The impending removal of 8,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip constitutes a trauma of unprecedented magnitude for the national religious world in Israel. That trauma is both theological and sociological.
On the theological level, religious settlers have been betrayed by the very state that they came to view as holy. As Hillel Halkin points out in the March 2005 Commentary, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the most important figure in national religious thought since 1967, spoke frequently of the "holiness of the state [of Israel]," and that holiness was in no way conditioned on the Torah observance of its citizenry. Now that same state has become the instrument of the most dramatic retreat yet from the vision of Greater Israel which has dominated religious Zionist thought since 1967,
From the Six Day War on, religious Zionists viewed themselves as the vanguard of societal renewal. Since the Rabin assassination, however, the national religious community has been forced to recognize that they are a vanguard with no followers. Far from representing an ideal for secular Israelis, they are increasingly viewed as public enemy number one. When Israelis describe secular communities beyond the Green Line, such as Alfei Menashe, they refer to "communities" and their "residents." But if the community is religious, it will inevitably be referred to as a "settlement" and its residents as "settlers." The latter two terms have become as pejorative as they are descriptive.
In the IDF, whose junior officer ranks are dominated by kippot serugot (knitted yarmulkes), religious soldiers are more and more seen as a potential menace, whose willingness to follow orders that conflict with their ideology is very much in doubt. Talk of terminating the special status of hesder yeshivot is very much in the air. A public that, in the words of Ha'aretz columnist Yair Sheleg, "is ready to sacrifice everything for the future of the state and the nation . . . are disparaged and portrayed as hallucinatory, messianic, violent, the greatest danger to society."
The hurt is very great. Even left-wing religious Zionists like Sheleg, "identify emotionally with the settlers' struggle" out of a feeling that they "have been humiliated and are now being uprooted."
Most chareidim also oppose Prime Minister Sharon's plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. They fear that Gaza will become a bazaar for sophisticated weaponry that will be directed against Israel from both Gaza itself and the West Bank. And they empathize greatly with those who are being uprooted from their homes. Having experienced no small amount of delegitimization by the mainstream media themselves, they identify with what the settler community and its supporters are experiencing today.
But for the chareidi community the withdrawal (if it takes place) will be a painful, but not traumatic, event. Chareidim never sanctified the State of Israel. Pikuach nefesh has always taken precedence over the geographical contours of the State for them. Nor have chareidim ever imagined themselves as a societal vanguard. They have always been the "Other" of Israeli Jewish society. Few chareidim have close friends or family members living in Gaza or in the smaller, more isolated settlements of Judea and Shomron, which are the next candidates for evacuation.
There are probably some in the chareidi world who even view the blow to the national religious world with a certain satisfaction. They hope that it will lead the national religious world to question its sanctification of State and army, redirect energies that have been centered on the settlement effort towards the study of Gemara, and convince religious Zionists that, at the end of the day, they have more in common with their fellow religious Jews than with secular Israelis.
And some of that will doubtless occur. The phrase "perhaps the chareidim were right" has already begun to appear in the writings of the national religious camp.
But the great danger is that if the evacuation takes place there will be a massive turn from religion among national religious youth. A group of national religious rabbis meeting with Prime Minister Sharon has already apprised him of the disastrous consequences of withdrawal for their youth. They also warned the Prime Minister that he is destroying the last bastion of traditional hard-core Zionist values, and that the state of Israel cannot exist with a majority that is either openly post-Zionist or which is apathetic to any larger purpose for the existence of a Jewish state.
Raised to think of themselves as part of the mainstream of Israeli society, national religious youth are shocked to find themselves outside the consensus. The fear is that many will attempt to rejoin the mainstream by aping the behavior of their secular contemporaries. A few years ago, wearing pants under long skirts became increasingly fashionable among young women in the national religious world. Over the past two years, the skirts have gradually grown shorter, and are in many cases today purely symbolic. These fashion trends likely reflect something far deeper.
Currently all the energies of the national religious youth are directed towards preventing the withdrawal slated for just after Tisha B'Av. Many have convinced themselves that if their faith and determination are great enough Hashem will not allow the withdrawal to proceed. But what happens if the evacuation does take place as planned despite their fervent efforts?
A rabbi who teaches in a prominent national religious institution related to me a story from the time of the Yamit evacuation in 1982. One of his students – a ba'al teshuva – told him that he was taking his family to Yamit. The rabbi tried to dissuade him, but his student remained adamant that the battle over Yamit would bring Mashiach and that the evacuation would never take place. Within six months of the evacuation, that student was divorced and no longer religious. The groundwork is being laid for a similar dashing of hopes today.
Jewish history is replete with examples of the tragic consequences of such dashed hopes. The crushing of the messianic expectations raised by Shabbatei Tzvi triggered the disintegration of much of European Jewry. Amsterdam and Italy, two prominent communities where messianic fervor burned most brightly, lost their status as Torah centers within a century of Shabbatei Tzvi's apostasy.
From the creation of the State ("reishit tzmichat geulateinu – the first flowering of the Redemption") to the lightning victory of 1967 and the return to our historic heartland to the mass immigration of the early '90s, the national religious world has lived in a state of heightened expectations to which the writings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook gave the most fervent expression.
The dashing of those expectations could well prove to be the most tragic consequence of the Gaza withdrawal.