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Saving Israel's soul

THE RHETORIC over Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank reached its nadir when some ultraconservative rabbis announced a plan for a memorial to the dismantled Jewish settlements, called ''Yad Vashem to Gush Katif and northern Samaria." The Yad Vashem is Israel's Holocaust remembrance museum. One of the organizers, Rabbi David Druckman, defended the Holocaust parallel, pointing out that in Nazi Germany, Jews were also expelled from their homes and ''the soldiers also said they were just following orders."

Until recently, this obscene comparison of the Israelis to the Nazis was the province of the pro-Palestinian left. Now, it's being bandied about by the settlers and their far-right defenders.

It is impossible at this point to judge the eventual impact of the Israeli pullout. Given the support the terrorist group Hamas currently enjoys among Palestinians, it's hard to be optimistic about prospects for peace or Palestinian democracy. Yet I strongly believe Sharon's decision to withdraw was right for Israel.

While the occupied territories were seized by Israel in a defensive war, it is virtually impossible for a liberal democracy to maintain a long-term occupation in the face of popular resistance without losing its soul. Yes, international opinion often judged Israel's actions by an absurd double standard. Yes, the Palestinians' plight was cynically exploited by Arab states and by hatred-sowing fanatics. Still, the fact remains that the Palestinians were mistreated under the occupation. Many lost homes and farms; many more found their daily lives disrupted by humiliating security measures. In these conditions, it's sad but not surprising that hatred flourished.

There are many, in Israel and abroad, who passionately believe that disengagement from Gaza will endanger the Jewish state and embolden the terrorists. They are entitled to this view -- but their rhetoric has often been so extreme that it is far more likely to offend than to persuade. Nadia Matar, the leader of the far-right group Women in Green, found quite a few defenders after she excoriated Yonatan Bassi, head of the government's withdrawal authority, as ''a modern version of the Judenrat" -- the Jewish ghetto officials who collaborated with the Gestapo in rounding up Jews for the death camps.

Some opponents of disengagement who shun Holocaust analogies have used highly charged rhetoric of their own. Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick admits that Matar's comparison was ''nasty and wrong"; yet she concurs that the settlers are being ''expelled from their homes and communities for no reason other than the fact that they are Jews." But this is misleading. The settlements were not Jewish communities in a multiethnic, multireligious society: They were Israeli outposts in occupied territories. Most Gaza settlers believed that the entire land belonged to the Jews, and many advocated the expulsion of all Palestinians.

Disputing the stereotype of the settlers as violent zealots, Glick extols their ''humility" and ''dignity." But that's not what I saw in the behavior of people who yelled vile insults and sent out children to block the soldiers' path. True, settlers have rarely resorted to violence, and their leaders have condemned the terrorist acts committed by a few Israelis against Palestinians. This is in stark contrast to the widespread admiration for suicide bombers in Palestinian society. But surely, to commend the settlers for being better than terrorists and their sympathizers is to set the bar too low.

There is, as New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg noted in a 2004 article about the settlers, ''a moral gulf" between the settlers' zealotry and that of the Palestinian Islamist extremists. Yet across this gulf, there are alarming similarities: The settlers, too, see themselves as instruments of God's will, and their enemies as evil. Some have said they would rather see their children killed than give up land that God gave to the Jews.

Writing in The New Republic, Martin Peretz backs the dismantling of the Gaza settlements but argues that the settlers have been ''shabbily" treated and deserve more sympathy. I share Peretz's misgivings about the endurance of Palestinian extremism that seeks the total annihilation of Israel. But I have little sympathy to spare for people who believe that their God-given mission justifies the ill-treatment of Palestinians, the risk to Israeli soldiers who have to protect the settlers, and the risk to their own children -- particularly when those people compare their fellow Jews to Nazi storm troopers.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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