Anyone who has been concerned or angered by the debate over the future of liberal Zionism, sparked by Peter Beinart’s recent article in the New York Review of Books, should hurry to read The Settlers, the new book by the Israeli writer Gadi Taub. At the center of Taub’s short, lucid, and thoughtful work is a brief history of the religious settlers’ movement—the Jews who have settled in the West Bank in the conviction that they have a divine mission to reclaim all the land promised to the Patriarchs in the Bible. Numerically, this is not a significant group—Taub estimates it at between 100,000 and 130,000 people, which is “less than 1.5 percent of Israel’s total population,” and less than half even of the Jewish population of the Occupied Territories.
Many settlers, as Taub notes, are not religious, but are drawn to the territories by “cheaper housing and government economic incentives.” But the radical convictions of the settlers, their role in shaping Israeli government policy, and the terrorist actions of a few of their members, make them decidedly central to the whole question of Israeli identity. That is why Taub’s subtitle refers to “the struggle over the meaning of Zionism” and why his book is so timely, at a moment when many American Jews may find themselves uncertain of that meaning.
Taub starts out by reminding us that Zionism, properly understood, is a liberal movement. It is nothing more or less than the belief that, in the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations.” The Jewish experience in Europe, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, convinced the early Zionists that it was only in a sovereign Jewish state that this self-determination could be achieved. Indeed, the same belief inspired all the peoples of Eastern Europe, from Lithuanians to Greeks.
It is often said, in reproach of Theodor Herzl and the other founders of Zionism, that their eagerness to establish a Jewish state in Palestine led them to ignore the existence of the Arabs already living there—that they believed in “a land without a people for a people without a land.” In fact, as Taub points out, this is not at all the case. From Herzl onward, the Zionists were aware that any Jewish state would inevitably have a large Arab minority, and Israel’s founding laws established collective rights for that minority, as well as legal equality. As Taub remarks, this ideal of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic was not fully lived up to, for a variety of reasons. But it was not until 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War, that the ideal itself came under serious threat.
Ever since then, there has been a two-tiered government: democracy in Israel proper, military rule and harsh subordination of Arabs in the occupied territories. The philosophical danger of the occupation—to say nothing of the diplomatic and military and economic dangers—is that its illiberalism will make Zionism itself look illiberal in retrospect. This, as Taub points out, is the view of the “post-Zionists” in Israel and of much of the left in Europe and America: that “Zionism was never democratic, and the very idea of a Jewish democratic state is a mere contradiction in terms.” Ironically, Taub argues, this is the same thing that the settler movement believes. The difference is that, while anti-Zionists want to resolve the contradiction by making Israel cease to be Jewish (the so-called “one-state solution”), the settlers want to resolve it by making Israel cease to be democratic. For as Taub rightly observes, “the concept of a Jewish democratic state [stops] making sense if Jews are not a clear majority,” and an Israel in permanent possession of the West Bank would, in time, inevitably have a non-Jewish majority.
The reason why the religious settlers can face this prospect with equanimity is that they are not democrats but fundamentalists and theocrats. This is made quite explicit in some of the statements Taub quotes. To Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the chief theologian of “redemptive religious Zionism,” “the Almighty has his own political agenda, according to which politics down here are conducted.” Shlomo Aviner, head of a religious Zionist yeshiva, went still further, saying that settlement is “above moral-human considerations,” because it is a direct command from God. Actually, Taub writes, Judaism has historically had little to say about resettling in the land of Israel, except to caution against it. According to one midrash, when the Jews went into exile after the destruction of the Temple, they made three vows: “not to hasten the end of days [not to do anything to expedite the coming of the Messiah], not to ascend the wall [not to immigrate to the Land of Israel and reestablish the House of David], and not to rebel against the nations of the world.”
For some haredi sects these prohibitions still hold, which is why certain fringe ultra-Orthodox rabbis opposed and continue to oppose the existence of the state of Israel (such as Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta, who is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favorite rabbi). But Zvi Yehuda Kook preferred to follow the so-called fourth mitzvah of Nahmanides, which held that “we were commanded to take possession of the land which God gave to our fathers … and we must not abandon it to any other of the nations or leave it in desolation.” In the hands of Kook and his followers, this became one of the most important of all commandments, so urgent that it was held to justify sacrificing life—or taking it. When Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, his justification was that Rabin had been branded a rodef (literally, a pursuer) by some settler rabbis, a halachic designation that meant it was justified to kill him.
For Taub, the Rabin assassination marks the crucial turning point in the history of the settler movement. It demonstrated beyond a doubt that the settlers’ mission to redeem the land of Israel was on a collision course with the security of the state of Israel. For two decades, starting with the election of Likud in 1977, this distinction had been elided: territorial expansion was the policy of conservative Israeli governments on national-security grounds, which fit in nicely with the settlers’ religious agenda. But when even Ariel Sharon, whom Taub describes as “the patron of the settlers,” decided that Israel must withdraw from Gaza, it became clear that this political alliance was over. Ultimately, all factions of secular and mainstream religious Zionism believed that the secure existence of a Jewish state was more important than its control of the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The larger problem, which The Settlers only begins to address, is how this consensus should be translated into actual policy. For, as Taub acknowledges, the settlers on their own have never been numerous or powerful enough to dictate to Israel’s government. When Israel encouraged settlement in the occupied territories, it was because the government believed this policy would ultimately strengthen the state. This has proved to be a huge mistake, and there is little doubt that most Israelis would now be glad to see (most of) the West Bank and Gaza turned over to a moderate Palestinian government. But there is no immediate prospect of such a government emerging—and the fate of Gaza, where Israeli withdrawal led to Hamas rule and a barrage of rocket attacks, makes withdrawal from the West Bank even less likely. “For all its military and economic power,” Taub writes, “Israel was helpless to extract itself from the territories and prevent itself from sliding down the slippery slope to binationalism.” The title of Taub’s last chapter is “Conclusion: What Next?” and he is no more able to answer the question than anyone else. But The Settlers goes a long way toward reminding us of the values that Zionism must preserve, if it is to be worthy of its great history.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece was originally published in Tablet.