Zionism, Messianism, and the Question of the Settlements

At least 500,000 Israelis live in territories won in the 1967 Six-Day War, and possibly a great deal more than that. They reside everywhere from cities to small towns to tiny hilltop outposts, and represent a diverse and complex society-within-a-society that is far more difficult to understand and describe than most outsiders realize.

Despite several setbacks, such as the 1982 evacuation of Yamit and the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the settlement movement has been, for the most part, a remarkable success story. Over the past five decades, it has gone from a loosely-organized non-governmental social phenomenon to a highly-institutionalized and politically-powerful voting bloc, one that is in equal measure loved, hated and feared by much of the rest of Israeli society.

And for those of us who view the movement with skepticism at best and open hostility at worst, it is time to admit that. Whether we like it or not, the settlement movement has won. It has populated the land, seized the hilltops and achieved political and social legitimacy. The only question for the rest of us is, what do we do about it?

The first step, one imagines, is to give the devil his due. For many Zionists, opposition or even simple ambivalence toward the settlement movement is not easy, because there is in fact so much we agree on. All Zionists, of whatever political stripe, more or less believe that the Land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, that Jews have the right to return to and live in any part of it, that they have the right to do so as an independent and sovereign people and that this is true whether the rest of the world likes it or not.

There are, moreover, the simple facts of history: whether or not the Arabs or the world care to admit it, Judea and Samaria was the heartland of the ancient Jewish kingdoms; it is integral to the Jewish people’s biblical inheritance, replete with sites of the utmost sanctity to us, from Hebron to Joseph’s Tomb; and our presence there is as indigenous as one could possibly imagine.

To have these pieces of our history — and for Jews, history is essentially what we are — in our grasp and then contemplate letting them go, probably forever, is a deeply wrenching experience.

One must also admit to those aspects of the settlers that are, in fact, quite admirable. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has a great many students from the settlements, and while I was studying there, I came to know quite a few of them. They were all universally-good people, and nothing like the knit-kippah-wearing, machine-gun-toting fanatics of popular legend.

The settlers, moreover, for good or ill, are people of considerable integrity. They are willing to put their lives in danger for what they believe in, and it is wrong to dismiss this kind of sincerity out of hand.

But this sincerity is also troubling. It is not per se admirable to act on one’s beliefs. Indeed, once politics enters the picture, it can be deeply disconcerting to argue with settlers, especially the true believers among them. They are often terrifyingly sure of themselves, and sooner or later the entire argument descends into them waxing poetic about the San Remo Resolution and then insulting you as a coward or a self-hating Jew. This is by no means always the case, but it happens often enough to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

And this is particularly frustrating because there is no question that there are very legitimate reasons to be skeptical of and even hostile toward the settlement movement.

First and most obvious, there is the fact that essentially the entire world considers the settlements illegal. The answers the settlers usually give to this are a) the settlements are not illegal, and b) who cares what the world thinks anyway?

On the first, the aforementioned San Remo Resolution usually enters the picture. This 1920 international agreement, the defenders of the settlements claim, established the entirety of Mandatory Palestine, including Judea and Samaria, as the site of a future Jewish state. As such, Israel is the only rightful sovereign over the disputed territories.

The problem with this is that it simply isn’t true. The resolution sets no borders as to what constitutes “Palestine,” only saying they “may be determined by the Principal Allied Powers.” This was effectively done by the UN in 1947, which allocated the West Bank to an Arab state. One could argue that the Arabs’ refusal to accept it makes it a dead letter, but this certainly does not establish Israel as the sole rightful sovereign over the West Bank.

As to whether we should care what the world thinks, there is no doubt that on certain occasions we definitely shouldn’t. The mere fact that the entire world thinks something does not make it true. Indeed, if history has proven anything, it is that the Jews can be right and the entire world wrong. Nonetheless, Israel is part of the international community, and what that community thinks does matter, if only because it is a simple fact, a reality we cannot avoid.

So, in deciding whether we should care about what the world thinks or not, we must evaluate the consequences of not caring, and whether it is worth it. For the true believers among the settlers, of course, the answer is obvious — the land was given to the Jewish people by God, and therefore nothing could be more worth it. For the rest of us, we can be forgiven a certain doubt toward such a claim.

And this question of God leads us to what is, to me, the most troubling aspect of the settlement movement: its messianic ideology. While many if not most settlers are not extremists on the subject, there is no question that the primary motivating force behind the activism that drives the movement is a ferociously messianic passion, the belief that the settlement of the land is the harbinger of the messianic age and the more settlement there is, the closer comes the apocalypse, the perfection of the world.

There is no doubt that messianism, like all fanatical ideologies, is not per se a bad thing. In the right circumstances, it has enormous revitalizing powers. It can be what Eric Hoffer called “a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead — an instrument of resurrection.”

Indeed, much of the power of secular Zionism is derived from the messianic urge, however distanced it may be from formal religion. As the arch-secularist David Ben-Gurion once said, “Without messianism we cannot live.”

But there is a very dark side to messianism. At its most extreme, it ceases to be revitalizing and becomes horrifically destructive to both others and especially to oneself. In the Bar Kokhba revolt, it led to the final annihilation of ancient Judea and a 2,000-year-long exile. Under Shabtai Tzvi, it came close to destroying traditional Judaism. And as the great scholar of the Kabbalah Gershom Scholem observed, by releasing the enormous explosive energies of messianism, Zionism opened the question of “whether or not Jewish history will be able to ensure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the messianic claim.”

It is here that we must face the settlement movement at its worst. While the majority of settlers are not messianic fanatics, the movement has given birth to some terrible horrors, such as Baruch Goldstein’s slaughter of 29 innocent Muslims in 1994, and the Kahanist ideologues of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. At its extremes, the settlement movement rejects Israeli democracy itself, and proposes a theocratic state in which, for example, the Palestinians will be reduced to the status of a “ger toshav,” which is to say, tenth-class citizenship of a type completely unacceptable in a modern society.

This brings us to the final and perhaps fatal flaw in the settlement movement: Its view of the Palestinians. Despite the settlers’ best efforts, the West Bank’s population remains overwhelmingly Arab and this is not likely to decisively change anytime soon. For the most part, the leaders of the settlement movement simply refuse to address this issue in any realistic way. Most of them think, one imagines, that everything is in the hands of heaven and God will somehow work things out, but for those of us facing the prospect of someday being forced to become a Jewish minority in an Arab state due to sheer weight of demographics, this is not a comforting thought.

All of this being said, however, we must return to a simple incontrovertible fact: The settlement movement has won. It has established itself as a permanent presence in the West Bank. To some extent at least, it has become an integral part of Israel, as the movement has always wanted. The settlements are not going anywhere, and we must make some kind of peace with that.

Where, then, do we go from here?

It seems to me, as a strong skeptic of the settlement movement, that the task at hand is to accept the settlers’ victory and work to restrain their excesses. The imperative now is to prevent the worst-case scenario, which is that the line between Israel proper and the disputed territories will be erased, and Israel forced to become either an Arab state or a tyrant in our own land.

Obviously, this has practical aspects, such as containing settlement growth and preventing the establishment of new outposts. But there is another struggle that is in some ways more important: a struggle of ideas on the question of messianism. Not between messianism and anti-messianism, because to some extent, all Zionists are messianic. Rather, it is a battle between two different kinds of messianism: a messianism of resurrection versus a messianism of apocalypse.

This is a struggle between two competing visions: one that desires a world in which the reawakening and revitalization of the Jewish people in a Jewish state is enough, and one that is willing to see that state and its people potentially destroyed if that is what is required to fulfill the messianic promise. One of these messianisms is partial, the other is absolute. One can live in the real world, the other cannot. And if there is anything that Zionism desires above all, it is for the Jews to live in the real world.

The settlement movement’s apocalyptic messianism has given it immense energies and led to extraordinary accomplishments. There is no point in denying this. But we who wish to see Israel survive as a Jewish state must now assert our own messianic claim. A claim for a partial messianism that concentrates on building the Jewish state that actually exists, embracing and even loving its imperfections, rather than potentially destroying it in favor of the perfect one that will never exist. We must insist on resurrection rather than apocalypse. This will not be easy, but accepting the settler movement’s victory may be something like a beginning, and I believe the time for that beginning is now.

Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel Correspondent for the Algemeiner.

Originally published at the Algemeiner.

Photo: Tewfik/Wikimedia Commons.

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