Rabbi Yehuda Gilad
An Edah Editorial

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad is the rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi and one of the heads of the Religious Kibbutz movement's yeshiva at Maale Gilboa. Rav Gilad is also a former member of Knesset and one of the leaders of the new movement "Tafnit". An Edah op-ed.

Democracy and Jewish Identity after the Disengagement

The disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria initiated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exposed and exacerbated a deep schism in Israeli society. Nonetheless, if each side of this argument can employ the necessary responsibility and fairness to confront the heart of its own argument in the eye of the storm, and draw the necessary conclusions, there may be hope yet for renewed unity in Israel.

The disengagement plan sprung from the realization that the two elemental concepts touted by the Israeli right and left wing for the past few decades no longer hold water. The left thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be solved in our generation through a land-for-peace deal. At the same time, the Israeli rights conviction that the popular Palestinian uprising could be suppressed by employing just a little more force, thereby enabling Israel to continue to rule over Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, was also proven incorrect.

In order to maintain over time a Jewish, democratic state as defined in Israels Basic Laws, the country cannot practically or morally rule over more than three million Palestinians. If Israel grants voting rights to all Palestinian residents, the country will quickly turn into a
bi-national state and lose its Jewish character. On the other hand, if those rights are denied the Palestinians, Israel compromises its democratic principles, and becomes essentially an apartheid society.

Some political trauma was inevitable: its hard to find a precedent in human history, particularly among democratic societies, for a unilateral, sovereign decision by a state to destroy civilian settlements in which thousands of its own citizens legally reside. But the political process involved has intensified divisions rather than initiating healing.

The manner in which the decision was made is extremely problematic on moral and public policy grounds. While the plan is clearly legal from a formal democratic standpoint, as both the Knesset and the government approved it, opponents of the disengagement legitimately believe that the process was not fair and not truly democratic. Ariel Sharon was elected on the basis of his strident opposition to unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. His 180 degree turnaround, coupled with his strong opposition to allowing a plebiscite or referendum to decide the issue, and the widespread belief that his Knesset and government majorities were achieved with the help of pressure and manipulation, have badly shaken many citizens faith in the state and its institutions.

Nonetheless, the rift within the population is more significant than the rift with the state, and must be solved for the political process to be rehabilitated. The most biting disagreement in Israeli society is between the secular majority, made up of the left and the pragmatic right led by Sharon, and the large minority on the right, made up primarily of members of the religious Zionist community. The former see the state as secular and democratic; the latter, Modern Orthodox Jews who are completely involved in the secular state, believe that the State of Israel is the first flowering of the redemption promised by God through His prophets. Their disagreement about the disengagement can be seen as flowing naturally and inevitably from first principles.

Paradoxically, however, each side has built its position on ideas that usually serve the other camp. The religious Zionist community, which assiduously strives to influence the Jewish nature of the country, has chosen to steer clear almost entirely of the following question: How can Israel remain a Jewish state in the future while ruling over 3.5 million Palestinians?

Religious Zionist opposition to the disengagement has centered on flaws in the democratic process without providing a serious assessment of the implications of continued occupation for the Jewishness of the Israeli state.

On the other hand, Israels secular majority, which usually avoids public debate concerning the states Jewish identity, and focuses instead on Israels character as a democratic, Western society, has chosen to ignore the deficiencies in the democratic process used by the Prime Minister to wrangle approval for the disengagement plan.

The secular majority justifies the disengagement primarily because of the demographic issue. If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, they claim, there is no recourse but to end our rule of the Palestinian people.

The apparent paradox of each side using the others arguments is actually an opportunity for reconciliation and rebuilding. The challenge we are faced with is to make use of the basic elements of the schism dividing us to cultivate new common ground for Israeli society as a whole. If we accept this challenge, there is hope for renewed unity in Israel.

The national religious community must internalize democratic commitments and the importance of the humanistic values that lay at the foundation of the democratic world view. They must learn to balance between redemptive religious vision as a source of inspiration and aspiration, and the realistic, pragmatic policy determined by democratic decision-making and society.

Secular Israelis, on the other hand, must stop leaving Jewish matters up to the religious public. They must finally address the issue of Israels Jewish identity, and identify the Jewish national, cultural, and spiritual content they would use to shape the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic society.

Processes such as these would contribute much to a new dialogue in Israel. This dialogue could create a core agreement in the Israeli Jewish community, and help to identify joint social and cultural challenges toward combining democracy and Jewish identity. Addressing those challenges appropriately could present new and promising horizons for Israeli society.

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