace agreement.
For religious Zionists the controversy over disobedience goes to the heart of religious Zionist theology and its commitment to both the State of Israel and the Land of Israel. Within religious Zionism itself there are two very different streams of thought. The recent confrontation between Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a prominent figure in the religious Zionist community, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak highlights the centrality and persistence of the dilemma – civic loyalty to the contemporary state or devotion to the ideal vision of the state which includes the Greater Land of Israel. Rabbi Melamed supported soldiers who demonstrated against the evacuation of the Elon Moreh settlement, but many others in the religious Zionist community strongly oppose disobeying orders.
These contrasting interpretations of the relationship between religious Zionism and the Greater Land of Israel on the one hand and the State of Israel on the other are inexorably tied to notions of Jewish nationalism and Jewish history.
One central idea within religious Zionism conceives of the Jewish nation as possessing an inner will to return to God – that is, to create a state run according to the ideals of the Torah that will eventually restore some of the lost aspects of Jewish religious existence such as Temple worship and Jewish presence in the Greater Land of Israel. This path symbolizes the revolutionary tendency within religious Zionism
The other idea is that God works His will through the history of the entire Jewish people. The State of Israel, by encompassing the Jewish people within it – religious and secular, rightists and leftists – represents God s providence. Here too, the idea is to create an ideal Divine State, but it is to happen gradually as the consciousness of the people slowly matures.
Both ideas were meant to work simultaneously, with the support of the latter (i.e. the Jewish people) for the former -the ideal Divine state. God from above and Israel from below were to achieve the same ideal of the Divine State. Nevertheless there can be – as is now being demonstrated – a profound inner tension between these two strands within religious Zionism: The idea of the state of Israel as the incarnation of God s providence demonstrates a deep attachment to the state, yet the active striving for Messianic fulfilment through its revolutionary stream actually threatens to destabilise it.
This tension became a clash when the state of Israel diverged from the religious Zionist plan by entering into peace agreements with its neighbors. Then, Israel forfeited parts of the Greater Land of Israel and may be willing to forfeit more in the context of peace negotiations. Such a development presents religious Zionism with a dilemma-follow its revolutionary vision or remain loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions?
For some religious Zionists, the peace agreements with Egypt released the revolutionary trend which found violent expression. The response in some extremist circles to peace with Egyptians and subsequently the signing of the Oslo Accords, was the founding of a settlers underground that murdered Palestinians and was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Other religious Zionists, though, remained steadfast in their loyalty to the state and its governing institutions – accepting the decisions of duly constituted government officials even when they flew in the face of their most deeply held and cherished beliefs. These religious Zionists believe that the State of Israel cannot be forced to accept its destiny through the barrel of a gun pointed by extremists within Israel. Rather, they focus on the will of the people of Israel, as it is expressed in practice. According to this approach, the consciousness of the people must be patiently educated and enlightened. Thus, they acquiesced to the peaceful evacuation of 10,000 people and over 20 settlements in the disengagement from Gaza.
In reality, both orientations – the revolutionary one and the orientation towards civic loyalty -exist within most religious Zionists. Which prevails depends upon various factors, including the interaction of the government with the community. What policy makers must do is to strengthen those elements within the Israeli religious Zionist community which are committed to the rule of law, democracy and civic loyalty. A religious Zionist community that is committed to these values will encourage the government of Israel to engage in a land for peace agreement and help ensure that such an agreement is successfully implemented.
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is the Founding Director of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which is dedicated to education for democracy, tolerance and the rule of law in the State Jewish Orthodox school system. He is also a Research Fellow of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and teaches in the School of Education at Hebrew University. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).