Last week Israel accomplished its withdrawal from Gaza. Now in its 57th year, Israel finds itself divided as never before: about Gaza and relations with Palestinians, and more importantly about the future of Zionism itself.
Israeli society split over the withdrawal from Gaza. The debate transcended questions of territory; it was an argument over Israeli identity and the essence of Zionism. The dispute has touched the raw nerve of Israeli society: relationships between Zionism and Judaism, between nationalism and religion. Tension over Gaza was a proxy for a debate over who Israelis are and what they want to be.
The Battle of the Flags
Depths of this tension were evident in the battle of flags on Israeli streets. Independence Day 2005 was the first in memory in which many Jews–and ironically, those belonging to the more nationalist side of the divide–did not only wave the blue and white national Israeli flag.
Instead, some chose to wave orange flags, the color of the Gaza municipal government, to express opposition to the planned Gaza withdrawal and solidarity with Gaza’s nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers, the vast majority of whom had chosen to stay in their homes until they were forced by Israel’s government to leave their homes.
The orange camp consisted of the religious-nationalist camp in Israel, which includes Gaza settlers and many of their supporters in the West Bank settlements and various Israeli cities. After the orange campaign met with some success in swaying public opinion, proponents of withdrawal have responded with a blue and white campaign, rallying around the Israeli flag. But less blue was visible than orange.
The orange camp sensed itself in a rearguard attempt to save its vision of Israel; the blue camp, composed principally of the Israeli Left, is less comfortable with nationalism. Moreover, it found itself in the awkward position of having to defend right-wing Prime Minister Sharon.
The battle of flags reflected a schism between two parts of Israeli society that, until the withdrawal from Gaza coexisted, albeit without much love. That schism actually existed long before even Israel’s founding in 1948.
Zionism from its very founding over a century ago was for all its camps always about how the Jewish people can redeem its soul from the fallen state in which it existed. Both camps now have come to believe the other endangers the essence of what Zionism is supposed to be.
The Religious-Nationalist Orange Camp
The withdrawal exposed significant divisions within the seemingly unified orange camp–not just between the mainstream and the more extreme and violent minority, mainly the followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rather, there was significant discord within the majority regarding the legitimate means of struggle against the withdrawal. Most in this camp supported civil disobedience and opposed violence against the police and armed forces.
The champions of disobedience had changed tactics several times, as a series of their nonviolent measures including wearing orange stars, blocking intersections and entrances to school in metropolitan Tel Aviv, offended the very public opinion they sought to move to oppose disengagement.
But the most difficult question facing the religious-national camp was not over tactics but how to balance religious duty and national obligation. Religious-national officers and soldiers had faced a clear quandary: Should they carry out their commanders’ orders to evacuate the settlements in Gaza despite what they see as God’s commands and their rabbis’ call to oppose evacuation.
The spiritual leader of the Religious-Zionist camp, former Askenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, called on soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate Gaza, even at risk of death or imprisonment. However, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the large yeshiva in the Beit El settlement, argued that civil disobedience was legitimate, but that soldiers had to follow commanders’ orders, otherwise the Israeli army would collapse.
Yet the rabbi of Beit El, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, joined with Shapira in objecting to the order for withdrawal, claiming that if Rabbi Kook was alive today he, too, would have called on the soldiers to object.
The rabbis’ call for objection caused over 20,000 modern-Orthodox IDF soldiers to announce that they will not follow orders to evacuate and would choose prison instead. This, in return, led the new IDF chief of staff, Dan Halutz, to threaten that he would shut all the Religious-Zionist Hesder yeshivas, where students combine religious study with military service.
The religious-national camp’s attempt to bring about a change in public opinion has been somewhat successful. In the two months prior to the withdrawal, their campaign successfully reduced support for the disengagement from 70 percent to less than 50 percent. Except when their actions cause a backlash–such as when they poured oil and nails on the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway–they were slowly gaining empathy from larger segments of Israeli society. But the orange camp did not make inroads on either the Israeli Left or in the Sharon government, which remained opposed to the orange camp’s positions.
The Israeli New Left Blue Camp
Wearing blue t-shirts and waving blue flags were those Israelis who believe–often with no less passion than the orange camp–that Israel can no longer exist without permanent borders. This group consisted of both right-wing backers of Prime Minister Sharon and the Left.
Sharon’s supporters believed that withdrawal was necessary to separate from the Palestinians and reduce the demographic threat of a growing Palestinian population in Gaza to Israel. Right-wing proponents of withdrawal had maintained a low profile; they were a decided minority within Israel’s Likud party which remained largely opposed to its own prime minister.
The loudest voices in the withdrawal camp belong to those on the Left who view the occupation as corroding and demoralizing Israeli society. For them, saving the Zionist enterprise means leaving Gaza, Hebron, and other cities in the West Bank. Many believe the withdrawal will normalize Jewish existence and make Israel a Western society that lives in peace with its neighbors.
This camp realized that in leaving Gaza Israel faced a painful amputation, but thought this surgery was necessary to save the rest of the body, the Zionist enterprise itself. Sadly, one faction in this camp looked forward to the surgery with delight. For them, the disengagement offered a chance to end the occupation and, more importantly, an opportunity to limit the influence of Jewish religion and nationalism on the national psyche and turn Israel into a modern, secular, post-nationalist society.
Since the 1970s, but even more so since the Oslo accords, Israel’s Left has adopted peace as its raison d’etre. But since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, peace became less an ideology and more a form of post-national identity. Peace has given an identity and a moral code to a camp that found itself in conflict with the two of the key components of Israeli identity: nationalism and the Jewish religion.
For many in this group, Israeli identity is defined principally in terms of a language, culture, and a code of behavior (an assertive and even confrontational manner, that includes trying to ‘beat the system’). They view themselves as democratic, humanistic, and tolerant–beyond outdated notions of nationalism and religion. They believe that the ongoing immoral Israeli occupation is the only factor that prevents Israel from becoming welcomed into the Western family of nations.
The blue camp, demoralized since the failure of Oslo and the fall of Ehud Barak’s government, had been somewhat revived by the plan to evacuate Gaza. Most of its members supported the withdrawal, despite a distaste for Prime Minister Sharon, because his plan moved Israel a step closer to ending the occupation and establishing peaceful coexistence with the Palestinian Authority.
The Debate and Israeli Democracy
The Left was caught off guard by the popular support generated by the orange camp. In response, the blue camp chose to counter challenge the orange camp in the hopes of showing that there was a silent majority of Israelis who supported disengagement. They believed they were fighting to have their voices heard in an Israel dominated by the Right.
Many of their arguments focused on the limits that free societies should place on those who in the name of freedom of expression, attempt to destroy democracy. Leading left-wing commentators evoked images of Germany’s Weimar republic which was unable to prevent the rise to power–through democratic means–of Hitler’s regime. They believed that since the Knesset has already approved the withdrawal plan, the campaign of the opponents of the withdrawal represented a real threat to democracy.
That is why left-wing commentators supported tough steps to punish settlers. They widely backed, for example, the attorney general’s initiative to punish settlers who encourage their children to participate in demonstrations. They also supported the decision to arrest, without trial, young settler girls who participated in demonstrations.
The comparison between the threat to democracy posed by Nazis and the Israeli Right, and the call for severe countermeasures appropriate to such a threat have opened yet another fissure in Israeli society. This fissure has not come to fruition as of yet; most acts of opposition, such as Israeli officers who had resigned their commission, were lawful.
There have also been acts of civil disobedience, some unlawful. An Israeli settler shot and killed three Palestinian and wounded two. But most protests did not turn violent, despite high-profile showdowns. Most of the evacuation was carried out peacefully, but not without significant emotions from settlers and soldiers alike.
Even a mass march by the settlers to Gaza meant to reverse the withdrawal was peacefully stopped by the border at Kfar Maimon. After a two-day standoff, the settlers disbanded instead of confronting the police violently. During the march, the organizers used loudspeakers to warn crowds that only peaceful means should be used. It worked; of tens of thousands who marched, only about half dozen were arrested for scuffling.
And it is precisely the gap which has thus far emerged between the nonviolent nature of the protests on the Right, and the harshness of response advocated by the Left, that has led many on the Right to argue that the Left seeks severe measures against the settlers, not to protect debate and democracy, but to crush a debate that they are beginning to lose. So, just as both sides argued that they are saving Zionism from its destruction by the other camp, both camps claimed that they are trying to save Israeli democracy from the other side’s destructive intentions.
The Israeli war of colors between the orange and blue camps was a battle over the essence of Israel and Zionism. Following the withdrawal, the religious-national camp which has been reenergized by its current campaign, will have to ask itself what remains of its beliefs–and on what basis can they continue to claim ownership of the Zionist enterprise.
Israeli politics itself had changed. The settlers might have lost the battle for Gaza, but they are winning the battle of Israel’s hearts and minds. This camp, which was largely delegitimized by the assassination of the Prime Minister Rabin by a settler, has lost is pariah status. An increasing number of Israelis now see the settlers as true Zionists who embody the ideals of the nation. Although defeated, this camp is likely to play a growing role in Israel’s future politics.
In the aftermath of the withdrawal Israelis, will have to debate the meaning of Zionism. The period after the withdrawal will bring a new dawn for Israel. After the nation finishes mourning the trauma of the evacuation that is now tearing it apart, it will remain to be seen what new Israeli reality will emerge.
–Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.