The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.
They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the "whole land of Israel," filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.
The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too "holy" and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.
In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.
In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.
We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.
But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.
To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.
It means recognizing we are not alone in this land -- and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.
It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.
For more than 30 years, the settlers' dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.
For more than 30 years, the settlers' dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers' pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.
They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.
I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.
I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.
And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we've got. It's easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.
The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.
It's easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.
But Israel, for all its faults, is all we've got.
Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.
A bit less "brotherly love," a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.
Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel's quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people -- to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.
The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face -- at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.
The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.
Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.
With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border -- the border between what is allowed and what is not.
This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction -- a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.
Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.
Amos Oz is one of Israel's most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.