Sunday, September 01, 1996

Wieseltier on Gaza

The Fall
by Leon Wieseltier

Post date 08.25.05 | Issue date 09.05.05


Even faced with the idea of Greater Palestine, it is impossible not to rejoice in the defeat of the idea of Greater Israel. It was always a foul idea, morally and strategically. It promoted the immediate ecstasy of the few above the eventual safety of the many; it introduced the toxins of messianism and mysticism into the politics of a great modern democracy; it preferred chosenness to human rights; it subordinated laws to visions, and the Jewish state to the Jewish millennium; it worshiped soil in a primitive, almost un-Jewish way. The settlers of the West Bank and Gaza are not a Jewish vanguard, they are a Jewish sect; and in their insistence that the destiny of their state and their society should be held hostage to the fulfillment of their metaphysical and historical conceptions, they have always displayed a sectarian self-love.

In the settlement of Netzarim earlier this year, the settlers published a book whose title might be translated as Super-Natural Living: Tales of Life in Gush Katif, a collection of testimonies about the idyll of Jewish existence in Gaza. It is chilling to read, because of its unreality. "The Arabs say to each other, and to their Jewish neighbors, that until the Jews arrived to settle in this region, there was almost no rain. It was impossible to grow anything in the sands. But since we returned here, the rains have started to fall, and the land generously produces its bounty. ... This is without a doubt the fulfillment of the prophecy [in Ezekiel] about the redemption of Israel: 'But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel.'" There are no mountains in Gaza, but never mind. The settlers in Gaza created a magical world for themselves, an introverted universe of endless miracles. They were indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the decidedly unmagical and unmiraculous effects of their enterprise in the bitter world beyond.

For this reason, when I behold the photographs of the settlers in Gaza uprooted by Israeli soldiers, empathy almost completely deserts me. I seem to have a heart of stone, and I am not entirely embarrassed by it. More precisely, I regard the eviction of the settlers as the appropriate reward for their own hearts of stone. For many other Jews gave their lives and their limbs so that these Jews could grow their holy tomatoes and study their holy texts in this desert. In order to satisfy their individual and collective aspirations, the Israeli civilians who lived in Gaza required the sacrifice of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In the years of Jewish settlement in Gaza, 230 Israelis were killed there. A substantial number of them were soldiers. Why is the life of a Jew in a uniform worth less than the life of a Jew in a greenhouse? That is stone-heartedness. And yet one hears mainly about the sacrifices of the settlers. Surely the same stirring revival of Zionist agronomy could have been accomplished in the equally arid zones a few miles to the north or the east, in a place called Israel.

One hears a great deal, too, about the courage of the settlers, and about this, too, we should be clear: throughout their experiment in revising the meaning of Israeli statehood and denying the possibility of Palestinian statehood, the settlers enjoyed the protection of a fearsomely powerful army, whose energies they diverted from more pressing tasks, especially in times of crisis. They required, and they deserved, the protection of the Israeli army against their wild neighbors, who, unimpeded by their politics and incited by their religion, frequently rained rockets and other kinds of terror upon the intruding enclaves; but the vulnerability of the settlements was not evidence of their validity, or of their bravery. In Zichron Yaakov and Rishon L'Tzion and Tel Hai and Deganya and Hebron and elsewhere in the 1910s and 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, Jewish settlers were brave. But in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s? They lived dangerously, to be sure; but living dangerously is not the same thing as living heroically.

These settlers were not pioneers, they were pawns--the eager and fervid pawns of various Israeli governments acting on a grandiose geopolitical scheme whose futility has finally become apparent to a majority of the citizens of Israel. For a few decades the settlers seemed to be winning, and now, at least in Gaza, they have lost. That is all. It is a tragedy for their movement, but it is not a tragedy for their nation. "As Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza," wrote a prominent rabbi in New York, "it is not only natural but also proper that we experience a keen sense of mourning over our loss." But the disengagement from Gaza is not our loss. If our interest is in the delineation of defensible borders for Israel, it is our gain. The withdrawal is an act of historical wisdom. I will not squander my powers of sorrow over these dangerous and delirious places. In the years in which 230 Israelis were killed in Gaza, moreover, 2,600 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Many of those deaths are plainly attributable to internecine Palestine violence, and more generally to the virulently rejectionist character of Palestinian nationalism; but Palestinian costs are human costs, too. Empathy is not a tribal faculty, it is a universal faculty, and such universalism is also a teaching of the Jewish tradition. The suffering in Gaza has been everywhere too great.

For the settlers, however, empathy is, as a matter of principle, a feeling only for the tribe. This was the lesson of the slogan that they coined for their resistance to Sharon: "A Jew does not expel a Jew." Whereas a non-Jew does expel a Jew, and did so quite regularly in the history of the Jews in exile. The word "expulsion" was not used only descriptively here. It would have been just as accurate to call Ariel Sharon's action an eviction or an evacuation. No, the portrayal of the action as an expulsion was a political exploitation of history. It proposed a cluster of historical analogies: that this is a persecution like the old persecutions, that Sharon is like the infamous emperors and kings. On the day of their evacuation the settlers in Kfar Darom unfurled a banner that vowed, kfar darom will not fall again!; the papers explained that this was a reference to the destruction of an earlier Jewish outpost on this site during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, but the Hebrew phrase referred unmistakably to the old motto about Masada. An "autopogrom," wrote a commentator in The Washington Post who obviously knows nothing about pogroms. And the hysterical analogies reached as far as the most obscene one. "Unfortunately, I am no longer surprised when a Jew compares me and other Israeli officials to Nazis," the Israeli minister of construction and housing wrote in The New York Times. "It has become part of the rhetoric of those who oppose withdrawal, including the tiny minority who threaten violent resistance."

But then he added, unaware of the sentimental complicity to which he was admitting: "But every member of the government understands the painful symbolism involved in displacing Jews." Is that so? In the case of Gaza, such symbolism is not painful. It is false, and a little sick. It is the expression not of a national sensitivity, but of the ideological manipulation of a national sensitivity. Is it really asking too much to acknowledge the discontinuities of Jewish history along with the continuities? One of those discontinuities is known as Zionism. Losing your head is not the only way to demonstrate ahavat yisrael, or love of the Jewish people. After all, the abandonment of the Israeli settlements is the policy of a legitimate and democratically elected government of the Israeli state. (In this respect, it resembles the establishment of the Israeli settlements.) The young settlers who awaited the end swaddled in their phylacteries and their prayer shawls, in their martyrdom kit, were ridiculous. They degraded the instruments of their faith by conflating them with the fortunes of their politics. No martyrdom awaited the hotheads in the woolen skullcaps. They were doomed only to the frustration of their fantasies. The romance of settlement is over. Most Israelis have correctly realized that, all its spiritualizations notwithstanding, Jewish settlement in the territories was an essentially political project whose objective was the extension of Israeli sovereignty over millions of Palestinians, which is an invitation to catastrophe.

The settlers' slogan was reprehensible for more than its cheapness about history. It was cheap also about morality. It suggested that justice is tribal in nature, that the tribal supersedes the moral. Why, precisely, should a Jew not evict, or use force against, another Jew, if the actions of the latter justify, morally and legally, the actions of the former? The former, again, is not "a Jew," but the legitimate government of a democratic state. Ariel Sharon is a son of his people, but he is also the prime minister of their state. He has the duty to make policies and enforce laws, and the right to use the machinery of the state in the name of his understanding of the public good. That understanding may be challenged at the polls and in the courts, but it can hardly be discredited on the grounds of group loyalty. Jews in Israel cause pain to other Jews in Israel all the time. (The economic policies of Benjamin Netanyahu are a case in point. I do not hear anybody protesting that a Jew does not impoverish a Jew.) It would be much more correct to say that a Jew does not wrongly expel a Jew--but such a slogan could not serve the settlers' cause, because the consideration of the rightness or wrongness of such an expulsion introduces a larger ethical framework into the discussion, and thereby releases it from the demagoguery of ethnic solidarity. Anyway, Israel is a multiethnic state. In a multiethnic state, universalism is an obligation of citizenship. Does the proposition that a Jew does not expel a Jew mean that a Jew does expel a non-Jew? If it does, who then is like the infamous emperors and kings?

But the worst did not happen. The better angels of the Jews carried the day. Twenty-five settlements were ended in six days. There were no casualties. The army was shrewd and compassionate. The settlers went in peace, if not for peace. Now the struggle over the interpretation of the event will begin. Is Gaza a precedent for the West Bank? The Israeli right will insist that it is not, and I expect Sharon to concur, as a necessity of politics. But I do not see how the dismantling of Gush Katif cannot be seen as a precedent, not least because of the breathtaking decency that was demonstrated there. The dread among the Israeli right has a basis in reality.

Still, history is full of precedents for things that do not come to pass. The unilateralism of the withdrawal from Gaza cannot be repeated in the West Bank, where the outcome must be the eschaton known as "final status." Without Palestinian compromise on certain ideological and territorial issues, for which there is no precedent, Gaza will have been not a breakthrough in foreign policy but an adjustment of security policy. In the Netzarim volume, a settler piously (and erroneously) quotes a biblical verse and observes: "If God had wished to destroy Gush Katif, he would not have performed all these miracles for us." Whatever the theological perplexities into which the settlers have now been thrown, they may still cling to one reason for their belief that God is on their side: He sent them, and Israel, Palestinians for their enemies. If the fall of the settlements in the West Bank is premised upon the rise of a Palestinian readiness for significant concessions, the settlers should not lose hope.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of TNR.

Sunday, April 21, 1996

posted April 21, 2005

This is the full text of the email I received last Tuesday:

I have been told that the piece below appeared in the American Yated Neeman.
A Kinus Hisorerus Concerning Bris Mila

This past Sunday evening, hundreds of people gathered at a Kinus Hisorerus concerning Bris Mila, organized by the Vaad L'Mishmeres Bris Kodesh. It took place in the Khal Bnei Ashkenaz Shul in the heart of Monsey, and was graced by Monsey's leading Rabbonim.

The evening opened with a recitation of Tehillim led by Rabbi Mordechai Berg, Menahel of Yeshiva Shaarei Arazim. The Moroh D'Asra, Rav Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, introduced the featured speaker as a leading Rosh Yeshiva and Posek in the Unites States, and as a Mohel Mumcheh, and called upon Rav Yisroel Belsky to deliver a shiur.

Rav Belsky opened with an erudite discussion of whether Metzitza B'Peh is an integral part of Mila or was instituted by Chazal to prevent sakona. He also discussed its ramifications al pi sod. He invoked the teshuva of Rav Dovid of Karlin, that regardless, the Gemara states that it is prohibited to change the Mesora of Klal Yisroel for no reason.

Rav Belsky highlighted this opinion with two vignettes.

He related that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky informed his talmidim that the two Mohelim in Vilna who didn't do metzitza B'Peh, died from a dreaded disease of the mouth.

He recounted that when the AIDS virus was discovered, many Mohelim were scared to do Metzitza B'Peh. They asked Rav Moshe Feinstein what to do. Rav Moshe answered, "Chas V'Sholom to be mevatel it," and proclaimed "Shomer Mitzva Lo Yeidah Dovor Ra", that one doing a mitzvah will be protected. Rav Reuven Feinstein, who was present, asked his father, "Isn't it your opinion that metzitza isn't part of the Mitzvas Mila? How then can it be a source of protection?" Rav Moshe answered, "A holy Minhag is also part of a Mitzva that merits protection, even though it isn't a chiyuv." This was, and is, the approach of Poskim, regardless of the source of Metzitza.

Rav Belsky noted that a Rabbinic organization representing one thousand Rabbonim, recently proclaimed that Metzitza B'Peh is not necessary. They said that Mohelim should be persuaded to stop this antiquated and primitive practice. Their strident language was subsequently toned down in a public press release. They based their opinion on a study conducted in Israel associating Metzitza B'Peh with the deaths of infants. Their conclusion is that antibodies for herpes, found in ninety percent of the population, is the cause. This study was also cited by the Health Commissioner of NY, with the addition that of the ninety percent of people with antibodies, nine percent shed viruses in their saliva.

Rav Belsky stated that the Israeli medical profession is known for its inaccuracy and its anti-religious bias. Furthermore, the study doesn't present any proofs, only associations. One of the Mohelim even tested negative for antibodies. In a presentation to the city health commissioners, a famed pediatric urologist asserted that after examining two hundred thousand cases of Metzitza B'Peh, not even one infection was found. Rav Belsky calculated that if the statistics presented were correct, there should be five thousand cases a year, and there is not even one. When Rav Belsky presented this to the health commissioner, he replied, "Based on the statistics, transmission is inevitable."

In other words, my mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts.

Rav Belsky countered, "We are the modern ones, basing our positions on scientific proofs and supplying statistical evidence. It is clear by the light of logic that there is no connection between Mila and infection. It is others that aren't showing cause and effect, engaging in speculation, using kindergarten-level reasoning. Their position is based on primitive emotions and antiquated superstitions." He observed that it is always Mohelim that are more cautious than doctors, delaying Brisos even when the latter say it's okay.

Rav Belsky declared that it is unprecedented for Jews to ask the government to interfere in religious practice. Even those who don't practice Metzitza B'Peh are shocked and nauseated by this. Furthermore, this approach to the government was concluded long before the unfortunate incident of the death of a child, and wasn't based on concern for this incident, but rather to further an agenda.

Rav Belsky further noted that the government is focusing on a certain Mohel. In his professional opinion, "this Mohel is the best of the best, the superstar Mohel", both in talent and in cleanliness. He has already tested negative in all blood tests. If he can be banned, then everyone else is next. Rav Belsky relayed that these forms of unfounded suspicions are a much larger disease, which will claim many more victims, and is far more contagious than any virus. Rav Belsky concluded that all gezeiros are products of our weakening in Shmiras haMitzvos. "If we will strengthen our adherence to Metzitza B'Peh, the decrees will disappear on their own."

The final speaker was Rav Zimmerman. He quoted the Gemara that states that Mitzvos such as Mila, which were done by our forefathers with Mesiras Nefesh, will always continue. That is the secret of its practice in trying circumstances, such as Communist Russia and during World War II. Even those distant from Shemiras Hamitzvos are attached to Mila, because through Mesiras Nefesh, it has become an integral part of the Jewish Soul. When someone causes the Mitzvah and traditions of Mila to be an object of scorn and mockery in the media, it is an attack on the Jewish soul. The outrage expressed by the masses and the strong and sharp speeches of their Rabbonim, are the primal scream of the Jewish soul in pain.

Rav Zimmerman asked "If there was a question, why weren't the Gedolei Yisroel, such as Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wosner and other manhigim consulted? What allows people to meet with the government and the media, with the express intent to regulate Mitzvah observance? What permits destroying the parnossa and reputation of a renowned Mohel, one that has performed seven thousand Brisos in Russia, at great personal danger and no charge? How can one take a Shliach Tzibbur and turn him into a Korban Tzibbur? How can one heap scorn on Shomrei Mitzvos and their Manhigim? How can one mock Mitzvos and Torah Sheba'al Peh?"

He answered that it comes from the hashkafa pesula of 'enlightened' individuals who consider everyone else primitive barbarians, cavemen dwelling in the dark.

Rav Zimmerman declared, "It is this hashkafa pesula and its ramifications that we are protesting tonight and proclaim 'Lo Yaaseh Kein Bimkomeinu'. It is simply not acceptable."

Rav Zimmerman quoted the commentary of Rav Shamshon Refoel Hirsch on Parshas Pinchas that peace - shalom - isn't quiet or appeasement, but rather the restoration of rights, human and divine, and the creation of harmony between Hashem and His creation. He announced, "We are here tonight to create Shalom. Shalom means; restoring the right of Kehillos to follow their Mesorah and Manhigim restoring Kvod Hatorah and Kvod Shomayim - thus creating harmony between Yisroel, Oraysa and Kudsha Brich Hu".

Rav Zimmerman related a story about the Brisker Rov and Rav Chaikin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aix Les Ban, France. They were walking together in Switzerland, when an impressive looking figure passed by and greeted them. The Brisker Rav warmly returned the greeting. When he was later informed that this individual had caused great harm to Torah institutions, the Brisker Rav said, "Had I known, I never would have greeted him", and proceeded to communicate this individual's faults at length. Rav Chaikin, who was a noted talmid of the Chofetz Chaim asked "Isn't this loshon hora?" The Brisker Rav asked him, "If you see someone in the midst of pick pocketing, may you scream 'thief'?" Rav Chaikin answered, "Of course, if it is a to'eles, to warn the victim." The Brisker Rav concluded, "And if you see someone pick pocketing all of Klal Yisroel, isn't it also a to'eles to warn them?" So too, if people are trying to pickpocket the Mitzva of Mila and its minhagim from Klal Yisroel, it is our responsibility to warn them."

Rav Zimmerman concluded that it is our duty to increase our Emunah. He noted that external appearance and practice can be deceiving. Two Jews can wear the same Tefillin, eat the same Matzohs, and learn the same daf of Gemara, and nevertheless be different internally. "There are those who believe in the divinity of Torah Sh'Baal Peh and those who don't. There are those that believe in Mesorah and those who don't. There are those who believe in Emunas Chachomim and those who don't." Our obligation is to increase our Emunah which will hasten the Geulah. An appeal was made by the Vaad L'Mishmeres Bris Kodesh to contribute to the expensive legal fees involved in this case, by donating to "Friends of Bris Mila", PO Box 642, Brooklyn, NY 11219. Booklets documenting the facts of the case and letters from Gedolei Yisroel were distributed.

Wednesday, March 27, 1996

The Current Team (updated April 09)

DovBear has posted over 5000 times since October 1994. To date, his blog has received over 100,000 comments and close to 2 million page views. More about DovBear here and here. His first book, a collection of posts about the weekly reading, can be purchased here.

With the exception of infrequent breaks, covered by guest bloggers, DovBear posted alone until early 2008. As a hedge against burnout, and sop to those who said the blog had become one dimensional and predictable, DovBear invited several distinct and diverse voices to join the blog on a semi-permanent basis. By design, they respresent many different ideologies, attitudes and politics, and serve as living confirmation of DovBear's belief that truth is best apprehended via vigorous conversation.

Tikun Olam has a giant chip on her shoulder which is pointed out by DB's loyal followers every time she posts or comments. She is also smug and self-congratulatory every chance she gets. She recently broke her arm trying to pat her own back.

Man of mystery SM is an English lawyer and Judge. He vies for title of Liberal in Chief and regards Rabbis as a (sadly) necessary evil.

RafiG, an ordained, but not practicing, Rabbi and shochet who recently ran a marathon, lives in RBS, Israel with his wife and 7 rambunctious kids, making it all that more challenging to find time to blog. Yet the time he finds, and the blog he writes. Three of them in fact: 1, 2, 3 Enjoy.

Chaim Grossferstant or Bray of Fundie, et al: "No bio.. but here's my creed: The old apikorsim used to say: "There is no judgment and there is no Judge". Todays Apikorsim say "There are no differences and there is no Difference-maker". I blog to dispute this."

JS emerged from relative obscurity in early 2008 when he was discovered by TikunOlam. After negotiating a lucrative exclusivity deal and a signing bonus, JS began blogging on DovBear. He has enjoyed unparalleled critical acclaim ever since, including Rookie of the Year in 2008.

A Mother In Israel: A mother of six, I blog about parenting issues and life in Israel at A Mother in Israel. Some of my popular posts include Burka Wedding Pictures, A Parenting Dilemma, Where Are the Parents, Screaming Babies Ignored in Israel's Maternity Wards, and Street Goats in Bnei Brak.

Click to see previous team members and guest posters

Previous Team Members and Guest Posters (updated April 09)

Holy Hyrax adores DovBear and sacrifices chickens to his glory at least three times daily. He has been commenting here for the past 4 years and has his own blog where he talks about Judaism and Israel. He is of the repeated opinion that Eskimos are a myth like leprechauns and fairies.

NoyamG covered for DovBear in the Summer of 2006, while DB was on vacation. He still thinks Presumed Consent is a good idea. More of his writing can be found at The Noy G Show .

At The Back of the Hill: Gout and indigestion in lieu of intellect and scepticism, plus curried goat. There's more at: , where Talmud, Torah, Treif, and pipe-tobacco intersect.

Am Kshe Oref / A Stiff-Necked People: Am Kshe Oref is Skeptic/Angry Orthodox. He adheres to halacha, but has lots of questions, pet peeves, and issues with many set-in-stone halachas that rabbis over the centuries, from Chazal on down, should never have set in stone. AKO takes pretty much everything with a grain of salt. A very large grain of salt. AKO is an avowed Democrat, and proud of it. He’s also pretty liberal. AKO resides at Am Kshe Oref - A Stiff-Necked People

Shanna's presence in the blogosphere dates back about as far as The Bear's, but she can't hold a candle (havdala or otherwise) to his steady stream of scintillating discourse. She still blogs (occasionally) at Devarim. Shanna is the brain behind Mayim Rabim (now in the capable hands of several moderators). She is also particularly fond of parentheticals (as you may have noticed).

Shifra is alive and well and taking daily calls from her parents to remind her of all the things she needs to do to prepare for their Pesach visit. A bit of pre-Pesach advice: Don't sneak up on a woman this time of year, or you might end up with a face full of oven cleaner. I'm still not blogging but I'm THINKING about it...

Jameel blogs at the Muqata, and is justifiably famous for his Purim Shpiels and war-blogging.

Akiva blogs at Mystical Paths - - on topics of kabbalah, chassidus, emunah, Jewish life, world politics with a focus of the words of the navi'im, and Moshiach and the geulah. Depending on the year, he may be blogging with Jerusalem in the distance, Tel Aviv in the distance, or New York in the distance. In any case, he often balances visions of a perfect world with a job and a home full of active children.

MoChassid is one of the oldest bloggers in the J-blogosphere. You can find him here.

Tzipporah: Former academic low-life, now secular kollel wife and mother, living with a bad Cohen, a perfect toddler, and a naughty cat. Hobbies include freaking out blog-surfing chareidim, gardening, and making bad jokes. Find more of her here

Amshinover was the blog's first mega-commenter and a controversial guest poster in Summer 2005. The humor, irreverance and insights in his comments enriched the blog and were likely responsible for much of DovBear's earliest success. He went on to publish the brilliant "no quarter asked, no quarter given" and continues to think of himself as perpetual Shil'shel Peh.

Kylopod: I am a lot of things: An Orthodox Jew, a former homeschooler, a Democrat, a movie buff, a bookworm, an English major, a juggler, a checkers fan, a Toastmasters member, and several other things besides. I love feedback! I encourage anyone who comes to my blog to respond, even if it's to a post I wrote months earlier. I'll make sure to read it.

Krum as a bagel: At one point in time, Krum was one of the quality jbloggers out there. A blogger's blogger, perhaps. Or maybe a blogger's blogger's blogger. Since Krum stopped blogging, he does nothing at all. [See his blog here]

Juggling Frogs: My name is Carolyn. I'm a mother of five children. We are a Jewish family living in Boston, Massachusetts.I strive to save and collect as much time, energy, money, and wisdom as possible, in order to spend these lavishly on my family, friends, and community. Read about it here.

Previous guests who have not yet supplied bios include:

  • Mis-nagid

  • Godol Hador of Modern Orthoprax

  • Little Foxling

  • Enigma4U

  • C.A. of Conservative Apikoris

  • Lurker of the Muqata

  • Naftuli of Prima Impressionis

  • HappyWithHisLot

  • LakewoodYid/Ed

  • LadyKaye
  • Charlie Hall
[If you should be on this list, and aren't, its probably because I couldn't find you when the list was being assembled. Contact me now, and you will be added at once.]