To the Editor:
In purporting to analyze “the most severe political crisis” in Israel’s brief history, Hillel Halkin focuses on the influence of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook and his son [“The Settlers’ Crisis, and Israel’s,” March]. This leads him to the conclusion that “all that is left” of the settler movement “is a Kookian faith.” But opponents of Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal and eviction plan cannot be viewed solely through the narrow prism of religious messianism. Surely Mr. Halkin would not consider political leaders like Natan Sharansky, Moshe Arens, and Uzi Landau, and the 60 percent of Likud voters who opposed Sharon’s plan, to be motivated by “a Kookian faith.”
The most glaring omission from Mr. Halkin’s analysis is his failure to address how, in the absence of a peace agreement, the Sharon government could forcibly expel its own citizens from 25 communities for the sole reason that they are Jewish. Under what moral principle must disputed land be made judenrein in order for it to be ruled by Palestinian Arabs? This burning question remains unanswered, and without addressing it one cannot comprehend the “violent opposition” to Sharon’s plan.
Nor does Mr. Halkin address the chilling effect on free speech and democracy in Israel resulting from recent actions by the Sharon government, like the dismissal of cabinet ministers opposed to the euphemistically named “disengagement” plan (arrived at, Sharon boasted, “in consultation with myself”). Sharon has stated that “those opposed to the disengagement are involved in incitement,” to which Natan Sharansky replied, “It is frightening to see how an entire public of law-abiding citizens who oppose the disengagement are being delegitimized.” The heavy-handed attempt to stifle all opposition has engendered a great deal of the heat surrounding Sharon’s plan.
Though I am not qualified to discuss Mr. Halkin’s assertion that “Gaza itself has little strategic value,” I would note that after the Six-Day war, Yigal Allon wrote to Israel’s cabinet that Gaza was “essential” and should be annexed (after resettlement of the refugees). Sharon’s plan includes the surrender of the strategic “Philadelphia” corridor, despite the recent conclusion of the former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ southern command “that there is no alternative to Israel’s continuing presence” there. Apparently, the security value of Gaza, with its 25-mile coastline, is at least debatable.
In a 1991 essay in the Jerusalem Report titled “Peace Through Settlements,” Mr. Halkin wrote that “any peace agreement with a Palestinian state that calls for the eviction of the Jews living in that state cannot possibly lead to the kind of peace that both [the Israelis] and the Palestinians need.” That conclusion remains valid today.
Roger A. Gerber
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
Even though Hillel Halkin describes himself as sympathetic to the settlers, I find this hard to believe. His latest article is nothing more than a broadside against them. There is no other way to describe his claim that the settlers are irrational and messianic, comparable to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, the false messiah of the 17th century. Following this line of argument, other pioneers of the Zionist enterprise, who also acted against all odds and followed what was considered an irrational and unattainable cause, were messianic too.
One could argue that Mr. Halkin is the “virtuous fool” (hasid shoteh) for blindly putting his faith in Ariel Sharon. Only a short while ago Sharon said that “[the settlement] Kadim is like Tel Aviv” in being integral to the state of Israel. But after being elected, in a stunningly undemocratic move, he essentially adopted the platform of his election rival. To explain the logic of this about-face, Mr. Halkin offers a list of hints, nods, winks, and unwritten commitments from the Sharon government and the Bush administration, promising that all will be well after disengagement. Yet in return for these promises Israel has to surrender actual territory, expel citizens from their homes, undermine the country’s democratic foundations, and risk civil war.
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin acknowledges that both “Ariel Sharon and the settlers know that, if this disengagement succeeds, it will be a dress rehearsal for what inevitably must come next: a similar withdrawal, involving far greater numbers of settlers, from most of the West Bank.” While devoting most of his article to exploring the theological fine points of the settlement movement, Mr. Halkin never explains how a country as tiny and cramped as pre-1967 Israel (or some near approximation of it) is supposed to exist surrounded by a jihadist state that will be free to build and import whatever weapons it desires, from rockets to anti-aircraft missiles to weapons of mass destruction.
An indication of such an entity’s likely disposition toward Israel can be drawn from the recent municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza, in which Hamas scored landslide victories. Hamas is also thought to stand an excellent chance of winning the Palestinian parliamentary elections this summer.
P. David Hornik
To the Editor:
In his focus on the settlers’ “messianism,” Hillel Halkin distorts the history of the settlement movement. He ignores the fact that the movement that arose after the 1967 Six-Day war calling for Israel to retain all the territories it had captured in that war—the Land of Israel Movement—was primarily made up of prominent figures from the Left: Yitzhak and Moshe Tabenkin, Moshe Shamir, Zvi Shiloah, Nathan Alterman, Eliezer Livneh, and many others. Though a few people associated with the Right joined, a conscious effort was made to keep out people from religious and right-wing parties.
The first crucial settlement effort, which gave birth to Kiryat Arba, was brought to fruition by the combined efforts of secular and religious nationalists. The Jordan Valley was settled mostly by people from the Labor camp, and the Golan Heights settlers were chiefly secular.
Halkin dismisses the strategic importance of Gaza in one short phrase: “Gaza itself has little strategic value.” But none other than Sharon himself, writing in 1992, could say that
Israel did not return all the territories taken from Egypt in the Six-Day war; the most important of these, the Gaza Strip, was not handed back. Moreover, the essentiality of retaining the strip in Israeli hands was so self-evident that even the Egyptians did not try—certainly not seriously—to demand its return.
The Gaza Strip thrusts out of the Sinai area toward Israel’s very heart. It is situated only 13 kilometers from the city of Ashkelon, 30 kilometers from the port of Ashdod, and 55 kilometers from the population centers of Gush Dan. From Gaza, an enemy can deploy forces or station artillery and rocket launchers of the sort long owned by terrorist organizations and certainly by all armies.
The potential surrender of Judea and Samaria is an even greater threat: these territories are on high ground dominating Israel’s narrow coastal plain; their sacrifice puts Israel’s survival at risk. No one knows all this—or knew all this—better than Sharon, who hammered away at the folly of Oslo in statement after statement. The real question, ignored by Mr. Halkin, is what pressures, internal and external, can possibly have led Sharon to engage in policies that he himself had repeatedly labeled as suicidal.
New York City
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin correctly identifies the conflict in Israeli politics between a messianic worldview and the imperatives of statecraft. But he does not identify the right messianists.
To the likes of Shimon Peres and many others engaged in public discourse in Israel, the world has changed so radically that Israel’s security can be enhanced by the unconditional surrender to terrorists of lands adjacent to major population centers. The terrorists are then to be financed, armed, and trained by Israel, Europe, and the United States. Egypt, and eventually the Palestinians themselves, will help usher in this new world. Israelis can live forever in perfect safety, like lotus-eaters, behind Ariel Shar-on’s magical fence. This barrier, unlike the Great Wall of China or the Maginot line, cannot be bypassed, tunneled under, rocketed over, or broken through.
In this scheme, the Israel Defense Forces still remain necessary to fight the true enemies of the Jewish state, i.e., those patriotic Jews who do not accept the new gospel of redemption through self-mutilation. These unbelievers have the additional temerity to suggest that government should rule by the consent of the governed, and that the popular will as expressed at the polls should determine national policies.
Nahum J. Duker
Melrose Park, Pennsylvania
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin states that Ariel Sharon enjoys “overwhelming support” in Israel for his disengagement plan. Why, then, does he not allow a public referendum? A victory would certainly take the wind out of the sails of the opposition.
Jerome S. Kaufman
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
To the Editor:
Rabbi Tsvi Yehuda Kook’s apotheosis of the Israeli state could not have been shared by his father, who conceived of a “medinat Yisrael” in deeply religious terms. The elder Rabbi Kook was highly critical of the Zionist movement, and eventually advocated the establishment of a separate organization of religious Jews.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkins’s basic contention—that Israelis of the national-religious camp oppose abandoning settlements in Gaza and the West Bank for theological reasons—is correct. But Mr. Halkin focuses on the wrong theology. The opposition to these policies is rooted not in Sabbatian messianism but in the biblical promise made by God to the Jewish people concerning the land of Israel.
Sabbatianism advocated the deliberate immersion in evil as a means to achieve holiness. Contrary to what Mr. Halkin claims, without offering any evidence, there is no trace of this pathology in the voluminous writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, to whom national-religious Jews look as a master. Virtually all religious Jews believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people in perpetuity. “I have given this land to your descendants,” God said to Abraham. No one needs to share that belief, or even to respect it. But critics of religious Jews in general, and of national-religious Israelis in particular, need to understand it.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin traces the evolution of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook’s thought in the Israeli national-religious camp and forecasts “theological disaster” for that community if Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan is implemented. But Mr. Halkin underestimates the strength and resilience of Kookian theology, and in doing so overstates the danger posed to it by disengagement.
In Kook’s thought, the state of Israel is a vehicle for attaining the ultimate redemption because it facilitates the ingathering of the exiles and the reawakening of Jewish national consciousness. It derives holiness from its mission as such, even though the state may be far from the messianic ideal.
Contrary to Mr. Halkin’s assertion, there is no similarity between Rabbi Kook’s attitude toward Israel’s young socialist pioneers (halutzim) and the Sabbatian attitude toward sin. The Sabbatians saw the sin itself as a means for attaining holiness. Rabbi Kook viewed the halutzim as restoring an integral part of Judaism despite their lack of religious observance and their unawareness of what the ultimate fruits of their labor would be.
As described in the Bible, the Israelites encountered many setbacks in conquering and retaining the land of Israel. If the disengagement is in fact carried out, it will be viewed as no more of a setback than the capture of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines. Jews are accustomed to adversity, and viewing the disengagement as anything more would be missing the forest for the trees.
New York City
Hillel Halkin writes:
Every reason given by Roger A. Gerber, Avner Reggev, P. David Hornik, Herbert Zweibon, and Nahum J. Duker for not “disengaging” from Gaza and other parts of the occupied territories is a good one. Since the Arab population of these territories is currently in the neighborhood of 3 million and growing at a rate roughly double that of Israeli Jews, I would therefore like to ask them which of the following proposals they support: (a) forcibly expelling these people; (b) letting them remain where they are without civil rights as the inhabitants of an apartheid state; (c) granting them full Israeli citizenship in a democratic bi-national state in which they will eventually comprise a majority; (d) trusting in God.
Since the opponents of disengagement, secular as well as religious, have refused to commit themselves to any of solutions (a) through (c) and have no others of their own to offer, one must assume that they choose (d). This is why their opposition is at bottom messianic. It is predicated on the blind hope not only that the United States and the rest of the world will forever tolerate Israeli rule over all of Gaza and the West Bank, but also that the Palestinians of these areas will disappear. In the absence of such a miracle, Israel’s only rational choice is to separate from these Palestinians by withdrawing from Gaza and most of the West Bank to unilaterally determined, militarily and demographically defensible borders. Although such borders will not be ideal, they will be vastly preferable both to those that preceded the 1967 war and to those that exist now.
To reply to some specific points: Mr. Gerber asks how I can support Israel’s “expulsion” of its own citizens from the Gaza Strip “for the sole reason that they are Jewish.” Actually, as I wrote a while back in a column in the Jerusalem Post, I do not support the settlers’ expulsion. I support the withdrawal of Israel’s army and state presence from the Gaza Strip. Any settlers who wish to remain behind and negotiate their status with the Palestinian Authority should be allowed to do so, and I believe the Sharon government is misadvised in denying them this option.
Messrs. Gerber and Reggev protest that Ariel Sharon is acting undemocratically by reneging on his campaign promises and “stifling opposition” to disengagement. On the latter point I must say that if the opposition to disengagement has been “stifled,” I for one have failed to notice. It is in fact very loud and getting louder, and I know of no one in Israel who has been threatened or intimidated for adding his voice to it.
As for Sharon’s campaign promises, it is true that, although he constantly spoke before the last election of the need to make “painful” territorial compromises, he also publicly rejected a proposal by then Labor party leader Amram Mitzna to withdraw from Gaza, so that his post-election decision to do so came as an about-face. This was the reason that he asked the Likud, his own party, to hold a referendum on the matter, which he expected to win but lost instead. While this ballot was not legally binding, Sharon, in my opinion, should have done one of two things at that point: either sought to hold the nationwide referendum on disengagement that Jerome S. Kaufman asks about, or called for new elections and a new mandate. Every public-opinion poll showed that he would have won either vote handily—as he would if either were held today.
And yet there were also good practical reasons against such a course. A referendum could have been delayed for many months by legal and parliamentary challenges, and there was no Knesset majority for new elections. All in all, given the fact that the public clearly wanted disengagement, Sharon’s behavior does not strike me as all that reprehensible. The big difference between it and Yitzhak Rabin’s analogous breaking of his campaign promises in signing the Oslo Agreement is that Rabin was presiding over an evenly split country while Sharon has been consistently backed by two out of every three Israelis. In this respect he is more comparable to Menachem Begin, who also reneged on his 1977 electoral platform in order to sign a highly popular peace treaty with Egypt.
Messrs. Gerber, Hornik, and Zweibon accuse me of slighting the Gaza Strip’s strategic importance. Gaza indeed “thrusts . . . toward Israel’s very heart,” as Mr. Zweibon puts it, and was especially threatening when Egyptian army units were stationed there before 1967. But it has been neutralized as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Israel under the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. (The Egyptians, one might add, gladly forsook Gaza in negotiating this treaty not because they realized it was strategically essential to Israel but because they were delighted to see Israel saddled with administering it.) Although the Gaza Strip can always be used as a base for Palestinian terror, such terror, unless it gets its hands on nuclear weapons (which are unlikely to be manufactured in Gaza), can never threaten Israel’s existence. The same cannot be said of too many Palestinians within Israel’s borders.
To Mr. Duker I would observe that Ariel Sharon, unlike Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin at Oslo, has no illusions about Palestinian intentions or about the magical properties of anything. His thinking about Gaza and the West Bank is based on the belief that the Palestinians are not to be trusted and cannot be made peace with in the foreseeable future. Hence—again unlike Peres and Rabin—he has no inclination to negotiate with them and is determined to act unilaterally in establishing Israel’s permanent borders.
I agree with Matis Greenblatt about the difference between Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook the father and Tsvi Yehuda Kook the son, and I said as much in my article. Still, the son’s sanctification of the state, while not found in the writings of the father (who died before Israel’s establishment), exists there as a latent possibility. One cannot after all view secular Zionism (as Kook the father did) as a divine vehicle without opening the door to viewing a secular Zionist state in the same light.
If religious opposition to disengagement from Gaza is most strongly rooted not in messianism but in a belief in God’s “biblical promise” of the land of Israel, as Aaron Streiter proposes, how does he explain the fact that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel largely support disengagement and have traditionally been dovish on territorial issues? Indeed, even the National Religious Party, the main political organ of the settler movement since 1967, was not territorially expansionist before then. What, if not post-1967 messianism, can account for this?
I did not make a systematic analogy between Kookian messianism and Sabbatianism, as Mr. Streiter and David Gulko appear to think I did. I did point out that when Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook came to conceive of secular Zionists as instruments of redemption, even though they flouted the ritual commandments of Judaism, he was like the Sabbatians conceiving of the sinful as an expression of the sacred. This strays far from normative Jewish thought.
Finally, I would like to make clear my position on the Jewish settlement movement. I have always believed and written that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the historic land of Israel, just as I have believed and written that Jews do not have the right to turn Palestinians into disenfranchised helots. This has led me in the past to propose, in the pages of Commentary as well as elsewhere, that the establishment of a Palestinian state be conditioned on its willingness to accept the continued presence of Jewish settlers under its sovereignty, so that the historic land of Israel would consist of two independent but federated states, each with Jews and Arabs living in it. Yet since neither the Palestinian Authority, nor the government of Israel, nor the settlers themselves have ever evinced the slightest interest in such a solution, and since the 2000-2004 Palestinian war of terror against Israel has made its implementation more problematic than ever, I have been reluctantly forced to concede that it is not practical.