Gaza rabbis both rouse and calm

Religious leaders play a growing role at the end of the occupation.

On a synagogue dais above hundreds of young women who are bracing themselves for removal from this Jewish settlement, Rabbi Motti Elon pulls a prayer shawl tightly around him and bends over in agony.

"This holy ark will be destroyed, but hearts cannot be destroyed," he says, speaking into a megaphone. "We will continue. We are only at the beginning of the path."

In the final chapters of their losing battle to save Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, spiritual leaders like Rabbi Elon have played an increasingly prominent role on the barricades of the settlers' last stand in the Gaza Strip.

Principals of religious academies and classroom instructors, they have preached sermons that have been the siren calls rallying thousands of students to Gaza in defiance of Israeli law restricting nonresident entry of the settlements. Some have stoked a firestorm by urging soldiers to defy evacuation orders. At mass demonstrations against the evacuation, they have shared the dais with right-wing politicians and the local leadership of settlement communities in Gaza and the West Bank.

"Everybody understands this is a spiritual struggle, not only a political struggle," says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a diminutive cleric from the West Bank, who peppers his French-accented rhetoric with comic potshots at the media and the government. "The meaning of that spiritual struggle is: Is the Land of Israel ours, or does it belong to the murderers?"

As Israel begins to relinquish this coastal strip of land to the Palestinians, many rabbis have sought to persuade their faithful to lower the flames of the conflict, ending their resistance in dignity rather than violent disarray. They have tried to look forward, emphasizing loyalty to the country, rather than the cultural, political, and religious divide that separates the settlers from mainstream Israelis, who largely favor the end of occupation.

Except that many of the foot soldiers of the antidisengagement movement are impulsive youths who have taken the struggle into their own hands - taking air out of army jeeps, assaulting police officers, and pelting tanks with paint balls. Others have come under the influence of more radical rabbis who justify the use of civil disobedience. The response of the more moderate rabbis has been to avoid denouncing the law breaking, expressing compassion rather than condemnation.

"It is important to set limits and order. It is important there be a positive message," says Rabbi Elisha Aviner, a brother of Shlomo Aviner, who works with hundreds of youths camped out in Gaza. Still, "there are people who have hot hearts. We can't go against them."

A symbiosis has developed over the years between political leaders of the settlers and the rabbis who have preached for decades against any territorial compromise with the Palestinians. The political leadership has plotted strategy while the clerics have provided the theological soul food to inspire their faithful.

"There is complete chemistry between the spiritual leadership and the lay leadership," says Lior Kalfa, the head of the Neve Dekalim local council, as he briefs one of the spiritual leaders on evacuation negotiations with the government.

In the battle over the Gaza evacuation, the military has also recognized the influence of the rabbis, giving them permits allowing freedom of movement even after the roads were closed in the settlements.

In the Jewish state's public life, rabbis gain prominence by rising through the government-sanctioned religious bureaucracy, or at yeshivas, publicly funded religious seminaries. And in the private life of the religiously devout, rabbis are consulted on everything from marital disputes to health dilemmas.

While some rabbis have been elected to Israel's parliament, most stay away from the taint of electoral politics in the Jewish state. That's why the adoration stirred by the spiritual mentors outstrips allegiance to parliament members or the settlers' local leaders.

"We follow the rabbis like a flock," says Tzippi, a female infiltrator, who with hundreds of others occupied Neve Dekalim's main synagogue this week.

As the political leadership has failed to overturn the government's decision to expel the settlers from Gaza, the rabbis' voices have become even more influential.

"There are tens of thousands of people, who are the right wing of the nationalist religious community, are religious seminary graduates, and who want to hear the voice of the rabbis,'' says Yisrael Zeira, a West Bank settler who heads a religious seminary in Tel Aviv. "As a result, the rabbis have determined the line of the struggle.'' Back at the synagogue, congregants chanted liturgical hymns about redemption and the coming of the Messiah. As Torah scrolls were paraded in and out of the sanctuary, one local rabbi consoled the audience that their fight was less over the territory of Israel than it was over the country's soul.

"The struggle is not about the place, the struggle is about the spirit," he says. "And in the struggle of the spirit, we have won."

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