This is the way the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip ended: not with a bang but a wimp-out.
After all the politicking; after all the fortitude; after all the heartbreak; after all the planning; after all the skilled execution; after all the ineptitude, or at least after some of it – we’ve finally left the Gaza Strip. But we choked at the last hurdle: We left our synagogue buildings standing in the care of the Palestinians, who manifestly didn’t want them and refused to take responsibility for them. Now, having shirked our last responsibility in the Strip, we are already expressing righteous indignation at the fate of these buildings – the empty husks of our religion – which the Palestinian authorities are promptly reducing to piles of rubble. We should have had the guts – not to mention the basic politeness – to do the job ourselves.
Why is it that politicians who were willing – correctly, in my view – to force families from their homes, to abandon policies that had been entrenched for two generations, even to risk their precious careers, in order to get us out of the Gaza Strip – couldn’t muster the courage to knock down a few more empty buildings? Senior rabbis had already given their approval to the demolitions; the decision had already been approved by the Cabinet and defended before the High Court of Justice; all our leaders had to do was hunker down, keep quiet, and let the thing happen. But then, prompted by the entreaties of yet more rabbis, our Cabinet got cold feet and reversed itself; so we’ve gotten out of the Strip a day or two sooner than we might have, but much less cleanly than we could have.
I am not an authority on Jewish religious law (a.k.a. “halakha”) – so my opinions in this regard have no special weight. However, the fact that halakhic experts had already ruled that the demolitions could take place corresponds with my own understanding of the principles involved. Further, it’s very hard for me to believe that the rabbis who later came down against the demolitions had all discovered some new set of commandments of which other, equally distinguished rabbis had been unaware.
The fact is that the anti-demolition rabbis are, to a man, anti-Disengagement rabbis. Their “halakhic” ruling against demolishing the former synagogues in the Gaza Strip was based on politics, not on religion – although there may be legitimate arguments in favor of letting the Palestinians do the actual demolition work, rather than have Jews demolish synagogues.
What, after all, were the Palestinians supposed to do with the former synagogues other than demolish them? If the buildings were to be preserved as empty shells as some Israelis demanded, they would have served as a sort of permanent symbolic occupation: Yes, we’ve taken our citizens and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip, but we still have our “mark” on your territory and you can’t remove it. The Palestinian reaction to this idea was about the same as my reaction to Fluffy the Tomcat when he sprays in our house: This is my territory! Get your furry butt out of here! (OK, I haven’t noticed the Palestinians accusing Israelis of having furry butts; in fact, it’s pretty much the only thing they haven’t accused us of – yet.) By putting the Palestinian government (what there is of it) in charge of preserving these buildings, we would have added yet another cause of alienation between Palestinian rulers and their populace, and further strengthened Hamas and the other Palestinian rejectionist groups.
If we had graciously permitted the Palestinians to use the former synagogues as something other than permanent, empty monuments to Israeli occupation, we would have presented them with an obvious time bomb. What would happen the first time one of these buildings was converted into a mosque? How about the third time a former synagogue was taken over by Hamas to be used as a nursery school, medical clinic, or arms warehouse? By maintaining a formal or informal veto over the uses to which the former synagogues were put, we would preserve their significance as symbols of ongoing domination just as if we had forced the Palestinians to keep the buildings empty.
Our Options, Their Options
Clearly, any course of events that left the former Gaza Strip synagogues standing was going to be humiliating and disastrous for the Palestinian government; and there is no question in my mind that the goal of those who opposed their demolition was precisely that. By retaining control – or even “moral” authority – over these buildings, Israel would make it crystal clear to the Palestinians that their government was impotent and their independence illusory; and Israelis who had never reconciled themselves to the Disengagement would happily retain their delusion that Israel still had an active claim on the Gaza Strip. For those of us who think getting out of the Gaza Strip “for real” was a good idea, preserving the former synagogues was never an acceptable option.
What other choices were available? As I see it, there were three options open to Israel, and we chose the worst of them. First, we could have held to our government’s initial decision and demolished the former synagogues ourselves. Second, had we decided that having Jews demolish synagogues was forbidden (or, at least, politically fraught), we could have either requested that the Palestinians demolish the buildings on our behalf, or else explicitly given them carte blanche to demolish them or use them as they saw fit. (This is basically what we did with public buildings in the Gaza Strip settlements other than synagogues.) Third, we could simply leave the buildings in place, so that the Palestinians could do what they wanted with them – but without the carte blanche of the second option. This way we – our politicians, that is – dodged all responsibility for the former synagogues, while retaining the “right” to criticize whatever the Palestinians did other than preserving them as a permanent monument to the joys of living under military occupation.
Given our government’s abdication of its responsibility to determine the fate of the former synagogues, the Palestinians’ decision was pretty much a no-brainer: Either they accepted our not-really-a-demand that the synagogue buildings be preserved, with the consequences I’ve outlined above; or else they interpreted our leaving the decision to them as an implicit permission to demolish the buildings, after which we would complain a bit but quickly move on to the next act.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, evidently the leading proponent of Israel’s synagogue wimp-out, offered this justification of the Cabinet’s non-decision: “The decision was made out of our will not to destroy them… We knew that the Palestinians would respond to the decision. However, the rabbis decided it would be better that the synagogues be destroyed at the hands of Palestinians than at the hands of the IDF.” If this was really his thinking (or the rabbis’, since apparently he decided to let them do his thinking for him), why didn’t he go ahead and give the Palestinians explicit permission to demolish the former synagogues? If “we knew” what the Palestinians would do and did nothing to prevent it, why not be honest and let the world know that this was our decision as well as theirs?
On the other hand, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom cut the Palestinians no slack: “The Palestinians failed in their first task when they did not protect the synagogues left standing in the settlements of Gush Katif. The arson of this morning [which preceded the demolitions] is a barbaric act of people with no respect for holy places.” This was a cheap shot: After leaving the Palestinians no acceptable option other than demolishing these former synagogues, presenting them with no sanctioned alternative uses for the buildings, and not even granting them the convenience of blaming some neutral outside party like UNESCO (which, in theory, could have designated the buildings as something worthy of preservation), it’s hardly fair to call them “barbaric” for simply having some shreds of self-respect and (on the part of the Palestinian government) self-preservation. (It’s also debatable whether a synagogue building with no worshippers, no historical significance, no holy books, and no other remaining religious artifacts is properly considered a “holy place”.)
Of course, the ability to take cheap shots like this was exactly what our Cabinet wimps wanted; now they can make tough anti-Palestinian declarations to improve their standing with voters and party power-brokers, even though the Palestinians did nothing more in this case than react rationally to Israeli decisions – including the Disengagement itself, which Shalom and his associates did nothing substantive to prevent.
In short, by refusing to take responsibility for demolishing the former Gaza Strip synagogues and then carping at the Palestinians for doing what we should have done ourselves, the majority of our Cabinet have proven themselves to be nothing more than spineless, slimy, insincere political opportunists. This is a relief; for a second there, I was worried that they might actually believe the stuff they were saying.
You make some important points here, but you don’t address the point which ostensibly was the one which persuaded the cabinet to change its collective mind. The argument was that if Israel herself destroys abandoned synagogues, how can she then complain about other countries (Ukraine, Poland, Iraq were mentioned) who do the same?