Thursday, August 04, 2005

Days of Pain

I am in Israel for much of the summer. This is a time of pain for a great many Israelis and a time of tragedy for its Dati Leumi or National Religious sector, the group that has provided the country with its best and many of its brightest. These are Israelis, including a large proportion who made aliya or whose parents made aliya, whose devotion to the land is complete. These are Jews who believe that Israel is our heritage and a blessing and the opportunity to live in Israel must not be forfeited. Through their Hesder yeshivas and lives of service and sacrifice, they have given inordinately to Israel.

They are idealists and their ideals are under severe attack. Their strong opposition to the impending Gaza withdrawal is not shared by a majority of Israelis, nor do I share it. Yet, there is a moral imperative, at once compatible with the democratic will and transcending it, that the Jewish Gazans and their supporters be treated with dignity and empathy. Sadly, for all of the pain and tragedy that they are experiencing, they are being denigrated, in the U.S. by the likes of the morally-challenged Tom Friedman, and in Israel by the secular elite.

While in Israel about six years ago, a Haaretz theater critic wrote, "we are the new anti-Semites," referring to that newspaper's rabid hatred of religious Jews. The exercise of their right to demonstrate against withdrawal by tens of thousands of Israelis has sent the newspapers editors to a new low. In one editorial, the demonstrators were referred to as "criminals," while in yesterday's editorial the government was urged to show an "iron fist" toward those who march in support of fellow Jews who will be ousted from their homes and communities. How charming it is to use such a fascist phrase. Once more, Haaretz displays its selective embrace of democracy.

In view of the emotional and physical trauma that awaits them, Israeli Gazans and their supporters deserve consideration and sympathy, not the brutality that too often characterizes the Israeli police and which was shockingly articulated by Niso Shaham, a top official, who instructed his subordinates to beat the anti-withdrawal demonstrators. "I am telling you to use water canon without holding back," and then, "let them burn. Beat them with clubs if necessary and aim low." Amazingly, he was reprimanded but not demoted.

The Sharon government hasn't been as crude, but it has issued a barrage of threats against the Gazans and it has employed anti-democratic tactics to curtail activities in their support. As Ari Shavit, a respected journalist who is strongly pro-withdrawal, wrote in Haaretz, the government "is tainted with a deep lack of ethics" and, "it has dealt a mortal blow to Israel's identity as a democratic country." He continued, "in a democratic country, the defense minister does not instruct the police to tighten the siege on a civilian settlement, and military forces do not act within sovereign borders to put down civilian demonstrations. In a democratic country, the police do not take civilians off buses in one part of the country on the basis of a claim that they may commit a (minor) offense in another part of the country."

In the effort to curtail anti-withdrawal activities, the Sharon government has borrowed a page from the Bush administration rulebook. As Gary Rosenblatt described in his important article last week, in their "disengaging from democracy," Israel's police and intelligence forces are engaged in protective detention, including of minors. While Washington can claim that its targets are terrorists or those who abet terrorism, the Shin Bet and police have arrested Israeli war veterans, mothers and children.

This is shocking conduct that must be condemned by American Jews who overwhelmingly support withdrawal, are liberal and fiercely protect basic civil rights. Except for the Orthodox Union which issued a courageous statement, no American Jewish organization has uttered a peep about Israel's widespread violation of democratic principles.

Why is the Israeli government being so harsh, even cruel? One explanation is that because withdrawal will not be easy under any circumstances, the leadership view is that if protests are allowed, opponents will be emboldened and the road to achieve the government's goals will become harder. Another explanation is that the opponents are regarded in some circles as the enemy and therefore tough measures are justified, even necessary. That is why civil wars are marked by extreme brutality.

Israel is not at the brink of civil war, nor will it be, yet those who oppose the government are being treated as the enemy. The situation is not helped by the evident fact that much but not all of the opposition to withdrawal is Dati Leumi. The charedi sector is largely disengaged from the disengagement debate. There are too many among Israel's privileged class, which is highly secular, who look at the Gaza matter as an opportunity to strike out against the National Religious camp. This is apparent in the military's vociferous campaign against Hesder, the network of yeshivas that combine religious study and military service. Hesder and its students have long been esteemed as an Israeli jewel, as an evocation of service and sacrifice. Incredibly, Hesder is now being demonized, with the military talking openly about dismantling the network.

The Gaza withdrawal will be completed. Inevitably, it will leave scars. What wasn't inevitable is how deep these scars will be. The Sharon government has taken a difficult challenge and situation and made it much worse. The wounds are open and so shall they remain for a long while.