After evacuating Gaza, a lonely general of faith struggles for Israel’s salvation

God-fearing and ‘unenlightened,’ Maj. Gen. (res) Gershon Hacohen hasn’t lost trust in the ‘holy’ army, but believes an Iranian nuke on Tel Aviv is preferable to a two-state solution

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Maj. Gen. (res) Gershon Hacohen while still in active service on January 17, 2012, during a Paratrooper Brigade drill (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)
Maj. Gen. (res) Gershon Hacohen while still in active service on January 17, 2012, during a Paratrooper Brigade drill (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)

One of the most important emerging voices on the Israeli right and one of the most interesting figures to come out of the army in recent years is deeply religious but unorthodox, an evangelist of settlements who happens to have presided over the settlement movement’s greatest defeat.

A former general, Gershon Hacohen, who commanded the army’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal and oversaw the forced removal of the 8,000 settlers living among 1.5 million Palestinians in the territory, remains haunted by the choice he was forced to make between his conscience and his uniform — between the rule of law and an army he calls “holy” on one hand, and, on the other, the historic imperative he sees in retaining every inch of land he believes God gave to the Jews.

He asserted, in fact, that any further territorial concession would be more harmful to Israel than an Iranian nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv.

“Any two-state solution equals the expulsion of more than 100,000 Jews and that is impossible,” the newly retired Maj. Gen. (res) Hacohen said. “It is a catastrophe.”

“It is worse than the Iranian threat, because I know how to live with an Iranian bomb on Tel Aviv, God forbid, I don’t want it to happen, but it is war. And I know how to live with the horrible cost of war. I pray it won’t happen, but I don’t know how to live with destruction of dozens of settlements and study halls and synagogues and the exiling of Jews from the Land of Israel.”

Israeli settlers and Torah scrolls being evacuated from the Gaza Strip on August 21, 2005 (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)
Israeli settlers and Torah scrolls being evacuated from the Gaza Strip on August 21, 2005 (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

In a wide-ranging interview, which touched on his experience during the withdrawal from Gaza and on the philosophy and ideology that has shaped his worldview, he also stated that Hamas is “an ally” in certain respects and that US Jewry will come to Israel in due time – either of its own volition or under the specter of anti-Semitism. “They’ll come either in good or in bad,” he said.

But maybe we should start at the beginning of his story. Hacohen has some of it saved on his phone. Flipping past videos of his children helping build a new home in Nimrod, just beneath Mount Hermon, he found a grainy black-and-white video of his grandfather on a ladder in 1924 in the Galilee town of Kfar Hittim. He was gaily hammering boards of wood to the scaffolding of a house. “This is Romanticism,” he said. “To believe that working with your hands elevates you. That is what Tolstoy said.”

Natan Gardi, the man with the hammer, went on to serve as one of the founders of the national religious Mizrachi movement. His grandchildren, Hacohen’s brothers, are Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, the head of the Otniel Yeshiva, south of Hebron; Rabbi Aviah Hacohen of the Tekoa Yeshiva in the West Bank south of Jerusalem; Rabbi Haim Hacohen of the religious pre-army academy in Beit Yatir, also in the Hebron region; and Rabbi Eliayashiv Hacohen, the head of the Beit Shmuel Yeshiva in Hadera in central Israel.

And he, the brother who removed his head covering during his army service but still maintains the belief that God “struggles to raise the sun every morning anew,” was chosen to command the Disengagement, which the national religious camp overwhelmingly opposed.

This, he said, was “total coincidence.”

“It’s paranoia, a real paranoia, of right wing settlers to believe that Sharon chose [me],” he said of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. “It’s so easy to tell the story that way. It explains to the settlers that everyone was against them, with the devil, in the most ingenious way.”

Ariel Sharon visiting the Western Wall in 2001. (photo credit: Nati Shohat, Flash90)
Ariel Sharon visiting the Western Wall in 2001. (photo credit: Nati Shohat, Flash90)

Hacohen at the time was the commander of the front line Division 36 in the Golan Heights. He had come up through the Nahal infantry brigade and the armored corps. The first few times I asked him about the assignment and what it meant to him to carry it out, he brushed away the question, saying there were more important matters to discuss and that his own feelings might worm their way into a book someday but that the story itself was “painted with the colors of gossip.”

Only on the third try did he relent, prefacing his statement with a declaration: people will not understand.

He hinted that there were those in high places who were eager to see an officer affiliated with the religious community refuse an order. He noted that people are able to influence more “from the inside.” And he said that in his complex worldview he is willing “to cooperate with the devil” at times.

But the heart of the argument is this: He sees the Israeli army as “holy.” It is, he said, “the most beautiful and most important thing created by the Jewish people in the last one thousand years.”

Former chief of staff Lt. Gen. (Res.) Dan Halutz (photo credit: Dan Bronfeld/IDF/Flash90)
Dan Halutz, the commander of the IDF during the disengagement from Gaza (Dan Bronfeld/IDF/Flash90)

And so, in early 2005, when the chief of the IDF General Staff assigned him the job of commanding the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers, many of whom would have to be carried out of their homes kicking, screaming, and crying, he wasn’t sure what to do. “The act,” he said, “was improper. Anyone who knew me knew I felt this way. I couldn’t say it publicly. But everyone knew.”

And yet “a God-fearing man does not receive an instruction manual, as with a washing machine,” he said. “He faces a dilemma.”

Hacohen described his predicament prior to the withdrawal as akin to a woman caught in a tsunami. With one hand, she clings to a tree branch; with the other she holds her child. At some point, with the tide tugging constantly, she must choose and in the end she releases the child.

“For how many years can you ask her: say, do you regret letting go of the child?”

A state of conflict

At the time, and perhaps to a greater degree today, Hacohen’s deeply rooted worldview was unusual, swirling, coherent and, to a certain extent, indicative of a shift in the Israeli right, parts of which have embraced an organic, faith-based perspective on life that, they believe, mirrors the Palestinian ethos.

“The God of the Givati Brigade,” I heard him say in the wake of the controversy surrounding one brigade commander’s pre-Gaza campaign address to his soldiers last summer, “goes to war.” He does not stay in the study hall and the synagogue, coming out only on special occasions. “I also take God with me wherever I go,” he said during our interview. “The Ashkenazim are too enlightened,” the lineally Ashkenazi and philosophically Eastern general explained, “I am not enlightened.”

He continued, “I am not a nationalist. I am not Le Pen. I am not Liberman. I don’t hate Arabs. When I tell Arabs that I am a God-fearing man and they see that I am, as one might say, primitive, like they are, then they treat me with respect.”

Conflict and change, in his way of thinking, are constants. The West, he said, “lives with a cosmology of stability and I live with a cosmology of instability. I have a cosmological approach that is Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist.”

Say a train has been derailed, he offered. The Western approach is to rebuild the track and repair the problem. “I don’t even believe in the track. There is no track. I believe that God renews every day the act of creation. I believe that God struggles every day anew to bring the sun back up; that it is a new and emergent phenomenon every morning.”

The Western man, the German rationalist, he said, what does he want? “To go back to international borders. That is the main point for stability, to freeze the situation. They have an obsession that fixed equals stability. They can’t accept that reality is in constant flux.”

Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen (res.) speaks at the Yesha Council annual conference on Monday, June 15 2015. (Miri Tzahi)
Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen (res.) speaks at the Yesha Council annual conference, June 15 2015. (Miri Tzahi)

This notion of high-resolution Divine intervention and nonlinear reality is why, he said, both the Palestinians avoid an end-of-claims peace accord and the Israeli Bedouin refuse to end their decades-long land struggle against the state. “Because nothing is final,” he said. “Nothing.”

This is also why, he added, “I prefer Hamas to Abu Mazen.” Because Hamas “helps me prevent a two-state solution” and is, covertly “an ally, because neither it nor I want a final solution and neither in my terms nor in its is there something that is everlasting.”

But even if there were, he said, land is worth fighting for. “I think of land like a Russian,” he stated, adding that a homeland is “not an abstract idea” but rather a tangible place of soil and stone.

The long-term Palestinian plan, as articulated by PLO official Abbas Zaki, he said, is to pry Israel off the real cornerstones of the Zionist project – Jerusalem, Hebron, and Nablus – and then wait for the entire enterprise to implode.

Tel Aviv, he said, is important in that it is the gateway to Jerusalem; “without that it’s just another Brooklyn, another shtetl,” or Eastern European village.

Addressing the possibility of a future withdrawal from the West Bank amid international pressure that has shown no sign of abating, he was at turns defiant, macabre, and optimistic.

Beyond mentioning that he prefers an Iranian nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv to a two-state solution, he also said that he would happily forgo prosperity – “I prefer to eat bread and olives” – in exchange for the perpetuation of the status quo and that, in the future, in the face of pressure, he would be willing to grant all Palestinians the vote.

Emphatically denying that such a move would be the death knell of the Zionist project, he said he was “utterly convinced” that the Jews of the United States would answer Israel’s call and immigrate in large numbers – “three million Jews and the matter is finished” – either on account of a rise in anti-Semitism or in order to save the Jewish majority.

Looking across the table at an incredulous face, he said that in 1935-1936 the Yishuv in Palestine did not have 300,000 Jews. “Maybe three percent of the Jewish people,” he added.

Taking my pad of paper and drawing a pen stroke between Israel and the Gaza Strip, he said there are two models of living in this land, the dichotomous and the chaotic. “Judenraus,” he said, tapping the western side of the Gaza dividing line, indicating the Disengagement. “The Jew-boys don’t want to see Arabs near them. They want here and there.”

The chaotic model, which he drew for both Gaza and the West Bank, has bubbles of settlement throughout the territory, linked to access roads, allowing many points of entry. “If you want to invade, this has advantages,” he said. The space offers all sorts of potential. “Of course,” he said firmly, this lack of options “was felt during Operation Protective Edge” last summer.

And, since his perception of the world is that “the elemental state of man is struggle,” he prefers the one-state reality “and the internal struggle over the identity of the Jewish state” over the two-state reality in which the IDF has to repeatedly travel across a static borderline, which he tapped with my pen, between Netanya and Nablus.

The case for past and future withdrawals – a decrease in civilian Israeli blood spilled – is not a reasonable consideration, he indicated.

“This is the idiocy of people who think that war is numbers,” he said. “War is spirit. It’s not soccer. You don’t count goals. It’s not overall expected utility. Who won the Vietnam war? The US lost 50,000 men and Vietnam 1.5 million. Who won? There’s no question.”

Nor is Zionism about the provision of safety for the Jewish people. “Security is a byproduct,” he said. “It is a secondary issue. When Obama says I am committed to the security of the State of Israel, I say, listen, I am not here for security. That is not the story.”

The mission of the Jews in the Land of Israel, he said, is the ingathering of the exiles and salvation. And those two goals are irredeemably at odds with “the edicts of enlightenment.”

After touching on Kant and his notion of enlightenment clashing with religious doctrine in the public realm – a constant within Judaism and more so within Islam, he said – and Heidegger’s widespread appeal among Iranian elites – not on account of having been pro-Nazi but rather due to his counter-enlightenment philosophy, which offers the notion of “progress but not in a package deal with enlightenment” – I asked him if these views might propel him back into the arms of the settlers that he was compelled to betray back in 2005.

“The problem with the majority of the settlers is that they are Western dossim Ashkenazim who don’t understand context because they are universalists,” he said, using a slang term for the Orthodox. “And in math 2+2 is 4. It needs no context. But ethics are examined only in context. And that is why I think differently than [Rabbi Joseph] Soleveitchik, who thought Halacha was math. For me, it is first of all context.”

And the context of the Disengagement, he said, is that there was “a pothole” in the middle of the road and the people “in the backseat” did not see it – “which does not mean that you have no principles or that you are not loyal to your principles but that you,” he said, “must swerve on occasion.”

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