Latest update: December 4th, 2012
Everyone remembers Israel’s wars – in 1948, 1967, and 1973 – against the Arab states that vowed to destroy it. Its wars against the terrorist regimes embedded on its borders – Fatah and then Hizbullah in Lebanon and, most recently, Hamas in Gaza – are now memorable largely for the protests they provoked from liberal and anti-Zionist critics.
But perhaps Israel’s most tormenting – and enduring – conflict is its internal struggle over the meaning of legitimacy in a Jewish state.
Within six weeks after its proclamation of independence, Israel experienced violent internal discord. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was convinced that Menachem Begin, his right-wing political opponent, was preparing a putsch to overthrow the government. He ordered the Haganah and Palmach to sink the Altalena, an Irgun ship filled with fighting men, weapons and munitions that were desperately needed to combat invading Arab armies.
In blazing gun battles at Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya, and on the Tel Aviv beach, Israeli soldiers from rival political factions shot and killed each other. Memories of the Altalena, like Banquo’s ghost, still haunt Israelis.
The current conflict over legitimacy began in November when a handful of Hesder soldiers, who combine religious study with military service, displayed a banner declaring they would not expel or evacuate Jews from settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Similar displays by other religious soldiers, torn between their loyalty to the Israel Defense Forces and the strength of their religious faith, followed. They were pilloried in secular circles for challenging the legitimacy of the state. Haaretz condemned their “insolent defiance.” The Jerusalem Post warned religious soldiers not to emulate Samson and “pull down the temple pillars upon us all.” Defense Minister Barak, not known for subtlety, declared: “We intend to use an iron fist to limit this phenomenon.”
In late November Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his controversial ten-month freeze in settlement housing construction. Touted as a peace gesture to Palestinians, it was widely recognized as blatant – even craven – capitulation to demands from President Obama.
Settler protests, with strong rabbinical support from the Hesderyeshiva movement,roiled Israeli politics for weeks. Israelis were forced to confront fundamental political questions: What defines legitimacy? Who decides?
Into this contentious struggle plunged Ehud Barak. The defense minister was eager, as always, to display state power and, not incidentally, to shore up his feeble Labor Party base. Nothing succeeds with his constituency like forcing a showdown with religious Jews – as he demonstrated a year ago with his forced expulsion of Jews from Jewish-owned property in Hebron.
After Rabbi Eliezer Melamed expressed support for the protesting religious soldiers, the defense minister summarily expelled his Hesder yeshiva from the roster of religious institutions associated with the IDF. (Yet Barak had remained silent when hundreds of university professors petitioned soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria.)
Rabbi Melamed responded pointedly: “Can it be that in the democratic state of Israel, a rabbi cannot think and speak with honesty?”
Barak seemed determined to exacerbate – and exploit -the undeniable tension that exists between state power and Jewish law. Like Ben-Gurion at the time of the Altalena crisis, Barak is prepared to apply military force to stifle domestic political opposition, while bending it to his own political advantage.
A Defense Ministry document, leaked to the press, indicated the army planned to enforce the settlement housing freeze with nothing less than six military brigades, the Border Guard, Shin Bet, police and intelligence forces, IDF reserve units, and Air Force helicopters and drones. Barak was preparing for war against his own people.
Ruhama Arbus, whose young husband served 20 days in a military jail and was expelled from his unit for raising a “Don’t Evacuate Homesh” sign, tried to explain: “He wanted to perform the mitzvah of protecting his people. Still, even if a Jewish king tells you to do something against halacha [Jewish law], you have to refuse.”
Barak, palpably infuriated by any challenge to government authority – especially from religious Jews – asserted that obedience is “the true basis of democracy.” He stated bluntly: “Tremendous force will silent any opposition.”
Undeterred, two-hundred 12th graders from all over Israel recently informed the defense minister that while they wished to perform military service they would not obey orders to expel Jews from their homes.
Their petition stated: “We consider the use of the army for political purposes and the war against Jews as a danger that can ruin the army, especially when it is involved in a grave sin against settling the Land. We declare that our faith in the Torah comes before any other law or order.”
Against this backdrop, memories of the Altalena were revived from a watery grave – not as the unmitigated tragedy it surely was but, astonishingly, as the preferred Israeli model for suppressing dissent.
Even the distinguished Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri, writing in Haaretz, praised Ben-Gurion’s “ruthless determination” in 1948 to preserve the army’s “monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”
But the cannon that sunk the Altalena on that tragic June day fired the first salvo – literally and symbolically – in a struggle over legitimacy that has tormented Israel ever since. One Altalena tragedy was enough. The State of Israel must not, yet again, set Jews against their Jewish brothers.
About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.
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