By Yossi Klein Halevi

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n February 16, 2005, Israel’s parliament voted, 59-40, to authorize the government to remove all Jewish communities within the Gaza Strip, as well as four small communities in the northern Samaria region. Four days later, the Israeli cabinet, in a 17-5 vote, decided to put the Knesset’s authorization into practice. Barring a major turn of events, this coming summer will see the evacuation of some 8,000 Jews from their homes—some of them by force—and their relocation elsewhere in Israel.
The withdrawal of Israel’s civilian presence from the Gaza Strip, known as the “disengagement” plan, presents one of the most severe domestic crises in Israeli history. For the first time, the Jewish state, backed by a solid majority of its elected representatives, will voluntarily renounce its claim to a part of the historic land of Israel in the most unequivocal way, by physically uprooting Jews from their homes. The image of the destruction of Jewish communities resonates powerfully in Jewish history, and especially in its reversal of the classic Zionist principle of hityashvut—settlement of the land. But the wounds may go far deeper than the symbolism, and even beyond the suffering of the individual evacuees. When one part of the Jewish people accuses another of complicity in hurban—the most dreaded word in the Judaic lexicon, invoking the destruction of the Temple—the result could be a schism so profound that the Jews of Israel will no longer feel bound by a common destiny. Regardless of whether one supports disengagement as the correction of a historical error or opposes it as the betrayal of founding principles, disengagement should be recognized as a critical moment for the Zionist enterprise as a whole.
But disengagement represents a special challenge to religious Zionism. Although not all religious Zionists support the settlement movement, the two have been deeply intertwined. The most prominent and popular version of religious Zionism is one that identifies the idea of an ancestral land as one of the central pillars of Jewish faith, and has led the charge in settling the biblical land of Israel in the last generation. That stream has not only built the communal and educational institutions of the community as a whole, but has also provided its spiritual leadership, infusing a generation of young people with a determination to persevere regardless of any trial.
For this reason, disengagement has been so difficult for many religious Zionists to fathom. For the tens of thousands who have been taught from childhood that Jewish settlement of the land of Israel is not only inviolable but central to a divine plan, the Knesset and government decisions on withdrawal are an inconceivable reversal of the nation’s destiny. They are perceived not only as a threat to the communities which they have dedicated their whole lives to building, but as a wholesale rejection of the values upon which their worldview rests.
Much has been written about the possibility of violence that might accompany the withdrawal; no less troubling, however, is the possibility that the disengagement will alienate significant elements of religious Zionism from the Israeli mainstream and from Zionist ideology. One increasingly common critique voiced among religious Zionists is that secular Zionism has ended its mission; some even question religious Zionism’s historic decision to enter into a partnership with secular Zionism, and wonder whether the Haredim were not right after all when they opposed entrusting the leadership of the Jewish people to secularists. Those voices strengthen isolationist trends evident in recent decades within a part of the religious Zionist camp.
So far, public debate has focused on ways of reducing the intensity of the conflict over withdrawal, such as the demand that the Sharon government enhance its legitimacy by holding new elections or a national referendum on the pullout, and the demand that settlers and their supporters repudiate any form of military insubordination. Beyond those calls for moderation, however, little thought has been directed toward the question of how religious Zionism will find a place in Israeli society if and when the greenhouses of Gush Katif are abandoned. Both sides of the debate should consider steps that will help the Jewish people emerge from this ordeal with its basic sense of commonality intact....

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