- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israel’s impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank has prompted an emotional and ideological self-examination for many religious idealists, who for three decades believed that by expanding settlements they were reclaiming the nation’s biblical birthright.

Long accustomed to seeing themselves as model patriots, these Zionists now are asking whether they somehow neglected to share their sense of mission with the country’s mainstream.

“There is a feeling that people have spent 30 to 40 years doing what they wanted to do, with support of the government. We thought it was an Israeli national project, and it really wasn’t,” said Rabbi Shlomo Bick, an instructor at the Har Etzion religious seminary in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.

“There was sort of a disengagement — a mental disengagement and a social disengagement — with the majority of the people in the country,” he said.

Many of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who built the communities that the territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East War live in remote towns seldom visited by the average Israeli.

The settlements are often homogeneously Orthodox in religious observance and staunchly conservative in political outlook.

The gulf could widen amid disillusionment over the evacuation, leaving Israel’s religious Zionists even more closed off and, in some cases, more radicalized.

“When you find that your basic goal — building the country — isn’t being shared, there’s a real crisis of faith,” Mr. Bick said. “The potential exists to throw up your hands and say let’s retreat into our community and wait for 50 years for the messiah to come.”

Although public-opinion surveys suggest that one-third of Israelis are opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan, the majority of protesters hail from settlements in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights or are religiously observant Jews from inside Israel.

In the decades before Israel’s establishment, religious Zionists bridged the gap between the secular Jewish nationalists, who advocated settlement in Palestine, and a rabbinic establishment that viewed two millennia of exile from the Holy Land as a divine punishment.

Following the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, religious Zionists argued that establishing a Jewish state would bring the Jews a step closer to the messianic age.

When Israel won control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war, religious Zionists interpreted it as proof of their theology.

Moving out to the hilltops of ancient Judea and Samaria, they saw themselves as the heirs of the socialist Zionist pioneers, who had established farming collectives — or kibbutzim — to settle the biblical land of Israel and mold the borders of a future state.

“What people in our place could have resisted the temptation to reclaim its ancestral heartland?” asked Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank.

“Religious Zionism is an essential backbone of Israeli society. I can’t envision Israel without religious Zionism because of its idealism, its purity and its self-sacrifice.”

In a country where the religious-secular divide overlaps with the debate over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza, the rift between the settlers and mainstream Israel is as much about faith as it is about politics.

“The religious public has a commitment that is above us. Keeping the Sabbath isn’t something for us to question. It’s the same thing with the country,” said Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Gush Etzion regional council in the West Bank and a protest leader.

“We didn’t do enough to reach out and convince our public why we do what we do.”

But Mr. Halevi said the settlers’ stocktaking will be incomplete if it is limited to the tactics of the anti-disengagement campaign. Religious Zionists must ask why they ignored the dilemma of perpetuating Israeli control of their Palestinian neighbors.

“The settlement movement and the religious Zionists need to look at the moral failure … of the way the Arab population was treated as invisible,” he said.

“Why did you lose Jews that believe as passionately as you do that we have a right to that land? It’s not about losing the extreme left. It’s about losing the center.”

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