The Fall

by Leon Wieseltier | September 5, 2005

Even faced with the idea of Greater Palestine, it is impossible not to rejoice in the defeat of the idea of Greater Israel. It was always a foul idea, morally and strategically. It promoted the immediate ecstasy of the few above the eventual safety of the many; it introduced the toxins of messianism and mysticism into the politics of a great modern democracy; it preferred chosenness to human rights; it subordinated laws to visions, and the Jewish state to the Jewish millennium; it worshiped soil in a primitive, almost unJewish way. The settlers of the West Bank and Gaza are not a Jewish vanguard, they are a Jewish sect; and in their insistence that the destiny of their state and their society should be held hostage to the fulfillment of their metaphysical and historical conceptions, they have always displayed a sectarian self-love.

In the settlement of Netzarim earlier this year, the settlers published a book whose title might be translated as Super-Natural Living: Tales of Life in Gush Katif, a collection of testimonies about the idyll of Jewish existence in Gaza. It is chilling to read, because of its unreality. "The Arabs say to each other, and to their Jewish neighbors, that until the Jews arrived to settle in this region, there was almost no rain. It was impossible to grow anything in the sands. But since we returned here, the rains have started to fall, and the land generously produces its bounty.… This is without a doubt the fulfillment of the prophecy [in Ezekiel] about the redemption of Israel: `But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel.'" There are no mountains in Gaza, but never mind. The settlers in Gaza created a magical world for themselves, an introverted universe of endless miracles. They were indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the decidedly unmagical and unmiraculous effects of their enterprise in the bitter world beyond.

For this reason, when I behold the photographs of the settlers in Gaza uprooted by Israeli soldiers, empathy almost completely deserts me. I seem to have a heart of stone, and I am not entirely embarrassed by it. More precisely, I regard the eviction of the settlers as the appropriate reward for their own hearts of stone. For many other Jews gave their lives and their limbs so that these Jews could grow their holy tomatoes and study their holy texts in this desert. In order to satisfy their individual and collective aspirations, the Israeli civilians who lived in Gaza required the sacrifice of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In the years of Jewish settlement in Gaza, 230 Israelis were killed there. A substantial number of them were soldiers. Why is the life of a Jew in a uniform worth less than the life of a Jew in a greenhouse? That is stone-heartedness. And yet one hears mainly about the sacrifices of the settlers. Surely the same stirring revival of Zionist agronomy could have been accomplished in the equally arid zones a few miles to the north or the east, in a place called Israel.

One hears a great deal, too, about the courage of the settlers, and about this, too, we should be clear: throughout their experiment in revising the meaning of Israeli statehood and denying the possibility of Palestinian statehood, the settlers enjoyed the protection of a fearsomely powerful army, whose energies they diverted from more pressing tasks, especially in times of crisis. They required, and they deserved, the protection of the Israeli army against their wild neighbors, who, unimpeded by their politics and incited by their religion, frequently rained rockets and other kinds of terror upon the intruding enclaves; but the vulnerability of the settlements was not evidence of their validity, or of their bravery. In Zichron Yaakov and Rishon L'Tzion and Tel Hai and Deganya and Hebron and elsewhere in the 1910s and 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, Jewish settlers were brave. But in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s? They lived dangerously, to be sure; but living dangerously is not the same thing as living heroically.

These settlers were not pioneers, they were pawns--the eager and fervid pawns of various Israeli governments acting on a grandiose geopolitical scheme whose futility has finally become apparent to a majority of the citizens of Israel. For a few decades the settlers seemed to be winning, and now, at least in Gaza, they have lost. That is all. It is a tragedy for their movement, but it is not a tragedy for their nation. "As Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza," wrote a prominent rabbi in New York, "it is not only natural but also proper that we experience a keen sense of mourning over our loss." But the disengagement from Gaza is not our loss. If our interest is in the delineation of defensible borders for Israel, it is our gain. The withdrawal is an act of historical wisdom. I will not squander my powers of sorrow over these dangerous and delirious places. In the years in which 230 Israelis were killed in Gaza, moreover, 2,600 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Many of those deaths are plainly attributable to internecine Palestine violence, and more generally to the virulently rejectionist character of Palestinian nationalism; but Palestinian costs are human costs, too. Empathy is not a tribal faculty, it is a universal faculty, and such universalism is also a teaching of the Jewish tradition. The suffering in Gaza has been everywhere too great.

For the settlers, however, empathy is, as a matter of principle, a feeling only for the tribe. This was the lesson of the slogan that they coined for their resistance to Sharon: "A Jew does not expel a Jew." Whereas a non-Jew does expel a Jew, and did so quite regularly in the history of the Jews in exile. The word "expulsion" was not used only descriptively here. It would have been just as accurate to call Ariel Sharon's action an eviction or an evacuation. No, the portrayal of the action as an expulsion was a political exploitation of history. It proposed a cluster of historical analogies: that this is a persecution like the old persecutions, that Sharon is like the infamous emperors and kings. On the day of their evacuation the settlers in Kfar Darom unfurled a banner that vowed, KFAR DAROM WILL NOT FALL AGAIN!; the papers explained that this was a reference to the destruction of an earlier Jewish outpost on this site during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, but the Hebrew phrase referred unmistakably to the old motto about Masada. An "autopogrom," wrote a commentator in The Washington Post who obviously knows nothing about pogroms. And the hysterical analogies reached as far as the most obscene one. "Unfortunately, I am no longer surprised when a Jew compares me and other Israeli officials to Nazis," the Israeli minister of construction and housing wrote in The New York Times. "It has become part of the rhetoric of those who oppose withdrawal, including the tiny minority who threaten violent resistance."

But then he added, unaware of the sentimental complicity to which he was admitting: "But every member of the government understands the painful symbolism involved in displacing Jews." Is that so? In the case of Gaza, such symbolism is not painful. It is false, and a little sick. It is the expression not of a national sensitivity, but of the ideological manipulation of a national sensitivity. Is it really asking too much to acknowledge the discontinuities of Jewish history along with the continuities? One of those discontinuities is known as Zionism. Losing your head is not the only way to demonstrate ahavat yisrael, or love of the Jewish people. After all, the abandonment of the Israeli settlements is the policy of a legitimate and democratically elected government of the Israeli state. (In this respect, it resembles the establishment of the Israeli settlements.) The young settlers who awaited the end swaddled in their phylacteries and their prayer shawls, in their martyrdom kit, were ridiculous. They degraded the instruments of their faith by conflating them with the fortunes of their politics. No martyrdom awaited the hotheads in the woolen skullcaps. They were doomed only to the frustration of their fantasies. The romance of settlement is over. Most Israelis have correctly realized that, all its spiritualizations notwithstanding, Jewish settlement in the territories was an essentially political project whose objective was the extension of Israeli sovereignty over millions of Palestinians, which is an invitation to catastrophe.

The settlers' slogan was reprehensible for more than its cheapness about history. It was cheap also about morality. It suggested that justice is tribal in nature, that the tribal supersedes the moral. Why, precisely, should a Jew not evict, or use force against, another Jew, if the actions of the latter justify, morally and legally, the actions of the former? The former, again, is not "a Jew," but the legitimate government of a democratic state. Ariel Sharon is a son of his people, but he is also the prime minister of their state. He has the duty to make policies and enforce laws, and the right to use the machinery of the state in the name of his understanding of the public good. That understanding may be challenged at the polls and in the courts, but it can hardly be discredited on the grounds of group loyalty. Jews in Israel cause pain to other Jews in Israel all the time. (The economic policies of Benjamin Netanyahu are a case in point. I do not hear anybody protesting that a Jew does not impoverish a Jew.) It would be much more correct to say that a Jew does not wrongly expel a Jew--but such a slogan could not serve the settlers' cause, because the consideration of the rightness or wrongness of such an expulsion introduces a larger ethical framework into the discussion, and thereby releases it from the demagoguery of ethnic solidarity. Anyway, Israel is a multiethnic state. In a multiethnic state, universalism is an obligation of citizenship. Does the proposition that a Jew does not expel a Jew mean that a Jew does expel a non-Jew? If it does, who then is like the infamous emperors and kings?

But the worst did not happen. The better angels of the Jews carried the day. Twenty-five settlements were ended in six days. There were no casualties. The army was shrewd and compassionate. The settlers went in peace, if not for peace. Now the struggle over the interpretation of the event will begin. Is Gaza a precedent for the West Bank? The Israeli right will insist that it is not, and I expect Sharon to concur, as a necessity of politics. But I do not see how the dismantling of Gush Katif cannot be seen as a precedent, not least because of the breathtaking decency that was demonstrated there. The dread among the Israeli right has a basis in reality.

Still, history is full of precedents for things that do not come to pass. The unilateralism of the withdrawal from Gaza cannot be repeated in the West Bank, where the outcome must be the eschaton known as "final status." Without Palestinian compromise on certain ideological and territorial issues, for which there is no precedent, Gaza will have been not a breakthrough in foreign policy but an adjustment of security policy. In the Netzarim volume, a settler piously (and erroneously) quotes a biblical verse and observes: "If God had wished to destroy Gush Katif, he would not have performed all these miracles for us." Whatever the theological perplexities into which the settlers have now been thrown, they may still cling to one reason for their belief that God is on their side: He sent them, and Israel, Palestinians for their enemies. If the fall of the settlements in the West Bank is premised upon the rise of a Palestinian readiness for significant concessions, the settlers should not lose hope.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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