Israel’s Dangerous Fundamentalists
by Ian S. Lustick
For most of this century, Zionism has been a social democratic movement. And for most of its history, Israel was essentially a social democratic state. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, however, and especially since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, that ethos has lost its central importance. Battling to reassert its vision of the Jewish state, social democratic Zionism faces unprecedented challenges from an ultranationalist, eschatologically based, irredentist ideology aptly characterized as Jewish fundamentalism. Kulturkampf is not too strong a word for the struggle that is now under way. Its outcome will have profound implications for Israel’s future and for the evolving relationship between Israel and its superpower partner, the United States.
The dynamism that underlay the shift toward fundamentalism has been concentrated in Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful)—an umbrella organization including more than 10,000 devoted activists. Gush Emunim helped unseat the last Labor government in 1977 and subsequently infused Likud leaders, on the right of Israel’s political spectrum, with much of its own vision of authentic Zionism. In many respects Gush Emunim, as an energized influential minority movement emphasizing pioneer values and a grand vision of Zionism, can be compared to the kibbutz movement of Israel’s prestate era. Before 1948 the kibbutz movement, which never included more than 7 per cent of Israelis, and the socialist Zionist leadership associated with it provided the Yishuv (Jews living in Palestine) with the most salient models of Jewish patriotism, Zionist civic duty, and spiritual guidance. Gush Emunim, its settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and its charismatic and rabbinical leaders have provided highly salient models for the present generation of Israelis.
The men and women of Gush Emunim have made it their lives’ work to ensure that the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are incorporated permanently into the state of Israel, thus hastening the fulfillment of Jewish destiny. For most of these activists, this ultimately includes establishing Jewish sovereignty over the entire biblically described Land of Israel, substituting authentically Jewish forms of governance for Western-style liberal democracy, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, and implementing the divinely ordained, albeit long delayed, messianic Redemption. Fundamentalists insist that direct political action is the means to accomplish the rapid transformation of Israeli society according to uncompromising, cosmically ordained imperatives. In this insistence they must be understood as radically different from pietistic, largely non-Zionist, ultraorthodox Jews whose beliefs lead to withdrawal from society and political action only to defend their isolation from it.
The core of Gush Emunim’s membership resides in many of the more than 130 settlements established in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights since 1967, but recruitment extends to Israel’s largest religious youth movement, Bnei Akiva, to a network of paramilitary field seminaries, to the religious education system, to new immigrants, and to many middle-class Israelis committed to expansive versions of Labor Zionism or Revisionist Zionism. Although officially nonpartisan, Gush Emunim is actively supported in national politics by half a dozen cabinet ministers and more than 35 per cent of the Knesset, representing 5 political parties. Although it is mainly an Ashkenazic (European and American) movement, electoral support for parties linked to Gush Emunim is strong among Israel’s Oriental Jews, those who emigrated from, or whose parents emigrated from, Asia and Africa.
Gush Emunim has never had a formal membership list or an elected leadership. Nevertheless, it maintains a substantial organizational network that spans the border between Israel and the occupied territories. It also has spawned its own settlement-building organization—Amana (Covenant). Its settlements are organized within Yesha (Salvation), which stands for the Association of Local Councils in Judaea, Samaria, and the Gaza District. Aside from sponsoring the publication of Nekuda, an in-house monthly journal, Yesha gives Gush Emunim a semiofficial governing body, elaborate administrative and economic resources, and direct involvement in implementing government policies in the occupied territories.
Since 1984, when it was formed, the national unity government has reduced Gush Emunim’s political leverage. The fundamentalist movement also is still adjusting to a leadership shakeup in May 1987 that climaxed a prolonged internal crisis over an amnesty campaign on behalf of Gush members imprisoned for terrorist attacks on Arabs and a plot to destroy Moslem shrines in Jerusalem. [please see “Fundamentalism, Terrorism, and Democracy: The Case of the Gush Emunim Underground” by Ehud Sprinzak for more information on this plot—web editor]
Yet even though Gush Emunim is not now riding on a crest of popularity, and though Israel will not become a fundamentalist state in the near future, Jewish fundamentalism remains ideologically the single most coherent and vigorous political force in Israel. Its influence is reflected both in the obstacles to peace negotiations stemming from Israel’s entrenched position in the occupied territories and in Israeli opinion polls. In the late 1960s the vast majority of Israeli Jews regarded fundamentalist ultranationalist and religious beliefs and political programs as bizarre extremism. Now, however, some 20 per cent of Israeli Jews embrace them. Another 10 to 15 per cent consider these policies and opinions acceptable, even if they do not fully agree with them. And another 10 to 15 per cent firmly back the key Gush demand that no territorial concessions be made in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In another telling indication of Gush Emunim’s impact, a June 1987 survey of 22 leading Israeli figures by the newspaper Hadashot found that Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the current ideological leader of Gush Emunim and a key figure in initiating the Jewish settlement movement in 1968, tied with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin in being considered the person who has had the greatest impact on Israeli society in the last 20 years.
Even as Gush Emunim seeks ways to institutionalize itself and its program, it already has created powerful myths for contemporary Israeli society. These myths, and the attitudes and policies they encourage, will mold Middle Eastern affairs for decades. Israelis now entering the army were born after the 1967 war. For them, the West Bank is Judaea and Samaria. The Green Line, which separated Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967, does not appear on official maps of their country. For increasing numbers of these Israelis, what was absurd to many of their parents but is common sense to Gush Emunim—that the whole Land of Israel must be Jewish-ruled for Zionism to be vindicated—is common sense to them. And increasingly, what is absurd to Gush Emunim but was common sense to many of their parents—that land should be traded for peace with the Arabs—is absurd to them as well.
Despite its importance, most Americans and many Israelis share a dangerous ignorance of the beliefs that animate Jewish fundamentalism. If Americans do not appreciate how radically different the Gush Emunim world view is from their conception of what Israel is all about, they will continue to be surprised and exploited by Israeli actions that flow naturally from it. And if U.S. policymakers, or even leftist and left-center Israeli politicians, do not understand or take seriously Gush ideology, they will miss likely opportunities to divide and defeat the movement.
Fundamentalism’s World View
There are good reasons why Gush thinking is not understood outside its own circles. The belief system does not encourage attempts to explain it to non-Jews. Nor did its most authoritative spokesman, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, produce a systematic presentation of his approach to Zionism and the redemption process.
Zvi Yehuda Kook was the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, who served as chief rabbi of Palestine from 1919 until his death in 1935. Abraham Isaac Kook’s reputation for saintliness, his evocative writings, and his mystically based view of secular Zionism as serving religious ends made him invaluable to the prestate Zionist movement in its battles with religious orthodoxy and equally important to Gush Emunim in its effort to legitimate religiously based political action. Zvi Yehuda Kook emerged after the Six-Day War as a charismatic leader of near prophetic stature in his followers’ eyes. His status was based not only on his father’s reputation but also on his pre-1967 loyalty to the vision of a “completed” Land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty. The tightly knit circle of his disciples that forms the ideological and political core of Gush Emunim’s leadership includes Yaacov Ariel, Shlomo Aviner, Yoel Ben-Nun, Chaim Druckman, Levinger, Hanan Porat, and Eliezar Waldman.
Until his death in 1982, Kook’s leadership was unquestioned. Even now, ideological and tactical disputes among fundamentalists are commonly framed by the participants as disagreements over accurate interpretations of his opinions. The world view of Jewish fundamentalism is best revealed through the homilies and writings of Kook, analytic articles by those of his students prominent in Gush Emunim, and the works of two scholars—the late Rabbi Menachem Kasher and Harold Fisch. Kasher’s messianic tracts are well known to many yeshiva students and Gush activists but are virtually unread outside of these circles. He wrote treatises arguing for classifying the contemporary period as the “Great Era”—the beginning, or even the middle, of a redemption process culminating in the messianic age. Fisch, formerly rector of Bar Ilan, Israel’s only religious university, is the only member of Gush Emunim’s religious elite to write a systematic exposition of the fundamentalist world view, The Zionist Revolution (1978).
Jewish fundamentalist thinking is grounded in seven basic beliefs. Although expressed in terms consistent with Zionist rhetoric, in fact they represent categorical rejections of some key tenets of Zionist ideology.
Zionism arose simultaneously in both Eastern and Western Europe in the late 19th century. The analysis of the “Jewish problem” and its solution, propounded independently by Leo Pinsker in czarist Russia and Theodor Herzl in Austria, France, and Germany, was anchored in the bold conviction that anti-Semitism could be utterly eliminated if Jews were granted the opportunity to become a “normal” people. In the Hebrew phrase, Jews were to become goy kekol hagoyim, a nation like all the other nations. Living scattered among other peoples, a minority everywhere, the Jews appeared to Gentiles as a mysterious, even ghostly presence. Anti-Semitism was traceable to this abnormal mode of existence and to the fears and passions that, under the circumstances, Jews naturally provoked among Gentiles. By concentrating themselves as a majority in their own land, the structural abnormality of their collective life would cease. Jews would then develop a national culture and personality no different in their fundamentals from those of any other people, and anti-Semitism eventually would disappear.
Fisch articulates Gush Emunim’s radical reversal of these Zionist propositions. The idea, he says in The Zionist Revolution, “that the Jewish nation is a normal nation and ought to be treated as such by the so-called international community . . . . is the original delusion of secular Zionism.” For Fisch, authentic Zionism entails rejecting classical Zionism’s use of other nations as models for how the Jewish people should behave. Jews are not and cannot be a normal people. The eternal uniqueness of the Jews is the result of the covenant made between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai—a real historical event with eternal and inescapable consequences for the entire world.
Not surprisingly, fundamentalists fully embrace Jews as an Am Segula (a chosen or “treasured” people). The implication is that the transcendent imperatives for Jews effectively nullify moral laws that bind the behavior of normal nations. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, of the Ataret Cohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem and one of Gush Emunim’s most prolific ideologues, argues that divine commandments to the Jewish people “transcend the human notions of national rights.” He explains that while God requires other nations to abide by abstract codes of justice and righteousness, such laws do not apply to Jews. To his people of Israel, God speaks directly.
In their analysis of the Arab conflict with Israel, if not always in their propaganda, most Zionist and Israeli leaders have explained Arab hostility in practical terms—as a conflict that stems from misperceptions and specific economic, cultural, or political circumstances. Accordingly, as those perceptions and circumstances change, opportunities for ending the conflict can materialize and should be exploited.
But Gush Emunim views the conflict with the Arabs as the latest and most crucial episode in Israel’s eternal battle to overcome the forces of evil. This stance is illustrated by Rabbi Eliezar Waldman, head of the Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba and a member of the Knesset for the Gush Emunim-linked Tehiya party, in words offered to members of the fundamentalist movement troubled by the outcome of the 1982 Lebanon war. Wars, he explained, are a natural and expected, if unfortunate, part of the redemption process. “It is impossible to complete the Redemption by any means other than war,” he said. By fighting the Arabs, Israel carries out its mission to serve “as the heart of the world, in contact with every organ, and with the world understanding that it must receive the blood of life from the heart.” 1 Anti-Semitism and the wars it precipitates, Waldman believes, will cease only when Israel’s territorial and political destiny is fulfilled and when the nations of the world recognize the special holiness and mission of the Jewish people.
Many Zionists, especially on the left, not only have come to recognize the legitimate rights of Palestinian Arabs but even have noticed similarities between the historical experiences of Jews and Palestinians. Jewish fundamentalist assumptions about the world, however, make it essentially impossible for them to see Jews and Palestinians in comparable terms. Nor can fundamentalists acknowledge any real tie between the Palestinians, or any group other than Jews, and the Land of Israel. To do so would contradict the prophecy that the Promised Land would “vomit out” any other people that tried to live there and that only with the return of the Jews would the land, as a sign of the beginning of the messianic age, again “shoot forth branches, and yield fruit.” Hence they treat as incontrovertible historically unsupportable notions that Palestine only became a productive country under Jewish cultivation and that most Palestinian Arabs only arrived in the area within the past century.
For Jewish fundamentalists, local Arabs are most easily and appropriately seen as Canaanites or Ishmaelites. Thus Kook cited Maimonides, the leading rabbinical authority of the medieval period, to the effect that three choices were offered to the Canaanites—to flee, to accept Jewish rule, or to fight.2 These are the choices, he and his students suggest, that frame the appropriate attitude for Jews toward Palestinian Arabs. Of course, the decision by most Canaanites to fight ensured their destruction, and the same fate awaits present-day non-Jewish inhabitants of the land who resist the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over its entirety. [for further reading on the genocidal stance of Gush Emunim fundamentalists towards the Arabs in Palestine please see “Foundations of a Political Messianic Trend in Israel” by Uriel Tal—web editor]
Gush Emunim’s most popular biblical verse for characterizing the Jewish people’s relationship to the gentile nations is Numbers 23:9: “a people that dwells alone and that shall not be reckoned among the nations.” This reflects a deep-seated belief that nearly the only distinction worth making among human groups is that between Jews and Gentiles. In this context, what is perceived as the wildly irrational opprobrium heaped upon Israel by the world community is interpreted as more evidence of the Jewish people’s special divine destiny—according to Fisch, “a theological sign of election.”
Jewish fundamentalism remains ideologically the single most coherent and vigorous political force in Israel.
In the world view of Jewish fundamentalism, the traditional Zionist slogan “What counts is not what the Gentiles think, but what Jews do!” is replaced by something quite different: “What counts is not what Gentiles do, but what Jews are!” Israel’s maximal territorial and political ambitions are accepted as right, axiomatically, because Jews are the chosen people of God. “In our very being and essence,” Aviner wrote in 1982 of the Gentiles’ endemic hatred of Jews, “we negate their values. If we are right, that means the foundations of their lives are shattered. We have no intention of harming them, but we do negate their way of life, and this fact causes an internal feeling of opposition.” [And perhaps this could also be said by the Gentiles of the Jews—web ed.]
Classical Zionism considered Gentiles essentially rational and explained anti-Semitism as the natural but temporary response of rational people to an irrational mode of Jewish existence. Jewish fundamentalism, on the other hand, expects rationally unwarranted persecution of Jews and the Jewish state to continue until the culmination of the Redemption. Once these basic assumptions are kept in mind, it is not difficult to understand Kasher’s supernatural explanation for America’s otherwise puzzling support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War: It was “a miracle from heaven.” [And what are these people willing to do to make such miracles come true?—web ed.]
The pervasiveness of gentile hostility to Israel cannot be assuaged through negotiation or compromise, in the Gush Emunim view. All such efforts are bound to fail. Those Israelis who have pursued what they believe to be options for peace based on compromise make the mistake of thinking that the conflict is a normal one about borders and political rights. In fact, territorial and political problems are but superficial aspects of the metaphysical struggle that actually is being waged. Negotiated compromises may appear to be successful in the short run. But by obscuring the ever present threat of annihilation and by abandoning territories, not only is Israel weakened, but the imperatives that God placed upon the Jewish people to “inherit the land” are contradicted. This, in turn, delays the eventual redemption.
From this perspective, two kinds of peace are possible. The first is a temporary peace based on perceptions of Israeli power. This kind of peace does not signify Arab abandonment of efforts to destroy the Jewish state, but it can be maintained without territorial or political concessions. It is the sort of peace Begin predicted Israel would enjoy when, at the height of Israel’s apparent success in the Lebanon war, he declared that the land would enjoy the biblically ordained 40 years of peace because of Arab fear and disarray.
The second kind of peace is that which will eventually accompany the completion of Israel’s inheritance of the whole land and will precede the coming of the Messiah to rule over the reunited people of Israel. It was on the basis of this vision of peace that Kook, and the fundamentalist movement as a whole, rejected the 1978 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and the very principle of the Camp David peace process. After the signing of the Camp David accords he declared any peace arrived at through compromise as ipso facto invalid.
For the approximately 20 per cent of fundamentalist activists who are not religious [see the following Israeli political parties: Moledet, Tzomet, Tekuma, and the National Union—web ed.], the Land of Israel, combined with the Bible and historicist notions of the “destiny of the Jewish people,” plays a role functionally equivalent to that of God for religious fundamentalists by offering transcendent imperatives. For all Israeli Jewish fundamentalists, however, an irreducible attachment to the Land of Israel, in its entirety, is at the core of their world view. The priority accorded the land is reflected in a slogan popular with Gush Emunim, “The Land of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.”
Just as the covenant was established with one particular chosen people, so, too, must it be fulfilled in one particular chosen place—the Land of Israel. “The Land,” as Kook wrote in the Israeli journal Artzi in 1981, “was chosen even before the people. ” And as Hanan Porat, one of the best-known younger leaders of Gush Emunim, has pointed out, only Jews have a relationship to the land that is divinely ordained.
Israel’s national connection to the Land of Israel is unique among the nations—it is more binding than the ties of the French, English, Russian, and Chinese peoples to their lands. . . For us the Land of Israel is a land of destiny, a chosen land, not just an existentially defined homeland. . . . [It is the land] from which the voice of God has called to us ever since that first call to the first Hebrew: “Come and go forth from your land where you were born and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” 3
One implication of this belief is that questions of borders automatically assume cosmic proportions. The very discussion among Jews of the possibility of relinquishing land is abhorrent. To express the intimate bonds they feel to the land, fundamentalists commonly invoke images of the Land of Israel as a living being. Territorial concessions and the destruction of settlements then become “the severing of a limb from a living body,” as Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a member of the Knesset and a disciple of Kook, said in 1982 in condemning Israel’s withdrawal from the Yamit district of the northeastern Sinai peninsula.
A key element in Jewish fundamentalism, as in any fundamentalist movement, is its adherents’ belief that they possess special and direct access to transcendental truth and to the future course of events. For Jewish fundamentalists, history is God’s means of communicating with his people. Political trends and events contain messages to Jews that provide instructions, reprimands, and rewards. Combined with religious texts, political and historical analysis guides the continuing struggle toward redemption. This general approach is well illustrated by the divine messages that Jewish fundamentalists discern in three key events: the Holocaust, the Six-Day War, and the Yom Kippur War.
Fisch, in The Zionist Revolution, characterizes the Holocaust, the killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, as an example of God’s discipline—“the commandment written in blood upon the soil of Europe.” God thereby instructed his people that the Emancipacion, in which so many Jews had placed their hopes for equality within a democratic Europe, would not provide Jews with an escape route from the burdens of their covenant. Thus the Holocaust is seen as God’s way of coercing his chosen people back to the Promised Land and of convincing them of the urgency of its complete reunification. Best known for this interpretation of the Holocaust is Kasher, who argued in The Great Era (1968) that by entailing the destruction of more Jews than the loss of the First and Second Temples combined, the Holocaust must be understood as the “birthpangs of the messianic age [which] fell upon our generation and thus opened for us the way to Redemption.”
Kasher combines an elaborate exegesis of biblical and talmudic sources with a detailed interpretation of Israel’s wars in an effort to determine precisely what stage the redemption process has reached. Kasher employs a distinction popular in fundamentalist circles between the “Messiah Son of Joseph,” who will settle the land and win victories, but ultimately fail in his struggle for redemption in the war of Gog and Magog—the ruler and country that Ezekiel prophesied will fight Israel and that represent the forces of evil led by the anti-Messiah—and the “Messiah Son of David,” who will subsequently and miraculously lead Israel and the world into complete redemption.
Kasher, and most fundamentalists, interpret Arab-Israeli wars as part of the redemption period of the Messiah Son of Joseph, during which “miracles are shrouded in natural events.” 4 Whether religious or nonreligious, according to Kasher, the soldiers who died in Israel’s army during those wars died as martyrs “for the sanctification of the Name.” Kasher’s hope is that the Jewish casualties in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were sufficient to warrant the Yom Kippur War’s categorization as the third and last of the wars of Gog and Magog. Otherwise, he contends, it must be considered the first of the three, and predicts that two much more terrible wars lie ahead before the appearance of the Messiah Son of David. However convincingly specific events are explained or predicted, Kasher’s assumption is that all events reflect the will of God and that his interest in the world centers on the unfolding redemption of the land and people of Israel.
Despite the dominant role that God is seen to play in shaping human history, Jewish fundamentalists are not fatalists. Their call for sustained political mobilization is based on a view of the Jewish people as God’s partners in tikkun olam (repair of the world)—a process whose culmination will entail establishment of the messianic kingdom. Accordingly, a key fundamentalist belief is that the accomplishment of political objectives necessary for redemption will be determined by the vision of Jewish leaders, their sensitivity to the imperatives of the hour, and, especially, the single-minded faith and spiritual discipline of the Jewish people. In this context, virtually all political situations are construed not as opportunities to adjust demands or resources, but as tests of the Jewish people’s vision and will.
Fisch’s interpretation of the Israeli debate over peace negotiations and the disposition of the occupied territories reflects this perspective. Given the metaphysical essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the deep division within Israeli society between hawks and doves is, practically speaking, irrelevant to the prospects of peace or war. The internal contest over the future of the occupied territories is nonetheless of critical importance. It represents a test for authentic Zionism, which accepts the lonely destiny of the Jews as God’s covenant people and embraces the “scandal of biblical reality,” as Fisch put it, in its struggle with a Zionism that distorts Jewish history in a vain search for normalcy. In fundamentalist parlance, the “secular left” in Israel comprises modern-day Hellenizers whose doctrines of “meism” and “nowism” foster apathy and endanger the Jewish people’s ability to survive in a hostile world. For Gush Emunim, only faith and a willingness for self-sacrifice, not pseudo-sophisticated political calculations, can support effective political action. A renewal of such faith will entail abandoning “cheap imitation of the culture of the West” and ignoring “world opinion,” as Fisch asserted.
Settlements and Redemption
The basic fundamentalist beliefs show the coherence and distinctiveness of the Jewish fundamentalist world view. But within it there is room for extensive debate and even bitter controversy. A variety of important disputes within the Jewish fundamentalist movement encompass very different positions that yet remain fully consistent with the aforementioned assumptions and categories. One of these disputes, perhaps the most important, pertains to the pace and political dynamics of the redemption process.
Many disagreements within Gush Emunim over strategy and tactics hinge on differing beliefs about the schedule of events in the redemptive process that all believe is under way. A key division exists between vanguardists, or “truth tellers,” on the one hand, and consensus builders on the other.
Vanguardists stress the decisive role of human effort in fulfilling God’s will. They reject the notion that certain aspects of the process, such as the restoration of the Sanhedrin (the supreme judicial, political, and religious authority of the ancient Jews) or the rebuilding of the Temple, must await the miraculous intervention of God or his angels. With bold action rooted in faith, and justified by what they see as higher law, the vanguardists claim to follow the authentically Jewish and Zionist tradition—one of a minority that ignored accusations of unreality to bring divinely supported visions into reality. As the vanguardist Dan Tor wrote in Nekuda in 1986:
The establishment of Gush Emunim settlements across the Green Line, and the effective erasure of that line, was the initiative of a few who took upon themselves the responsibility for determining the fate of the western Land of Israel in our generation . . . without the permission of the elected government of Israel, and even in the face of its bitter opposition.
Politically, many of the vanguardists are associated with what current polls show is Israel’s third largest party—Tehiya, formed in 1979 in angry response to Begin’s agreement to return the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. [The Tehiya party (read its platform here) has since disbanded and its members reabsorbed into other Gush-related parties such as the National Religious Party (NRP), or Mafdal—web ed.] The vanguardists have argued against the principle of voting for the Likud in parliamentary elections as the lesser of two evils (compared with Labor). Before the 1981 elections Likud came under heavy criticism from vanguardists for supporting Arab autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, though an even greater fear was that a Labor party victory would curtail the resources available for Jewish settlement in those areas.
Also typical of the vanguardist approach is the belief that settlement in the territories is not yet sufficient to prevent their return to Arab rule. One of the first Gush settlements on the West Bank was established in Sebastia in 1974 after a series of confrontations with the government and unilateral actions in the field. Vanguardists often use the slogan “Return to Sebastia” to convey their belief in the need for spectacular and extra-legal actions to create facts, raise the people’s consciousness, and sabotage what they see as the all too likely possibility that a territorial compromise might still be reached.
Vanguardists were in the forefront of the struggle to stop the withdrawal from the Yamit district in April 1982, favoring explicit and implicit threats of violence. One of the most articulate spokesmen for the vanguardist camp is Eliyakim Haetzni, an attorney and fiery polemicist living in Kiryat Arba, one of the largest Jewish settlements on the West Bank, near Hebron. In October 1985 the Yesha passed a resolution reflecting Haetzni’s views on the possibility that an Israeli government might enter negotiations over the fate of the occupied territories. “We warn any regime in Israel which implements such proposals that we will relate to it as an illegal regime in the same manner as General de Gaulle treated the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain, which betrayed the French people,” the resolution stated in part.
Haetzni and others have leveled withering criticisms at Gush leaders for failing to fulfill their vanguard function. Rejecting the official Gush argument that the Jewish terrorist underground arose in response to the government’s failure to protect settlers from Arab violence, Tor blamed the underground on the “leadership vacuum” in Gush Emunim. In Tor’s view, Gush Emunim failed completely at Yamit, abandoning its revolutionary mission for a business-as-usual approach in which its so-called leaders served as “lackeys” for the government. Another vanguardist, Baruch Lior, has attacked Yesha for its reluctance to emphasize demonstrative settlement in the most sensitive locations—Nablus, Hebron, and on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—as the most effective means of pushing the end (that is, forcing the advent of the Messiah as the consummation of the redemption process).
However, the vanguardists’ very attacks on Gush Emunim’s leadership reflect a shift since 1982 in the center of gravity within the movement from vanguardism to consensus building. Unlike the vanguardists, who conceive of the Redemption as a relatively rapid process, the consensus builders portray it as likely to take decades, generations, or even centuries.
Should a Labor party victory appear imminent or even possible, vanguardists within Gush Emunim will again seek to pre-empt the political process by raising the banner of the Temple Mount.
But despite its length, the consensus builders consider the process of redemption to be well under way. They express confidence that settlements in the territories already have made territorial compromise all but impossible. The task that remains for Gush Emunim is to accustom the majority of Israelis to the new reality—to prepare them spiritually, ideologically, and politically for the unfolding process of redemption. This means avoiding extremist slogans and confrontational actions that alienate many Israelis and impede the creation of a consensus supportive of Jewish sovereignty over the whole land of Israel as an objective more important than peace or a high standard of living. The most important slogan of the consensus builders is a traditional phrase they attribute to Kook—kimaa-kimaa (little by little).
Rather than speaking the truth at all costs, Gush consensus-building representatives and strategists emphasize the need to dissimulate, “to say only that which can be heard” by the public at large. The primary task, in their eyes, is an ideological and educational one, and must be performed gently. Great damage was done, most Gush leaders agreed, by those in Gush Emunim who had spoken loudly of the importance of settling and annexing portions of Lebanon identified as within the promised borders of the Land of Israel.
In 1984 Yosef Ben-Shlomo, chairman of the Jewish philosophy department at Tel Aviv University and a leading theoretician within the movement, declared that it was time for Gush Emunim to establish its hegemony over the entire Zionist enterprise. This would entail maintaining a low profile for some long-term goals, elaborating an “ideological manifesto . . . highlighting only those objectives that the people of Israel agree with deep in its soul,” and then launching a comprehensive educational campaign for the defeat of secular, dovish Zionism.5 In his writings and recorded speeches, if not always in his actions, Levinger is one of the most important advocates of the consensus-building approach. Levinger has tried to reassure anxious Jewish fundamentalists that despite Yamit, budget cuts for settlements, the outcome of the Lebanon war, and the Labor party’s return to government, the future is secure.
Those loyal to the Land of Israel are beginning to worry. Perhaps the danger is real after all, and the precedent of Yamit will apply, God forbid, to parts of Judaea, Samaria and Gaza. I must say, with full responsibility, that there is [a great deal of] exaggeration, injustice and causing of tremendous weakness in the simplistic and absolutist comparison between what happened in Sinai and the continuation of our settlement in the heart of our homeland: Judaea, Samaria and Gaza.6
For Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, a veteran member of the Gush Emunim Secretariat and the most sophisticated exponent of the consensus-building approach, the lesson of Yamit is that “it is impossible to succeed without the support of the decisive majority of the people. We must go with the people and not against them—nor against large segments of them.” 7 The process of redemption, he counsels, is a long one, dependent ultimately on the will and miraculous action of God. The useful contribution of Gush Emunim cannot be discovered in the halacha, the code of Jewish law, but only in pragmatic political concerns. Given the settlement movement’s enormous progress, the primary task now is to engage in a prolonged Kulturkampf with the dovish left with the aim of constructing a new consensus on the boundaries and character of the Jewish state.
Thus “the days of Sebastia and Yamit,” when Gush Emunim’s mission was to act as a vanguard, “are gone forever,” as Ben-Nun wrote in Nekuda in 1985. By panicking over every problem, agitating fiercely for more money for settlements, exaggerating threats to the personal security of settlers, and demanding amnesty for the Jewish terrorists arrested in 1984, the vanguardists discourage more settlement and cause Gush Emunim to appear as a special-interest group. This endangers the fulfillment of the Redemption by interfering with the political task of building a new consensus.
Halting Fundamentalism’s Spread
The difficulty that a large share of fundamentalist activists have in accepting a consensus-building strategy toward the wider Israeli public makes the movement vulnerable. It cannot fully renounce the vanguardists’ excesses, which the movement’s opponents can use to portray Gush Emunim not as authentic, but as insane. Thus the very element that gives fundamentalism its vitality—the unshakable belief that a supreme authority requires immediate and sustained action toward political goals—contains a politically counterproductive tendency toward extremism. Since the world can never reproduce the pure form of their vision, the fundamentalists’ ambitions must be compromised to be consolidated. But compromise of transcendental imperatives can be legitimated only by the decisions of charismatic leaders who can impose their own interpretations of the practical meaning of those imperatives. With the death of Kook, the movement lost its acknowledged charismatic leader. In his absence, severe tensions have arisen and will continue to arise between fundamentalists who are willing to compromise and those who are not.
Gush Emunim’s vulnerability is apparent in the burgeoning effort to assert Jewish rights over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem [please see the website of the Temple Mount Faithful—web ed.], a site also holy to Moslems that they call Haram el-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Such a move is seen as a prelude to the removal of the Moslem shrines and the reconstruction of the Temple. In recent years, leading rabbis have used archaeological finds as a basis to declare that previous religious restrictions against Jewish entry onto the Temple Mount need no longer be applied, at least with respect to most of the area. For vanguardists, the commitment to “speak the truth” and the image of irrevocable change that might follow the Judaization of the site are compelling reasons to demand change in the status quo there. The Temple Mount issue has emerged from the realm of fringe utopianism to occupy a central place in the political activity of Gush Emunim.
Indeed, the ideological imperative to do something to express Jewish attachment to and aspirations for the Temple Mount is impossible for any Jewish fundamentalist to ignore, especially given the site’s location in “united Jerusalem,” its centrality in Jewish history and Jewish law, and its current status as a virtual Moslem autonomous zone. Why, the fundamentalists ask, should Jews consider the Western Wall, which is nothing but the remains of the outer courtyard of Herod’s Temple, a particularly holy place? What sort of authentic redemptionist Zionism is it whose adherents stand at the Western Wall and hypocritically commemorate the Temple’s destruction by fasting and bemoaning the plight of Jews “unable” to “return to the Mountain of the Lord and rebuild the Temple”?
In the context of such arguments, Yesha and the Gush mainstream have been forced to respond to accusations of apathy, timidity, and betrayal. While some consensus builders have warned of the dangers of moving too fast on the Temple Mount question, Nekuda, which strives to avoid taking definitive stands on issues that divide the fundamentalist movement, has published editorials warning of radical and violent steps likely to be taken if the government does not act swiftly to change the status quo.
We warn those whose errors determine, even if unintentionally, that day after day the Temple Mount remains in Moslem hands. We warn them that Jewish eyes and souls yearn for the Temple Mount and that they, with their own hands, are stoking the fires which will erupt to solve the problem, and not by normal, natural, or legal means.8
Such pronouncements evince what has been an escalating commitment by the fundamentalist mainstream to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount in some dramatic fashion—by replacing Moslem guards with Israeli police, by organizing public Jewish prayer services on the site, by building a large synagogue there, by treating it as a “settlement area,” or by preparing it for the reconstruction of the Temple. On the anniversary of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in June 1986, 12,000 fundamentalists marched in protest to the Temple Mount to witness a sound and light show called “The Temple Mount—Heart of the People.” Amid violent clashes, a detachment of soldiers and police succeeded in preventing 100 demonstrators from forcing their way onto the site.
For Doron Rosenblum, a prominent Israeli newspaper columnist, the destruction of the Moslem shrines on the Temple Mount, with or without government support, is “only a matter of time.” The aftermath, he predicted in the June 5, 1985, issue of the weekly news magazine Koteret Rashit, would hold horrible consequences:
The immediate cancellation of the peace agreement with Egypt; . . . spontaneous demonstrations in every Arab country; news bulletins on American networks announcing declarations of war by the entire Arab world; . . . mobilization of the reserves amidst . . . reports of tensions on all four fronts; the flow of Egyptian forces into Sinai; firing in the Golan and the Jordan Valley; dogfights with Iranian, Saudi, Libyan, Iraqi, and Syrian planes; . . . rumors of the slaugfttering of Syrian Jews; . . . guerrilla war in the occupied territories between Arabs and settlers; what will be called “the massacre,” total anarchy; intervention by the superpowers and war that will go on for months or even years.
The Temple Mount issue represents a terrible dilemma for Gush Emunim. On the one hand, no single trend within the movement contains more potential for precipitating radical change consistent with its overall world view. Nor is any event more likely to achieve a profound realignment of public attitudes within Israel, to precipitate a crushable Palestinian revolt in the occupied territories [This paper was somewhat prophetic insofar as the Temple Mount was indeed the cause of the Second Palestinian Intifada when Ariel Sharon visited the site in 2000 and proclaimed Jewish sovereignty over the land of the Temple Mount mosques.—web ed.], to disrupt peace initiatives and destabilize the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, and to distance Israel, politically and culturally, from the entire gentile world than a government-supported fundamentalist move to Judaize the Temple Mount. On the other hand, nothing contains greater potential to destroy the unity of the movement, to deflect it from politically productive activities concerning most Israelis, or to provide its enemies with the means to isolate and defeat it than unauthorized and violent efforts by vanguardists to change its status.
With Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir’s assumption of the premiership in October 1986 and the disappearance of concrete negotiating opportunities with Jordan, the public campaign against continued Moslem control of the site, including talk of “cleansing the Temple Mount of the abominations” (that is, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque), has slowed. But should a Labor party victory appear imminent or even possible, vanguardists within Gush Emunim will again seek to pre-empt the political process by raising the banner of the Temple Mount. Such developments will be extremely dangerous. But they also may provide adroit politicians with opportunities to divide Gush Emunim, to portray its leadership as either insincere or terrifying, to dramatize the risks run by Israelis who entertain the visions of glory advanced by the Gush, and to reduce sharply, if not destroy, the movement’s near-term political potential. [And yet what has actually happened is that the Gush-tolerant factions within the mainstream conservative party, Likud, have simply undertaken to legitimize and realize the core objectives of Gush Emunim, little by little…and actually, in view of the current American “War on Terrorism,” by hand over fist.—web ed.]
To exploit such opportunities, Israeli moderates must have a much clearer understanding of Jewish fundamentalism than they have displayed up to now. Such knowledge is needed equally by U.S. policymakers if they are to help prevent the explosiveness that surrounds Jewish fundamentalism from being unleashed on the region and the world. It is neither too early nor too late to prepare for managing the crisis that is bound to come. [Does 9-11 pre-empt any real hope for managing the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel? Some believe 9-11 was just what Israel needed to cinch American support for its stronger political objectives.—web ed.] Without explicitly framing its policy as countering fundamentalist influence, Washington should stress, much more strongly than it has in the recent past, how central to America’s special relationship with Israel is the cluster of democratic, libertarian, and universalistic values that the two countries have always shared. The United States should emphasize forthrightly the extent to which its friendship and support ultimately depend on these shared values—values that are, of course, unrealizable in the “completed” Israel envisioned by the fundamentalists.
Within this broad approach there are specific measures Washington should take to reduce the prospects of a fundamentalist consensus in Israel, accentuate divisions among fundamentalists, and frighten vanguardists into self-destructive actions. The United States should forcefully affirm the inviolability of the status quo on the Temple Mount when it is challenged by fundamentalists, while consulting privately with Israeli officials to ensure that all efforts possible are undertaken to protect the Moslem shrines. Another productive avenue for American policy lies in emphasizing the distinctive problems associated with the Gaza Strip. Because Gaza is an integral part of the whole Land of Israel, Gush Emunim is unavoidably committed to its incorporation into the Jewish state. But because Gaza has only a tiny number of Jewish settlers, is relatively insignificant in the Jewish historical memory, and has an exploding Arab population that will soon pass the 600,000 mark, long-term approaches that involve American, Egyptian, Jordanian, or even Palestinian responsibility for the area will be difficult for many Israelis, including many Likud supporters, to reject.
Signs of organization and dynamism among the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza discredit Gush claims that the Palestinian character of these areas is disappearing. More financial and political support for American voluntary organizations working in the area would enhance local opportunities for Arab employment and investment. The self-confidence of the territories’ 1.5 million Arab inhabitants also would be bolstered by vigorous U.S. diplomatic efforts on behalf of nonviolent activists held in administrative detention or threatened with deportation. In discussions on human rights or the quality of life, Washington should insist that water resources and substantial areas designated by the military government as “state land” be made available to West Bank and Gaza Arabs for residential, industrial, and agricultural expansion.
The momentum toward settlement by non-ideological Israelis seeking affordable, high-quality housing already has slowed. Washington can foster this trend by high-profile steps designed to prevent agricultural produce and manufactured goods from Israeli farms and enterprises in the occupied territories from enjoying the benefits of U.S. assistance or duty-free access to the American market. When vanguardists seek to rekindle settlement energy and anti-Arab sentiment by demonstrative settlement in sensitive spots such as Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus or the center of Hebron, the United States should insist that such provocative actions be prevented. If they are not, Washington should support a new and strongly worded U.N. Security Council resolution opposing further settlements in the occupied territories.
To help discredit the fundamentalist vision as a basis for a new Israeli consensus, the United States might begin a bilateral educational and cultural effort to promote the democratic and egalitarian norms to which the two countries traditionally have been committed. The program’s most useful focus would be both countries’ experience in the integration of historically oppressed, partially disenfranchised minorities—Jews, blacks, and Hispanics in the United States and Oriental Jews and Arabs in Israel. Since most Israeli Jews accept the fact of Arab citizenship within the Green Line and the principle of equal rights for all citizens, and, in contrast, since fundamentalists generally reject Western models of democracy and citizenship on equal terms for the “Arabs of the Land of Israel,” such programs would help isolate Gush Emunim and highlight Jewish fundamentalism’s radically anti-democratic beliefs. Much more effectively than largess or pseudorealpolitik, such a policy can strengthen the position of Israelis who must confront the fundamentalists and show their compatriots just how intolerably dangerous is the route to redemption that Gush Emunim is traveling.
IAN S. LUSTICK is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. This article is adapted from a forthcoming book on Jewish fundamentalism in Israel.
1. Eliezar Waldman, “Struggle on the Road to Peace” (in Hebrew), Artzi, 1983, no. 3: 20.
2. Zvi Yehuda Kook, “Between the People and Its Land” (in Hebrew), Artzi, 1982, no. 2: 19.
3. Hanan Porat, “Policies toward the Arabs of the Land of Israel” (in Hebrew), Artzi, 1986, no. 4: 5-6.
4. Menachem Kosher, The Yom Kippur War (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: House of the Whole Torah, 1974), 8, 12-37.
5. Yosef Ben-Shlomo, “Ideological Struggle with the Right and Left” (in Hebrew), Nekuda, 5 April 1985, 19-22.
6. Moshe Levinger, “With Alertness and Security” (in Hebrew), Nekuda, 22 November 1985, 8.
7. Yoel Ben-Nun, “For Confidence and Faith, against Crisis-Mongering” (in Hebrew}, Nekuda, 5 April 1985, 11.
8. “The Fuse” (in Hebrew), Nekuda, 21 January 1986, 4.