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National Religious Movement Rabbinical Challenge

02 July 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

After the meeting between Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon there are hopes for the beginnings of a peace process ten years after the Declaration of Principles at Oslo and exactly to the day nine years after Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat returned to Gaza (July 1, 1994).  In Israel the greatest opposition to the Bush Road Map is the National Religious Movement.  The NRM is ideologically committed to Jewish development in Judea, Samaria (West Bank) and the Gaza Strip and continue to advocate the establishment of settlement outposts.

Following their rabbinical leadership religious their religious loyalty to the Land of Israel cannot be questioned, they are firm believers.  Over the past 36 years however they have become a one issue political and ideological movement.  Ma’ariv editor Amnon Dankner made this perfectly clear in an opinion piece last Friday, accusing the movement of having forgotten one of the true roles of religious leadership, concern for the well being of the people.  With the Israeli economy in the doldrums, the official unemployment rate at over 11% and the unofficial rate pegged at close to double that, one would think the rabbis would lead social protests or at least seek ways to alleviate the pain of poverty.  But they are only interested in the Land of Israel and continued settlement.

Last week the rabbis called on the Sephardi ultra-orthodox leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to support their demands not to relinquish any of the Holy Land to the Palestinians.  Rabbi Yosef brushed them off declaring they showed no solidarity with him when massive cuts were made in the yeshiva and Torah education budgets.  Rabbi Yosef also represents one of the poorest sectors of the population, many of whom found religion as a partial solution to their economic plight.

Coming from two very different angles both Dankner and Rabbi Yosef are making very valid points.  As mentioned several years ago, the State of Israel was the solution for a people who had no land and now returned home.  However if the NRM gets its way the Jewish People may find itself with all the Land but no People.

Better ‘late than never’ the NRM rabbis need to shift gears and start taking the people into consideration and not deal with only the narrow issue of the Land of Israel.  That is not to say the Jewish People do not have a historic right to the entire Land of Israel.  They do.  But such a claim does not obfuscate the necessity to face reality.  If the Zionist entity is going to be a success and ensure the continued existence of the Jewish People, social, economic, educational and Torah issues must be faced no less than the obligation to develop the Land of Israel.

Ideology can be stretched to the limits of its practical implementation.  Jewish development of Judea and Samaria has gone as far as it can.  Eventually there will be a territorial compromise, one which will not only ensure security but also the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel.

Should the rabbis turn their massive energies towards other pursuits with as much energy, commitment and ambition as they did in developing the Land of Israel, the Jewish People can certainly be optimistic in forecasting its own future.