Essay on Gaza Withdrawal

This was written by Rabbi Chaim Eisen, who I had as a teacher in 1996-1997, and 2000. He is brilliant and extremely rational, and I value his opinion greatly. I'm not going to write any of my own opinions on the subject, since I really don't know enough about either side to argue one way or another. I've never been to Gush Katif, and I don't know what exactly the disengagement is meant to accomplish, or how. I do know that I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Eisen, and find his arguments both convincing and devastating. Anyway, without further ado…

Our Move to Gush Katif

by Chaim Eisen

Having just moved to Neve Dekalim, my family and I consider ourselves truly privileged to be among the newer members of an extraordinary group of people — the residents of Gush Katif. I refer not only to the oft-stated verities. We all know that the lands upon which the Gush was built were liberated with the Gaza strip in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, precipitated directly by unilateral Egyptian aggression. This land, well within even the most restrictive interpretations of the borders of the Biblically ordained Promised Land, was a desolate wasteland. All of it was either previously owned by Jews (like Kefar Darom), state-owned, or ownerless — and legally unclaimed by any sovereign country. Our nation has lived here since Abraham and Sara and Isaac and Rebecca, at least 37 centuries ago. Even during two millennia of exile, Jews subsisted here almost continuously, until the British expelled them from Gaza, during the Arab pogroms and massacres of 1929. During the 1948 War of Independence, Kefar Darom heroically defended the fledgling state against the attacking Egyptian army, but eventually it was overrun. It was courageously reestablished immediately after the Six Day War. The resettling of the entire area was conceived by the Labor government of Golda Meir 35 years ago, as part of a network of Jewish villages, to impede Arab terror emanating from the Gaza strip. Some of the most dedicated idealists of this generation lovingly built the 21 towns and villages here over the intervening years, with reiterated encouragement by successive governments on the left and on the right. Overcoming daunting odds, the quiet farmers of Gush Katif not only caused the desert literally to bloom but also established a vast agricultural and industrial base, generating thousands of jobs and revenues of several hundred million shekalim annually. In doing so, they also provided employment and infrastructure for their Arab neighbors, which raised the latter's standard of living immeasurably — until the Arabs launched a genocidal war of death and destruction to drive all the Jews from their midst. The true greatness of the farmers and workers of Gush Katif, however, was tested and proved with incomparably greater force in the crucible of suffering, during the past five years' war of unrelenting terror.

Indeed, coming here only recently, I concede that arrogating to ourselves the status of Gush Katif residents is unconscionably pretentious on our part. After all, the brunt of the Arab terror war that has thus far rained down almost 5,900 mortar shells and Qassam rockets upon the Jews here is, we pray, behind us. We were not here when the men, women, and children of the Gush were left to cower in inadequate shelters as, on some days, the shells fell almost incessantly. Nor did we live daily with the mind-numbing anxiety of a routine, daily commute to Kissufim, knowing it could explode at any moment into the nightmare of a sniper attack or a roadside bomb, amid a maelstrom of broken glass, splattered gore, and shattered lives. Perhaps most hurtful of all, we were not forced to endure the effective disenfranchisement — the institutionalized insults, marginalization, and demonization — inflicted upon the people here by a demagogic, self-serving government. Finally, if — G-d forbid — Jews are once again expelled from their homes, the people of Gush Katif will be homeless; we (for the time being, at least) still have our flat in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, we are here now, in awe — not only of the breathtaking landscape and glittering sea. Since we arrived, we have learned, like the locals, to ignore the background din of exploding artillery shells and the thunderous boom of Qassam rockets (all shot exclusively at us, since the government has forbidden the army to return fire). We have grown accustomed to the town's public address system announcing nonchalantly, sometimes several times each day, an impending controlled detonation (of an unexploded shell) or advising the good citizens to seek cover in a sheltered area because of an imminent barrage. The ongoing daily miracles of survival notwithstanding, last week a couple of people were wounded when a private home suffered a direct hit. Saturday night, the one exit road was closed, after middle-aged grandparents, visiting their children for Shabbat, were ruthlessly murdered in a hail of bullets. (Even then, the army remained under orders to refrain from any response; the terrorists were eliminated only by the swift intervention of the local civilian security chief, who was wounded in the process.) Moreover, relentlessly, we see and hear the tales of unprovoked police brutality and deliberate degradation, even against law-abiding women and children. Nonetheless, through it all, we bear witness to a tenacity of the people here that defies the imagination. When circumstances are so utterly extraordinary, the ordinary itself becomes extraordinary. The quiet dignity of the people here, in maintaining a routine as if nothing has changed, is humbling.

We walk through Gush Katif as if in a dream. Little children (apparently, by far the largest age group) laugh and play. The town center of Neve Dekalim evinces the hustle and bustle of small city life. People shop, make and keep appointments, and altogether go about their business. Yeshivot are filled with students engrossed in study, and the list of Torah classes offered for adults — already impressive by any standard — only continues to grow. The dozens of magnificent, ornately decorated synagogues (presumably, slated by the government for, G-d forbid, either destruction or conversion into mosques or worse) are full three times a day for regular services as usual. Garbage is collected, streets are meticulously cleaned, and gardens are manicured and watered. The vast majority of the farmers prepare for next year's planting withal.

But the tension, for me at least, is palpable. We are teetering on the brink of a precipice. Relentlessly, the police, acting on government orders, tighten the noose. The “closure'' becomes more and more a siege, a stranglehold. Upstanding citizens are subjected to humiliating searches at proliferating checkpoints, where even grandmothers have been dragged from their cars and beaten mercilessly. Close relatives are denied permission to visit their loved ones. Some supplies have begun to disappear from the supermarket's shelves as inventories are depleted. Regular bus service into and out of the Gush is reportedly being discontinued. Yesterday, we heard that plainclothes police officers have begun infiltrating communities to seize and peremptorily expel anyone without satisfactory papers, including people who have lived here for months. Daily government threats rain down upon us like Arab artillery shells. According to the declared schedule, soon the health clinic, the post office, and the bank will shut down. Later, they plan to disinter the dead and dismantle the cemeteries. Then, they will come for all of us. On the one hand, repeatedly, we invoke the Talmudic dictum, “Even if a sharp sword is put to a person's throat, he should not withhold himself from [beseeching G-d for] mercy'' (Berachot 10a). We believe earnestly in miracles — such as the one, in the Six Day War, that liberated these lands in the first place. Yet, on the other hand, we have no guarantee that we will merit being the beneficiaries of such extraordinary intervention again, in this new war being waged against the people of Israel, this time by its own government.

Still, we try to remain hopeful. The recent replacement of regular soldiers manning the blockades by higher-ranking officers was undoubtedly intended to increase the pressure on the people here. However, it also betrays the government's cognizance — and fear — of growing unrest among the rank and file whom it has charged to execute its decrees. Even left-leaning newspapers like Ma`ariv have confirmed that thousands of people have entered Gush Katif since the government imposed its “closure” order. Our own observations fully corroborate that conclusion. Presumably, some of the best-trained soldiers of one of the most skilled armies in the world could have done a “better job'' on behalf of the government, had they felt motivated to do so. When we entered Gush Katif (with valid permits), we plainly saw how halfheartedly and lackadaisically ordinary soldiers were enforcing the directives they had received. Our teenage sons, who were all present at the standoff in Kefar Maimon, all reported that most of the soldiers they saw took every opportunity to express (surreptitiously) their heartfelt support for the protesters. The universally acclaimed, exemplary conduct of the protesters obviously further reinforced these sentiments. More generally, the brutally antidemocratic and manifestly illegal tactics of the police have appalled most of the country. The tide of public opinion that once seemed, in the wake of the government's slick campaign of slander, implacably set against us, has by all accounts shifted dramatically in our favor.

The aforementioned soldiers who were in Kefar Maimon have thus far refrained from explicitly disobeying orders. We nevertheless hope that, on the day of reckoning, these and the other soldiers will see with their own eyes, before it is too late, the evil that their government has summoned them to perpetrate. Then, we pray, they will inexorably heed the voice of their consciences and follow their many comrades who have already informed their commanders that they cannot and will not execute the orders they were given. In the same vein, we can only admire Timor Abdullah — a decorated Druze sergeant, court-martialed and imprisoned for his opposition to expelling Jews from their homes — and his father Nazia, who publicly expressed pride in his son's refusal to commit this “crime against humanity.'' Granted, a deliverance mediated by a breakdown of some of the most fundamental institutions of law and order carries a terrible price. Yet, when a cynical oligarchy hijacks those very institutions in attempting to perpetrate a manifest crime, we are left with no choice. As the philosopher Edmund Burke noted, “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.'' The alternative to the institutional breakdown — a breakdown of morality and decency, instead — is immeasurably more terrifying still.

This, in the end, is why we are here. Granted, we had many important reasons to come. On a cosmic plane, we came — without exaggeration or cynicism — on behalf of Western civilization, however thankless it often is. One can scarcely imagine a greater boost to international Islamic terror than requiting an unrelenting five-year terror war against innocent men, women, and children by expelling them from their homes and awarding those homes to their attackers. The inevitable consequence — a recidivist terror state of an emboldened Hamas in Gaza — is almost too horrific even for nightmares. On the most intimate plane, we came to demonstrate tangibly our support for and commiseration with our brothers and sisters and close friends in Gush Katif. To indulge in understatement, they have already suffered far more than enough. And, on a national plane, we came on behalf of the nation and State of Israel, the most insidious threat to whose survival lies in sundering the elemental sense that we are, after all, one people. It is difficult to conceive of a more conclusively fatal blow to that abiding sense of nationhood than the willful ruin of one segment of society by another. It is harder still to see how a nation thereby compromised and demoralized could possibly persevere in the face of the ongoing threats to its very existence. “Disengagement” — which has already proven mere divestiture, in exchange for nothing — is aptly named indeed. It entails disengaging from our G-d-given heritage, disengaging from our brethren, and, in the end, disengaging from our future.

Yet, on the most fundamental plane, apart from all these cogent considerations, we came here, simply, because we must. There is no middle course. Burke famously observed, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.'' Inaction is equivalent to acquiescence, which is tantamount to collusion. Maintaining a routine today in Gush Katif exemplifies heroism; elsewhere, it betrays indifference and complicity. And complicity with evil — however tacit — is always evil. In the worst event, G-d forbid, who on the day of reckoning will be able honestly to declare, “Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see'' (Deuteronomy 21:7)? Conversely, as Rabbi Menachem ibn Zerach Tzorfati commented, “A little light dispels a great deal of darkness'' (Tzedah LaDerech, ch. 12). We pray every morning, “May You shine a new light on Zion, and may we all speedily merit that light.'' May we all, like the brave men, women, and children of Gush Katif, demonstrate the tenacity to fend off despair and persist uncompromisingly in our just struggle to kindle that light. Whatever you do, do something! Only by our doing everything incumbent upon each of us, we may hope to merit the divine blessings that will crown all our efforts, individually and collectively, with success in advancing that ultimate goal.

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For almost a quarter century, the author has taught at various yeshivot in Israel and lectured extensively on Jewish thought and Jewish philosophy throughout Israel and the US. As founding editor of the OU journal Jewish Thought, he also wrote and edited numerous essays in these fields. He currently teaches at the Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center and in the Torah Lecture Corps of the IDF Rabbinate (res.). When he is not living in Gush Katif, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three sons.

–YY

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