The Jews versus the Israelis

Avirama Golan


Cheshvan 12, 5765

On the bridge connecting Bnei Brak with the campus of Bar-Ilan University a new slogan was brandished last month: "Commander, we are Jews. I cannot do that."

It is clear what the author of the slogan cannot do: he cannot evacuate settlements. But the refusal itself is less interesting than the reasoning. The soldier referred to in the slogan cannot carry out the order, not because his heart is broken at the site of families uprooted from their homes and not even because he is convinced in his right-wing worldview that the evacuation of Gaza is a calamity. All his reasons for refusal boil down to the loaded expression: "We are Jews."

This expression is a code that differentiates, as in the pre-Zionist Diaspora, between a Jew and a "goy" and permits Jews everything by virtue of their status as victims. This is also the code that led complete communities of Jews away from the families of nations due to their messianic faith, shut them off in ghettos, led them to turn their backs on modernity and humanism, and subjected them to an exclusive fate determined by the hands of God, stripping man of the freedom to choose and responsibility for his fate.

It is no coincidence that the settlers are using the word "Jews" in their current struggle. It is not a battle for Gaza, nor a fight for democracy or the rule of law. This struggle, over a limited and problematic unilateral disengagement, brings to the fore - like a spotlight focusing its blinding light on a single hidden spot - the big question that has simmered underneath the surface of the society and State of Israel since 1967.

The question, which the moderate secular public tried to skirt from every side, is that of the clash between Jewishness and Israeliness. Or, to be more precise, between Judaism and Zionism. Zionism posed a challenge to the "We are Jews" of Rabbi Avraham Shapira and his disciples because it stated that the fate of the Jewish people is a matter for human action, not divine action. It is precisely along this fault line that Orthodox rabbis disengaged from Zionism. The religious Zionist movement tore itself away from messianism when it joined the Zionist normalization. But not for long.

This "Jewish" existence that the settlers are now trying to sustain defines life, in the framework of messianic thought, as being constantly shadowed by catastrophe. In this way, the pogroms and harsh edicts were eternal proof of Jewish fate. When this shadow of catastrophe fades, or when a chance appears to dispel this shadow - by means of diplomatic accords or other normal measures - the "Jewish" settlers take pains to recreate it via refusal, a national rift, blowing up mosques and murdering a prime minister.

Zionism sought to bring the Jews back into history, that is, to a modern and democratic regime that operates according to the majority's decision and takes changing circumstances into consideration. The overwhelming majority of the citizens of Israel do not understand, perhaps, what the settlers feel down to their very bones: that Sharon's unglamorous plan - like the pre-state partition plan, the return of the Sinai after the 1956 campaign and the Oslo accords - resounds with the Zionist aspiration for normality, for adopting universal values, and for rejecting again the destructive and messianic attitude of "We are Jews."

The vote on disengagement, therefore, is a watershed for the settlers. Until 1967, in the shadow of the Holocaust that brought additional parts of the Jewish people onto the Zionist wagon, messianism was relegated to a corner. The victory and occupation in 1967 granted it a new launching pad. The confused secular public has long forgotten that Zionism always regarded territory as a means to achieve normalization for a wandering people. This is the absolute opposite of turning land into a sacred value.

Thus, it is also a watershed for Israelis. If the "We are Jews" argument gains the upper hand again over the aspiration for normal life, it will be the moment signifying the final tragic surrender of Zionism to Jewish messianic madness.