Recently, Israel approved the building of 323 units in settlements in East Jerusalem on top of 770 units that were previously approved in the settlement of Gilo. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby stated that such actions by “Israel’, “continues this pattern of provocative and counterproductive actions”. Mr. Kirby also called the settlement activity, “corrosive to the cause of peace.” Recent months have seen an marked upswing in violence in these territories, claiming both Palestinian and Jewish victims.
Given the fact that a large portion of the settler movement is comprised of Religious Zionist Jews, those with a markedly similar appearance to their Anti-Zionist and Non-Zionist counterparts, True Torah Jews felt it incumbent upon us to clear the air. In a time when the name of True Torah Judaism is being slandered through the actions of those who are nationalists first and Jews second, we cannot remain silent. We want to clarify the striking difference between the modern day Israeli settler movement and traditional Judaism. What is the settler movement and do their intense rhetoric and often violent actions actually speak in the name of traditional Judaism?
A great many Israeli settlers go with the outer trappings of a traditional religious Jew and generally conduct themselves in a manner very similar to their Anti-Zionist counterparts. Many of the men and boys have long sidelocks and wear yarmulkes and in general look and act very religious. What distinguishes True Torah Jewry from the settler movement? In short, what’s the difference? As we hope to show, other than a few externals, everything.
The Yesha Movement, as it’s known in modern Hebrew, is an bitter story of manipulation and underhandedness. Looking today at the settler movements major proponents, one gets the feeling that the Israeli government left open the door to the asylum. A large portion of Yesha adherents come from broken homes and, looking for purpose in meaning in their lives and often times lacking in knowledge of Judaism, have fallen for this distortion of true Torah values. Those born into the settler culture are very often not in much better shape. Their upbringing has been one marked by violence and tragic loss. There are very few children who have not attended the funeral of someone in their immediate community and psychologists have drawn comparisons between the mentality of settler children and those of modern child soldiers. Though this is an extreme example, the conclusion is the same. Something is terribly wrong here.
The Yesha movement can trace it’s originals to the Mizrahi Movement of Zionism, an attempt to create a synthesis between the purely secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Torah Judaism. This group was founded 1902, a mere 5 years after the 1st Zionist Congress was convened in Basel, Switzerland. The governing slogan of the Mizrachi was “Torah v’Avodah” or Torah and Labor, hinting to their attempts at mixing Torah Judaism and the Marxism that was so prevalent amongst secular Zionists circles at the time. The movement was plagued by an acute inferiority complex early on, finding themselves outnumbered and unvalued by militant secularists in the pre-state Zionist movement. They always took a back seat to the anti-religionists who were the Zionist establishment and made the critical decisions.
At the time, the Mizrahi were rejected by the larger Jewish community in both Europe and Israel. Rabbis ranging from Hasidic Rebbes to Sephardic Kabbalists condemned the Zionist offshoot in no uncertain terms. Rabbi Chuna Halberstam, the Kalashitzer Rebbe stated that, “The Mizrachi movement was the bridge that brought the filth of Zionism into the Orthodox Jewish camp. These Mizrachi members are people who outwardly fulfill some of the Torah’s practical commandments, but their poison lies within, for heretical opinions and denial of the Torah have taken up residence deep in their minds.”
Rabbi Chaim Shaul Douek, the leader of the Sephardic Kabbalists of Jerusalem from before the Second World War, wrote, “This is how the Zionists succeed in capturing the religious: by means of the Mizrachi, who disguise themselves as rescuers [of the Torah], when in truth it is they who are the destroyers and damagers of the path of Torah. May G-d spare us from them.”
For all intents and purposes the rabbi which has had the greatest impact on modern-day Religious Zionism in general and the settler movement in particular, was Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first official Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate. Historian and social commentator Gershon Gorenberg, when speaking of Kook, wrote that he, “…had not exactly made peace with Zionism. Rather, he had audaciously transformed it into theology, absorbing the secular rebellion back into religion.” Kook’s single-minded obsession with Zionist thought was something of legend and he strove to imbue a new generation with his “new and improved” version of Judaism, creating his own Religious Zionist yeshiva, or Talmudic house of study, even before the State of Israel’s founding. He named it Merkaz Harav, meaning the Rabbi’s Center.
His philosophy was a hodgepodge of disparate elements, including Kabbalah and the works of German thinker Gottfried von Herder, the man who virtually invented ethnic nationalism. His Judaism was a bitter stew where he threw in the entire contents of the refrigerator, be they fresh or spoiled. He proclaimed that it was religious obligation for every Jew to engage in the settlement of the land, to be a cog in the Zionist machine. To be a religious Jew was a good thing but to be a Zionist was even more important and if you couldn’t be both, better to chose the latter. Unsurprisingly, Kook’s version of Judaism was never taken seriously by the rabbinic establishment anywhere.
After his death his son, Tzvi Yehuda, took over leadership of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva. It was under his leadership that we saw the emergence of what would later be known as the modern Yesha movement. He is rightfully considered the father of the modern settler movement and under his leadership the ideology of Merkaz Harav and other like minded yeshivas became more and more militant till they morphed into the Uzi-wielding pioneers of today.
After the State of “Israel” was founded, Religious Zionism took up residence at the back of the bus. They were put up with and allowed entrance into the new government coalition and, in exchange for voting with the ruling Mapai Party, itself a leftist, social-democratic Labour party, the Mizrahi Party was given control over various areas in the religious sphere. However, this amounted to little more than being a religious ritual police, one which was not even recognized or heeded by the majority of the Orthodox Jewish world. Sociologist Charles Selengut writes that, “Religious Zionists in the early years of the state were a marginal phenomenon in Israeli society, a tolerated group welcomed for their willingness to be a part of the government but never challenging the political or religious status quo.”
In the 1967 Six-Day War all that changed. “Israel” quickly seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. It was then that disciples of the Tzvi Yehuda Kook saw an opportunity to fulfill their rabbi’s ardent desire for Zionists to rule “the Whole Land of Israel”. This small band of fiery followers rallied together to realize the younger Kook’s dream which was, in truth, also the older Kook’s dream. They called themselves Gush Emunim or the Bloc of True Believers.
Knowing that the bulk of Israeli society was opposed to a massive settlement program in the newly acquired territories, Gush Emunim presented their desire to settle there in purely logical terms. They needed to move there to create a military buffer for Jerusalem and others cities and ensure that Israelis had access to historical sites such the ancient city of Hebron. Considering the fact that the vast majority of them were veterans of the Tzahal, Israel’s military, their arguments struck a chord in a nation where the vast portion of the population have served in the Zionist military, including the latest 1967 Six Day War. Many Israelis were still traumatized by their experiences in the last conflict and were not eager to repeat it. In addition, the settlers also clearly stated that they were only going to be there for a short time, to observe the upcoming Passover holiday. After that they would leave.
However, the truth was something far more convoluted. As devoted followers of both Kooks, their motivation was a contradictory mix of apocalyptic, End of Days political maneuvering and European Enlightenment philosophy. Add to this a large dose of misplaced citations and so-called proofs from traditional Judaism and you’re left with a potion that, though designed to heal, in fact did quite the opposite. By all accounts they were and still are well meaning but good intentions are sadly never enough and can very easily lead one down into a dark valley. As we see today, that valley was indeed very deep and especially dark.
But they were armed with their belief that they were to be the new Jews, the ones to flip thousands of years of Jewish wisdom on it’s head. They knew better than those who had gone before them and they were ready to march to the beat of their tone deaf band leader and his son. Thus began one of the most painful sagas in a country that has never lacked for them.
A group of former Tzahal soldiers, broken from without and within from a series of wars and other conflicts, started a settlement in an extremely hostile environment right after the conclusion of a bitter war. The Israeli government, though not officially, was more than happy to let them. According to many who were acquainted with them, there was reason to believe that the psychiatric state of a lot of them left much to be desired. A good deal of these new settlers had begun fighting with the Zionist underground in a guerrilla war against the British Mandate before the state was even founded. These and subsequent battles had left them in an almost permanent state of shell shock. Their lives where ones of combat mixed with being taken advantage of by both the government itself and their puppet rabbinate.
The first of the settlements to be created in the land annexed in 1967 was Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc, land which was in the Judean mountains directly south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In 1968 settlers, led by men such as Chanan Porat, who were ardent followers of the religious politics of Tzvi Yehudi Kook, founded this new community on a small portion of land that was originally only allocated for a few residences in the area of a Talmudical school. Given the state of euphoria which their victory brought amongst Israeli pubilic, the government gave this group of trailblazers the land for political and sentimental reasons. They could never have known where Gush Etzion would eventually led them.
What Israeli politicians at the time saw as strategically placing a protective cordon for the city of Jerusalem, Chanan Porat and others saw as opening the door for state permission for expansion throughout captured land. Instead of presenting their religious reasons before the Israeli public, they presented themselves as the heirs to the early Zionist secular pioneers, those which were the first to sour Jewish-Arab relations. They also had implicit permission from then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who all but told them outright to go settle the land. Chanan Porat, when asking for explicit permission to settle Gush Etzion, inquired outright if they had the Prime Minister’s permission. “You use a lot of large words” Eshkol said. “If you want to settle, then settle.”
The Israeli government’s intentional ambiguity gave them more than enough leeway to gain entry to this small village. So, ignoring all international regulations and even their own legal experts advice, “Israel” allowed these modern day pioneers to covertly set up settlements in violation of international law. It could never hurt them to let a few confused and broken religious Zionists serve as the front line against any would be attackers, they thought. If there was international outcry then Eshkol and his government could easily deny having allowed access, condemning the settlers as radical extremists endangering the peace process.
This incident started a cycle which came to epitomize the settler strategy, at least in the beginning, often instigated under the table by the government itself. Gather together a group of idealistic but unbalanced and frequently ignorant young people wanting to do something for Judaism but not sure what. Cloth their religious aspirations in nationalistic ambitions and then seek access to an area in the territories, claiming to visit for a short period for religious or historical purposes, and afterwards refuse to leave.
This is how settlers established a foothold in Hebron, posing as tourists wishing to spend the 1968 Passover holiday at a Hebron hotel. They promised to leave afterwards. They’re still there.
So, playing on misplaced romanticism of a country still drunk with victory, Yesha continued this cycle in dozens of locations, placing themselves and their children squarely in harms way.
Traditional Jewry screamed and protested. The main rabbinic governing body of Torah Jewry in Israel, the Edah HaCharedis, warned against such dangerous and fool hardy actions in no uncertain terms. Our rabbis said no good would come of it, only heartache on both sides.
But both the anti-religious Israeli government of the time, which was known for enacting laws designed to embitter the lives of traditional Jews, paid no attention and the settlers insulted the rabbinical establishment as cowards. After Gush Etzion and Hebron came Ofra, a settlement in the Northern West bank which is situated on the main road between Jerusalem and Nablus. Not accidentally, it also happened to be located right beside a large Palestinian town. Gaining access through various false pretenses, the young Religious Zionists set up tents and trailers and declared a town. The Tzahal came several times and forcibly evicted the militant squatters. This scenario rehashed itself several times till, under the pretext of doing excavation for the military, they were given access to the area in order to work with the stipulation that they return to Jerusalem every evening. After a while, they refused to go home at night, daring the military authorities to remove them. Somehow, the threat of civil disobedience worked and a small number Gush activists were allowed to settle.
And the pattern repeated itself dozens of times till the settlements, be they recognized by the Zionist State or otherwise, numbered over one hundred. The current settler population now numbers between 2 and 500,000 tragically misguided people.
This rebellion against the words of our Holy Torah and the wisdom of our sages has cost the lives of thousands, Jew and Non-Jew alike. When the name of Judaism is besmirched by those who don’t understand or don’t wish to understand the truth, those who cling to genuine Judaism must speak up and broadcast the authentic Jewish take on events.