August 28, 2005

Why not imagine what Gush Katif’s farmers could do for the Negev?

Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria will have a greater impact on the future of the country than anyone anticipates. Ideologies have developed and imploded in a dangerously short time. A basic tenet of national religious thinking has been undermined by the removal of state sponsorship. The foundations of a large and diverse Orthodox community – not incidentally significant contributors to Israel’s national consciousness – have been shaken.

Denuded of state sponsorship, the theological foundations of religious-Zionist doctrine have been undermined, their contradictions exposed. The dream of Greater Israel has been shattered. Deep psychological reactions must necessarily flow from these events, and they will invariably have religious, social and political consequences.

Religious and social developments which took centuries to unfold in Europe have been accelerated in Israel. The tension generated by the direct clash between the state and the psycho-religious fabric of one of its major stakeholders won’t easily disappear.

Disillusionment will yield ideologies and spur movements and create complicated psychological and political problems long after many of the main players in the disengagement saga have disappeared from the scene.

One predictable reaction will be the “disengagement” of some Orthodox Jews from the state. It is to prevent this possibility that I offer the following suggestion.

Developing the Negev has long been recognized as one of Israel’s top national missions. I urge a concerted effort to enlist the former Gaza settlers to this mission. Their political leadership, rabbis, ideologues and activists should be mobilized – as communities – to make the Negev flourish. Low-key requests won’t do the trick; there has to be a national campaign to convince the Gaza settlers to take on this project.

If presented as one of the most important national undertakings of the generation, as one of the tenets of Zionism, and explained as a mission that will remain a priority into the future, this call has the potential to harness the visionary ambition of the Gaza settlers.

Israel’s leadership must admit what we all know: Only a community of faith, comprised of determined, selfless people, possesses the wherewithal to achieve this mission. I’d like to believe that such a project could capture the imagination of thousands of former Gazan Jews.

Why not imagine what Gush Katif’s farmers – indeed entire Gaza communities – could do for the Negev? After all, the Negev is also part of Greater Israel.

The messianic imagery of making the desert bloom resonates profoundly with religious sensibilities, and has the potential to substitute for the euphoria surrounding Judea, Samaria and other biblical areas. Filling the vacuum created by disengagement and redirecting religious energies to the task of grooming the Negev may be the right combination of social, religious and psychological ingredients to neutralize the impending post-Gaza crisis. It could harness the enthusiasm of a community which has otherwise lost its sense of purpose.

The romance associated with sowing the desert resonates with religious Jews and settlers. The Negev’s messianic associations could reflect their ideals. That potential should not be underestimated, nor should the settlers’ zeal be wasted.

The Jews of Gaza are uniquely suited to pioneer the Negev. Theirs is a strong ethos of self-sacrifice. They are a tightly knit group. They know agriculture and science. They’ve shown an ability to develop strong community institutions – educational, public health and social – under remarkably adverse conditions.

If given the support of the state and international benefactors, if implored to sacrifice yet again on behalf of the Jewish people, if this request were genuinely supported across the entire political spectrum of the Israeli public, the former settlers of Gush Katif plus other people of vision could be prevailed upon to transfer their sense of anger, frustration and betrayal with the state into something that would be positive for the Negev and – not least – for themselves.

Considerable resources should be directed to the rehabilitation of the people who could ideally carry it out. Only great and ambitious schemes can harness their enthusiasm. There could be water desalination projects, a Med-Red canal, science parks, dams and reservoirs.

It is of utmost importance that the project succeed, and that the religious ideology behind that success be vindicated.

Perhaps some of the anticipated funding for post-disengagement logistics could be used to immediately re-ignite a downcast community and provide it with the support to realize some of its most heartfelt religious aspirations. This could even cause the Gaza pullout to eventually be seen as a blessing in disguise.

What they might accomplish would reverberate across Israel, world Jewry and the international community. Jews reviled in the international media would be given their pride and dignity back. Their unfair status as pariahs would be transformed; they’d be important, appreciated agents of development and innovative nationalism.

This is a constructive and intelligent way to deal with the thousands of settlers and their hundreds of thousands of supporters. Instead of repressing their enthusiasm, it can be beneficially channeled.

I can only hope that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Vice Premier Shimon Peres (who has the mandate for developing Galilee and the Negev) recognize the wisdom of this idea. They’d be making a match that would allow some of the damage done to Israel’s best human resources to be repaired.

Reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Post.

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