Rabbis' call for mutiny has Israel in a state

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The Independent Online


Advice by senior rabbis to Israeli troops to disobey orders to evacuate military bases in the occupied territories has provoked a crisis between orthodox Jews and the state. President Chaim Weizman said: "I fear that the religious law ruling will bring about a rift in the nation and lead to civil war.''

The impact of the decision by the former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira and other leading rabbis will be put to the test as the redeployment of the Israeli army from Palestinian cities is expected to start before the end of the year. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, said of the ruling: "This is one of the gravest things that has ever happened in the state.''

There is no doubt among Israeli commentators that some soldiers will follow the instructions of their rabbis rather than the orders of their officers. The rabbis left no doubt about their interpretation of Jewish religious law, saying: "It is clear and simple that it is forbidden for every Jew to take part in an action to assist the evacuation of a settlement, army base or Israeli Defence Force [IDF] installation.''

The ruling has led to outraged reactions from the government and the army, as well as the secular right which opposes the peace accord but believes the rabbis' action will destroy discipline. Rafael Eitan, former chief of staff and leader of the right wing Tsomet party, said: "With such orders from the rabbis, the IDF will not win the next war.''

But rabbis who signed the ruling have strong support among the 19 per cent of Israeli Jews who say they pray daily. Ministers are particularly concerned that the call to disobey orders will get a hearing in the Hesder units where religious Jews combine military service with religious study. The decision will also increase determination among 140,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza to resist government policy by force.

But despite the uproar, Israel's Attorney General, Michael Ben Yair, decided not to order a criminal investigation of the rabbis for incitement.

The adoption of extreme nationalist positions by Jewish religious leaders has increased steadily since the capture of the West Bank in 1967. The basis for the rabbis' decision is the belief that God gave the whole of the Land of Israel to Abraham and Mr Rabin has no right to give it up. Secular Israelis say territorial nationalism is an innovation in Judaism. Professor Ya'acov Malkin of Tel Aviv University says: "The idea that land is as important as people was never part of the Jewish tradition."

There has been conflict between the secular and religious Israelis since the early days of the state when the Ultra-orthodox opposed the conscription of women. Polls show that attitude to religion is the most important single factor in determining political loyalties in Israel. In the past the religious parties often used their political strength to ensure that the rabbinate retain control of anything to do with burial, marriage and divorce.

But this week's ruling is the first time leading rabbis have called on soldiers to disobey orders. President Weizman criticised them for undermining democratic principles. Mr Rabin had earlier denounced rabbinical "ayatollahs" for criticising redeployment. A poll by the daily Yediot Aharanot showed that 77 per cent of people said the rabbis could not issue an instruction on evacuating army bases and settlements, but 22 per cent said that they could.

The government does not want to create martyrs. It backed off yesterday from a confrontation with settlers at Efrat near Bethlehem on the West Bank saying they had permission to expand their settlement there.