Last Tuesday night, I spoke to a group of American students at Yeshivat Shala’avim on the state of Jewish identity in Israel and the potential of the various religious communities in Israel to draw secular Israelis closer to Torah.
On the latter question, my assessment was largely pessimistic. With respect to the national religious community, I predicted that a series of violent confrontations with the IDF and other security forces, would cause the community to be increasingly marginalized. And that marginalization would limit the its ability to positively influence the broader society.
That prediction of a series of violent battles proved unhappily prescient the next day at Amona when nearly 250 demonstrators and border police were injured in clashes over the demolition of 9 homes.
Both sides were spoiling for a fight. The protestors, almost all of them teenagers, expressed their disdain for settler leaders who attempted to negotiate a settlement that would have allowed the houses to be removed to the adjacent settlement of Ofra. Pinchas Wallerstein, the head of the Yesha Settlers Council, was surrounded by youth, who called him a snake and a devil, while chanting, "We want war. We want war."
For their part, the police were eager to join the battle. Though Amona is on an isolated hilltop, no effort was made to isolate the site and prevent thousands of protesters from infiltrating the area. As soon as the police came under a hail of stones, paint-filled light bulbs, and metal objects thrown from rooftops by youths, some of them masked, they waded in on horseback, their batons falling indiscriminately on the heads of the youthful protestors, even those sitting on the ground. Increasingly, the government is employing non-Jews and others who will think little of bashing Jewish heads in such riot control situations, and that brutality was on full display in Amona.
Both sides predicted that Amona will only be the first of many such confrontations. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who, unlike most of his predecessors has no military record to boast of, sought an early opportunity to prove his toughness and the settlers were the perfect foil.
Even though 49% of the public (a plurality) in one poll expressed the view that Olmert had deliberately provoked a confrontation for political reasons, those suspicions did not result in any immediate decline in support for his Kadima Party. While many Israelis were appalled by the footage of the police on horseback smashing settler youth with their riot batons, the result was not increased sympathy for the settlers or their position. By a large margin, the public continues to support the removal of illegal settlements and outposts. And as much anger was directed at the parents and educators of the youth involved, as at the police and those who dispatched them.
The Amona precedent poses a major dilemma for the national religious community – a dilemma to which there is no ready solution. Leading figures within the national religious community recognize that violent confrontations with the army and border police can only result in a further alienation of the broader public from the national religious community, as well as the end to all identification of many of the settler youth with the state.
At the same time, the national religious community has devoted its best energies for more than three decades to the settlement of Judea and Samaria. It cannot simply abandon those areas, even when there is broad public support for doing so. The settler youth are acting in the name of the primary values of the national religious world.
Integration into every area of Israeli society has also long been one of the major principles of the national religious world. But how does one integrate into a world from which one feels increasingly alienated and by which one feels rejected? How can the national religious community navigate between its attachment to the Land of Israel and its commitment to the people of Israel?
Only leaders of unquestioned stature in the eyes of the entire community could hope to pull off such a task. But today many rabbinical voices and points of view are heard. None command universal authority. Those who show any willingness to compromise on the Land will be instantly dismissed by a significant segment of the community as Uncle Toms.
Nor is there within the national religious community anything like a consensus on what means are permissible to resist the contraction of Israeli sovereignty or on the applicable hierarchy of values when the value of the Land conflicts with other important national religious values. That lack of consensus is reflected in the massive defection of voters from the once powerful National Religious Party to right-wing parties and the NRP’s rapid descent into electoral oblivion.
The long-term damage of this situation to the so-called hilltop youth, who are openly contemptuous of much of the adult leadership of their community, is inestimable. Participating in a series of battles like that witnessed last week is no way to spend one’s teenage years.
Nor will the damage be limited to the most extreme elements of the settler youth. The disgust they engender in the eyes of many secular Israelis will have crucial implications for all those identified with the national religious world. Just as Jewish college students on elite campuses in the United States are often uncomfortable at being identified with Israel and seek to downplay that identity, so too will many wearers of knitted kippahs in the army and university feel themselves to be the subjects of hostile stares wherever they go. The kippah seruga will come to weigh heavily on their head.
Tragically, the battles to come in Yesha may not only diminish the influence of the national religious community, but threaten its internal strength as well.