Disengagement’s True Lesson


The looming civil war, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prophesied from the pages of The New York Times, did not materialize.

It did not because a civil war requires two opposing camps fighting each other, hating each other, and most importantly, convinced that their survival depends on the annihilation of each other.

Over the past two months, I spent a great deal of time in Gush Katif, both with families in the last minutes of their lives there, as well as with soldiers and officers. What I saw, even at the most trying and tragic moments, was not a division of two camps – evacuating soldiers and evacuees.

The settlers and army were of the same camp – Israeli citizens placed in a difficult, and often impossibly grueling, situation.

During the demanding days of disengagement, there were many dramatic televised scenes of resistance and human tragedy. But many other, no less telling scenes were not caught by the media.

The cameras missed the joint prayers and shared volleyball games on opposite sides of the ostensibly dividing Kfar Maimon fence. They missed soldiers being the first to offer their condolences to a family sitting shivah, even ritually tearing their clothes, mourning three generations of life in Gush Katif, as well as the imminent disappearance of a unique world of Torah and modern agriculture built on the barren sands of the Gaza Strip.

They also missed the last Shabbat prayers in the beautiful synagogues of Gush Katif, when the prayer for the well-being of the state was tearfully chanted. In it, Israel is called "the beginning of our spiritual redemption," and God is asked to bless the same government that had sent the army to destroy the world the people of Gush Katif built with their labor, dreams and blood.

Perhaps the most telling were the dialogues between Israeli journalists on all three major Israeli TV stations. One would be stationed in Gush Katif; the other in the studio. As time went by, the two started speaking different languages.

The reporter in the studio would still be using the clichés about the dangerous settlers running rampant; the reporter who had spent two weeks in the field came to see in the Jews of Gaza fellow human beings facing a personal tragedy.

Disengagement was widely portrayed as a battle between the powers of democracy and lawless settler fanatics. For sure, violent acts and protests were committed on the fringes. But the leaders of the Yesha Council – no less than the army and police officers – did all in their power to ensure that, despite all the pain, this would be a "battle" with one side: the side of democracy.

And yet, disengagement did cause other fronts to surface. An invisible but very tangible border arose; not between soldiers and settlers, but between those who shared the pain of leaving and those who did not.

The excruciatingly painful battle between these two camps was waged on the pages of some of Israeli newspapers, in the often base attacks from the Knesset podium, and in the heartless comments of "They deserve it!" or "I have more in common with the Palestinians than with the crazy settlers," heard often enough in the streets.

Our sages tell us that a two-headed baby was brought before King Solomon, who was asked to decide whether the infant was one child or two. The king ordered hot water sprinkled on one head to see if the other would respond in tears. If it did, the child would be considered one human being; if not, two disparate ones. According to the wise king, empathy is the ultimate sign of oneness.

From its inception, the settlement movement believed that it should constantly move ahead, build and expand, never looking back. The rest of the nation, they believed, would surely catch up later. Yet the nation did not catch up; instead, bridges of dialogue have to be built between the camps.

The civil war that wasn't teaches us that we are all in the same camp – except perhaps those indifferent to their fellow citizens' suffering. Breaking down the walls of ignorance and indifference is critical not just to our strength against external enemies, but our ability to address the many societal challenges facing Israel in the days ahead.

Natan Sharansky, a former member of Israel's government, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center.




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