Sanne Deckwitz: Gush Emunim

Sanne Deckwitz


“And this is our land we will fight with all our force”, say the Palastinians and the Jews Each side will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to stop the resistance’, zingt Tom Waits in Road to peace. Het is een sterke bespiegeling over de strijd tussen de ‘Palestijnen’ en de Israëliërs, die heeft geresulteerd in talloze slachtoffers aan weerskanten. Het uitblijven van succesvolle vredesonderhandelingen is jarenlang deels te wijten geweest aan de onverzettelijke en fanatieke Gush Emunim, een religieus-extremistische beweging en voorvechter van joodse nederzettingen op de Westelijke Jordaanoever, de Gazastrook en de Golanhoogte. Speciale rollen zijn weggelegd voor Theodor Herzl, rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook en zijn zoon rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Deckwitz neemt op consciëntieuze wijze een verhit debat onder de loep zonder te verzanden in diplomatiek laveren. Dit alles culmineert in een loepzuivere kijk op Gush Emunim en het zionisme, die zowel de leek als de deskundige bekoort.

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The word ‘Zionism’ did not appear before the 1890s, but the cause – the notion of Zion – has been present all the way through Jewish history. In the Jewish religion, Zion is the name for the ‘promised land’. Another term used to describe this land is Eretz Israel, which literally means the ‘Land of Israel’. Zion, or Eretz Israel, forms a central pillar in the Jewish religion. It encompasses the region that God promised to the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. The original promise can be found in several verses of Genesis. It was first made to Abraham and then renewed to Isaac and Jacob:

He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.

There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

Slightly more precise geographical borders are given in Exodus:

I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines [the Mediterranean], and from the desert to the River [the Euphrates]. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you.

The promises made to Abraham and his descendants are unclear, since borders are described in terms of ‘The land on which you are lying’. In addition, the Bible contains two more geographical descriptions of the Land of Israel in Numbers 34:1-12 and Ezekiel 47:15-20 (See Appendix 1). The borders defined by Genesis 15:18-21 are believed to represent the maximum extent of the land promised to the descendants of Abraham. Nevertheless, because of the varying descriptions, the precise definition of the boundaries of Zion is subject to differences of opinion.
In the course of Jewish history, the meaning of Zion became more and more metaphysical and intangible. Its borders were vague and undecided, except for its centre: Jerusalem. However, it still held a central place in the thoughts, prayers and dreams of many Jews in their dispersion. This is illustrated by the greeting ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’, which is part of the Jewish ritual. Before the Nazi Holocaust, many generations of practicing Jews understood this term symbolically or prophetically. The longing for Zion, according to the Jewish religious leaders, was a spiritual desire, to be assuaged only at the end of time, when the Messiah would come and re-establish the land of Israel to its lawful owners. The blessing ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ represented a wish to be deferred to the end of days.
Prior to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews formed an ethnic-religious minority that had been living in Diaspora for a period of close to two thousand years. The total amount of Jews living in the world at the beginning of the nineteenth century was about two and a half million and nearly ninety per cent of them lived in Europe. They were treated unequally in issues concerning civil, legal and national status. Particularly in Western Europe, a negative attitude prevailed towards the apparent and persistent singularity of the Jews on the background of the rising political nationalisms. The term ‘Jewish Question’ was introduced as a neutral expression to describe this situation. In the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement arose to find a solution to the Jewish Question.
Political Zionists began changing the messianic promise of redemption into a realistic program. Zionism modified the eschatological expectations surrounding the coming of the Messiah by putting the faith of Israel in human hands. With the foundation of the State of Israel, one might think of Zionism as an example of religious nationalism achieved. However, there existed different opinions about the state of affairs in Israel in the decades following independence. In the 1970s, a religious settler movement arose, which believed that classical Zionism had died out in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in their view, the biblical land had not yet been recovered. They perceived Israel’s expanding borders as stages on the road to Redemption and made it their objective to fulfil the highest Zionist ambitions and bring about ‘The Redemption of the Land of Israel in our time’. This group was named Gush Emunim (‘Bloc of the Faithful’ in English) and became Israel’s main settler movement.
The purpose of this paper is to throw some light on the existence of Israel’s main settler movement by placing it in the context of the development of Zionism. The research question that accompanies that aim is: ‘How does Gush Emunim, the main settler movement in Israel, fit into the larger context of the development of Zionism? In order to give an answer, this question is divided into three chapters, followed by a conclusion. The first chapter will deal with the key issues in the development of Zionism; the second will critically examine the rise and fall of Gush Emunim; and the third chapter contains an analysis of the dreams behind Zionism and Gush Emunim and how these dreams relate to the real world. The conclusion will provide a concise answer to the research question.

1: Key factors in the development of Zionism

The French Revolution marks a break with the past and the beginning of the modern period in the history of Europe. Together with a wide variety of changes and movements that it inspired, it also meant the start of a new era in the life of the Jews. With the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment, a more humane approach towards the Jews came into existence in Europe. It was believed that radical assimilation would solve the Jewish Question and in the course of the nineteenth century Jews in Eastern and Western Europe were on the road to full emancipation and citizenship. Assimilation was a general process, but faster progress was made in Western Europe and in those situations where Jews lived in small and prosperous minorities and where close economic ties existed between Jews and non-Jews. Until the 1870s, assimilation had proceeded very far according to the western Jewry. To most of them an alternative solution to the Jewish Question seemed impossible.
The 1870s had been a time of great economic prosperity. However, it was followed by a major financial crisis in the 1880s. Particularly in Western Europe, Jews who had played an important part in speculation were blamed. This ‘swing of the pendulum’ between times of hope and despair was typical of the state of mind of the European Jewry during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was a period plagued by waves of anti-Semitism. This was partly brought about by the ideas of the Romantic Age, which had put heavy emphasis on faith, mystery and the Volksgeist. With the rise of political nationalisms in the background, the question arose: how can one belong to a nation without sharing its religious experience? Moreover, the European church had for many centuries taught people that the Jews had rejected its mission and killed Jesus Christ. But with the spread of racial theories – that had originated in France -, a transition from religious to racial anti-Semitism occurred. The new anti-Semitism that arose in the 1880s meant the total rejection of Jews and the end of assimilation. It marked a turning point for the Jewry in Western Europe, although few realized it at the time.
The anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1884 marked a critical moment for the Eastern European Jewry. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1818 – 1881), the Jews were blamed for his death. Subsequently, their homes were destroyed, many Jews were injured and the Russian Jewry was reduced to poverty. The pogroms led many Russian Jews to reassess their perceptions of their status within the empire of the tsars. The riots of 1881-1884 had ended many illusions of emancipation and citizenship and gave rise to some heartsearching. Was there a future for the Jews in the Russian Empire? If not, where should they turn? Tens of thousands of the Russian Jews fled to the United States, others migrated to Palestine.
The vast majority of the western Jews, despite all the impediments on the road to emancipation, were absolutely unwilling to abandon that aim. Decline had caught up with the Ottoman Empire since its heyday in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. This situation also applied to the ‘Promised Land’. Palestine was a desolate province and it seemed doubtful that European Jews would find safety there. The idea of being subject to the whims of capricious and cruel Turkish pashas did not appeal to them. Nevertheless, there had been many non-Jewish initiatives for a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the Jewish Question. As early as 1839, The Globe (a British newspaper), which was known to speak for the British Foreign Office, published a series of articles promoting the foundation of an independent Jewish state in Syria and Palestine. The Jewish reaction to these plans can at best be described as lukewarm. ‘What kind of freedom, what level of material existence could Jews expect in that forsaken land?’ The different projects were not without political vision, but the connection between the dream and its realization was missing. Consequently, the projects were bound to have no effect.
Therefore, until 1896, the concept of Zion had proved incapable of inspiring a political mass movement. In February of that year, the situation changed with the publication of Der Judenstaat (1896) written by Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904). Herzl was a Jewish journalist born in Budapest. When he was eighteen, his family moved to Vienna. Herzl sensed the abnormality of Jewish life in Europe and foresaw the threats that would face the Jews in the years to come. In Der Judenstaat he argued that the establishment of a Jewish State would be the only possible solution to the Jewish Question. His analysis of this dilemma went as follows:

We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted to us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes super-loyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native land in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. The majority decides who the ‘alien’ is; this, and all else in the relations between peoples is a matter of power (…) In the world as it now is and will probably remain, for an indefinite period, might takes precedence over right. It is without avail, therefore, for us to be loyal patriots, as were the Huguenots, who were forced to emigrate. If we were left in peace (…) But I think we shall not be left in peace.
Herzl wanted his state to be as ‘Jewish’ as ‘England is English’ (in that period England was a great deal more ethnically homogeneous than it is today). In Herzl’s Jewish State, German nationalist models came together with an appeal to ancient Jewish superiority, dating back to when they had lived in their own state. Der Judenstaat meant the start of modern political Zionism, for which Herzl subsequently became the founding father.
His contemporaries saw Herzl as an assimilated Jew and for many of them it came as a surprise that he turned to Zionism. This move can be explained by Herzl’s ambivalence towards his Jewishness. He had internalized the Jewish stereotypes that reigned in Europe at the time and consequently experienced intense self-disdain and feelings of inferiority. At the same time, he was also aware of feelings of Jewish pride, fidelity and unity. The young and ambitious Herzl had always stabilized these conflicting feelings, but the rising political anti-Semitism at the end of the nineteenth century upset his balance. He resolved his long-standing internal conflict by turning to Zionism. Herzl described the total rejection of Jewry as particularly hurtful because it came after years of remarkable progress towards Jewish integration. He projected his own experience onto Jewish history and held the view that Jews had to free themselves of shame and contempt and should gain pride, respect and honour. His Zionism was a refusal to be ruled by European gentiles as well as a way of gaining status and gentile acceptance on a new basis. ‘Herzl was more preoccupied with issues of Jewish pride and gentile recognition than with a refuge for Jews in distress; more with Jewish honour than with Jewish power.
The Jewish journalist had infused Zionism with a new ideology and a realistic need. He succeeded in organizing the first congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) at Basel in 1897. The purpose was to form a modern national community founded on the common cultural and historical heritage of the Jewish community and not necessarily to re-create the biblical Israel. Herzl had hoped to provide the Jews with ‘a new, modern symbol system – a state, a social order of their own, above all a flag’. He worked tirelessly to secure the support of The Great Powers for a Jewish State and made efforts to reach a political agreement with the Ottoman rulers of Palestine. His attempts were unsuccessful, but the WZO continued to exist and has since its foundation supported the settlement and migration to Palestine.
When Britain signed the Balfour Declaration in 1917, it promised to support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ without discrimination of ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’. It seemed impossible to honour both promises, because migration from Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s increased the Jewish share of the population to 29 per cent by 1939 – at great dissatisfaction on the Arab side. In 1939, the British government restricted further immigration; their concern was to get support from the Arab oil countries in a future war. After the Second World War, thousands of Jewish survivors were still living in UN refugee camps in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jewish community in Palestine believed that renewed migration was a way to save them and to force Britain to grant instant Jewish statehood. However, the British government still made an effort to stop ‘illegal’ immigration between 1945 and 1947 and shipped more than fifty thousand Jews to Cyprus. It was not until September 1947 that Britain announced it would withdraw from Palestine the next year. Two months later, the UN formally approved a plan that would carve Palestine into two separate states. Immediately after the approval of the partition plan, civil war broke out. Both Arabs and Jews sought to maximize their territories before the British would leave – a departure which formally took place on May 15, 1948. On that day, Ben-Gurion declared independence and the State of Israel came into existence.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, there had been five major settlement waves. These are referred to as aliyahs, which literally mean the ‘in-gathering’ of Jews from around the world. The first aliyah took place between 1882 and 1903; the second between 1904 and 1914; the third encompassed the period between 1919 and 1923; the fourth was between 1924 and 1929; the last aliyah was between 1929 and 1939. Especially during the period between the first and the third major waves of immigration, Jewish settlements had to be established where space permitted it. The early Zionist leaders were aware that land was a central resource and that the acquisition of significant parts of Palestine was a crucial basis for the development of a future Jewish State. The problem was that the land they desired was in someone else’s hands and therefore they were in need of economic and political resources to acquire it. As early as the First Zionist Congress (1897), a plan was made to set up a national fund for the acquisition of land in Palestine. However, getting hold of land did not only rely on the allocation of resources, but also involved the shift of land from one national ownership to another. From the beginning, the strategy of the Zionists was to reduce the conflicting effects of the land shifts by setting them on a basis of economic exchange. They merely allocated economic worth to every part of the land controlled by others, but as soon as it was in their own hands, the Zionists accorded national importance to the same areas. With the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, almost all the existing Jewish settlements (except for a few rural ones) were included in the state territory. In the post-State period, the goal of aliyah was embodied by Israel’s Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone who can provide evidence of his or her Jewish descent. Between May 1948 and December 1951, the Jewish population almost doubled as a result of the Law of Return. The new immigrants were considered necessary to farm the new lands and enlarge the armed forces.
Herzl died in 1904 at the age of forty-four. Altneuland (Old Newland in English) is his last literary work and entirely devoted to Zionism. It is a story about a German noblemen and a Jewish intellectual who make a detour to Palestine on their way to the South Seas. They find a wild and unpromising land, but also come across a small group of Jewish pioneers who have started setting up a few civilized communities. Twenty-two years later the two men return and find the whole country transformed as a result of Jewish settlement. The novel contains several paradoxes and did not represent Herzl’s own hopes and expectations, but a form of social organization that would appeal to a larger audience. For example, the new society lacked a Jewish culture and German was the accepted language. According to Muhammad Ali Khalidi the novel should not be looked upon as a work aimed mainly at Jews, but as an effort to persuade the European gentiles to help the Jews to establish their own state.
From its foundation, Zionism was in essence a secular revolution. Before the Nazi Holocaust, only a small portion of Orthodox European Jewry accepted it. Herzl had inspired a movement with national premises. He believed that Jews could not become a proper people without a territory of their own. Moreover, he advanced a radical new idea of Jewishness, one that distinguished itself from the negative image that prevailed in Europe. The Zionism he envisioned was a revolt against social structures of traditional Judaism as well as against specific religious leaders. The social structures of traditional-religious Judaism were depicted as an important source of the persecution the Jews had gone through in exile from their homeland. Jewish religious leaders were shocked to hear that the messianic promise of redemption was turned into a political reality and thought of Zionism as both foolish and blasphemous. Consequently, the religious camp formed the largest opposition to Zionism.
Zionism was predicated on the idea of national self-determination, but from its early stages the boundaries between the ‘national’ and the ‘religious’ were distorted. That is, the Zionist movement also included many elements that were borrowed from the Jewish religion. Zion itself, which is a religious concept, became the mobilizing symbol of the Jewish national movement. Besides, it made great use of the eschatological expectations embedded in the Jewish religious tradition. After all, the physical return of Jews to Eretz Israel is an indisputable part of Redemption. The intentional exploitation of these eschatological ideas by the nationalists suggests that religion provides a more effective basis for expansionist goals than secular nationalism itself. Only the concept of Zion was powerful enough to attract Jewish people from around the world to immigrate and build a new society or support the movement morally and materially. The tensions between the religious and secular nationalist dimensions can best be understood in terms of the problem of self-legitimation that has accompanied Zionism from its foundation. Menachem Friedman (1936) has provided an excellent explanation for this inconsistent state of affairs:

Zionism is the only secular movement [in Judaism] which tried to come to an agreement with Orthodox Jewry. The reason for this was not only practical (…) but possibly, and maybe primarily, ideological. It is connected to the problem of legitimation of the Zionist movement, for while in every ‘normal’ national movement, the link between territory and the nation is natural and is not cast in doubt, as far as the Zionist movement is concerned, the link between Palestine and the Jewish nation is not based on a living reality; in other words, the residence of the Jewish nation in Palestine is not based on actual reality but on historical memories, links and sentiments. These memories and sentiments are an essential part of Jewish tradition, which Orthodox Jewry represents, both in the eyes of the secular Jews and in the eyes of the non-Jewish world. It was most essential for the Zionist movement to gain to its side at least part of Orthodox Jewry and to prevent the Orthodox camp from standing in opposition to it.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865 – 1935) was a central link in the relation between the Jewish religious tradition and the nationalist movement. He was a Latvian rabbi who migrated to Palestine with his followers in 1919. He found it difficult to chose between the anti-Zionist Orthodox camp to which he actually belonged and his feelings for the new Jewish community in Palestine, but he was seen as a compassionate and inventive person. Until his death, he devoted himself to the development of religious Zionism. This was an Orthodox stream within the originally secular movement and combined the values of the Jewish religious tradition with national premises. Kook came up with a theory in which the secular State of Israel was the precursor of the ideal religious Israel. According to him, the coming of the Messiah was about to happen and religious purification was a means to help that arrival come about. It should be mentioned that his theology was unclear on many issues, and consequently at risk of being interpreted in different ways. Rabbi Kook left a lasting imprint on the Zionist movement with his theology, which was taught in the rabbinical school that he founded: Merkaz Harav.
Kook’s stream is not the only movement that arose within Zionism and deviated from its origins. In fact, the Zionist movement contains various movements and political parties and between them, there are often internal divides as well. In general, four factions can be identified: the national religious Zionist movement (of rabbi Kook), the General (or Liberal) Zionists, the labour Zionist movement, and the Revisionist movement (of the secular nationalists). The question therefore arises whether it is possible to speak of a distinct Zionist ideology. According to Yosef Gorny (1933), this is indeed the case. He argues that there are four ‘cornerstones’ that all the diverse movements have in common. The first of these is the premise that Zionism is the movement that seeks to create a national home for the Jews in Eretz Israel. The return to the historic as well as religious homeland is regarded as an essential and practical issue. The second presupposition is the wish to create a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel. As a third cornerstone, Gorny mentions the admission of the need of far-reaching change in the economic and social spheres. The last point is the restoration of the Hebrew language and culture. This would generate a shared cultural basis for Jews throughout the world who wish to return to their land.

2: The rise and fall of Gush Emunim

The Six Day War in 1967 was a critical event in the history of Zionism and the State of Israel. It was a war between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It meant a great victory for Israel. The Jewish nation conquered from Egypt the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, from Jordan the West Bank and from Syria the Golan Heights. This Arab-Israel war had an enormous effect on Israeli political thinking and policies. It had two consequences that were important for the movements for Jewish nationalism. The great military success caused a feeling of national euphoria, but also destroyed the national consensus considering the meaning of Jewish nationalism and the territorial boundaries of the State of Israel that had taken shape in the 1950s and 1960s.
The question arose of what to do with the gained territory and the people who lived there. From a demographic point of view, it was not wise for Israel to officially annex the newly gained territories. If they were to do so, they would add half a million Arabs to a population of nearly three million Jews. Calculations about population growth predicted that Arabs would constitute almost half of the population by 1993. Yigal Allon (1918 – 1980), a prominent Israeli politician, therefore created a plan in which Jews were to settle along the border of the Jordan Valley – the least populated area of the West Bank. The remainder of the West Bank region, which included the densely Arab populated part, would become an autonomous region and therefore not threaten the Jewish majority. This became known as the ‘Allon plan’ and was the actual strategy adopted by the Israeli government.
The controversies over the future of the conquered territories led to the creation of two camps within the Israeli community, which were referred to as the ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’. The doves were willing to exchange all or most of the territories for peace, demanded more active peace proposals from the Israeli government towards the Arab states, opposed the establishment of settlements in the new territories because they would narrow down the opportunities for peace, and they acknowledged the Palestinians’ right to pieces of Palestine. The hawks, on the contrary, wanted annexation of all the newly conquered territories in order to create easily defensible borders, desired a state of affairs in which government agents as well as private entrepreneurs were able to buy Arab lands in the occupied territories, and supported the establishment of Jewish settlements – in their eyes the first step towards sovereignty over the region. Gush Emunim was the most important hawkish movement in this period.
After the war, the ideas of rabbi Kook gained momentum. Followers of rabbi Kook’s theology felt that they were indeed living in the Messianic age and that history was leading to the moment of divine redemption. The triumph of Israel in the war had shown them that the re-establishment of the religious Eretz Israel was about to happen. All of Israeli society was amazed and confused by the outcome of the war, but the students of Kook had at their disposal an exceptional ideology capable of explaining the extraordinary experience in a quick and effective manner. Documents from that time demonstrate that some of the Kookists thought that they had gone through a deep mystical experience. Many secular Zionists also expressed their euphoria in religious words. The Six Day War changed the concept of Eretz Israel from a far-away dream into an instant physical and political reality.
Rabbi Kook’s son, rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891 – 1982), had been a student of his father and dedicated his life to distributing his father’s theology. Rabbi Kook Jr. created the first political party of religious Zionists called the National Religious Party (NRP). After the events of the Six Day War, he stated: ‘I tell you explicitly that the Torah forbids us to surrender even one inch of our liberated land. There are no conquests here and we are not occupying foreign lands; we are returning to our home, to the inheritance of our ancestors. There is no Arab land here, only the inheritance of our God.’ Several months after the war, a spontaneous meeting between rabbis and yeshiva students from the Mercaz HaRav – a national-religious school in Jerusalem founded by Abraham Isaac Kook – took place. For the first time, they explicitly addressed the critical connection between Kook’s original theology and the territorial dilemma that had risen to the centre of Israeli consciousness.
The aforementioned meeting marks a crucial point in the history of Zionism, since the origins of Gush Emunim can be traced back to this moment. Gush Emunim was founded by a pressure group within the NRP that wanted to force the party to join a government that would annex all the newly gained territories. When the party leadership declined, they formed an extra-parliamentary movement promoting the settlement in any part of the biblical Land of Israel. It was on the 7th of February 1974 that Gush Emunim was formally founded. Rabbi Kook Jr. became the leader of this movement. Its slogan was: ‘The Land of Israel, for the People of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel’ and its purpose was to realize what was explicitly stated as ‘the Redemption of the Land of Israel in our time’. From 1977 to 1984 Gush Emunim grew into an umbrella movement consisting of various interdependent organizations, each specializing in specific parts of the overall redemptionist struggle. Most of the movement’s leaders had been educated in Mercaz HaRav, Kook’s rabbinical school.
Gush Emunim supported the continuing retention of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights by Israel and looked forward to the eventual inclusion of these regions within the sovereign territory of the State. Their ideology was founded on a profound religious commitment to the concept of Eretz Israel and they perceived the expanding borders of Israel as phases on the road to Redemption. ‘The Gush’ described the conquests of the Six Day War in terms of ‘miraculously liberated’ lands, which should not be given up voluntarily to any type of non-Jewish rule. They heavily rejected the principles underlying the Allon plan, because it left the most important areas – Judea and Samaria – out of settlement activities. Almost all the places on the West Bank that were captured during the Six Day War were sites of graves of the forefathers of ancient Israel and brought to mind memories of biblical places about which every Israeli child had heard stories. Judea and Samaria are the most important places in Jewish history and the Gush held it imperative to create a Jewish presence there, even though these were exactly the areas that contained the crowded Arab population. Gush Emunim set as its goal the foundation of a political movement that would make sure that not an inch of the land controlled by Israel would be relinquished.
The Gush began a policy of continual squatting in specific sites on the West Bank that were not part of the Allon plan. They were usually forced to leave by the Israeli government. Their first attempt to settle was in June 1974 and a month later they squatted in the old Sebastia railway station in Samaria. The Gush repeatedly tried to settle at Sebastia and subsequently this scene became the rallying point of the movement. As Gush Emunim grew in size and organization, it established illegal outposts at Ma’aleh Adumim, Ophrah and Kaddum, in which the settlers started to develop ‘temporary’ homes. In December 1976, the first change in the attitude of the Israeli government towards the Gush Emunim settlement attempts took place. An effort to settle near Sebastia was allowed to remain temporarily in an army camp close by and the group of settlers in Ophrah received permission to stay there and function as a ‘work camp’.
In 1977, Israel’s first right wing government was elected – a turning point in the settlement priorities in favour of the Gush. Menachem Begin (1913 – 1992) had founded an alliance with several right wing and liberal parties in 1973, which resulted in the formation of Israel’s major centre-right political party: the Likud. The basic guiding principles of the Likud election program stated that ‘the government will plan, establish and encourage urban and rural settlement on the soil of the homeland’. However, the Likud lacked a systematic ideology, a vacuum that was subsequently filled by Gush Emunim. The relation with the Likud was essential for the success of the settler movement. First of all, it helped the settlers to legitimize their ultranationalist and messianic ideas in the national debate over the future of the territories conquered in the Six Day War. Second, the new government legalized the three existing outposts of Ma’aleh Adumim, Ophrah and Kaddum and assisted Gush Emunim in the building of eleven further settlements. Moreover, the Likud government helped to construct the administrative and executive structure for the future establishment of other territories and made enormous financial resources available. Gush Emunim was further supported by two of the most influential decision-makers in the field of settlement after 1977. In the autumn of that year, Ariel Sharon (1928), who was the Agricultural Minister and Chairman of the Inter-Ministerial Settlement Committee, put forward a settlement proposal demanding extensive settlement throughout the West Bank. Matityahu Drobles (1931), the new joint Chairman of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency, offered a similar plan in the following year.
There are a number of basic ideological principles underlying the Gush Emunim activity. First of all, from its beginning, the movement portrayed itself as the contemporary appearance of classical Zionism. The Gush felt that historic Zionism had died out in the first two decades after the establishment of the State of Israel. In their view, the partial realization of the Zionist dream with the founding of the State had led to a crisis that weakened the pioneering spirit and created an unwillingness to continue the struggle against international pressures. The Gush believed that the ideals that made the State of Israel a reality were forgotten or destroyed. They saw the establishment of settlements as the ‘positive’ and ‘Zionist’ way of protest against government decisions and believed that ‘once a settlement had been established it would never be surrendered’. In the pre-State period, the settlement-colonization activity had been important in deciding on the borders of the State of Israel. Now Gush Emunim advocated the need to embark on similar activities within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Moreover, the Gush asserted that the early Zionist leaders had believed in a goal that seemed far beyond their reach. In other words, they did not merely pay attention to the realities of the time, but fought for a futuristic dream. According to Gush Emunim, without the utopian vision of the early Zionist leaders, there would have been no State of Israel. The settler movement saw it as their responsibility to continue to fight for the recovery of Eretz Israel, even though the political realities showed them otherwise. They compared their own efforts to settle, which were against the wishes of the Israeli government, to those of the pioneering Zionists during the pre-State period who had build up settlements despite the anti-settlement policies of the British Mandate. Gush Emunim leaders had no problem describing themselves as the contemporary continuers of the early secular Zionists, because in Kook’s ideology these Zionist pioneers were described as unconsciously showing a holy spark when they began to recover the Land of Israel – a deed that would eventually lead to Redemption. Gush Emunim leaders perceived the secular Zionist pioneers as performing an inherently religious deed.
A second ideological tenet is the notion of religious law as binding. The underlying principle of Eretz Israel as constituting the ‘promised land’ is basically a religious one. Territorial withdrawal and settlement evacuation is believed to be in direct contradiction to the law of the Torah (which is known to Christians as the Old Testament). In the view of Gush Emunim, the law of the Torah is superior to any form of human decision-making. In addition, many of the settlers will argue that the laws of the Torah are more important than the laws of democracy and should therefore be solely relied upon when taking decisions. As one Gush Emunim rabbi dictated: ‘For us, what really matters is not democracy, but the Kingdom of Israel … Democracy is a sacred idea for the Greeks, not so for the Jews.’ Gradually, an increasing number of the NRP politicians and activists started taking direct orders from their religious leaders.
A third guiding principle of Gush Emunim is the effort to appeal to a wide Israeli public. They disseminated different messages to various audiences in an attempt to attract broader support and sympathy for their political actions. The Gush did so by fighting the concept of ‘land for peace’. They stated that it was merely based on false notions of peace and that territorial withdrawal would only bring further claims from the Palestinians. This, in turn, would make the life of most Israelis less, instead of more, secure. The Gush promoted the establishment of settlements as a guarantee for a strong border and defensive strategy for the State of Israel. These security and defence discourses appealed to much wider groups within Israeli society and Gush Emunim leaders have consistently used these semantics – particularly during periods of terror incidents – to attract support. In fact, the security aspect was only secondary to the religio-historic argument. The underlying principle was the idea that the Land of Israel – every grain of its soil – is holy and none of it should be given up in exchange for peace or security. The Gush solely took into consideration the biblical covenant made by God with Abraham and his descendants. Therefore, the belief that relinquishing land to non-Jewish rule is a religious restriction, in spite of greater or lesser security, was largely internalized because it is not a marketable product.
Regardless of their religious point of view, the Gush Emunim ideology stated that only practical action could make Redemption come about. In their eyes, Redemption is an act of God that invites human participation. The idea that humanity is able to take charge of its own destiny is something John Gray (1948) calls the ‘modern myth’. In his view, this myth emerged in the course of the European Enlightenment and turned the early Jewish/Christian faith in an end-time into a belief that utopia could be brought about by human action. The modern myth is indeed a fable because ‘in truth there are only humans, using the growing knowledge given them by science to pursue their conflicting ends’. The practical action Gush Emunim was talking about was the establishment of settlements throughout the ‘miraculously liberated’ lands of the Six Day War as a way of making sure that these would never be given up to non-Jewish rule. According to the Gush, settling in these territories was an element that could hasten the coming of the Messiah, whereas the surrendering of these territories would slow the Redemption process down. Rabbi Moshe Levinger (1935), a Gush Emunim leader, said that the settlers’ ‘return to the land is the first aspect of the return of the Messiah’.
In accordance with Kook’s theology, the ultimate event that will generate the return of the Messiah and the beginning of the Messianic age is the restoration of the Temple on Temple Mount. Again, Jewish activists can hasten Redemption by helping to reconstruct the Temple. The principle restriction against doing so is the fact that one of Islam’s most holy places occupies this site: the Dome of the Rock. It is impossible to reconstruct the Temple at another location, and therefore many messianic Jews are convinced that the Dome eventually has to go. This conviction has led to various efforts to destroy the Dome of the Rock, the best organized attempt being undertaken by a group of Gush Emunim activists. The plan was not carried out because the group was not able to get explicit approval from the leading Gush rabbis. Details of the conspiracy became known after the arrest of several Gush activists in 1984 in relation to the putting of bombs under Arab buses. Some of them had also been responsible for attacks on Arab mayors and the Islamic College. What is important about these Jewish terrorists is that basically all of them were esteemed members of Gush Emunim and matched in almost every detail to the ideal of the settler movement. The arrests meant a major crisis for Gush Emunim, whose leaders disagreed in a public reaction to them. There had already existed conflicts between the Gush leaders since the death of Rabbi Kook Jr. in 1982, but the discovery of the Jewish underground opened a most important debate over the character of the movement and its relation to the law. Consequently, due to internal divisions, the existence of Gush Emunim as such came to an end in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it inspired a great number of political and ideological settlement organizations that still attempt to realize the recovery of Eretz Israel.

3: Dream world or reality?

There is an indisputable link between ideology as a revolutionary force for change and utopia as a vision of an ideal future. The Zionist aim of creating a Jewish national home and the Gush Emunim objective to bring about Redemption by human action, are therefore in essence utopian motivated concepts. When comparing the dreams and utopian visions of classical Zionism with those of Gush Emunim, several significant features stand out.
First of all, the impact of utopia on reality should be emphasized. Gorny makes a distinction between three forms of utopias. The first one is the fantastic utopia; it is the kind that envisions a paradise on earth, distant in time or space, but in reality is found to be a nightmare. The second type is the realistic utopia, which recognizes a line of progress in history and consequently the objective development of everyday live will inevitably lead to a perfect society. The third one is called utopian realism and uses utopian ideals to change the existing order. Gorny believes Zionism belongs to the third type. In addition, different opinions exist concerning the utopian elements within the Zionist movement. Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) has focused on the creation of communes, for example in the kibbutz movement. Karl Mannheim (1893 – 1947) saw Zionism as a utopian-revolutionary impulse, which was mainly a rebellion against traditional Judaism and Diaspora life. Frank and Fritzi Manuel focused on the utopian dimensions in the works of Zionism’s founding fathers, statesmen and intellectuals.
It is interesting to read that Herzl himself explicitly and repeatedly rejected the utopian label that was applied to Zionism. In the preface to Der Judenstaat, he writes: ‘I must, in the first place, guard my scheme from being treated as utopian by superficial critics who might commit this error of judgment if I did not warn them.’ He argues that his project is different from a utopian one because he pays a great deal of attention to the modus operandi. In Altneuland too, he repeatedly emphasizes the ‘transitional mechanisms’ that would make the proposal a reality. However, although Herzl provides lengthy descriptions of the logistics of immigration from the Diaspora to Palestine, he does not present a detailed plan of action for land acquisition or how to deal with the local inhabitants.
Whereas classical Zionism was in essence a secular movement, Gush Emunim was driven by a deep religious commitment to the Land of Israel. It is the intense religiosity of the settler movement that is important in this discussion, because it holds several dangerous elements. To begin with religious activists, who would do almost anything if they believe it had been envisioned by God. The power of this notion is gigantic. It has exceeded all normal claims of political authority and lifted religious ideologies to uncanny heights. When one is obeying a higher authority, it is not necessary to live up to society’s laws and limitations. Besides, the use of religious language has the tendency to ‘transcendentalize’ conflicts, lifting them, as it were, from the worldly to the cosmic plane. When conflicts are given a cosmic dimension, they are less susceptible to negotiation. What was remarkable about the attitude of Gush Emunim was the certainty of their position and the readiness to defend it and impose it on others. Such certitude is not based on reason. Within the field of conflict resolution, one of the first rules is the willingness to agree to the idea that there are mistakes on one’s own side as well as on the enemy’s side. Gush Emunim’s stance fundamentally contradicted the possibility of compromise and understanding. Moreover, because the Gush believed in a biblical obligation for Jews to have power over and live on Eretz Israel, they perceived those who advocated a negotiated settlement with the opponent as dreadful as the enemy itself. Consequently, Gush Emunim appeared to be a major barrier on the road to meaningful negotiations towards a far-reaching Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. What is more, is that religious images bring to mind grand battles of the legendary past. Gush Emunim described their contemporary war with the Arabs as going back to biblical times. This implied that modern Arabs were merely seen as the descendants of the opponent of Israel described by the Bible – people against whom God has allowed to run wars of revenge. Some Gush Emunim activists even called for the use of Joshua’s obliteration and suppression of the Canaanites as a model for solving the present-day ‘Arab problem’.
On both sides, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was seen as something larger than life – a cosmic struggle of Manichean proportions. Yet whereas Mani thought that the struggle between good and evil would continue forever, Gush Emunim looked forward to an end-time in which the evil side of human existence would be forever abolished. It is interesting to take a look at the differences in the objectives of Zionism and Gush Emunim and their implications. The settler movement focused on one future goal: Redemption. The early Zionists, on the other hand, had more concrete objectives – embodied by Gorny’s four cornerstones. The Gush had in mind an ideal religious Israel, which all political action should serve. In other words, they worked for the realization of an abstract good. According to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902 – 1994), it is delusive to choose ideal ends of this type, because there is no scientific way of choosing between opposing utopian blueprints. In his view, the utopian vision of Gush Emunim would have arisen from a failure to understand that they were not able to create heaven on earth. Contrary to the Gush and in line with Popper, classical Zionism can be described as the right kind of political reforms. Other than working for the distant ideal of a perfect society, the early Zionists remained attached to the claims of suffering Jews. Herzl’s dream of establishing a national home for the Jewish people came out of his intention to reduce the misery of the Jews in Diaspora.
John Gray believes that the pursuit of utopia should be replaced by an effort to deal with reality. Additionally, Popper writes that the utopian approach is opposed to the stance of reasonableness. By this, he means an effort to reach decisions by argument and compromise. The ideas of both Gray and Popper can be recognized in the Zionist movement. The ideologically pluralistic picture of Zionism is important here, because it explains its survival and relative success. With the foundation of a sovereign Jewish State, Zionism succeeded in realizing the central aim that it laid down for itself as a movement of national liberation. Compared to other ideologies, Zionism has been quite successful in realizing its aims. This is due to the fact that no faction within this movement was big enough to enforce its ideas on others. Consequently, they had to combine forces and adapt their objectives to a constantly changing reality. In the first two decades after the foundation of the State of Israel, the Zionists strove to realize two goals: in the long run they wished to obtain Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist; in the short run they wanted to put a stop to the Arab’s goal of destroying Israel. It turned out that Israel continually granted priority to the attainment of short-term security considerations, in order to do away with the immediate danger. The ability to look beyond their dream world in order to be able to deal with every-day realities explains the relative success of Zionism.
Gush Emunim represented a form of Zionism that tended to reject notions such as pragmatism and compromise – notions that had been acceptable to the political leaders of earlier periods. Instead of redefining the State of Israel beyond Zionism, Gush Emunim reinforced its own notions of what Zionism was and should be. This created a more exclusive, nationalistic and religious type that was distinguished by its dedication to the fulfilment of biblical promises to the Jewish people and to the reaching of maximalist Zionist objectives. The belief in fundamental, even cosmic, issues being at stake had for the most part disappeared from Israeli politics, but has been concentrated the clearest and strongest in the ideology of Gush Emunim. Their sense of political action was immediately determined by transcendentally valid imperatives, which resulted in a relative unwillingness to compromise with the existing reality. The intensity of the commitment can also be found in the devotion demonstrated by its members.
At the heart of the Gush Emunim commitment to Eretz Israel rested a major problem: the lack of a precise definition of the borders of Zion. Because of the varying descriptions of its boundaries in the Old Testament, the utopian enterprise of Gush Emunim was doomed to fail. Interpretations of the Bible vary widely and there is no way of knowing the exact boundaries of Eretz Israel. In their attempt to hasten the coming of the Messiah, the Gush were willing to sacrifice the present for the grandeur of the future – not realizing that this principle would lead to sacrificing each specific future era for the one that comes after it. Since there are no circumstances under which the Gush dream world can be achieved by human action, Gray would describe the settler movement as wholly utopian. Nevertheless, the prospect of Redemption and the idea that it can be brought about by human action are not things which one easily abandons. To the Gush, the moment of Redemption represented an impressive event of social as well as personal transformation, surpassing all worldly limitations. For them, to be without these images of a cosmic struggle leading to Redemption, is almost to be without hope itself.


In the context of the development of Zionism, the place of Gush Emunim can be described in terms of resemblance with the Zionist pioneers as well as a specific group within the broader Zionist movement.
Gush Emunim perceived itself as the contemporary manifestation of the classical Zionists. In their view, the pioneering spirit had died away in the first two decades after the foundation of the State of Israel and they set it as their objective to renew the struggle against the outside world to fulfil maximalist Zionist ambitions. The execution of their plans indeed resembles the Zionist pioneers, because both used the establishment of settlements as ways to protest government decisions and to acquire land. Besides, both in classical Zionism and in Gush Emunim’s ideology, boundaries between the nationalist and the religious were distorted. The early Zionists used religion as a mobilizing force and Herzl disseminated different messages to different audiences to attract wider support for his cause. The Jewish society he wrote about in Altneuland differed from his own ideas concerning the ideal Jewish state, but he used this book to persuade the European powers to support such a state. Gush Emunim used the same tactic, when it spoke in terms of security and defence politics. These appealed to much wider groups within Israeli society than their own religious commitment to the Land of Israel.
The theology of Kook provided an essential connection between the classical Zionists and the Gush activists. Subsequently, both Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, form a crucial link in this study. Kook’s theology, which describes the secular state of Israel as the precursor of the ideal religious Israel, provided a framework for the Gush in which they had no problems comparing themselves to the early secular Zionists. After all, the pioneers had unconsciously shown an inner holy spark when they started to recover the Land of Israel. Rabbi Kook built, as it were, a bridge with his theology between the secular and religious camp. His son was indispensible in the foundation and leadership of Gush Emunim. In other words, Kook’s theology not only made it possible for the Gush to compare themselves with the early Zionists, but it also gave them a superior status in relation to other Zionist factions.
Even though the focus of this study has been on ideas rather than historical facts, specific historical circumstances obviously play an important role too. Economic depression and the rise of racial anti-Semitism caused Herzl to write Der Judenstaat; World War Two, the Holocaust and the British Mandate all had a major impact on Jewish migration to Palestine and the foundation of a sovereign Jewish State; and the Six Day War is a vital event if one is to understand the existence, ideas and motives of Gush Emunim.
Besides similarities and historical circumstances, it should also be mentioned that Gush Emunim merely represented one stream within the broader Zionist movement. Four contradictions between secular Zionism and Gush Emunim can be identified, which are expressed in the way the dream worlds of both movements are related to the real world. First of all, the cornerstones of the Zionist movement were all realizable, whereas the dream of Gush Emunim – to bring about Redemption by human action – was not. This is related to the second contradiction: whereas the early Zionists (including Herzl) worked for the elimination of Jewish misery in their dispersion – a concrete evil – Gush Emunim activists fought for an ideal religious Israel – an abstract good. Third, within Zionism, different groups worked together in a democratic way and accepted the need to adapt their goals to a continually changing reality. Gush Emunim, on the contrary, was less pragmatic and completely uncompromising. Last but not least, the intense religiosity of Gush Emunim made the settler movement far more dangerous than the early Zionists. Religious activists will do almost anything if they believe it has been conceived in the mind of God; society’s laws and limitations do not matter if one is obeying a higher authority; and the memory of a legendary past gives a biblical meaning to contemporary conflicts. Above all, it is the extreme religiosity of Gush Emunim that explains why Israel’s main settler movement can be seen as a major obstacle on the road to negotiations towards a far-reaching Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.


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Appendix I

The Lord said to Moses, Command the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance will have these boundaries: Your southern side will include some of the Desert of Zin along the border of Edom. On the east, your southern boundary will start from the end of the Salt Sea [that is, the Dead Sea], cross south of Scorpion Pass, continue on to Zin and go south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it will go to Hazar Addar and over to Azmon, where it will turn, join the river of Egypt and end at the Sea [the Mediterranean]. Your western boundary will be the coast of the Great Sea [the Mediterranean]. This will be your boundary on the west. For your northern boundary, run a line from the Great Sea to Mount Hor and from Mount Hor to Lebo Hamath. Then the boundary will go to Zedad, continue to Ziphron and end at Hazar Enan. This will be your boundary on the north. For you eastern boundary, run a line from Hazar Enan to Shepham. The boundary will go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain and continue along the slopes east of the Sea of Kinnereth [Galilee]. Then the boundary will go down along the Jordan and end at the Salt Sea [the Dead Sea].’ This will be your land, with its boundaries on every side.’

This is to be the boundary of the land: On the north side it will run from the Great Sea by the Hethlon road past Lebo Hamath to Zedad, Berothah and Sibraim (which lies on the border between Damascus and Hamath), as far as Hazer Hatticon, which is on the border of Hauran. The boundary will extend from the sea to Hazar Enan, along the northern border of Damascus, with the border of Hamath to the north. This will be the north boundary. On the east side the boundary will run between Hauran and Damascus, along the Jordan between Gilead and the land of Isral, to the eastern sea and as far as Tamar. This will be the east boundary. On the south side it will run from Tamar as far as the waters of Meribah Kadesh, then along the river of Egypt to the Great Sea. This will be the south boundary. On the west side, the Great Sea will be the boundary to a point opposite Lebo Hamath. This will be the west boundary.

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