My thoughts on Disengagement 10 years on

This was published in Ha’artez August 9th 2015

With the demonstrations in Beit El and attempts to return to the evacuated West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur last week, I’ve been thinking about where I was 10 years ago when the disengagement from Gaza took place. At the time, I was 18 years old and spending the year at Yeshivat Hakotel, one of the flagship religious Zionist yeshivas in the hesder yeshiva program (in which young Israeli men combine Torah study with military service).
That academic year, from 2004 to 2005, Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon was still head of the yeshiva and at the height of his popularity. (A scandal later broke out and he was convicted in 2013 for sexually assaulting two of his students.) The son of a Supreme Court judge and brother of a former Knesset member for a religious Zionist political party, Rav Elon served as a bridge between the religious and secular in Israel. He was one of the leading lights of the religious Zionist world; with a popular TV program and thousands of students attending his classes each week.
The public debate in the religious Zionist community revolved around the question of whether soldiers should disobey orders if they were told to evacuate the settlements. In a memorable public class, Rav Elon presented his decision that a solider should obey the orders, but gave special permission to refuse orders to a soldier who said his wife would divorce him if he obeyed them.
The color orange – the national symbol against the disengagement plan – decked the yeshiva’s main hall. At every opportunity, the entire yeshiva would decamp to Gush Katif to show solidarity with the people there. At various points in the year, the entire yeshiva would even move their classes to outside the Knesset, linking the day’s learning to protesting the government’s decision to evacuate the settlements.
I vividly remember being terrified that at one of the public demonstrations against the disengagement Rav Elon would be arrested and his students would respond with a violent riot. I was so upset by this concern that I went to Rav Elon and begged him to stop leading demonstrations. With compassion, he spoke to me about the need to ensure his students were all leaders and that all of them understood they were not just representing themselves, but the entire religious Zionist community.
It was also during this time that I was starting to become very politically conscious. I was uncomfortable with the activism that the yeshiva was taking and chose to not go to Gush Katif to protest alongside my fellow classmates. I also skipped the Knesset protest.
I did however go to Gush Katif on an educational trip with Bnei Akiva, the youth movement who was managing my yeshiva program, three months before the disengagement, to meet those who were going to be evacuated and ask them questions. Upon entering Gush Katif, I was struck by the beauty of the place alongside the absurdity of the situation. There were blocks of picturesque houses with a tank sitting on the corner of the settlement, looking out over what was an eerie, empty field, and Palestinian villages just a few hundred meters beyond that. The organizer of the trip was terrified that a Qassam rocket would hit our bus, as it was Gush Katif that had been the main target of rocket and mortar attacks up until that point.
Two things remain fresh in my mind about that visit to the Gush Katif settlements. The first was meeting a farmer who was working in his greenhouse. When we asked if he had made any preparation for the evacuation in three months, he told us that one does not speak about a funeral when a patient is lying on their deathbed. The second was seeing another resident digging to prepare the foundations of a house. When we asked why he was building a house when the government was evacuating them in three months’ time, he told us that there was utterly no way that it would happen, that G-d would reverse the evil of the decree. Seeing his children playing behind, him we asked if he had let his children know that they might be moving. He looked at us as though we were crazy.
The disengagement was traumatic for the evacuees, with many subsequently suffering from emotional and physical health problems. The state’s mistreatment of evacuees, including leaving them to live in temporary housing for years thereafter, contributed to the bedrock of mistrust between many in the settler community and the government. Beyond its impact on the individuals, the disengagement sparked a conversation within the religious Zionist community about whether the state is an object of divine intervention – a vehicle for redemption – or whether it just a secular thing that could prolong the coming of the Messiah.
Watching religious Zionist protesters in Beit El last week as they screamed, “War, this is war,” and urged one another to push back the Border Police, I can’t help but think that the State of Israel is facing a new constituency who refuses to accept the law of the land. I remember the time when Israel managed to dismantle multiple settlements with minimal violence and worrying back then that I was living though the moment where the state’s sovereignty over the religious Zionist community was being torn asunder.

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Forget cutting subsidies to ultra-Orthodox; focus on settlers

Ha’aretz 3/14/13

A few weeks ago, I spent Shabbat with a friend of mine in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The shul he belongs to reminds me more of a yeshiva than the one I normally frequent but, nevertheless, I felt at home among the hats and coats. The rabbi’s speech was of particular interest. Toward the end, he commented on the Israeli election and ongoing coalition talks, warning that his community should be vigilant against those “who would attack the Torah way of life and give in to Arabs who want to destroy us.”

Saving the yeshivot has become synonymous with saving the settlements in the mind of many Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. This has occurred due to the longstanding coalition partnerships between Likud and the rightwing and ultra-Orthodox parties. Their joint governments have traditionally been a one-stop shop for supporting a conservative social agenda as well as West Bank settlements.

But with the ultra-Orthodox parties cleaving from the political right in Israel’s incoming government, those who support both values find themselves at a crossroad.

The gloves came off when Shas declared it was willing to evacuate settlements, and Moshe Gafni, the ultra-Orthodox chair of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, revealed the true amount that the state has spent on settlements.

This new political environment forces a divide between those who support the conservative parties who have declared war on the settlement enterprise, like Shas, and those who support the alliance between national religious Habayit Hayehudi and centrist Yesh Atid, which aims to challenge the make up of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Particularly, this new political environment forces us to choose between whom we wish to support economically: the ultra-Orthodox, or the settlers.

Both sectors guzzle massive sums of Israeli tax funds, and while in an ideal world both issues would be addressed simultaneously, realistically, the Israeli government will probably have to start with one. If it were up to me, I would start with the settlements. Why?

There is no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox pose grave demographic challenges in Israel. According to The Metzilah Center, by 2028, 33 percentof Jewish children in Israel will be ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox employment figures lag a good 40 percent behind the rest of the population, according to an OECD report. This situation needs to improve – and quickly.

Unlike the settlements, however, there are signs that the problem has been understood and steps have been taken to addresses it. Between 2009 and 2013, employment went up by 6 percent in the sector, and there has been a huge push through both state and philanthropic endeavors to get the ultra-Orthodox into the workplace.

Importantly, the global Diaspora has a vital role in helping integrate the ultra-Orthodox. Both the American and European Jewish communities have large ultra-Orthodox communities that work and are generally sustainable. There is a unique opportunity to learn the lessons of the global Jewish Diaspora and apply it to Israel. The solutions exist and there are many willing to help out on this problem.

Unlike the problems of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlement challenges are not trending in the right direction. While there are, of course, many issues that stand in the way of a final status agreement with the Palestinians, there are none as self destructive and wasteful as the continued subsidization of the settlements.

The economic and political costs are astronomical and create a long-term strategic threat to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett represents a constituency that receives far more taxpayer support than his own neighbors in central Israel. Between 2011 and 2012, the cost of the settlements was, according to Peace Now, around NIS 2 billion, covering costs ranging from transportation to agriculture and housing.

Official channels of the Israeli government encourage the Diaspora to discuss Jewish challenges, including the problems that the country faces with its ultra-Orthodox community. They put settlements, however under the rubric of security, thereby deeming the topic “off limits” in the official Israel-Diaspora discourse. By doing so they restrict the Jewish world from helping in any way with the settlement problem, urging them instead not to ask questions.

By highlighting a populist issue such as the universal draft, the settler community has managed to morph themselves into the Israeli middle-class while demonstrating the clear “otherness” of the ultra-Orthodox population. By turning the ultra-Orthodox into hated figures, the Yesh Atid-Habayit Hayehudi alliance risks backsliding on the positive trends that the ultra-Orthodox community has made in the past few years, and masks the fact that the settlements are just as dependent on the state as those they attack.

Had he started by addressing the cost of the settlements, Lapid could have found more money for Israel’s middle classes, and helped the ultra-Orthodox integrate into society. Instead, he risks alienating a community he is trying to help while “koshering” a group that not only takes, but decimates Israel’s image in the world.

This election has demonstrated to overseas supporters of both the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers that Israel cannot square the circle at a time of fiscal tightening. Targeting the issues posed by the settlements offers us the best chance at dealing with both important public policy challenges successfully rather than through a populist push that will achieve neither.

Giving hope to Israeli Settlers

New York Daily Post 5/24/12

Though almost everyone wants to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the negotiations in their current form appear to be dead, no closer after 20 years to solving the core issues of Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, final borders and the status of Jerusalem than when talks first started.

While support for the two-state solution still exists, both populations are skeptical about a Palestinian state in the West Bank actually being created in the next decade.

One issue that every American administration, along with the rest of the international community, has focused on has been Israeli settlements, particularly with the many thousands of Jews in the West Bank.

While, certainly, they do not represent the only barrier to a peace agreement, the fact remains that settlers are currently living on land that the Palestinians claim as their future state, a claim supported by the majority of worldwide observers.

When Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, came to Capitol Hill last year, he acknowledged that some settlers would have to move in the vision of peace he wants to pursue. Every major political party in Israel accepts that at least 30,000 people are going to have to be relocated.

Yet where will these people go? The settler community fears that they will have nowhere to live. They fear their fate will be the same as that of settlers in Gush Katif, a series of more than a dozen Jewish towns in the Gaza Strip whose residents were removed by the Israeli Defense Forces. The images from that expulsion remain a focal point for thousands of other settlers who fear that they will be expelled next.

There is a variety of reasons why settlers chose to live in the West Bank. Some laid down roots for ideological reasons, others as a result of government economic incentives and the option to live in small, like-minded communities.

Simply expelling settlers, as many assume will happen, and trying to repatriate them into Israeli society does not make sense — that is not the life they are used to or the life they want for their families.

With the current housing shortage, just giving cash to settlers, as has been suggested by some Israeli politicians, will not work either. It will add to the strain on the housing market and create economic turmoil within Israel.

Israel instead needs to start building empty villages on open land — in the Galilee in the north and the Negev in the south — all of it within Israel and thus not open to Palestinian claims. By building villages into which to transplant settlers, it can start to lay the groundwork for peace.

This idea is by far the most humane to the settler communities that will be displaced — and which could resort to violence if they sense another Gush Katif coming. Moving as a community will help retain some sense of solidarity during the transition, and the new villages will have their own schools, synagogues and amenities, just like the settlements that have been left behind.

These new communities also need to be connected to the train system in Israel to allow people to continue to commute to the main economic regions of the country.

By moving the settlers to empty lands, Israel achieves four key goals.

First, Israel demonstrates its commitment to life after the occupation, building the necessary infrastructure for a forward-looking and growing nation. Second, Israel shows that it cares about the settlers whom it has evacuated. Third, it lengthens its strategic corridor away from the coastal region by allowing more of its citizens to live elsewhere — but still commute via rail to large urban centers like Tel Aviv.

Finally, Israel can rebalance the demographic worries in the north and south of the country without any talk of transfer of Arab citizens, who make up significant portions of the population in those regions.

The costs of this undertaking can be met with the new gas finds that Israel has made in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Though the Netanyahu government has seemed reluctant to give any sort of preconditions to negotiations, this idea is much more politically feasible.

With Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of some settlements being evacuated in a peace accord, he needs to demonstrate compassion for his base by building them a place to live, rather than giving vain promises of future compensation.

If the settler community is going to have to bear the brunt of the costs of peace, we need to make sure that its members can remain together: children staying in the same classes as their friends, parents still being able to maintain their jobs.

There can surely be no better confidencebuilding measure that Israel can offer than building homes for settlers who will have to make a new life in order for the Palestinians to have a new state.