Commentary Magazine

The Settlers' Crisis, and Israel's

Israel is headed this summer for what may be the most severe political crisis of its history. On one side, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is resolved to go ahead with the military evacuation from the Gaza Strip of an estimated 8,000 Jewish settlers, most of them from Israel's half-million-strong modern Orthodox or “national-religious” community. The evacuation is part of Sharon's “disengagement” plan, itself meant to begin a unilateral drawing of Israel's borders in the absence of a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other side, a powerful settlement movement and its supporters accuse this plan, despite the parliamentary majority it enjoys, of lacking democratic legitimacy. There have been dark hints of violent resistance on the part of settlers, as well as of massive insubordination in the army units assigned to carry out their removal—or, worse yet, of doomsday developments like another Rabin-style assassination, a blowing-up of Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or even outright civil war. In the words of Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, one of the most moderate of the settler leaders, it is as if two trains were speeding toward each other on the same tracks with no signal light to stop either of them.

One might ask: all this over 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza—an overcrowded, impoverished strip of land in a corner of Palestine, less than 200 square miles in area, with more than a hundred Arab inhabitants for every Jew?

Indeed, routinely depicted in the Western media as consisting of wild-eyed Jews brandishing pocket Bibles in one hand and assault rifles in the other, the settler movement that is threatening to reduce Israel to chaos this summer does not even comprise a majority of the settlers in the occupied territories. Most of this population is either secular or ultra-Orthodox, and it tends to live in commuter towns like Ma'aleh Adumim on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Betar Illit just south of the capital, and Ariel a half-hour's drive from Tel Aviv—locales that will find themselves on the Israeli side of the security fence now being constructed by the Sharon government.

It is only as one goes deeper into the territories, where the Jewish settlements become smaller and more remote and life in them is more isolated and dangerous, that the proportion of national-religious Jews shoots up sharply. Gush Katif, the cluster of villages in the southwest corner of the Gaza Strip in which most of the Gaza settlers reside, is such an area. Unlike their secular and ultra-Orthodox counterparts, most of whom have been induced to live in the territories by the prospect of inexpensive housing in attractive surroundings, the national-religious settlers take both elements of their hyphenated epithet with the utmost seriousness; living beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders is for them a matter of deep-seated ideological commitment in which the twin elements of Judaism and Zionism are inseparable.

For these settlers, the political crisis over Gaza is thus only superficially political and only superficially over Gaza. It is rather a defining ideological moment, one that jeopardizes not only their relation to the Jewish state but their innermost identity.


The roots of this crisis go back far, predating the beginnings of Jewish settlement in the territories and even the 1967 war that made it possible. Their origins lie in a figure iconic in Zionist religious circles but little known outside of them: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935).

Kook, who served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine from 1921 until his death, belonged intellectually to the second generation of religious Zionism. The first, represented in the 19th and early 20th century by rabbis like Tsvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), Samuel Mohilever (1824-1898), and Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), had fought to legitimize Zionism as an idea against a hostile Eastern-European Orthodox establishment. To that establishment, Zionism was a form of false messianism, a rebellion against divine Providence whose sin lay in the attempt to cast off the tribulations of exile by dint of mere human initiative.

The early religious Zionists argued that, to the contrary, Zionism was no such thing. Rather, it was strictly limited in its goals, which were to improve the material and spiritual lot of the Jewish people by reestablishing a portion of it in its land. Since it was not meant to “force the end” of God's redemption—an impatience with history last seen in Jewish life in the disastrous 17th-century movement of Sabbatianism, which had left much of the Jewish world psychologically devastated and in fissure—there was nothing religiously impermissible about it.

What made it easier for religious Zionists like Mohilever or Reines to advance these arguments was the fact that early Zionist settlement in Palestine was itself largely Orthodox in character; at least at first, then, they were not faced with the more problematic aspects of joining forces in a common cause with secular or political Zionism. Even after the meteoric appearance of Theodor Herzl in the 1890's, with his galvanizing message of an international Zionist movement capable of negotiating a solution to the Jewish condition with the great powers, the problem was not perceived as acute. A prospering Orthodox community in the land of Israel combining religious observance with a wholesome economic and social existence would, the religious Zionists maintained, attract secular Jews to its ranks as well, thus proving Herzl wrong in declaring Zionism to be a strictly secular movement. In Judaism, after all, nationhood and religion were one.

But events did not bear out these expectations. Not only did Herzl's “political Zionism” remain resolutely secular in its approach, but the wave of halutzim or young socialist pioneers who arrived in Palestine in the early years of the 20th century and established themselves there as its dominant political force were openly anti-religious as Herzl never was. For the Orthodox Jew, collaboration with a Zionist Left demonstratively profligate in its behavior was difficult to defend.

Of course, it was still possible in such circumstances to hew to a modified version of the old line. This was done by the Mizrahi party, founded by Reines in 1902, which sought to work with secular Zionism when possible and against it when not. But for Kook, a student at the renowned Lithuanian yeshiva of Volozhin who had settled in Palestine in 1904, such an approach was, while tactically defensible, intellectually unsatisfying. A scholar with kabbalistic leanings and a mystical sense of life, Kook demanded a more unitary view. Even a partial alliance with secular Zionism was acceptable to him only if the latter could be grasped, not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. Full of admiration for the pioneers who tilled Palestine's soil and drained its swamps, while grieving over their lack of religious faith, he replaced a politics of religious Zionism with a theology.

This theology was messianic. The Orthodox anti-Zionists, Kook declared, were right: Zionism was redemptive in its goals. But they were also wrong, since, properly understood, the events unfolding in Palestine were not a human attempt to coerce God but God's attempt to enlist humanity and, above all, the Jewish people in His plan. The halutzim laboring to reestablish this people on their land and in a society based on equality and justice were performing God's work; they were in fact doing what religious Jews were incapable of doing, since the ideals that inspired them could not have taken root in an intellectually stagnant Orthodox world.

True, Kook wrote, these secular pioneers failed to understand that theirs were at heart the loftiest ideals of the Torah; but this was only a transitional phase, at whose end they would embrace Judaism in its entirety. Then, just as the biblical prophets had predicted, God's word would go forth from Zion in a perfected religion to which a world weary of injustice and violence would turn, and the messianic age would be under way. Indeed, it already was under way. The same halutzim who publicly desecrated the Sabbath were the at'halta de-ge'ula: redemption's onset.

It is not difficult to detect kabbalistic influences in Kook's thought, especially the influence of the Lurianic Kabbalah of the 16th and 17th centuries with its shift of emphasis from an eschatological messiah sent at a sudden moment of God's choosing to a gradual messianic process in which human endeavor plays a crucial role. There was also, though he would have vehemently denied it, a parallel between Kook's reasoning and the paradoxical Sabbatian concept of mitsva ha-ba'a be'avera, the fulfillment of God's commandments by their violation. Just as the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi believed that by performing forbidden acts in a spirit of devoutness they were restoring to their divine source the “sparks of holiness” trapped in the lower worlds, so Kook held that the dedicated life of a secular Zionist brought God's redemption closer even as it broke God's own laws.


Despite his stature as chief rabbi, Kook's thought remained marginal among religious Zionists, both in his lifetime and afterward. Messianism was feared by them, no less for its intrinsic dangers than as a tacit vindication of the ultra-Orthodox in their opposition to Zionism. Kook was admired more for his personal qualities than for his theology, which was propagated after his death at a Jerusalem yeshiva named for him and headed by his son Rabbi Tsvi Yehuda Kook.

Not even the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 could greatly strengthen Kook's intellectual influence. Although a prayer was added to the modern Orthodox liturgy referring to the new state as reshit ts'mihat ge'ulatenu, “the first burgeoning of our redemption,” there were too many painful reminders of the partiality of the achievement, including the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the loss in 1948 of the old city of Jerusalem and the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, for most observant Israelis to regard this as other than lip service to traditional aspirations.

Israel was then governed by David Ben-Gurion and the Left. The Mizrahi, its name now changed to the National Religious party, participated as a junior partner in coalition governments and resigned itself to the partition of biblical and Mandate Palestine more readily than did the secular Right. For a non-redemptive religious Zionism, that partition was merely a fact, albeit a tragic one. For Kook's disciples, on the other hand, it was a theological dilemma—for how could redemption be accompanied by the loss of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb, and the Cave of the Patriarchs?

And then came the 1967 war and swept the dilemma away. More than that: at the end of six dizzying days of combat, with all of historic Palestine unexpectedly—miraculously—in Jewish hands, Kook's vision suddenly made dazzling sense. After all, if a miracle had taken place, it was a miracle performed by the secular army of a secular Jewish state. The only theology of Judaism that could account for this was being taught at the Merkaz Ha-Rav Kook yeshiva in Jerusalem. In a sudden acceleration of history, the at'halta de-ge'ula had shifted into high gear. The urgent task was to respond to its challenge by settling Jews everywhere in a now “undivided Land of Israel,” the complete restoration of which to the Jewish people was the next stage in the redemptive process.

Although Jewish religious settlement in the occupied territories developed only gradually after the 1967 war, its ideological leadership was Kookian from the start. Even before banding together in 1974 in the organization known as Gush Emunim—the “faith-keeping bloc”—this leadership had begun to function as a geographical avant-garde. Letting the Labor government of those years settle the areas that a national consensus was determined to keep in any peace settlement—greater Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, Israel's narrow waist opposite Tel Aviv—it fought to expand them by unauthorized settlements elsewhere that eventually won government recognition.

The repopulating in 1967 of Gush Etsyon southwest of Bethlehem, where Jewish villages had been overrun by the Arab Legion in 1948; the reestablishment a year later of a Jewish presence in Hebron; the stubborn and eventually successful campaign of 1974 to open up to Jews the heavily populated Palestinian hill country of Samaria—all were spearheaded by Kook's followers. Defying initial attempts to evict them, they took as their model the early halutzim, who also had redeemed every bit of the Land of Israel that they could.

Gush Emunim and its adherents saw themselves as the new halutzim. Indeed, they were a higher form of the halutz, since in them was fulfilled Kook's dream of the Zionist pioneer grown aware of his true mission. Gradually, they won over a large part of the national-religious community—some of it, especially its most idealistic young, as settlers, others as converts to Kook's doctrine. The spread of this doctrine energized the entire national-religious community in Israel, giving it a sense of importance and purpose it never before had.


Until 1967, this community, in its own eyes, had played second fiddle to secular Zionism, which set and carried out the national agenda. Now the baton had passed to it. Moreover, this was happening at a time when, once the euphoria of the 1967 victory yielded to national depression following the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Zionist Left was ideologically and politically languishing. In the midst of an increasingly permissive, consumerist, post-Zionist secular society, the national-religious camp prided itself on alone continuing to carry the Zionist banner. With its comprehensive school system that stressed ideals of serving the nation no longer inculcated elsewhere; its mass-participation B'nei Akiva youth movement, the last of its kind in a country in which such organizations had once played a crucial role; its high rate of voluntarism, particularly in the army, whose elite units now drew heavily on national-religious youth; and the overall resistance of its public to the inroads of hedonism, this perception was not unjustified.

That this Zionist banner was now being held aloft in the name of redemptive beliefs was no secret in Gush Emunim circles, even if the beliefs themselves were played down in contacts with an outside world that needed to be convinced of the Jewish right to the Land of Israel by the more conventional language of historically justified territorial claims, legitimate security concerns, the dangers of Palestinian statehood, and so on. Faced, however, with the fact that this language, too, convinced few but the already converted, Gush Emunim encouraged its own rank-and-file with unconcealed messianic proclamations. Its literature is full of passages like the following from a 1971 article by Rabbi Ya'akov Filber:

Above and beyond everything that we are doing is a divine force pushing us onward, according to God's plan, toward the final redemption. . . . Since the liberation of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan, not a day goes by without some attempt, diplomatic or military, to turn back the wheel of history. . . . There is not a country in the world—including the government of Israel—which holds that the state of Israel should retain all of this land. And yet, wondrously, reality has allowed no circumstances to emerge that would require Israel to withdraw, even slightly, from the borders created by the Six-Day war.

God's instrument of redemption was the state of Israel. Though this or that Israeli government might be blind to the significance of what was happening, the state was nevertheless its agency. “All the rest,” Tsvi Yehuda Kook wrote, was composed of

mere detail, smaller or larger impediments, [technical] problems and complications; none of it can detract in any way from the holiness of the state. The inner value of the state has nothing to do with whether its citizens are religiously observant. Naturally, we would like the entire nation to live a life of Torah and its commandments, but the state is holy in any case!

Ostensibly, the son was inhabiting the conceptual world of his father—and yet the concepts had changed. Instead of pioneers, a state; instead of the Land of Israel as a platform for a perfect society, an imperfect society as a platform for the Land of Israel; instead of a redemptive process carried forward by revolutionary secular lives, a process leaning on institutionalized secular might. Never indeed had secular Israel been so imperfect, so far from the senior Kook's ideals. But in the excitement of settling the hilltops of the land, the leaders of Gush Emunim failed to notice the sleight-of-hand by which these substitutions were made.

In 1977, the year in which the Israeli Right led by Menachem Begin first came to power, there were 20,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1985 there were 50,000; in 1990, 100,000; in 2000, 200,000; in 2005, after four years of Palestinian terror had made the settlements among the least safe places in Israel, 250,000.

Such exponential growth in the face of danger and worldwide criticism left the settlement leadership confident that, despite the setbacks of the 1993 Oslo accord, the anti-settler and anti-religious atmosphere created in Israel by the 1995 Rabin assassination, and the solid phalanx of international support for a Palestinian state, things were going its way. The redemption, once unleashed, could not be stopped. As Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a former Knesset member from the National Religious party, put it, “There can be ups and downs, but there can be no going back in the [redemptive] process.”


This, then, is the background to today's national-religious opposition to Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan for Gaza. Even so, however, does not the violent intensity of that opposition seem, on the face of it, out of all proportion?

Granted, Sharon's plan can be criticized on rational grounds. It can be argued, for example, that no territory should be ceded to the Palestinians without a quid pro quo on their part, which in this instance Sharon has not sought. Still, there is no tactical case for permanently retaining the Gush Katif settlements. They are not contiguous with Israel proper, being separated from it by the large Palestinian city of Rafah, and there is an unreasonableness to the fact that they occupy close to 15 percent of the Gaza Strip's insufficient land while their inhabitants comprise less than 1 percent of its population.

Gaza itself has little strategic value, and even less of a history of Jewish life. Some rabbinic authorities in the past have denied that Jewish law considers it a part of the Land of Israel at all. Therefore, even if tactically misconceived, the relocation of its 8,000 Jews, whose fate under Palestinian rule would be unpleasant, should not, one would think, plunge Israel into grimmer discord than did the removal of settlements in Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt in 1982—an operation fiercely opposed by those evicted but quickly recovered from.

But Gaza is not, ultimately, the real issue. Both Ariel Sharon and the settlers know that, if this disengagement succeeds, it will be a dress rehearsal for what inevitably must come next: a similar withdrawal, involving far greater numbers of settlers, from most of the West Bank. This retrenchment, most likely to the security fence being built partly along and partly beyond the pre-1967 Israeli-Jordanian frontier, will be dictated by powerful considerations: the improbability of reaching a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement in the foreseeable future; mounting international pressure to make significant concessions to a post-Arafat Palestinian Authority; the drastic deterioration of Israel's image in the world due to the prolongation of its military occupation of the territories; the demographic precariousness of the Jewish majority west of the Jordan;1 and, finally, the wisdom of obtaining the backing of the most friendly administration Israel has ever had in Washington for the best permanent borders that Israel can make for itself under the present circumstances. Sharon, still the territorial maximalist he always has been, believes that it is imperative to withdraw from as much of the West Bank as is necessary in order to save as much of it as is possible.

For the national-religious community, however, such a withdrawal, involving the surrender of most of the biblical territory conquered in 1967, would be not only a physical disaster uprooting tens of thousands of its elite from their homes, or an emotional and psychological disaster. It would be a theological disaster—the smashing of a world-view that has come to shape its thinking.

And yet this very thinking has rendered it incapable of presenting its case to the Israeli public by means of a rational discussion of the issues or a laying-out of realistic political alternatives. Fifteen years ago, it was still possible for it to sketch a semi-plausible scenario for the retention of the West Bank. Massive Jewish immigration from the ex-Soviet Union coupled with heavy Palestinian emigration to the Persian Gulf would, it was said, improve the demographic balance; the Palestinian refusal to accept the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders would forestall international pressure on Israel to withdraw to those borders; the end of cold-war rivalries in the Middle East would make the world lose interest in Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and so forth.

Today, none of this has transpired. All that is left, apart from protesting Ariel Sharon's high-handedness, is a Kookian faith. Even Yisrael Harel, the most respected of the settler movement's political commentators, has been reduced to refuting the charge that the settlers are relying on miracles by responding:

Zionism, including the religious brand, never relied on miracles. It created them. . . . That is how we produced the solutions to our greatest difficulties. But that was when we still had faith in our capabilities and the justice of our cause.

This is not a rationally debatable proposition; nor, were Sharon to yield to the protesters and call for the national referendum on disengagement that they have been demanding, could they win it with such an argument. They can only hope to scare the country off from the Gaza disengagement with the specter of what will happen if it proceeds—or, failing that, to turn it into so traumatic an event that no Israeli government will dare repeat it on a greater scale in the West Bank. It is either that or the implosion of their mental universe.


Jewish history offers us some examples of what can happen when a messianic bubble bursts. In the case of Sabbatianism, which saw this occur when the messianic pretender Sabbatai Zevi was forced by the Ottoman Sultan to convert to Islam in 1666, the great majority of its adherents, chastened and disillusioned, reverted to normal Jewish lives. The remainder went different ways. Some stayed in the Jewish community while secretly continuing to believe in Sabbatai Zevi's messiahship, rationalized by them in esoteric and paradoxical ways. Some formed new, quasi-Jewish sects, like the Doenmeh in Turkey and the Frankists in Poland. Some lost all religious faith and drifted out of the Jewish sphere entirely.

Something analogous might happen in the national-religious community of Israel should disengagement from Gaza, and at a later date from much of the West Bank, take place. With Kook's redemptive vision shattered, and the “holy state” of Israel diminished to a profane body that has bitterly disappointed them, small numbers of national-religious Jews may choose to emigrate. Others may defect not from Israel but from religion. Still others may join the ranks of an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodoxy whose initial predictions regarding religious Zionism will now appear to have been strikingly confirmed. Already there is a noticeable trend among some modern Orthodox youth in Israel toward stricter standards of ritual observance and a more dismissive attitude toward secular institutions and culture; the collapse of the settler movement could push them and others the rest of the way.

As happened with the Sabbatians, however, the preponderance of national-religious Israelis will surely stay where they are—embittered and angry, it may be, and driven to intense soul-searching, but still part of the community they were raised in and still committed to both Judaism and life in a Jewish state. Intellectually, most will probably find their way back to one or another contemporary version of pre-Kookian religious Zionism, which has never ceased to be the outlook of some modern Orthodox Israelis and of elements—increasingly marginalized in recent years—in the National Religious party.

A smaller group may cling to a Kookian theology while accepting outward defeat. Perhaps the redemption would have come, they may reason, if only a faithless secular Israel had not refused to play its assigned role. (“The perfect faith, possessed in all his being, that our rabbi [Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook] had in the manifest End does not gainsay the clear awareness that we may, God forbid, miss the opportunity,” wrote Rabbi David Hentshke of Gush Emunim as far back as 1985.) Or perhaps redemption will still come when, given a second chance—who knows what the future of the Middle East holds in store?—a regenerate Israel does not repeat its mistake.

Similar efforts to explain away failure can be found in the other great Jewish messianic movement of our times, the one that has taken place in Lubavitch Hasidism. While most Lubavitchers have resigned themselves to the fact that the late Rebbe, though worthy of being the messiah, was actually not, some continue to think that he was prevented from fulfilling his destiny only by an undeserving generation, while others believe that he never died but will return to fulfill that destiny when the time is ripe.


It is indeed remarkable that in our day Jewish religious messianism has returned, not once but twice, and in ways that, 50 years ago, no historian or sociologist of religion would have considered possible. It has often been remarked upon that both Zionism and Communism, the latter of which was founded by the grandson of a rabbi and attracted Jews in disproportionate numbers, were nourished by secularized messianic impulses. But implicit in this insight has been the assumption that, in modern times, such impulses could come to expression only in a secular guise. Permanently sobered by the Sabbatian debacle, and tempered by modern rationalism, Judaism itself, even in its most traditional forms, was assumed to be immune to yet another messianic outburst.

Thanks to this assumption, many observers (myself included) who were sympathetic to the settlement movement, viewing it as a valuable element in Israel's struggle to redraw its dangerously constricted pre-1967 borders, were slow to grasp the strength of the messianic forces driving it. Although its Kookian theology was present from the start, one was tempted to dismiss this as a metaphorical structure, a way of intellectually organizing an attachment to the Jewish homeland that would not, ultimately, prove an obstacle to rational decision-making. When the day for such decisions came, it was presumed, many religious settlers would understand the need for them, and most of those who did not would accept the decree of majority rule. It was insufficiently appreciated that this would be no more cognitively possible for them than it is possible for a man hearing voices to accept the fact that they do not exist.

The settlers might not have come to the pass they are in had they understood in time that, by accepting Tsvi Yehuda Kook's sanctification of the secular state, they were hallowing the very force that would betray them. He who aligns himself with institutionalized power must realize that it obeys its own laws.

For Judaism, the lesson is that the potential for messianism is always there. Although it can exist as mere potential for centuries—apart from sporadic episodes, a millennium-and-a-half passed from its full-fledged eruption in Christianity and two catastrophic revolts against Rome until its full-fledged return in Sabbatianism—it remains a built-in feature of the Jewish religious psyche. The same mind that understands that an imperfect reality needs a Law and its limits will always yearn for a perfected state of being in which these limits are overthrown, and will always crave the excitement of overthrowing them.

The messianic insurrection that lies ahead this summer if disengagement from Gaza is carried out will be greater or smaller depending on various things—the degree to which the more responsible settler leaders are determined to prevent it, the tact and common sense of Israel's government, and the Israeli public's ability to deliver the clear message that it will not tolerate chaos in its streets. Sooner or later, the dust will settle. When it finally does, it will reveal a map of a divided land of Israel that is not as clean and aesthetically satisfying as the one, with its straight line running from the top of the Jordan River to the bottom of the Dead Sea and thence to the Gulf of Aqaba, that the settlers want. It will be an ugly mess of little squiggles, full of loops and zigzags, twisting and turning and doubling back on itself to pass between a Jewish and an Arab village here, an Arab and a Jewish town there—a perfect horror of a map, uglier even than the one that Israel lived with before 1967. Perhaps it will be revised or erased some day. In the meantime, with as many Israelis as possible on one side, and as many Palestinians as possible on the other, it will have to do, the very symbol of an unredeemed world.



1 The fundamental demographic picture is not changed by a recently released study in which it is claimed that the usual analyses of Jewish and Arab population figures have been inaccurate and unduly alarmist. Even if these findings are correct, a relatively stable Jewish-Arab population ratio of 60 to 40 percent west of the Jordan, put forth by the authors as the best-possible-case interpretation of the data, would still preclude Israel's annexing the West Bank and granting full citizenship rights to its Palestinian inhabitants without turning into a bi-national rather than a Jewish state.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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