A Time to Reach Out
London Jewish Tribune
August 26, 2005
In the long span of Jewish history, the uprooting of 8,500 Jews from Gaza will not rank as one of the worst tragedies, though it was unique in that those doing the uprooting were themselves Jews. This was not 1492 and the expulsion from Spain or the Holocaust. And the attempts by some in the settler community to appropriate symbols of those earlier tragedies — yellow Jewish stars, concentration camp uniforms — and by implication, and sometimes explicitly, to cast the soldiers executing the evacuation orders in the role of Hitler’s S.S. troops, only infuriated secular Israelis.
Yet if the expulsion from Gaza was not one of the worst tragedies in Jewish history, the trauma inflicted on the Gaza residents and indeed on the entire national religious community, is nevertheless overwhelming. Rarely has a democratically elected government treated a part of its own population so harshly.
The loss for those uprooted from their homes took place on many levels — personal, communal, theological, and sociological. The faith in the imminent redemptive process that has animated the national religious community since Israel’s miraculous expansion into the Jewish people’s historic heartland in 1967 has now suffered an immense blow.
At the same time, the community’s sense of itself as the vanguard of Israel society, widely admired as the exemplars of the true Zionist faith, can no longer be sustained. No longer can the national religious world delude itself that only a handful of narrow societal elites stand between it and the realization of a far more Jewish state in Israel. The settlers feel rejected and spit out by a large portion of Israel. And the sense of betrayal and having been stabbed in the back runs very deep.
Secular journalist Ari Shavit, who views the Gaza settlement as misbegotten from the start, even as he is filled with considerable sympathy and admiration the settlers, captured their feelings of bewilderment in the face of betrayal: “They have build a kind of model of Zionism in the sand. . . . A cruel and naïve Zionism. A Zionism . . . that protects itself with reckless abandon and buries its dead with deep devotion. And maintains on the dunes of Gaza beach a form of the lost Israeli soul to which Israel is itself already foreign. Israel itself no longer wants it.”
The trauma is so much greater for having been inflicted by the state and army in which the settlers so ardently believed. Shavit again: “The soil bound Israelis of Gush Katif could not believe that the digital Israelis of Tel Aviv would throw them out like an object no one wants. And would send against them the army in which they believed so much; would send into their homes people in the uniform they loved so much.”
Not only have the Gaza settlers witnessed the destruction of their lives’ work, they are without any clue as to what the future holds for them. An army of twenty public relations professionals working for SELA, the body charged with overseeing arrangements with those uprooted from Gaza, has skillfully spread the message in Israel and abroad that all the settlers walked out of Gaza with checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars, an amount sufficient to reestablish themselves anywhere in Israel.
That is a seriously distorted picture. Those who were renting homes are entitled to only modest checks based on the number of years living there. Most of those were teachers or otherwise employed by the Gush Katif Regional Council, and now have neither homes nor jobs. Even those who had large homes — in many cases 250 square meters or more — with lawns and gardens, will, in the best case, be relocated to caravans of 60-90 square meters, for the next two to three years. Those caravans have no room for their ovens or refrigerators, which will be stored for years on Negev army bases, in containers where the internal temperatures are estimated to reach close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Far worse, from their point of view, there is no room for their Shabbos tables or their seforim. It will be a long time before they can again host for Shabbos their married children and grandchildren, who, in many cases, were living right next door until last week.
But the image of the generously compensated settlers misses the point in a far more fundamental way. They never wanted the checks in the first place. The idea of providing checks and leaving the former residents of the Gaza Strip to make their own arrangements was to make life easier for the government.
Though the settlers, by and large, refused to carry on individual negotiations with SELA, on the grounds that one does not discuss one’s own funeral arrangements, from the beginning they made clear through their legal representative, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, that their primary concern was that they be able to remain together with the neighbors with whom they have built their entire lives together over the last 37 years.
The Gaza Strip settlements were not suburban housing developments; they were faith communities of people animated by a shared vision and depth of commitment. Together they built lush, verdant communities out of the sand dunes, and together they mourned many sons and daughters killed in battle and terrorist attacks. Many of the younger generation have never known any other home. And their most fervent wish was that they could remain together.
Those hopes, too, now appear dashed. According to Yitzchak Meron, an attorney with the Legal Forum, less than ten per cent of the Gaza settlers know what their final housing solutions will be. The largest site planned for the refugees on the Nitzanim sand dunes south of Askelon will hold at most 300 (of the 1500 families uprooted from Gaza), and likely take 3 years to complete. In addition, the government inserted a contract clause that if it does not secure all the necessary permits by the end of the year, the whole deal can be cancelled.
Worse, no more than one-third of those removed from their homes even have temporary housing solutions. The government purchased less than 500 caravans all total, and has explicitly said that it will purchase no more.
As of the start of the evacuation, SELA had procured only a thousand hotel rooms around the country for 1,000 families, many of them very large, with no place to go. Only at the last minute did it scramble to come up with another 1,500 rooms. The exiles from Gaza were shepherded onto busses with no idea where they were going, and, in many cases, when they arrived, were told that there were no rooms for them. Even at the first stage, the different communities were split up. Residents of Netzarim, for instance, are now housed in eight different hotels in Jerusalem.
Those who did have rooms soon realized that in the haste and circumstances of their departure, they had failed to take even the most basic necessities — soap, toothpaste, diapers — and that they had no place to wash their laundry.
With the school year about to begin, parents have no idea where their children will be attending school. Even if the original ten day stays granted by SELA are extended, families will have to move a number of times in coming months, as the hotels fill up for the Yamim Tovim. Those groups that found places for themselves in different dormitories around the country will also have to be relocated at the end of summer vacation. Psychologists have said that each of these moves is a separate trauma for the families already traumatized by the loss of their homes, support groups, and entire way of life.
The recitation of these heart-wrenching facts requires no explanation. Jews must know when other Jews are suffering. And particularly so those who believe in the uniqueness of every Jew and our common mission from Sinai.
But there is another reason as well for dwelling on the situation of those uprooted from Gaza. Now is a time for the chareidi community to reach out in full force to our fellow Jews. Whether we identified in the past with the Gaza settlement effort or not is irrelevant. Those who can learn a Tosofos can surely distinguish between identifying with the settler’s cause and feeling their current suffering.
This is not just a matter of dropping money into a pushke, but of reaching out a personal hand — inviting families for Shabbos, offering to do laundry, taking kids to the zoo. The refugees have lost everything, and their entire worldview has been shaken to the core. Who knows what effect have an outstretched hand, a warm embrace, a friendly smile, a shared tear could have at this point.
Some in the chareidi community have already begun to do so. Yad Eliezer, which has received in the past hundreds of thousands of tons of potatoes from the Gush Katif farmers for poor families, was at the Jerusalem hotels immediately. So were Karlin-Stollin and other Chassidic groups. Rabbi Meir Porush has been living in Gush Katif in recent months, and he put his large Jerusalem organization to work on behalf of the refugees. (These examples are illustrative, not an exhaustive or complete list.)
But the chareidi community, which has produced so many entrepreneurs of chesed, has not yet produced its first such entrepreneur with respect to the refugees from Gaza. We should.