The diversity of views stems from differing interpretations of Jewish law rather than a hierarchy of religious observance. There are three general opinions within the Jewish religious community toward land concession: the "staunch opposition" rejects any land concession on religious grounds; the supporters accept the possibility of land concessions as a means of obtaining peace; and the "conditional opposition" is in the middle. These varied religious opinions on land concession are important for, by understanding them, the Israeli government can do much to gain support from the religious community for its land-for-peace policies.
Religious Jews in Israel
For the purposes of this paper, Israel's religious population is defined as those Israelis for whom Jewish law and biblical commandments serve as the primary source for making decisions in their lives. It makes up approximately one eighth of the overall population.2 It differs from the 36 percent of Israel's population that considers itself misorti (traditional),3 meaning it is strongly guided by Jewish tradition and keeps many of the religious observances but does not put Jewish law at the forefront of every day decision making. The difference is illustrated, for example, when purchasing a piece of clothing: religious Jews will inspect the fabric to make sure the combination of materials used is acceptable to Jewish law, something misorti Jews usually do not do.
Ideologically, the religious community breaks down into two major segments, religious Zionists and Charedim. Religious Zionists give allegiance to the State of Israel on the basis of religious beliefs. They perceive the modern Jewish state as a reflection of the continuing covenant between God and the Jewish people and recognize the authority currently governing Israel in that light. They make up two thirds of the religious community and approximately 8 percent of the total population.4 The majority of religious Zionists serve in the army, either through regular three-year service or the hesder yeshiva program (yeshiva s are schools of religious study), which allows for a five-year combination of active duty and Torah learning.
In contrast, Charedim, who make up approximately one third of Israel's overall religious community and 4.5 percent of the total population,5 reject the notion that the modern State of Israel is inherently holy and instead see it as a strictly secular political authority no different from other ones.6 To Charedim, sacred qualities will be associated with modern Israel only with the arrival of the messiah. The majority of Charedim do not serve in the army but request religious exemptions in order to continue their studies at yeshivas.
Israel's religious community is also divided by ethnic origin. Sephardi Jews (who originated from the Middle East, North Africa, or Spain) and Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern Europe) differ in religious and cultural traditions. While they recognize each other as parts of a whole, these two communities remain largely segregated, with different synagogues, distinct religious leaders, and often different neighborhoods. They are represented in both the Charedi and religious Zionist camps,7 yet their segregation creates differences in the rabbinical interpretation they are willing to follow. Note that Israel has two chief rabbis, for example, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi.
Though small, Israel's religious population has a substantial influence in politics and the society at large because its structure provides the organization necessary to mobilize and maintain a strong political voice. Synagogues and yeshivas are not just places of prayer and intensive Judaic study but also centers in which the masses gather to discuss issues of national interest. This is particularly true of issues which combine national and Jewish concerns, such as the question of land concession. Rabbis and deans of the yeshivas are respected for their understanding of biblical and Jewish legal writings and provide guidance or definitive positions which then influence the rest of the community. While the extent to which each individual listens to rabbinical opinion varies, the influence of these opinions on the community as a whole is unquestionable.
The religious population constitutes approximately 30 percent of the voting population.8 Religious parties as of 1999 hold 28 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament), up from 23 in the 1996 elections. Of this number, United Torah Judaism (Charedim) and the National Religious Party (religious Zionists) each have 5 seats, Shas (Sephardim) has 17 and Meimad (religious Zionist) has 1. The latter three parties joined Barak's coalition and hold 6 of the 23 cabinet positions. The religious community also has an extra-legal influence via a minority extremist element that threatens to protest through the use of violence. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a yeshiva student, was the most prominent example of this impact, and is particularly important in light of Barak's government associating itself with Rabin's legacy. There is also a precedent of civil disobedience within the religious community, used by a segment of the religious community in 1982 as a means to block Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula; the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has already expressed concerns for a repeat of such clashes between troops and religious civilians.
I. The Staunch Opposition
For the staunch opposition, which believes it is strictly forbidden for Israel to withdraw from any part of biblical Israel over which there is Jewish sovereignty, the holy sites and boundaries of biblical Israel are key concerns. Their ideology grew out of Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967, when its newly-established control over biblical territory prompted a heightened nationalist feeling within a segment of the religious Zionist movement.9 Organized primarily through the Gush Emunim movement, this segment saw settlement of the newly claimed territory as a religious duty and a means of hastening messianic redemption.10 Its objective was to promote Jewish inhabitance of the area as well as to expand Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.11 In this spirit, it dedicated its energies to building new settlements.
Today, the staunch opposition believes that Jewish law forbids abandoning any part of biblical Israel that is under Jewish sovereignty12, and vocally opposes the Israeli government's right to forgo any part of biblical Israel under Israeli sovereignty.13 Its argument is based primarily on a legal commentary by thirteenth century Jewish legal commentator Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, known as Ramban, on Numbers 33:53 ("And you shall possess the Land and dwell in it because I gave the Land for you to possess"). Ramban wrote about this verse that the Jewish people "should settle in the land and inherit it, because He gave it to them, and they should not reject God's inheritance…What our Rabbis emphasize is it is a mitzvah [commandment] to settle in the land and it is forbidden to leave it."14
A secondary element of their opposition is based on the traditional Jewish doctrine that holds that a Jewish return to Israel will foreshadow the coming of the messiah. Rabbi Avraham Kook, British Palestine's first chief rabbi and a thinker whose writings continue to influence the religious community, interpreted the settlement of Palestine by secular Zionists as contributing to the messianic redemption. This view helped mend a crippling religious-secular divide and is generally accepted by the entire religious Zionist community. Israel's victory in 1967 then heightened the association between settlement and redemption: the more fervent religious nationalists translated the geographic expansion of Israel's sovereignty as a sign of impending redemption and thought they would hasten the messianic redemption by inhabiting the newly controlled land.15 In this spirit, the staunch opposition today insists that conceding any biblical land conflicts with their effort to bring about the messianic redemption and so is unacceptable.16
For a segment of the staunch opposition, this approach is also compounded by a mistrust of enemies that conflates today's conflict with the Palestinians with the biblical image of an Israel surrounded by enemies. The Palestinian Authority's (PA) demands for land concessions are seen as mechanisms to weaken Israel. Its methods used to be violent, now are more indirect (such as negotiating land concessions). For these staunch oppositionists, the need to ensure Jewish continuity in the face of Israel's enemies is another reason to reject any land concession.17
Due to the fact that conceding land is seen as a transgression of Jewish law, the staunch opposition believes it must protest any agreement in which land is conceded. Leaders suggest that demonstrations and civil disobedience are in the cards, as they were in the withdrawal from Yamit, a town in the Sinai, in 1982. (At that time, students of Mercaz HaRav led a campaign of physical resistance to the evacuation, forcing the IDF to remove them by force and creating a precedent of uncompromising struggle against the withdrawal from territory.) While condemning violence, leaders warn that violence during evacuations is a real possibility; Rabbi Yehoshua Magnes of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav fears that violence can again break out if concerns of this segment are not addressed and the extremists are not acknowledged.18
II. Supporters of Land Concession
The staunch opposition has based its argument on a specific legal commentary; others within the religious community rely on alternative commentaries and interpretations that permit significant support for land-for-peace. The religious support for land concessions has three bases.
First, Charedi ideology rejects the holy nature of the modern State of Israel19 and believes the restrictions of Jewish law will not apply until the time of messianic redemption, as they are irrelevant as concerns the political behavior of secular Israel. It therefore permits the Land of Israel to be managed however the government deems it appropriate. Agudat Yisrael, a Charedi political party that is currently part of United Torah Judaism, has allowed land to be brokered for peace ever since the acquisition of the territories in 1967. Its official position states:
The Land of Israel was given to us from an inheritance by our Creator and we have never abandoned our rights to it…We await daily for our complete deliverance. We shall make peace with our neighbors on the basis of God's promise to his people, strategic necessity, political expediency, and international law.20Second, some of Israel's most prominent Jewish religious leaders interpret the religious requirement to preserve individual human life (Hebrew: pikuach nefesh ) to obligate that peace be pursued, even this means conceding some of the Land of Israel. Jewish law places the protection of human life above following other commandments, i.e. one is required to break the Sabbath if it will prevent the death of a human being.21 According to this approach, peace is more important than maintaining areas of land. This means following a policy which will save the most lives––and that implies a judgement to be entrusted to Israel's security experts.
Diverse and prominent leaders accept this interpretation, and they exert considerable influence over their communities: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Sephardi political party Shas; the late Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, a spiritual founder of the modern Orthodox movement; and Rabbi Eliezer Shach, spiritual leader of the modern Agudat Yisrael, a neo-Zionist sub-group of the Charedi community that accepts the holiness of Israel yet remains entrenched in the Charedi tradition.22 Some Agudat Yisrael leaders have added a clause onto Shach's opinion, requiring that the Israeli leaders understand the importance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people and "feel anguish" over conceding it23. (This is an important clause in light of the staunch opposition's perception that supporters of concession are secularists who ignore the importance of the land in the Jewish faith.)
Third, an interpretation of Judaism's basic structure suggests that the core elements of "the Jewish people," "Torah," and "the Land of Israel" relate to each other in a hierarchy. The "Jewish people" and its well being are the most important of the three. This means that the Land of Israel can be brokered to create an environment in the best interest of the Jewish people as a whole. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel's largest hesder yeshiva and Meimad, is a foremost proponent of this view.
Rabbi Amital also asserts that currently Jewish law is being manipulated for the benefit of personal opinions towards the current peace negotiations—that political motivation is disguised under religious assertions. People are using elements of the Torah that support their cause and ignore those elements that oppose it. According to Rabbi Amital, there is no part of Israel too holy to concede if it is in the best interest of the Jewish people.24
(In principle, this includes Jerusalem as well; however, it does not apply in practice for two reasons. First, the preservation of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is seen as critical to the identity of both Israel and the Jewish people, so conceding or dividing Jerusalem would be harmful to the Jewish people and is unacceptable. Second, Jerusalem is seen as holier than any other place in Israel: The land of Israel is holier than all other countries and Jerusalem is holier than all other parts of Israel.25 Accordingly, Jerusalem is protected by additional considerations which inhibit its concession but do not hinder the possibility of creative solutions.) 26
Religious supporters of land-for-peace agree that all of biblical Israel was promised to the Jewish people but other concerns make them willing to concede land. They reject any interpretation which would force Israel into a cycle of never-ending warfare. Instead, they believe that the Torah promotes the pursuit of a peaceful co-existence with Israel's neighbors. Also, the question of land concessions exacerbates Israel's religious-secular divide. For this reason, leaders of this camp see the staunch opposition driving a wedge between the religious and secular, endangering broader Israeli society for the sake of a small part of the territory.
As for existing settlements, this school of thought backs a compromise plan. Yeudah Ben-Meir, co-founder of Gush Emunim but now part of the support for land-for-peace, advocates "the relocation of Jews from about two dozen isolated Israeli settlements deep in the Palestinian territory." Under his "Proposal of Blocks," Israel would annex the thickly settled areas in the belt around Jerusalem in which 75-80 percent of West Bank Jews live. These settlements include no more than 20 percent of the West Bank and are home to approximately 10 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank.27 This step allows a land-for-peace agreement while protecting the settlers and providing an outlet for their pioneering mentality.
III. The Conditional Opposition
In between the two ends of the spectrum, and the largest numerically of the three, lies the "conditional opposition." It consists mostly of religious Zionists and neo-Zionist Charedim, plus some non-Zionist Charedim. This middle group accepts the staunch opposition's focus on settling the land as an expression of a divine commandment but also recognizes the importance of acting in the best interest of the Jewish people and in the spirit of preserving life.
Unlike the staunch opposition, the conditional opposition does not believe the Bible comprehensively prohibits withdrawal as a means to obtain peace; but it does mistrust the sincerity of the Palestinian Authority and has grave doubts about the current accords; it focuses on the unfulfilled promises of the PA. Its views are also shaped by a biblical emphasis on Israel standing against the "other," as well as the commandment (derived from Deuteronomy 25:17) never to forget the injuries incurred by enemies of Israel. If the Zionist elements among them question the sincerity of Yasir Arafat, especially in the face of agreements that require a reduction in Israel's borders, the non-Zionists among them do not trust the Palestinian security forces to prevent violence against Jews. The latter, thus, have no ideological problems conceding the land but believe that to do so will eventually cause an increased loss of life.28
The Zionist elements in the conditional opposition have emotional and spiritual ties to the land that compound their mistrust. They believe that modern Israel and the Jewish people are united through a divine promise, and land concessions seem counterintuitive to their sense of justice. Members of this community refer often to their "right to live in the land": following nearly two thousand years of exile from Israel, concession looks to them tantamount to abandonment.
Most of the conditional opposition agree that should an undeniable peace be obtained, concessions are allowed. But this raises a perhaps impossible standard; and until the Palestinian Authority is seen as devoted to a harmonious peace, the conditional opposition opposes the concession of land.29 To them, the land in question, plus the security advantages Israel has by maintaining control over it is too important to jeopardize for an unsubstantial peace agreement.
The Possibility of Violence
In combination, the staunch and conditional opposition factions constitute an important element of the religious community. To what extent, therefore, will there be non-democratic protest? This issue is much debated among those religiously opposed to land concession. Several leaders insist that redeployment from Jewish settlement will result, at least, in civil disobedience.30
On a religious basis, Rabbi Magnes explains that violent protest violates Jewish law no less than does land concession. The will to maintain Jewish sovereignty over the land is strong, but he insists it not cloud people's ability to follow other commandments. Those who use violence as a form of protest cannot be considered religious or working within religious bounds. He does however, explain that the threat of violence from religious extremists is a reality and its expression can surface again. Rabbi Avraham Shapira, dean of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav, speaks within the religious community about the Jewish prohibition against violence.
Others, such as Rabbi Eliezer Waldman of Yeshivat Kiryat Arba, representing a smaller constituency, note the sense of obligation among some settlers to rely on themselves alone for defense, even if this means relying on the use of violence. Waldman warns the Israeli government to recognize its role in provoking violence by settlers by not providing sufficient IDF protection for settlers. If the government does not establish an adequate deterrence to Palestinian attackers, settlers must establish their own deterrence—by responding with violence. While unacceptable, Waldman warns, violence may erupt if some are forced from their land; the Israeli government should recognize this threat and not pursue any policy that may provoke such violence.31
The IDF is also concerned about disobedience by religious soldiers during a redeployment. Those soldiers who belong to a segment of the religious community that opposes redeployment face a personal dilemma: they must be loyal to the army which defends all of Israel and also to the divinely promised land from which it is forbidden to withdraw. The West Bank (referred to as "Judea and Samaria" by the religious community) contains areas in the heart of biblical Israel:32 it includes Hebron and Bethlehem, where the forefathers and foremothers of Judaism are believed to be buried; and Shilo, the site that contained the Tabernacle once the Israelites conquered biblical Israel. Jerusalem is considered the ancient and eternal capital of Israel and the location where it is believed the Holy Temple will be rebuilt upon the arrival of the messiah.
For the rabbis who teach these soldiers this is a delicate issue: Rabbi Waldman, for example, refuses to comment on a soldier's responsibility, stating that each religious solider follows the perspective of his rabbi. Rabbi Shapira, of the staunch opposition, however, outlines a course of action: a religious solider commanded to participate in a redeployment from territory must request a different order from his officer. If the request is not granted, the solider must not comply with his orders, for his foremost duty is to Jewish law, and only after that to the IDF. At the same time, he must not encourage other soldiers to emulate him, out of respect for the importance of the IDF and its chain of command in providing defense for Israel.33
The considerable spectrum of opinion within the religious community toward land concession has important implications. It means that it can ultimately come down on either side, accepting or opposing land-for-peace. Because of this community's importance, it behooves the government of Israel to pay it close attention and take its concerns into account. This means embarking on several policies.
First, the government must allow more of the democratic process to be involved in the approval or rejection of an agreement. The opposition believes that that the prime minister by himself lacks the authority to concede land and several leaders assure an intensive—but legal—protest, if he tries to do so. They believe the opinion of the Jewish population must be listened to upon making a final agreement. The more say the public has on any final agreement, the less protest will break out. A national referendum on withdrawing from the West Bank would go far to satisfy a significant portion of the opposition. Leaders explain that their formal protest will be subdued if the Knesset ratifies the agreement.34 Speaking in regard to the religious settler community, Pinchas Wallerstein, former head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, emphasizes that the population lives under constant anxiety but is, for the most part, a responsible community that understands and supports the democratic system under which they are living. As a result, land concession will produce democratic protests, they agree, but Yesha and the religious settler population they represent will formally accept any settlement agreed upon by the Knesset.35
Second, a policy of retaining Jewish settlements under Palestinian control is likely to provoke more opposition than dissolving them; settlement is perceived as a half of the inseparable whole understood as the "Jewish presence in the land." Maintaining communities without Israeli sovereign control over them is the same as losing the land.36 Thus, transferring settlements to Palestinian control while allowing Jewish settlers to remain in them would also be perceived as jeopardizing Jewish lives and would be prohibited under the requirement to preserve human life. Therefore, it is better to dissolve the settlements than to maintain them under PA control.37
Third, because this key element of the Israeli population has an uncompromising focus on security, due to a strong mistrust and long memory of former enemies, the PA and the Israeli government must carry out the security guarantees that have already been agreed upon. Israeli leaders must emphasize the security benefits obtained through an accepted final agreement. Moreover, while the agreement must be backed by the international community, security must remain in the hands of Israelis and Palestinians, or an independent force managed by both of them.
Fourth, maintaining part of the land beyond the 1967 borders for settlements as security buffers, under a compromise such as the "Proposal of Blocks," would provide tangible insurance for security, as well. It would also allow an outlet for the pioneer mentality that to some is considered a religious commandment, while providing the relocation that is necessary for an agreement. While it will not prevent another Yamit-like incident from occurring, it will reduce the support for such shows of opposition.
Fifth, the debate over land concession should be removed from Israel's religious-secular divide. Currently, much of the opposition perceives supporters of concession as secularists minimizing the importance of land to the Jewish religion. Rabin and Shimon Peres were seen, especially during the early stages of Oslo, as secularists who denied the religious significance of the land.38 The issue of land concession continues to trigger a dangerous alienation between these two segments of society. In light of Rabbi Avraham Kook's effort to build a bridge between the religious and secular sectors through their joint devotion to settling the land in the pre-state era, land concessions must be dealt with as much as possible as a self-contained issue—a debate over Israel's path towards peace rather than a measure of religious observance. The Israeli government can minimize the effect of religious-secular strife by recognizing the religious difficulty in land concession and associating it with a lesser-of-two-evils policy, rather than rejecting Jewish ties to the land.
Sixth, and related to this, the Israeli government must foster a serious dialogue between the backers and opponents of land-for-peace policies among the religious community. Debating a subject on Jewish legal grounds helps show a concern for Jewish law and thereby reduces some of the perception that those in favor of land concessions are neglecting religious considerations. With several religious parties (National Religious Party, Shas, and Meimad) a part of the ruling coalition, rabbis who support land for peace policies (such as Shach, Yosef, Amital, and Melchior) should be sought, along with Rabbi Shapira and Rabbi Waldman and other leaders of the opposition to debate the issue of land concession. Their stature in the community will allow for their opinions to be respected by the community at large and will expose the various interpretations to Jewish law on the subject. Through this dialogue, the Israeli government can support a cohesive domestic society while progressing towards peace with the Palestinians.
Laura Zarembski is an M.A. student in Middle Eastern studies and conflict management at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.1 See Tom Bethell, "Whose Country Is It?" The American Spectator, Jan. 1998, p. 19; Matthew Engel, "A House Divided," World Press Review, Mar. 1997, pp. 12, 13; Samuel Peleg, "They Shoot Prime Ministers, Too, Don't They?" Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 20, 1997, pp. 239, 244.
2 This statistic is based on a sample survey conducted by Modi'in Ezrachi, Reasearch Institute in December 1997. Oren Soffer and Aliza Korenstein, Ethnocentricity, Citizenship, and the Rule of Law in Israel (Tel-Aviv: The Israeli Institute for Economic and Social Research, 1998), p. 12.
3 Not to be confused with the Misorti Movement, the name given to the Conservative movement in Israel.
4 This statistic is based on a sample survey conducted by Modi'in Ezrachi, Reasearch Institute in December 1997. Soffer and Korenstein, Ethnocentricity, p. 12.
6 Gary Schiff, "Integration and Segregation: The Development of Diverse Trends in Israeli Religious Political Parties," Jewish Sects, Religious Movements and Political Parties (Omaha, Nebraska: Crieghton University Press, 1992.), p. 17.
7 Sephardim maintain a very high percentage of misorti Jews as well.
8 Gideon Doron, "Israel: The Nationalists Return to Power," Current History, Jan. 1997, p. 33.
9 Eliezer Don-Yehiya, "The Book and the Sword," Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 267, 269.
10 Kevin Avruch, "Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel," Critical Essays on Israeli Society, Politics, and Culture: Books on Israel Volume II (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 136.
11 Interview with Yehuda Ben-Meir, Tel Aviv, Jan. 3, 1999.
12 Interview with Yehoshua Magnes, Jerusalem, explaining the opinion of Rabbi Shapira. Jan. 7, 1999.
13 Telephone interview with Rabbi Eliezer Waldman of Kiryat Arba, Jan. 12, 1999.
14 Mikrot Gadolot (Jerusalem: Hamo'or, 1990), a compilation of the Bible and its various commentaries.
15 Avruch, "Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel," p. 136.
16 Interview with Magnes, Jan. 7, 1999.
17 Interview with Waldman.
18 Interview with Magnes, Jan. 7, 1999.
19 Schiff, "Integration and Segregation," p. 337.
20 Stewart Reiser, The Politics of Leverage: The National Religious Party of Israel and Its Influence on Foreign Policy. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1984), p. 45.
21 Shulchan Aruch, Orch Chaim, verses 329-6.
22 Most of the neo-Zionist Charedi community help to constitute the 30 percent of Charedim who serve in the army. Interview with parliament member Avraham Ravitz, Jerusalem, June 22, 1999.
23 Interview with Ravitz. 6/22/99.
24 Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Jerusalem, Jan. 6, 1999.
25 Keilim Chap. 1, Mishnah 6.
26 Interview with Rabbi Michael Melchior, Jerusalem, Jan. 6, 1999.
27 Yehuda Ben-Meir, "Wye is Good for Israel's Settlers," The Philadephia Inquirer, Oct. 28, 1998.
28 The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was at the forefront of this argument. "‘Eyes upon the Land' — The Territorial Integrity of Israel: A Life Threatening Concern," adapted by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger from the public statements and writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson ([AU: city?]: Sichos, 1997) at http://www.truepeace.org/book.html.
29 The conditional opposition has significantly more trust in the general Palestinian population, with whom they often have contact, than with the Palestinian Authority.
30 Interview with Waldman.
32 The most widely accepted boundaries (based on the details explained in Numbers 33) of biblical Israel are the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea as Israel's east-west border and Southern Lebanon (i.e. along the Litani river until it meets the Metulla area) and the Beer Sheva-Gaza line in the northern Negev as Israel's north-south border. Menachem Leibtag, "Parshat Matot Masei: The Biblical Borders of the Land of Israel," at http://www.tanach.org/bamidbar/matmas.txt
33 Interview with Magnes.
34 Interview with Pinchas Wallerstein and Yehudit Tayar, Jerusalem, Jan. 4, 1999.
35 Interview with Magnes.
36 Interview with Ben-Meir.
37 Interview with Magnes