Just Between Us
The following article is a cry from the heart that we believe deserves to be heard, even though some of the author’s language might be found objectionable by some of our readers. It reflects an opinion that we know is shared by others, although we cannot be sure by how many. The editors feel it is important to share these words as they carry considerable implications for the future of Religious Zionism. We hope that the article will stimulate reaction and discussion. Ed.
The Israel Defense Forces Recruitment Office, here in Jerusalem, assigned me a military fitness profile of ninety-seven (out of ninety-seven, despite nearsightedness) and a quality group ranking of fifty-six (out of fifty-six). These, together with my dual citizenship and bilingual fluency from birth, left me a prime catch for the special operations sections and the most advanced (and dangerous) combat units to which a patriotic young Israeli could aspire to volunteer. The IDF invited me to try out for ten of its most enviable assignments, including joining an elite unit of military intelligence or the special operations unit of the Mossad or taking a naval commander’s course. I responded with gusto, enthusiastically attending each of these auditions and seriously weighing my opportunities to dedicate myself, life and limb, to the State of Israel and its defense forces. In short, I was an exemplar of Religious Zionism at its most motivated, patriotic best. I was truly the “salt of the earth”—as the judge called me at my arraignment hearing, following my brutal arrest for criticizing a high-ranking police officer physically abusing a five-year-old protester at a nonviolent anti-disengagement demonstration.
Yet, much has changed here in Israel in the months following my arraignment in July. Today, I, along with countless friends and like-minded contemporaries, view military service in particular and service to the state in general as something to minimize, avoid, or evade outright. We are not jaded; we have simply relinquished our illusions.
Truthfully, my doubts began before the expulsion of the residents of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria and the destruction of their homes, towns, and lives. In 2002, the government ordered the IDF to raze the terrorist infrastructure responsible for an unprecedented spate of bombings in city centers throughout Israel. The attack force of the “Chomat Magen” Operation, comprising reservists and enlisted soldiers, was comparable in size to the force that battled eight enemy armies in the Six-Day War. Dictating the extraordinary appropriation of manpower, however, was not military strategy but the decision to send infantry into the most lethally infested terror nests in urban settings—in lieu of temporary civilian evacuation followed by a siege or aerial bombardment. The latter course would have ensured victory; the former guaranteed the opposite—and scores of readily avoidable casualties among our soldiers. A perverse morality demanded of our finest youth the supreme sacrifice only to protect the well-being of sworn terrorists and their families. How do you console families of soldiers (including the family of a friend of mine from yeshivah high school) who know their sons gave their lives to prevent not terror attacks in Israeli cities but only possible collateral damage from aerial bombardment of the terrorist infrastructure in Arab ones? More pointedly: How warped must a government be to consider its best sons more expendable than those of its most implacable foes?
I concede that these observations regarding the so-called morality of leading leftist oligarchs are not new. The prevailing wisdom among Religious Zionists was that secular domination of the government and army is demographically doomed, and we will soon supplant leftist values—however perverted or nonexistent—with our own, Jewish ones. The expulsions and destructions of recent months belie such idyllic delusions. Not one putatively observant, senior military officer arose with the courage to forfeit his career for the sake of his conscience. All five of the officers in active service in the entire army who bothered to protest were low ranking, had already elected not to pursue military careers, and were on the brink of demobilization. Nearly all the rest—even reservist officers—retracted their conscientious objections at the first threat of prosecution. Admittedly, on the one hand, kippot abound nowadays at the IDF Officer Training School in Mitzpe Rimon. On the other hand, their wearers’ conduct has corroborated the prescient observation of certain rabbis: “More than the religious conquered officer training, officer training conquered the religious.”
Who are these “patriots” who executed the expulsion and destruction of Gush Katif with such legendary efficiency? Predictably, the leftist-dominated media here (and elsewhere) highlighted the so-called surrealistic moments of embrace and tears. We who were expelled experienced a different reality. Most of the soldiers displayed no emotions at all. The more advanced came equipped with mantras like “This is a democratic state” and “The law is the law.” Holocaust survivors we know heard, literally, for at least the second time, their captors declare that they “were just following orders.” The most thoughtful of our expellers conceded, “Listen, it’s my livelihood.” The exceptionally compassionate allowed, “It’s your job to protest; it’s our job to expel you.” There were even officers who told the families they were expelling from their homes that they had volunteered for this “nationalistic mission.” Realistically, what else might we expect from an education so utterly devoid of moral values, Jewish or otherwise? In general, they exemplified the outstanding (and expensive) IDF pre-expulsion indoctrination they had received: They were well-versed in condescension and psychological warfare—directed against their peaceful, hapless, civilian victims. Wherever efficiency was threatened, they were unapologetically brutal automatons. At best, even occasional words of apparent sympathy were transparently rehearsed, thoughtless, and insensitive. None of the soldiers seemed bothered about lounging comfortably in the garden of a family they had just driven from their home and herded onto the army buses. After all, who would object to taking some chairs out of a newly emptied home to relax on its patio as the former residents gazed from afar? When you shoot someone, you don’t pay for the torn shirt.
Is there any wonder that the connection established between these “warriors” and me has sundered in advance any bond that might have developed between us? Could I ever see myself standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the future as comrades in arms? Moreover, how can I possibly conceive of myself joining forces with such people in executing the orders of the state that sent them to perpetrate this crime against my brethren?
Note this well: The army, for all its depravity, was only one cog of a vast machine. The institutional immorality that enabled the destruction of Gush Katif and the utter ruin of its people’s lives is not indicative of some blighted component of the system. It is endemic to the system as a whole and permeates every arm of the state. Imagine if a leftist leader had been elected, only to announce a year afterward the annexation of the so-called administered territories. Would he have succeeded? What would the media have commented? What conspiratorial webs they would have spun! What would the Supreme Court justices, with their famous judicial activism—not to mention the United Nations—have done? Would the army, let alone the police, have lifted a finger against irate left-wing protesters? The media, the courts, the army, and the police all collaborated with a demagogic oligarchy to enable the destruction to take place.
I should invite anyone who refuses to believe the extent of institutional corruption in the entire system to endure what I endured. I was beaten and brutalized by riot police, while standing on the sidewalk, for shouting at their commander to stop punching a five-year-old (!) attempting to join other nonviolent protesters who had blocked traffic. The commander charged at me, hurled me to the ground, and then had five of his underlings pin my arms and legs and pummel me mercilessly. Only after they had all finished venting their rage, did they decide to arrest me and haul me off, handcuffed. By then, I was bruised and bloody, black and blue and covered with scratches, with open wounds on my hands and ear. My crimes? Manifold: “Endangering human lives on a vehicular route” and “blocking a traffic artery”—even though for the entire duration I was standing on the sidewalk—and “assaulting a police officer,” despite having attacked no one, even in self-defense, as the police continued to batter me. At the same demonstration, a band of leftist brutes brandishing screwdrivers threatened peaceful antigovernment protesters armed only with their voices, yet the police did not even reprimand any of the former, let alone arrest them. Upon reaching the infamous Russian Compound prison, I was given only half a mattress on which to sleep, because the police had hauled off so many demonstrators that the prison ran out of beds. Indeed, after cramming as many people as possible into the jail block, the police left many more to sleep in the prison courtyard, in the cold and damp Jerusalem night air. En route to our arraignment hearing, several of us (including me) merited yet another dose of special police treatment; we were thrashed by a high-ranking officer, who then had his men drag us down a flight of stairs on our backs.
In court, the judge contributed his share of judicial “impartiality” by first declaring the hearing closed to outsiders (including family members and reporters), because of the spurious claim that we were minors (I was twenty years old at the time, and others were considerably older). Then, in a breathtaking feat of judicial creativity, he ruled that protesters could legitimately be indicted for blocking traffic even if they were standing on the sidewalk—since the street was not wide enough to accommodate everyone, and therefore anyone nearby could be presumed culpable even without actually doing anything illegal. Really, what can be expected of a system so permeated by antireligious fervor—especially one that perpetuates itself by ensuring that existing judges effectively choose their successors without any meaningful outsider review?
On a personal note, even the police prosecutor conceded that there was essentially no evidence at all against me, but still insisted on (and was of course granted) my remand to allow the prosecution the leisure of interrogating a police officer “witness” while I was still in jail. A week later, when finally even the prosecutor and his collaborators in the judiciary had run out of excuses for my continued imprisonment, the “witness” had still not been interrogated and, to the best of my knowledge, never was. But by then it was eminently clear that due process was not part of the agenda. The goal of both the police and the courts had nothing to do with serving justice and everything to do with cowing prisoners into trumped-up confessions that would facilitate their swift indictment and, in general, with bludgeoning the government’s opposition into submission. I was fortunate in that even the police were unable to fabricate a credible case against me. After a week, I was freed without bail and without the permanent physical and emotional scars so many others endured. I still face an ongoing campaign of police harassment, having been threatened repeatedly with retaliation (in the form of trumped-up charges) for having the temerity to lodge complaints against my uniformed assailants. But many of my friends are facing ominous indictments with long lists of fabricated charges, backed by police “witnesses” and brazen lies—and tacit judicial approbation.
Similarly, while we may seek in investigative reporting a critical insurance against tyranny, no one will find any of it in the tendentious mainstream media here. Complying (or conspiring) with the police’s falsities about both the protest itself and the number of activists arrested, the media deliberately disseminated lies and blatantly distorted figures to conform to the government’s agenda. I once naively believed that the press is merely selective in choosing which stories to report or suppress and which sort of vocabulary to employ in presenting them. (An armed terrorist becomes an “Arab youth,” expulsion becomes “disengagement,” peaceful protesters become “right-wing extremists,” et cetera.) Over the past few months, however, I have learned that apparently respectable journalists have no qualms about knowingly fabricating the “facts” they report. In those incidents in which I participated personally or to which I bore direct witness, the brazenness of reporters’ fictions was boundless. Considered together, the media, the judiciary, and the armed forces provide the government with a system so rotten that it has successfully eliminated even the most basic potential checks and balances of its own corruption.
Given this reality, we had better reevaluate our strategy of blithely striving to integrate into the system and change it from within. This approach stems from an especially malignant form of blissfully ignorant optimism that obsesses upon such irrelevant statistics as the number of kippah-wearing officers. No religious sensitivity interfered with such officers obeying and enforcing not only the orders of expulsion but also those that deliberately mandated violating Shabbat to ready the infrastructure for the destruction—a “nationalistic mission” after all—in advance (as the IDF did flagrantly Shabbat Chazon of last year, on the eve of Tishah B’Av and the expulsion). Candidly, how much could be expected of such officers, when the IDF Rabbinate itself was preoccupied only with granting wholesale “halachic” permits to soldiers to expel Jews from their homes in Eretz Yisrael and destroy their property, without even countenancing prodigious rabbinical opposition?
The same applies to kippah-clad judges. Supposedly observant judges, in the worst tradition of “court Jews,” gave the stamp of judicial approval—against a virtually unanimous rabbinical ruling—to the government’s plan to destroy all the synagogues of Gush Katif. They provided legal approbation for the unprecedented decision that those arrested for opposing the government were “ideological criminals,” who should therefore be punished with exceptional severity. Yet, in contrast with their activist stance, when the courts deemed “a danger to society” those who courageously declared that their allegiance to the laws of the Torah takes precedence over their allegiance to the laws of the State—and consequently remanded them indefinitely—the so-called religious judges issued no words of dissent.
It is time to realize that the ruling oligarchies here are meticulously selective in granting “representation” to the religious sector. Before placing anyone apparently observant in a position of influence, they carefully screen him to ensure that his values and views conform to those of the system. Anyone suspected of “dual loyalty” may land a good dead-end job but never a promotion to an influential slot. Those who “make it” are exploited, often voluntarily—like the head of the so-called “Disengagement Authority”—as tools to implement the government’s edicts against the community whence they came. All too often, they exude limitless tolerance for every population sector and interest group except their own.
Ironically and most painfully, this applies to wide swaths of the so-called leadership of our own Religious Zionist community itself. Many dedicated their efforts to placating the government, while lulling their flocks into complacency with promises of impending victory. Low-level neighborhood rabbis, who would unhesitatingly defer to more learned rabbinical leaders with basic halachic questions, arrogated to themselves supreme authority, blithely ignoring their own teachers, forbidding soldiers to disobey expulsion orders and forbidding civilians to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. At the time, those were the only worldly measures that could have realistically derailed the government’s plan. Inaction was equivalent to acquiescence. By refusing to stand up against evil, these putative leaders became its accomplices. No wonder that, among activist youth, the Yesha Council was nicknamed the Pesha Council (pesha means crime).
The old guard of the Religious Zionist camp, set in its ways, prefers to maintain at all costs the delusional self-image of being a bridge between secular Israel and the so-called ultra-religious. As a child, I participated in innumerable activities intended to inculcate this message in Religious Zionist youth. But whatever was left of that illusion crumbled with the ruined homes and towns of Gush Katif, destroyed by a government comprising an alliance of the secular Left and Agudat Yisrael as full partners—and relating to the Centrist Orthodox and Religious Zionists as pariahs. The reality is that nonobservant Israelis may loathe what they perceive as black-coated, isolationist Agudah Jews, but they do not fear them. On the contrary, they get along quite well in back-scratching, symbiotic ventures. After all, the stereotypical ultra-Orthodox community keeps to itself, and so long as the State bankrolls its institutions and refrains from drafting its sons, it is satisfied and cooperative. Our community—especially the youth—represents the ultimate and most terrifying challenge to the secularist ruling class: We unabashedly proclaim our intention to take over. We do not conceal our desire and intent eventually to wrest control of the government, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media—all the focal points of power, which are all currently leftist-dominated fiefdoms. Many of us have only lately come to the realization that our only leverage is through determined activism. The establishment never did and never will befriend us. It is time to recognize that all our overtures of affection will fall inevitably upon deaf ears and lead us nowhere.
Actualizing our ultimate goals will not come easily. The optimistic dreams of a straightforward demographic takeover—through the higher birthrate of the religious community and secularist yeridah (emigration from Israel)—will remain only dreams. Demography alone, if anything, in the long term favors the Arabs and Bedouins. The leftists, in any case, are openly discussing instituting absentee balloting for Israeli elections, as it exists in the United States and elsewhere, for the express purpose of enfranchising the legions of like-minded yoredim who live abroad. The ruling oligarchy will never willingly relinquish the reins of power.
Our putative leaders seem hell-bent on driving us all into a gaping abyss. With such dismal prospects ahead, it is difficult for my generation to cast off the pervasive gloom. There is a pop song by Yehonatan Gefen that we feel speaks directly to us:
They say it was happy here before I was born,
And everything was simply wonderful until I arrived:
A Hebrew Shomer1 on a white horse in a black night;
On the bank of the Kinneret, Trumpeldor2 was a hero;
In small Tel Aviv, red sands, one Bialik,3
Two sycamore trees, and beautiful people filled with dreams.
“We came to this Land to build and be built,
For ours, ours, ours is this Land.
Here, where you see the lawn,
There were once only mosquitoes and swamps.”
They said that once there was here a magnificent dream;
But, when I came to see, I didn’t find anything.
It could be that it’s all finished;
It could be that it’s all finished.
These words best capture our feelings. We were born into a fractured and divided state, to terror attacks and expulsions and so-called peace treaties. In the past quarter century, the only war Israel fought led not to victory but to divisiveness. The expulsions have caused fury and frustration. The terror attacks only corroborated for each bickering side that its opponent was wrong. In short, the closest we have been to a semblance of national celebration in the last twenty-five years was perhaps the European championship victories of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Olympic gold medal of Gal Fridman or ranking first place in the Eurovision. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, my friends and I didn’t succeed in really experiencing happiness on any of those occasions. We never truly had an opportunity to rejoice on Yom Ha’atzmaut, because, despite the obligation of thanksgiving for the miracles of the past, we feel impelled simultaneously to scream out apprehensively over the future. Steeped in so bleak a “post-Zionist” present, we naturally feel much less connected to the State’s idyllic past than our parents. Regrettably, when we see a soldier in uniform, we envision before us not those who liberated the Temple Mount but those who ruthlessly expelled us from Gush Katif. When we see police officers, our reflexive associations are not with legitimate law enforcement but with uniformed thuggery and brutality.
Yet, paradoxically, if any ray of optimism is to be found, it is in my frustrated generation. This strip of land, soaked with the blood, sweat, and tears of our people, remains the one God gave us. Our presence here, in Eretz Yisrael—as opposed to anywhere else in the world—remains the most meaningful commitment to, and investment in, the future of the Jewish people. And we are not running away. Thus, ironically, this wonderful youth, brimming with dedication and idealism—battered by the police, imprisoned by the courts, expelled by the army, harassed by the government, vilified by the media, and silenced by the supposed Religious Zionist leadership—is the nation’s only hope. We are impervious to threats that unless we “behave” the army will not accept us, because the army and its various cohorts no longer inspire our admiration. We went to jail in high spirits, singing in the prisons and in the courthouses, because of our faith in something immeasurably more sublime and enduring than all the institutions of the State, which we no longer revere. This unflappable youth that cannot be cowed and will not be silenced, free of illusions and fears, heralds a new future. If the old guard of Religious Zionism continues to marginalize us or lull us with platitudes, at best it will sunder and shatter our community, with potentially tragic consequences of historic proportions. However, if, God willing, our generation wrests the reins of power from both the secularist oligarchy and our own detached and antiquated leadership, I can truly see a bright future ahead. May we live to see it, speedily, in our days.
Mr. Eisen is currently a student at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem. He also serves as the national counselor training coordinator of Ariel, a nationwide youth movement affiliated with the Religious Zionist educational network Merchavia. Although he lives with his parents and siblings in Jerusalem, the family joined the thousands who relocated to Gush Katif in the weeks leading up to the expulsion and destruction last summer, which they experienced firsthand. This article was translated from the Hebrew.
- A Shomer was a member of Hashomer, the first modern, organized Jewish self-defense organization, established by immigrants of the Second Aliyah, under the guidance of Yisrael Shochat, in 1909. Within four to five years, Hashomer took over the guard duty of all the Jewish settlements in the Lower Galilee and several of the larger ones in Judea and Samaria, effectively re-creating the image of the Jewish fighter. Hashomer was the first stage in the development of a pre-state military force.
- Yosef Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was a legendary symbol of pioneering and armed defense in Eretz Yisrael. He was deputy commander of the Zion Mule Corps, founder and first chairman of Hechalutz, and, finally, a valiant defender of Tel Chai. Mortally wounded there, his famous last words were, “Never mind; it is good to die for our Land.”
- Chayyim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), acclaimed as the greatest Hebrew poet of modern times, was among the principal cultivators of modern Israeli culture, over which he exercised a profound influence.