More Jewish, less Israeli
Were it not for his age (he is already 60), Yohanan Ben-Yaakov could have been a “poster boy” for the classical-official religious Zionism that was once the partner of all Israelis. At least this seems true when one looks at his biography: He was born in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion before the 1948 War of Independence, the descendant of a family all of whose members, except for his father and uncle, were exterminated in the Holocaust. His father and uncle were killed in the battles for Gush Etzion in the War of Independence (he eventually chose the name “Ben-Yaakov” after his late father, Yaakov Klapholtz), and he became the scion of the family. In 1967, Ben-Yaakov was part of the first group of Kfar Etzion “natives” who returned to reestablish their community – not before confronting Hanan Porat and others, and insisting that they not establish it on their own initiative, but only after an official government decision was taken (which it eventually was) in favor of such a move.
For years, Ben-Yaakov was a guide in the local field school and was active in the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement. From 1982-1988, he even served as its secretary general; during some of that time he was the chair of the Israel Council of Youth Movements as well. On Independence Day 1986, he lit one of the torches at the annual ceremony, thanks to his “unique contribution to Israeli democracy.” In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of immigration to Israel, he began to be involved in Jewish and Zionist education for the Jews in the Commonwealth of Independent States – an area he still coordinates on behalf of the Ministry of Education, in addition to being in charge of the pre-army mechinot (preparatory institutes) at the ministry.
In terms of his political outlook, Ben-Yaakov seems to be a classic representative of the term “moderate right-wing”: He supports the basic right of settlement in Yesha (Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip), but believes that we should not have accepted the ongoing lack of civil rights for millions of Palestinians. In his opinion, the desirable solution would be to impose Israeli sovereignty on the territories, and to grant citizenship to any Palestinian who accepted the condition (that he suggests presenting to Jews and Israeli Arabs as well) of taking an oath of loyalty to the state, and doing national service.
Nevertheless, in practice he believed that the settlements should be located according to the Israeli consensus, which is why he was opposed to settlement in the Gaza Strip, even when the Labor governments initiated it. For the same reason, he differed sharply with his friends in the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement – including Porat, a member of his own kibbutz – who aimed to settle all the territories as quickly as possible, without considering opposing political viewpoints. Incidentally, he sees this disregard as constituting the heart of the messianism of Gush Emunim, which is why he refused to join the movement. In the religious sphere as well, Ben-Yaakov was active, along with his friends in Bnei Akiva and in the Religious Kibbutz Movement, against the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) tendencies that have become widespread in religious Zionism.
And now, this week, even this statesmanlike man is furious. In effect, it was surprising to discover how “orange” he is – not only in what he says, but mainly in his fervor and fury. He is so angry that he is having second thoughts about the alliance with the secular world. He does not talk in terms of turning his back on it entirely, but he definitely does speak of the fact that “on the axis between Jewishness and Israeliness, we have to turn more in the Jewish direction, to conduct a dialogue with the Haredi community, even at the expense of the dialogue with the liberal-democratic elite.” When these words come from a man such as Ben-Yaakov, they testify to the fact that the fury and the harsh conclusions are not limited to the rabbis and to those identified as “Hardalim” (Haredi religious-nationalists).
Ben-Yaakov: “I was opposed to settlement in Gaza, and I even wrote about it in Nekuda [the settlers’ journal]. But Israeli governments were the ones who initiated this settlement. It was the Housing Ministry that used threats to force us, members of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, to turn the outpost of Netzarim into a civilian settlement, when we opposed its location. So after all that, to come and crush a life-long enterprise initiated by Israeli governments, is swinish cruelty hard to describe in words.
“And for what? Sharon’s speech on television broke my heart with its disdain and its alienation. He said: The situation has changed. What situation has changed? After all, the Americans specifically said that they didn’t ask for this step, and at first they were even opposed to it. If at least we were to reap some benefit from this move. If, for example, Sharon had agreed with the Americans and the Europeans on some major step for rehabilitating the refugees in Gaza, which would dry up the swamp of terror there. In the present situation, the disengagement won’t even contribute to the demographic balance between the Jordan River and the sea, because we aren’t surrendering control over the air space and the sea of Gaza, and in any case, we will continue to be considered the occupiers.
“Even saving the settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria is a lie. After all, not only is Sharon not imposing sovereignty on these blocs, Disengagement Administration head Yonatan Bassi is not even allowing the evacuees from the Gaza Strip to move there. Therefore, the disengagement has only one component: the uprooting of the Jewish settlements. And it is clear that the motives for doing so are personal rather than governmental. I’m not talking only about the investigations against Sharon, but also about the desire of Israeli prime ministers to enter history as those who brought peace.”
However, Ben-Yaakov explains that his greatest crisis of faith today does not stem from Sharon, but from the “knights of democracy in Israel”: “Blatantly anti-democratic steps were taken here – Sharon campaigned on a certain platform, and turned to a totally different policy. He in effect gave all his voters a slap in the face, and said: You don’t interest me … I’m the only one who counts! He didn’t even feel a need to explain to the nation the change that had taken place in him. Afterward, he was pressured to ask for the agreement of his electorate, and when he failed in that, he simply ignored them. He removed ministers who interfered with him from the cabinet, and when the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet [security service] expressed reservations about the moves, he got rid of them, too.
“In the face of all this, where are those who spoke of democratic decisions? Of brotherhood and unity? Where are all the partners to social pacts? How are they letting such a thing take place in a country that is called democratic? I want to see them going to the schools now and preaching democracy; who will believe them? Their hypocrisy hurts me more than anything else in this process, just because all these years I have felt committed to this partnership and to democratic decisions. This is an exposure of their nakedness in the most contemptible way possible. At the moment of truth, it has turned out that their support for evacuating settlements causes them to abandon all the rules they preached, and that everything is hollow and empty.”
Nor does Ben-Yaakov ignore the mistakes made by religious Zionism all along, such as the “messianism” in locating settlements, while ignoring the Israeli consensus. However, he emphasizes that “when it comes to the nature of the settlement enterprise in Gush Katif, we have no need for soul-searching. These are simple farmers, people who came from various social classes. They did not build magnificent castles, but rather modest and, for the most part communal, settlements. This is not an enterprise that was established on Arab lands, and nobody took anything from any Arab. These are lands nobody had settled in the past. These are people who, even when thousands of mortars were fired on them, didn’t complain and didn’t threaten to leave. Their only mistake was that many people there voted for Sharon.”
In general, he feels that the main historical mistake of religious Zionism was political: “We erred when we destroyed the `historical alliance’ with the Labor movement and contributed to the removal of a central political camp from the arena. We should have insisted on the idea of national unity governments, even over the long term. That is a mistake that also led to a spirit of revenge on the part of that camp, as writer Amos Oz said during his famous visit to the settlement of Ofra: `You stole our crown, and we won’t forgive you.'”
On the other hand, Ben-Yaakov praises the functioning of the Yesha Council in the present conflict: “Only the statesmanlike responsibility they displayed enabled the plan to be implemented, although they could have prevented it. Sharon should have kissed their feet, because had he stood at the head of the opponents of disengagement, he would really have prevented it from being carried out.”
An empty, hollow public
From this entire analysis, he has reached the conclusion that there is a historical rupture: “In 1911, there was a split in religious Zionism, and some people left and founded Agudath Israel. From that day to this, a line has been drawn, which maintains that the central axis that divides the Jewish people is the Zionist axis – either you go with Zionism or without it, even if not necessarily against it. And all along, religious Zionism has unequivocally gone with Zionism. With deep sorrow, I say that this axis has now been broken, because those who speak in the name of Zionism on the left, are operating in the name of a hollow and false value system. So today I define the axis not with the question of who defines himself as a Zionist, but who really takes Jewish values into consideration. And the Haredi community does in fact take Jewish values into account – and I differ with many of them – but in their community there is no possibility of such a total trampling of values, because they are so strongly anchored. Democracy was supposed to serve as the parallel for secular society, and it turned out that this is not the case.”
The practical significance of this conclusion is “a greater closeness than in the past to the Haredi community, a desire for dialogue with it, without giving up my identity and my views,” and less dialogue with the liberal-democratic elites. “That does not mean I’ll call on someone to give up even a part of the burden assumed by religious Zionism, and not only in the army. Nor will that happen, in my view. The youths and the adults of religious Zionism are too strong and established in their world view to experience a profound rupture – either in their religious faith or in Zionism; perhaps here and there, on the margins. I don’t see a decline in motivation to serve in combat units. On the contrary: Registration for the pre-army programs has flourished, even during the past year. This is voluntarism that comes from profound values, and therefore it cannot be destroyed by the clash with a culture that lacks values.
“I don’t see a distancing from Zionist values, except on the part of that same public that is increasingly being seen as empty and hollow. What will happen, and in fact should have happened long ago, is a decline in the power of the rabbis, particularly those called the gedolim [greats] of religious Zionism [Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu – Y.S.]. It turns out that they don’t read the map correctly – not in declaring `It won’t happen,’ not in calls to refuse to obey orders, heeded only by a few.”
Although Ben-Yaakov estimates that the renewed dialogue with the Haredi community will not necessary lead to an adoption of its views, he sees a possibility that the national religious camp will increasingly become closer to the Hardali position: “I have to say frankly: With all the battles waged by me and my friends against turning modesty in dress and behavior into a main factor in our lives, it is clear that this is a reaction to the intolerable permissiveness of the society in which we live. Therefore, it is possible that externally, our public will look more Hardali, but it will not give up its basic values.”
And in summary: “In Hebrew, the word mashber [crisis in English] refers [also] to the place where the woman sits to give birth, the place where new life is born, and that in my opinion is what is happening to us – mashber, rather than shever [rupture]. There will be a birth here of a new identity; religious Zionism that will become more `Jewish’ in orientation, even at the expense of its `Israeli’ aspect. And we should recall that historically speaking, the descendants of the kingdom of Judea were the only ones who survived, and not the descendants of the kingdom of Israel.”