With just days to go before Israel begins pulling its troops and settlers out of Gaza and the northern West Bank, a weird air of unreality has settled over the subject. For most Israelis, soldier and civilian alike, the discussion is over, and little remains but to roll the trucks, clear out and hand over the keys. Here in America, too, the talk seems largely to have ended. In the main newspapers, the story no longer shows up even on the inside pages. We’ve moved on to the next topic.
For an important minority of Jews both here and in Israel, however, the withdrawal looms as an impending disaster, and there is talk of little else. Large numbers of Orthodox Jews, including much of the Orthodox rabbinic leadership both here and in Israel, have convinced themselves over the years that Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza is the essential, natural order of things and that Israeli withdrawal from those territories risks divine retribution. As Israel’s military and political leadership has united around the consensus view that continued occupation of the territories is untenable, a terrible rift has opened up, pitting an important part of the Jewish community’s most committed core against the leadership of the Jewish state and of the worldwide Jewish community.
On one side, leading Orthodox rabbis have begun openly questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s democracy. Groups of activists have sought to bring Israeli transportation hubs to a halt, threatened to trample down Israel’s security fence, even announced plans to march into a Negev military base and take it over. On the other side, Israeli security forces have responded with arrests, blockades and preventative actions. The security measures are intended both to maintain order and to preserve credibility of the Israeli military, without which Israel cannot survive.
Massive resources have also gone into protection of Israel’s prime minister and of the holy places on the Temple Mount from apocalyptic schemes by a handful of extremists.
The army and police countermeasures have now set off a dangerous new process, in which settlers and their allies present themselves as innocent victims of a witch hunt, persecuted because of their Orthodox Jewish beliefs by a dictatorial, anti-religious Israeli regime. The complaints do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Yes, settlers and their allies have been subjected to some unaccustomed measures, including arrests, detention and restricted access to security zones. But these pale in comparison to the deadly force regularly directed against Palestinian protesters — and, on occasion, against pro-Palestinian Jewish leftists. The fact is that maintaining security requires firm measures.
For all that, the protesters’ complaints find attentive ears among some devout American Jews, who are predisposed to give credence whenever they hear of Jewish suffering and to ask questions, if at all, only later. That is a disturbing development. Israel needs its allies here as much as it needs its military. Efforts to de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of its best friends are no less dangerous than efforts to cripple its army. Friends of the Jewish state need to stand with it now, more than ever.