Letter from Jerusalem: Settlements and the Elections
Settling the land of Israel has been an ideal since the 1880’s, when Zionist pioneers established farming colonies. Today, demography has made it less appealing.
Settlement is flourishing. So say the official statistics. Settlement is in retreat—so other official data show.
This isn’t a matter of figures lying. The reality is contradictory. The future of Israel’s settlements is a crucial issue in the March 28 election. Yet settlement, as a concept, arguably belongs to the past, like wagon trains in America. So making sense of today’s politics requires looking at the history of an idea whose time may be gone.
First, about those numbers: According to Israel’s Interior Ministry, over a quarter of a million Israelis now live in the West Bank. That’s nearly double the number in the territories 10 years ago. Yet a Central Bureau of Statistics chart listing when settlements were founded ends in 1995; since then, the government hasn’t approved establishing a single new community, in Israel or the territories. And since last summer’s evacuation from the Gaza Strip, the number of recognized settlements is ebbing.
Then again, there are over 100 so-called “outposts” in the West Bank—small settlements established in the past decade with the aid of various authorities but without official approval. They testify to a twilight policy—governments still supporting new settlements but no longer admitting it.
According to peace now’s settlement watch, only 1,500 to 2,000 or so settlers live in the outposts: They are a small group insistent that they are living a classic Zionist ideal, yet are increasingly alienated from mainstream Israel. Like the Gaza pullout, the sporadic clashes over evacuating outposts may foreshadow a larger confrontation over dismantling established Israeli communities in the West Bank after the election.
In late January, as the campaign geared up, polls showed a large majority of Israelis supporting parties—from the centrist Kadima leftward—that favor further territorial concessions. Parties from the Likud rightward, unambiguously pro-settlement, were drawing only a quarter of the vote.
Taking a historical view, there’s great irony in that picture. For once upon a time, “settlement” was primarily the program of the secular Zionist left. Religious and right-wing groups were bit players.
Let’s leap back a century or so: The early Zionist movement had taken the traditional Jewish hope of repatriation to the homeland and made it a pressing obligation. One should stop praying, it said, and book passage from Odessa to Jaffa. Ideally, a Jew should also return to the land itself, to the soil. Jews’ bookish lives as town dwellers belonged to the exile.
The ideal had its roots in European thinkers who romanticized the peasantry, in socialism’s beatifying the working man—and in a minority’s tendency to accept the majority’s caricature of itself. Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland describes Jewish children in Europe as “pale, weak, timid”; other Zionist writers used harsher language. Gentiles had muscles; Jews, alas, only brains. Agriculture would cure that.
So, beginning in the 1880’s, early Zionist pioneers established farming colonies. They employed Arab field workers, but the next generation of immigrants, shaped by socialist ideology, insisted on doing the labor themselves. The solution was the kibbutz, starting with Degania in 1910.
Members of the first kibbutzim led an ascetic life, following the “religion of labor,” in which the central sacrament of traditional Judaism, religious study, was replaced by the opposite sacrament, physical work. The communes belonged to the wider movement called Labor Zionism, which in many ways regarded itself as the successor to Judaism—the new, modern way to be Jewish.
The next wave of immigrants, inspired by the Russian Revolution, brought with them the dream of turning Jewish Palestine into a single commune. The movement known as the United Kibbutz was born in the 1920’s. It sought to create large kibbutzim, often at the edge of towns to influence the people. Meanwhile, a second tier of “working settlement” developed—moshavim, cooperative villages where members sold their produce together but had family fields and houses. “Working settlement” made up Jewish Palestine’s elite, and the idealistic youth in Tel Aviv and Warsaw dreamed of joining them.
But the meaning of settlement morphed. As Arab opposition to Zionism grew, British-ruled Palestine became the arena for two battling nationalities. In 1937, Britain’s Peel Commission proposed dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The unsuccessful plan reshaped settlement strategy: The goal now was to put kibbutzim in new areas, to make sure that as much of Palestine as possible ended up in Jewish hands. Settlements would set borders.
Next, they became bases for the underground fighting force known as the Palmah. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, kibbutzim served as frontline fortresses. For Israel’s founders, settlement fused with security. Palmah veterans helped found a ring of kibbutzim along Israel’s new borders such as Yiron and Rosh Hanikra, facing Lebanon. Immigrants who poured into the country were directed to new moshavim.
The kibbutz became the emblem of the Jewish state. Yet the birth of the state marks the high watermark for kibbutz members as part of the population—7.5 percent, according to one researcher (today it’s 1.7 percent). The country’s modernizing economy offered new paths to success, opened by education rather than labor. Kibbutzim formed after independence generally stayed small. Between 1961 and 1967, only 10 new kibbutzim and moshavim were founded. The age of settlement was fading.
The six-day war in 1967 changed that. “within six days, the fullness of the land became ours,” Yehiel Admoni, a top official at the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department, would write in his memoirs. Yitzhak Tabenkin, the United Kibbutz’s white-bearded ideologue, expected mass aliya of young Jews from the West and called for establishing hundreds of kibbutzim in newly conquered territory. He was not alone in expecting a return to the golden age of the 1930’s and 40’s, when settlement extended the land under Jewish control. In July 1967, kibbutzniks started the first settlement beyond the old borders, in the Golan Heights.
At the same time, doves in the ruling Mapai Party—soon to become the Labor Party—warned that keeping the territories and granting citizenship to the Arabs living there would turn Israel into a binational state. Keeping the land while not enfranchising the residents, warned Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, could not work “in a time of decolonization in the whole world.” Israel needed to return nearly the whole West Bank to Jordan, he said in a June 1967 cabinet meeting, “because otherwise we’re done with the Zionist enterprise.”
To this day, the Israeli political debate revolves around the questions defined then: Does Zionism require ongoing settlement to control all of the historic homeland—or was settlement only a temporary means to the real Zionist goal, a democratic state with a Jewish majority?
In 1967, the debate couldn’t be settled. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government was too divided to make grand decisions.
That summer, the Khartoum summit of Arab leaders rejected negotiated peace with Israel, apparently shutting the door to diplomacy. In September, Eshkol got approval from his surprised cabinet for reestablishing Kfar Etzion, a religious kibbutz between Bethlehem and Hebron that had fallen during the War of Independence.
With that, settlement of the west bank began. Eshkol worried about keeping a large Arab population under Israeli rule. Yet he was an ex-kibbutznik, a former head of the Settlement Department. The settlement ethos, according to his official biography, “had been the cornerstone of his worldview.” Unable to resolve the future of the land taken in war, he and other key Labor leaders fell back on the pioneering methods of their youth.
Under Eshkol and his successors, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, Labor’s unofficial policy became the Allon Plan, created by United Kibbutz politician Yigal Allon. It called for establishing settlements in unpopulated parts of the territories that Allon regarded as crucial for security. Arab-populated land would be given up, avoiding a binational state. Kibbutzim and moshavim would cultivate the Golan Heights and the desolate land along the Jordan River—but not Samaria, the mountainous area north of Jerusalem, full of Palestinian towns and villages.
There were two catches. First, Allon couldn’t find a diplomatic partner for splitting the West Bank. In secret meetings, Jordan’s King Hussein consistently rejected Allon’s idea (just as Palestinians today insist peace must be based on the pre-1967 boundary).
Second, the graying Labor politicians were far more excited about the project than the young people—children of kibbutz or youth movements—whom they needed to start new settlements. “The lack of available manpower for settlement in the territories,” Yehiel Admoni wrote, “continued to disturb us the entire time.” (Today’s graying left-wing politicians were among the young people then who passed up settlement, and the role of Labor in the settlement effort has largely been forgotten.)
Kfar Etzion hinted at where settlers could be recruited. The new kibbutz, like the original one, was Orthodox. Religious Zionists, who sought to retain Orthodoxy while adopting the pioneering ideal, had historically been junior partners in the settlement enterprise. Now they had a chance to catch up. They also had a clear ideology, provided by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of religious Zionist sage Abraham Isaac Kook.
The elder Kook merged faith and Zionism by asserting that the return to the homeland was God’s will, a step toward messianic redemption. The Six-Day War, taught the son, was another leap forward, and it was a sacred obligation to settle the newly “redeemed” territories.
Allon worked with religious settlers and ignored the theology.
The partnership snapped after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel began negotiating with its neighbors. Young Orthodox activists created the movement called Gush Emunim, the Believers’ Bloc. To prevent any concessions in the West Bank, they repeatedly tried to settle in Samaria. In December 1975, in a confrontation outside the village of Sebastia, near Nablus, thousands of Gush Emunim supporters—many of them teens—forced a compromise on the Rabin government.
Thirty families got permission to move into a nearby Israeli Army base, creating the settlement known as Elon Moreh and effectively burying the Allon Plan. The teens of Sebastia would grow up to be today’s veteran settler leaders and ideologues.
When Likud came to power in 1977 under Menahem Begin, the transformation of settlement was complete. Ariel Sharon, as Begin’s settlement czar, worked with Gush Emunim to spread settlements throughout the West Bank. The new communities became exclusive exurbs of houses with red-tiled roofs on quiet streets, rather than farm communes.
Particularly in settlements deep in the West Bank, Orthodox settlers continue to see themselves as ideological pioneers. In communities close to the green line, or pre-1967 borders, government subsidies have drawn families looking for a step up in standard of living. To settle now means to move to the territories, not to a farm; to be on the political right and probably Orthodox; to live in a large house, not to be ascetic.
Yet as the settler population has grown, public views have shifted under the impact of two intifadas, the Olso process and statistics showing that Arabs are reaching demographic parity with Jews in the land under Israeli rule. Kadima, the party founded by Ariel Sharon before his stroke, represents a large piece of the political right, accepting the arguments framed by Justice Minister Shapira in June 1967: To stay Jewish and democratic, Israel must cede land.
The questions underlying the elections are how much land to give up and which party will manage the process best. The challenge is minimizing the number of Palestinians under Israeli rule while keeping down the number of settlers who will have to move.
The word “settlement” retains a whiff of romance in today’s Israel, yet settlement has become a dilemma rather than an ideal. The history explains why.
This article is based on Gershom Gorenberg’s new book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books).