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The Real Debate

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The struggle today in the land of Israel should re-ignite a debate that has existed in the Jewish world for at least 100 years – albeit submerged for long periods of time – between those who perceive Eretz Yisrael primarily as a vehicle for the sanctification of Hashem’s name and the fulfillment of the mitzvot and those who see it as a purely political, secular entity – a homeland and refuge for Jews.

There are some gradations on each side, and surely some embrace aspects of both, but the issue ultimately comes down to which is the higher value: the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael or the State of Israel – Which is the means, and which is the end? Is the State of Israel the means to optimally fulfilling the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel – in which case a State of Israel that seeks to suppress or restrict Jewish settlement loses some of its legitimacy? Or is yishuv Eretz Yisrael simply the means to establish the geographical framework of the State of Israel, in which case the State – like any state – retains the right to restructure its borders as it pleases?

This distinction is anything but theoretical. It clarifies the premises of the two sides in the original Oslo debate, removed from the sparring over security and terrorism, and elucidates the contrasting arguments in the current dispute over the right, obligation or propriety of Jewish soldiers to refuse orders to forcibly expel Jews from Gush Katif and destroy their homes. The coming cataclysm – no matter what the vote was last week or next year – is over this issue: What does the Land of Israel mean to the people of Israel?

This issue is partially obscured by the compelling personal dilemma facing every soldier who receives orders to deport his fellow Jews, in which there are respected rabbis on both sides. Certainly this question is not for me to decide, but it would behoove advocates – active or passive – of the expulsion to employ a stronger argument than the alleged obligation of every soldier to follow orders without regard to morality or conscience.

There is a sad, bitter irony in anticipating Jewish soldiers saying “I was only following orders” after dragging elderly Jews from their homes. For Jews, that phrase – a staple of our enemies in the not-too-distant past – has an especially discordant, grating ring.

That is not to say that the “expulsion is the Holocaust.” Such comparisons are as ridiculous as they are odious, and do such a disservice to defenders of Israel that one wonders whether those who utter such remarks are disinformation agents of the government designed to discredit all legitimate opposition.

But the notion that soldiers must blindly follow all orders has been discredited for quite some time, and such refusal – in cases of immoral acts against enemies – has been enshrined in the Geneva Conventions as obligatory. Soldiers are often prosecuted for unseemly acts they committed that were ordered by their superiors. At the very least, those who advocate turning the Gaza Strip into the Pale of Non-Settlement should find a better justification than merely parroting that “soldiers must blindly follow orders.”

On the other hand, an army cannot function if soldiers question every order and scrutinize every decision of their commanders. If soldiers asked a she’elah to their poskim every time a sensitive issue arose – e.g., “does the danger to my life supersede the order to enter this building or capture this hill?” – military discipline and effectiveness would collapse. The conundrum then is to devise a system that permits refusal on moral but not operational grounds, but that does not always lend itself to easy resolutions. Certainly every society’s moral norms define what is legitimate or illegitimate behavior, but the dilemma here presents a unique dimension.

Indeed, the two sides in this debate reflect the two conceptions of the land of Israel. If the paramount value is the State, and the army is the instrument of the State, then refusal to participate in any legitimate operation of the State is unjustified. If, however, the paramount value of the State is as the vehicle for fulfilling the mitzvah of settling the land, then an order to dismantle a settlement is illegitimate as it serves to negate the essential function of the State itself.

Will widespread refusal by soldiers to obey orders threaten Israel’s democracy? Certainly, it is to be hoped that the very threat of military disobedience will deter the government from pursuing a policy that might provoke civil war and split the nation. Democracy is an admirable form of government, but its limitations, and the ease with which it can be corrupted, are on full display here.

Surely supporters of a candidate for prime minister have a right to be disappointed, even infuriated and disgusted, by a leader who before the election ridicules and disparages his opponent’s platform of unilateral withdrawal, and then shortly after the election embraces it wholeheartedly. Yet, that is exactly what Prime Minister Sharon did, without explanation and with obvious contempt for the electorate, the norms of democracy, and for his erstwhile opponent Amram Mitzna.

It would surely be devastating to have the unity of the nation torn asunder by the mass refusal of soldiers to join a military operation directed against their fellow citizens, rather than their common enemy. On the other hand, unleashing a people’s army against its fellow citizens is equally, if not more, devastating; and, one could cogently argue, the first shot in a tragic civil war. Perhaps, then, the call for refusal is best understood for its deterrent effect – a call to a wayward government to regain its senses – and as a reiteration of the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael as the primary function and purpose of the State.

How did we reach such a sad state of affairs, and how can we extricate ourselves? In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham, promised the land of Israel for his descendants, asked Hashem, “How can I know that I will inherit the land?” Hashem answered several verses later that “you will surely know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs for four hundred years,” an immediate reference to the sojourn in Egypt, but, as Rashi notes, a vision of the tribulations and darkness of all the future exiles.

But how does this answer Avraham’s question?

Avraham asked a very profound question: How can I know that my descendants will inherit this land? How can I be guaranteed that they will always be worthy of the land of Israel? Indeed, how can I be guaranteed that they will even want it? Maybe they will prefer to live in Teaneck? Maybe they will dwell in the land of Israel but tire of it, and be tempted to abandon it to their neighbors?

Hashem answered by putting Avraham into a deep slumber, and affording him a vision of the future exiles. The guarantor of our possession of the land of Israel is, paradoxically, exile. Only a nation with a concept of exile – only a nation that feels itself in exile – can ever remain permanently bonded to its land and its past. The institution of exile, not the factual reality of exile, safeguards our national identity and our ineradicable relationship with the land of Israel. Most people who move to a new land lose their national character and assimilate into the host country. Eighty percent of Americans marry outside their ethnic background. They assume a new national identity, as Americans. Jews are different.

Exile for Jews is a curse, but it is also contains a blessing. It is a punishment, but a constructive punishment – as dispensed by a good parent who wisely disciplines an unruly child. It guaranteed that as a nation we would never be destroyed or disappear but would always remain connected to the Torah and the Land, despite the political machinations, the corruption, the hypocrisy and the desecration of Hashem’s name. That connection is a metaphysical one, and cannot be lost for a moment or a millennium.

It is fascinating, therefore, that the majority of Israeli opposition to the surrender of Gaza and the appeasement of terrorists comes from the religious community, which understands the philosophical concept of exile, and the community of immigrants – former Americans, Russians, Sefardim, etc. – who lived and remember the reality of exile. The average Israeli, who never tasted the bitterness of exile, has developed other priorities.

When Yaakov slept and dreamt in Parshat Vayetzei, the Torah says that he awoke and prophesied. The Torah never says that Avraham awoke, because Avraham’s vision is the pattern of our existence: exile and return, exile and return, exile and return. Whether we are trapped again in the downward spiral of that pattern or can overcome it is the question of the immediate future. It will require looking beyond the smokescreen of soldiers and their orders and to the real question of what is Israel – a land like all lands or the eternal gift of Hashem to the Jewish people, the ideal setting for the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments.


Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey.

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About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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