Occupation Threatens Secularism in Israel

JERUSALEM – After Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank torched a mosque and desecrated copies of the Koran in the Palestinian village of Yasuf last Friday morning, they ran into a wall of condemnation.

The attackers were consensually branded as extremists, even by the usually uncompromising settlers and their representatives in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

President Shimon Peres went so far as to say that the attack was a blot on "our nation’s most intrinsic value," respect – even in times of conflict between Jews and Muslims – for rival faiths.

The incident sparked a heated debate over what the settlers – who are engaged in a bitter campaign against the Netanyahu government’s recent decision to partially freeze for 10 months settlement building – define as the "price tag" for that temporary clampdown on their expansion.

"Price tag": The right of anyone opposed to the settlement freeze to spew their anger on any Palestinian who gets in the way.

In the national debate following the arson attack few are ready to confront the deep-rooted reality that opposition to the settlement freeze originates from the overarching decree of ultra-nationalist rabbis that "no Jew has the right to relinquish even one single grain of the biblical Land of Israel."

Suddenly, Israelis across the board are grappling with the fact that even their secular, peace-minded, liberal president refers to faith as the cradle of the nation’s values.

Many Israelis are discovering that there are two nations, "two Israels," one the original Israel with its 1948 lines, the other "Greater Israel" within the biblical boundaries, including the West Bank.

"Greater Israel" used to be only an appendage to the other. Now, it is the recognized Israel which is fast becoming the appendage.

More and more, the "settler state" is getting the upper hand over the state of Israel in the fight for supremacy.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is the head of a national religious seminary, the graduates of which join the army as part of a special conscription program. These religious soldiers alternate military duty and rabbinical study.

Like many of its kind Melamed’s institution is located in a West Bank settlement. His Har Bracha Yeshiva seminary perches on a hillside overlooking the major Palestinian city of Nablus.

Until recently the fanaticism emanating from Har Bracha was overlooked by successive Israeli governments as just a little more extreme than other West Bank yeshiva military seminaries.

Now, at least part of the Netanyahu government and many people are growing increasingly concerned by Melamed’s hard-line teachings about the supremacy of Jewish God-given rights all over "the Biblical homeland."

The defense establishment was up in arms over Melamed’s call to his students to be ready to refuse orders should the government decide to move against the settlers.

"It is prohibited for any soldier to participate in the strictly forbidden act of expelling Jews from their homes and to hand over any portion of the Land of Israel to enemies," Melamed declared in one of his religious tracts.

Asked if this will not cause the army to collapse, Melamed’s response was: "If many refuse, no such order will be given. At most, senior commanders will have to resign. It would be good if this happened. The majority of the senior officers are contaminated by politics."

Many religious soldiers seem inclined to place such rabbinical edicts above military orders.

It is in the tradition of the Israeli army that orders may be refused by soldiers if they are considered morally untenable. In this instance, however, the ground for refusing an order is not whether it is morally tenable or not, but that it is deemed to be against Jewish religious-nationalist "principles."

On Sunday, summoned by defense minister Ehud Barak to retract publicly his calls for insubordination, Melamed contemptuously did not show up at Barak’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

Barak immediately ordered the cancellation of the special relationship enjoyed by the Har Bracha seminary, plus the sizable special funding that went with it. That was the first ever open divorce between the army establishment and the settler-military institutions.

This showdown with Rabbi Melamed exposes a battle unfolding between the Israel of the settlers and the rest of Israel. It is a battle that revolves around three poles of allegiance: loyalty to the state and its democratically elected government, to the morals that underwrote the state when it was created, and to Jewish religious law.

More and more, the settler ethos is establishing itself at the heart of national decision-making.

On Sunday, Netanyahu presented a map designating "national priority zones" to his cabinet for approval. The scheme includes many settlements which will now become entitled to millions of dollars of additional funds in the form of grants, tax benefits, and special incentives.

Netanyahu is pointedly trying to assuage the settlers and their political backers for the temporary settlement freeze.

Barak warned that some of the new money would boost the extremists. But he and his Labor Party colleagues were easily outvoted.

Opposition parties denounced the inclusion of settlements, saying it proves the government is not committed to peace with the Palestinians and "cancels any declaration made by Netanyahu regarding two states for two peoples."

The swing to the domination of the religious Right was also reflected in a recent call by Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yaakov Ne’eman, for ancient Jewish laws gradually to supersede the legal principles on which the state of Israel was founded.

Vilified, Ne’eman was forced to backtrack, though there was no condemnation from Netanyahu himself.

In the words of one of the country’s progressive columnists, Akiva Eldar, the current battle over which Israel will prevail depends on "the religious fundamentalism that is gradually metastasizing throughout Israeli society."

On Day One of the occupation, 43 years ago, prominent Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar, and scientist the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, made the dire prediction that the takeover of the destiny of another people would eat away like a cancer at Israel’s heart and soul.

The occupation would eventually come to dictate Israel’s own destiny, he prophesied.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.