Anyone wishing to understand the historic, religious and political significance of Jewish settlements in biblical Judea and Samaria (commonly misidentified as the “West Bank” under Jordanian control until the Six-Day War in 1967) should read Daniel Kane’s Mosaic article on Aug. 1 called “The Changing Faces of Israel’s Settlement Movement.”
Although settlers are often depicted in the media (see The New York Times) as fanatics who have stolen Palestinian land, that reveals bias, not reality. The core of Kane’s analysis is the transformative expansion of settlement demography and ideology from religious Zionism at its inception to the current “heterogenous settler population” with an array of “ideologies, interests and sentiments.”
The settlement (actually resettlement) movement was ignited by Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Jews began to reclaim their biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria, until then known as Jordan’s “West Bank.” Pioneering settlers focused on the ancient holy city of Hebron, the burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs where King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Its millennia-old Jewish community had been destroyed by rampaging Arabs in 1929.
Between Hebron and Jerusalem survivors from Gush Etzion, the cluster of communities that were decimated at the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence were also determined to return to their former homes. As former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asserted: “There can be no redemption without extensive Jewish settlement.” Before long, however, settlers confronted the hostility of Israeli leaders. The Oslo Accords (1993), signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, called for the eventual closing down of settlements.
But Jewish settlers were not willing to surrender their biblical homeland. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in Judea and Samaria. As Daniel Kane explains, settlers are no longer a unified group of Israelis driven by history and religion to reconstitute their ancient homeland. They embrace “many distinct ideologies, interests and sentiments.” And, he notes, they are “dramatically overrepresented” in the elite units of the Israel Defense Forces.
Kane cites the diverse settlement population growth among both secular Zionists and ultra-Orthodox haredim. Gush Etzion, between Jerusalem and Hebron, is now home to Israelis, along the spectrum of secular and religious identity and ideology. Anything but messianic, it is a welcoming home for 30,000 Modern Orthodox residents and yeshivah scholars (including, until recently, my grandson). Some of its leaders even favor land-for-peace agreements with Palestinians.
Ma’ale Adumim, midway between Jerusalem and Jericho (in antiquity a border area between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), is now home to 40,000 Israelis. There are 28 synagogues, a deluxe shopping mall and an enticing amusement park. Tel Aviv has two settlement suburbs where, notes Kane, the “primary motive for settling has at least as much to do with cost and quality of life concerns as it does with ideology.”
So it also is among haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, whose initial opposition to settlements lest they provoke Arab violence yielded to the need for affordable housing to accommodate their large families. Now, ironically, the two largest Israeli settlements, Kane points out, “are nearly 100 percent haredi.”
The settlement movement, he concludes, “no longer exists as a coherent whole”; indeed, there are “many differences among them.” For the majority of settlers, the primary appeal is proximity to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For haredi Jews, self-enclosure in proximity to biblical holy sites is determinative.
That variety is conducive to settlement growth and permanence. Any prospect of their disappearance to provide a pathway to “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians is far-fetched. In his illuminating analysis, Daniel Kane reveals why. The falsehood that violent Jewish settlers, living on “Palestinian” land, are obstructing peace is merely a political ploy designed to remove Israelis across the political and religious spectrum from their biblical homeland. It won’t work.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”