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Opponents of Israel's Gaza pullout have a choice to make

With Israel's disengagement from Gaza about to get under way, many religious Israelis are deeply divided over questions of national and religious identity. For decades, those who see themselves as "faith Zionists" have spearheaded the settlement of 250,000 Israelis in the territories occupied since 1967 (and another 200,000 around east Jerusalem's Arab neighbourhoods). Because these Israelis believe the territories are God's promised land, the government's decision to pull out of some of the land has confronted them with wrenching questions about their connection with the majority of Israelis and the state of Israel itself.

For most Canadians, religion and politics don't mix. When modern Zionism (Israel's founding ideology) was born a century ago, its supporters felt the same way. Zionism saw itself as inherently anti-theological, rejected the centuries-old religious belief that only God could return the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, and situated itself in the gallery of enlightened national movements. In response, Orthodox rabbis across Eastern Europe rejected modern Zionism and, later, spurned the secular nationalism of the Jewish state.

A "third way" emerged, known as religious Zionism, that tried to bridge what many secular and religious Jews saw as unbridgeable. It reconciled modern Zionism and God's will by viewing the state as the beginning of Jewish redemption (to be completed in some future messianic era). In this compromise with traditional theology, secular Jews were welcomed as partners in the historic state-building enterprise.

Unlike ultra-Orthodox Jews, religious Zionists participated fully in the political, economic and cultural fabric of the state while recognizing some limitations: For almost 20 years, this group's Knesset members (about 10 out of 120) were content to be junior political partners in moderate Labour governments. While their theology never supported the separation of synagogue and state, in practice they abandoned the battle to incorporate more religious aspects in the state's policies.

The turning point came in the 1970s. Young religious Zionists had interpreted Israel's miraculously quick victory in the war of 1967, and its resulting occupation of new biblical frontiers, as divine redemption. Six years later, they saw the country's near-defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War as evidence of secular Zionism's spiritual decline.

In response, a nationalist-religious movement known as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) emerged with a new "Zionist theology." The group sought to revive Israel's founding spirit by becoming pioneers in the occupied territories.

In their faith-based nationalism, this drive to settle ancient biblical sites in Judea and Samaria came at the expense of Palestinian residents and Israel's international relations. From the early 1980s, Gush Emunim writings declared that any Israeli government relinquishing any part of the occupied territories lacked legitimacy.

But how did a small minority (no more than 10 per cent of the population ever voted for religious Zionist parties) manage to galvanize support for their settlements from moderate and hard-line governments for decades? By co-opting Zionism's twin pillars of security for Jews and hityashvut, or settling the land, the settlers became the country's most effective pressure group. As long as Israel held on to the West Bank and Gaza -- first as a bargaining chip, then as a buffer from attack -- the group shrewdly exploited the status quo to finance and fortify settlements throughout the territories. Governments colluded for ideological, strategic and practical reasons and, for nearly four decades, a Gordian knot of diverse political, religious and economic interests remained uncut. For example, thousands of Israelis who moved to the settlements had nothing in common with Gush Emunim but wanted to benefit from generous housing incentives.

But the movement's success went far beyond the settlements -- and that's the source of today's vitriolic opposition to vacating Gaza.

The settlers' mutation of religious Zionism embraces all three elements of the historic Jewish triangle -- the people, the land and the Book -- as equally holy, with no room for compromise. Thus, the debate over the future of Judea and Samaria is not just political or strategic, but a comprehensive battle for Israel's Jewish identity. In Gush Emunim's theology, secular culture and those Israelis willing to compromise over the territories are both viewed as examples of modern Zionism's weakness. The faith Zionists see their role as being the vanguard of Israel's spiritual renewal.

The ideological settlers are not fighting to keep Gaza -- but to dominate the national enterprise. Their weapons are the political and financial power they've garnered over the years, and they know that tactical defeat probably means losing those strategic gains.

But the die has been cast: Whatever Israelis' positions on the country's eventual borders may be, by supporting the government's pullout from Gaza, the vast majority of the people have declared that realism -- not messianism -- will determine the country's future size and shape.

This clarity may actually create an opportunity for the children and grandchildren of Gush Emunim's founders: They can heed the zealots who are calling now for their followers to withdraw from mainstream Israel into sect-like isolation -- or they can respond to moderates inviting them to re-engage with Israel's heartland in developing a vision of sober religious Zionism.

History offers them an important lesson: Jewish messianic movements have always led to catastrophe.shiraherzog@rogers.com

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