Israeli settlers with children walk in the city of Hebron on June 30, 2020. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images.
Unbeknownst to many of the politicians and journalists who debate and report on it from across the world, Israel’s settlement movement has changed substantially in recent years. What emerged little more than half-a-century ago as a small, idealistic band of religious farmer-soldiers has grown into a vast and varied network of nearly half-a-million Israelis living in more than 130 cities and towns. Though many of these settlers continue to identify with the ideology of the movement’s founders, they have been joined by a large and growing population of secular nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Ḥaredim, and other, non-ideologically aligned groups. Even among the settlers who still identify with the originating brand of religious Zionism, there is no longer a definitive understanding of that worldview or a generally recognized religious authority who could establish one.
There is, in other words, no longer a settlement movement, but rather a broad and growing coalition of pro-settlement groups, uneasily cooperating to advance the interests of an increasingly heterogenous settler population.
This transformation has been largely obscured from public view by both advocates and critics of the settlements who have similarly strong incentives to paint the settlement movement monolithically, insisting that it is entirely composed of either pioneering romantics or ultranationalist fanatics. The confusion is worsened by a complacency on the part of even unbiased commentators who have simply grown comfortable discussing the settlements in overly broad and antiquated terms. As a result, the public discourse surrounding the settlements often serves to perpetuate an understanding of the settlers that, while not wholly irrelevant, is in desperate need of revision.
What follows is an attempt to move beyond this shallow and outdated conception of Israel’s settlers by offering a fuller portrait in its place. This portrait is the product of several months spent in Israel studying the history of the settlement movement and, crucially, speaking to contemporary settlers themselves. While recognizing that any one account of a movement of hundreds of thousands will necessarily fall short of capturing the full range of opinions contained within it, my aim is to sketch out the many distinct ideologies, interests, and sentiments that increasingly define it.
I. The Birth of the Movement
On May 15, 1967, in honor of Israel’s Independence Day, the rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook delivered a speech that would alter the course of Israel’s history. Speaking before his students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rabbi Kook used his address as an opportunity to rearticulate and reinforce the distinctive brand of religious Zionism for which both he and his yeshiva were known. Leaning heavily on the mystical reading of history laid out by his father, the early Zionist leader and rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, he affirmed that modern Israel, for all of its blemishes, was “the state that the biblical prophets had envisioned” and he encouraged his students to celebrate its creation as the “beginning of the final redemption.”
This belief in the Jewish state as a vehicle for advancing toward the messianic era lay at the heart of the younger Kook’s commitment to modern Zionism. It is what allowed Kook, in contrast to many other Orthodox Jewish leaders of his time, to support actively a political movement led by Jewish secularists. Though he maintained that the redemption would ultimately involve “the uplifting of that which is sacred,” he insisted that the very act of reestablishing Jewish settlement and sovereignty in Israel had set into motion a series of divinely ordained events that would inevitably achieve that goal: “As a result of the return to the Land of Israel, there will come about an increase of Torah and its glorification, but the first step is the settlement of the people of Israel on their land!”
To the extent that the younger Kook took umbrage with mainstream Zionism in his speech, it was because, as a movement of secularists, it could not comprehend the mystical significance of Israel’s rebirth. As a result, secular Zionism was, in his view, too willing to sacrifice its sacred duty—namely, the unification of the entire Land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty—for the sake of securing its worldly, if noble, ambitions. In that vein, Kook recalled the feeling of despair with which he greeted the UN’s partition plan in 1948. Though the Jews of Jerusalem “streamed into the streets to celebrate and rejoice” the “resurrection of the state of Israel,” Kook sat alone, “trembling in every limb of [his] body,” unable to join in the festivities:
During those first hours I could not resign myself to what had been done. I could not accept the fact that “they have divided My land” (Joel 4:2)! Yes, where is our Hebron—have we forgotten her?! Where is our Shechem? Our Jericho? Where? Have we forgotten them? And what about all the land beyond the Jordan—each and every clod of earth, every region, hill, valley, every plot of land, that is part of the Land of Israel? Have we the right to give up even one grain of the Land of God?
At the time Kook delivered these words, Kookean religious Zionism was a minor force in Israeli life. Secular Israelis paid little attention to such grandiose religious talk, while the religious community was mainly divided between ultra-Orthodox Ḥaredim, who were hostile to Zionism for its secularism, and those affiliated with the Mizrachi movement, who supported Zionism but didn’t attach to it any messianic significance. Initially, Rabbi Kook’s speech was a fairly insignificant event beyond the walls of his own yeshiva.
A mere three weeks later, however, in the wake of Israel’s stunning triumph during the Six-Day War, Kook’s words suddenly took on a new, nearly prophetic meaning. To many of his students, Israel’s seemingly miraculous victory, the reunification of Jerusalem, and the nation’s unexpected acquisition of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank seemed like powerful vindications of their teacher’s messianic vision. With Kook’s words still ringing in their ears, they jumped at the opportunity to reestablish Jewish communities on the far side of the “Green Line” that had previously divided the heartland of the land of Israel described in the Bible.
Far more than Tel Aviv or Haifa, it was this newly acquired territory, particularly Jerusalem’s Old City, the Temple Mount, and the West Bank—known to these young religious Zionist by the biblical names Judea and Samaria—that were most deeply tied to Jewish faith and memory. This land was the stage on which much of the ancient biblical drama played out and on which, they believed, the messianic drama of the future would now unfold. Understanding themselves as the key players in the long-awaited final act of Jewish history, these first members of the soon-to-be “settlement movement” advanced across the Green Line with a religious fervor, vision, and purpose that quickly spread to, and gradually dominated, the rest of the religious Zionist world.
Surviving members of the Kfar Etzion settlement (a kibbutz south of Bethlehem, many of whose original residents were massacred during Israel’s War of Independence) soon returned to rebuild their childhood homes. Another group set out for Hebron, the site of the Cave of Patriarchs, where they reconstituted a Jewish community in a city whose centuries-old Jewish quarter had been destroyed during the 1929 Arab pogroms. Though, in time, their efforts would be seen as deeply controversial, these early settlers were initially lauded by country’s secular leaders for keeping the pioneering spirit of Zionism alive. In 1968, for example, the former prime minister David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to the settlers of Hebron to congratulate them and steel their resolve: “Hebron is still awaiting redemption,” he told them, “and there can be no redemption without extensive Jewish settlement.” A nearby community in Kiryat Arba was soon established, followed by settlements in Kdumim, Ofra, and Elon Moreh to the north of Jerusalem.
Within a short time, however, the settlement movement was beset by a series of setbacks and hardships that were difficult to square with the settlers’ belief in an impending redemption. In addition to the tremendous toll of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the settlers were met with horrific violence at the hands of their new Arab neighbors, often with only tepid support from the Zionist mainstream. When, after having helped elect Menachem Begin in 1977, the new prime minister evicted the Jewish settlers of the Sinai Peninsula and froze settlement construction elsewhere, many settlers’ upbeat romanticism quickly gave way to frustration, confusion, and anger. In a 1980 article for the religious Zionist journal N’kudah, one prominent settler leader, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, captured the sense of shock and despair that spread among the settlers in the wake of the Camp David Accords:
Not only has there been a retreat and a forsaking of land and settlements. Not only has security deteriorated. Not only is there fear for the future. In a phrase, our whole world is collapsing.
The rise of the peace camp during the late 1980s, the subsequent hostility to the settlers in the Israeli press, the Oslo Accords, and the terrorism of the intifadas all further tested the central redemptive narrative animating the settlement movement. By 2005, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—who had once enjoined Israeli soldiers to disobey orders rather than dismantle Jewish settlements—was himself evacuating the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, there were few settlers left who shared the optimism of the movement’s founders.
With the settlers’ confidence in the Kookean understanding of contemporary events repeatedly rattled by these disappoints and betrayals, the unity of their movement itself began to fracture. New personalities and institutions emerged in order to supplement, adapt, or even replace the settlers’ ideology and strategy to better reflect changing realities on the ground. This trend toward ideological diversification was in turn compounded by the rapid growth of the population of the settlements—growth that was occasionally slowed, but never meaningfully reversed, by the political obstacles the movement faced.
II: Radicalism, Populism, and Jewish Power
Among commentators who acknowledge the sociological dynamism within the contemporary settler population, there is a widespread tendency to focus almost exclusively on its apparent radicalization. Shaul Magid, a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, for example, has observed that among the most significant shifts within the religious Zionist camp over recent years is the gradual ascendance of “Kahanism”—the militant ideology of the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned as a terrorist organization in 1994. In Magid’s telling, this development is a consequence of the inability of the settlers’ Kookean messianism to adequately account for or respond to Israel’s surrender of land during the Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords, and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. As he explains in a 2019 essay, titled “Kahane Won,” in Tablet magazine:
When the trajectory of divine unfolding seemed stymied or even reversed, when history seemed to contradict the biblical promise, Kahane’s activist approach became more palatable to some as a way to procure the anticipated end.
Consequently, he writes, “the humanism of the elder Kook and the optimism of post-1967 Tzvi Yehuda Kook” gradually morphed into “a tribalism that combines a fetishization of the land with a diminished belief in humanity.” As evidence of this new reality, Magid points to the influence of Manhigut Yehudit, the now-defunct but once powerful “Jewish Leadership” faction within the Likud; the activities of the violent “Hilltop Youth” and the closely related Price Tag movement; and the Kahanist-leaning Otzma Yehudit party’s recent entrance into the Knesset. Magid argues that each of these factions are not only Kahanist in their militancy, but also because, like Kahane, they are “openly opposed to the secular state and in favor of establishing a theocracy in its place.”
As I spoke to different settlers, I was somewhat surprised by how easy it was to find settlers (and Israelis well within the Green Line too) who fit Magid’s description to a tee. Not only is Kahane’s Jerusalem-based yeshiva, HaRaayon HaYehudi, still filled with teachers and students who share his views, the influence of his teachings has spread far beyond its study halls too.
In one particularly strange encounter, a young Kahanist introduced me to his rabbi in Jerusalem’s Old City, who as it turned out, was a member of the famously anti-Zionist Satmar ḥasidic sect. When I asked if he was troubled by his rabbi’s anti-Zionism, the young man assured me that there was no issue: “We don’t totally agree on what Jewish life in Israel should look like, but we agree that secular Zionism is a disaster.” For this young man and his yeshiva friends, the settlements are not so much an extension of Zionism as a rebellion against it, its secularism, and its perceived decadence. Though he expressed appreciation for Israel’s role in fostering Jewish pride and equipping the Jewish people with the means for self-defense, he entirely rejected the traditional Kookean view of the modern Jewish state as imbued with inherent sanctity or religious value—a status, he held, which could only belong to a genuinely “halakhic state,” a “kingdom of Torah.”
In addition to Kahane and his yeshiva, the settlers I spoke to about this experience strongly associated such views with the Yitzhar settlement and the Hilltop Youth. The former is a community of about 2,000 settlers nestled in the hills of northern Samaria, just south of Arab-controlled Shechem. The settlement is famous as the home of the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, whose leaders are known for their openly theocratic, post-Zionist politics and for their violent anti-Arab rhetoric. The latter group—the Hilltop Youth—refers to a loosely organized movement of young settlers who illegally establish makeshift outposts across the hilltops of the West Bank, orchestrate “Price Tag” reprisal attacks on Arab civilians and on the IDF soldiers regularly dispatched to remove them.
But while the radicals Magid describes are not difficult to find if you set out looking for them, they are nevertheless far from representative of the average settler I encountered east of the Green Line. On the contrary, when discussing these ideologies and movements in even the more notoriously hardline religious Zionist settlements, the settlers there overwhelmingly regarded them with bewilderment, concern, and even outright hostility.
For example, one young couple from Beit El, a settlement of 5,900 abutting the northern outskirts of Ramallah, were adamant that such settlers “don’t represent [them] at all.” The husband, who works remotely for a tech startup in Tel Aviv, seemed almost offended that he might be discussed in the same breath as the “lunatics” on the hilltops. Citing numerous religious Zionist rabbinic authorities, he condemned the vigilante violence associated with the “radical fringe” and denounced its hostility to Zionism as a “ḥaredi idea” wholly foreign to his community. His wife took a softer but no less distant tone in describing the Hilltop Youth, mournfully, as the “Lost Boys” of the religious Zionist world.
One resident of Ofra—a settlement of 3,200 located just north of Beit El, and a longtime home to many settlement leaders—echoed this latter characterization of the Hilltop Youth as fundamentally pitiable members of an admittedly dangerous group:
There are a lot of young people here, young men mostly, who have a hard time—a hard time in school, a hard time fitting in, a broken home, whatever it is. So, they go live with their friends on hilltops and make real problems for everyone.
That such extremism remains a marginal phenomenon is borne out by more than anecdote. Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, puts the total number of members in the Hilltop Youth movement at less than 1,000 individuals. Beyond this core group, it is estimated that there are an additional 5,000 settlers, who, while living in established settlements like Yitzhar, share their ideology and provide them with material support. This is, to be sure, no insignificant figure, but it pales in comparison to the roughly 170,000 settlers who identify as religious Zionists. Ultimately, however successful they may be in attracting the attention of academics and journalists, Israel’s radicalized, post-Zionist settlers should be understood not as representatives of a defining trend in the settlement movement, but as a self-conscious counterculture operating within and against it.
Nevertheless, even as he overstates the direct influence of militant Kahanism, there is no denying Magid’s arguably more fundamental contention that the rosy romanticism that once broadly characterized the settlement enterprise has faded significantly. This change was frequently acknowledged in my conversations with settlers, where it was typically described as a shift in the direction of political realism.
One settler I spoke with in Kiryat Arba, a settlement of 7,500 just east of Hebron, attributed this development to the “tremendous amount of disillusionment with the government and society” brought on by the Oslo process, the intifadas, and, especially, the 2005 Gaza withdrawal:
[During the Disengagement] we watched the press and the government vilify us. We watched the army destroy our communities, literally, and drag our families and friends from their homes. And all this for the sake of peace with the Arabs that we knew was never going to come. . . . And even though the security situation has only gotten worse since then, we’re still treated like the “obstacle to peace.”
Before moving to Kiryat Arba, the same settler worked for many years as a leader of the nearby Hebron settlement, whose 700 residents live surrounded by more than 215,000 Arabs and have frequently been the victims of terrorism. “When Rav Levinger [the founder of the Hebron community] came to rebuild the Jewish community,” he explained, “he was supported by the government—to many, he was a hero.” He recognized that his community had “hardened” to a certain extent, but he argued that this did not amount to an abandonment of its founding ideology, but rather a predictable and prudential response to the “hostile influences” that had corrupted Israeli politics and discourse. According to this narrative, which is pervasive in the settlements, it is not the settlers who betrayed Zionism, but the Israeli political and cultural establishment that betrayed the settlers.
When I asked him to explain what he meant by these “hostile influences,” he responded by discussing the rise of left-wing post-Zionism in the Israeli academy and the press during the 1990s, as well as the subsequent emergence of Israeli-led, anti-settlement groups like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. More than the activities of these organizations, it was their perceived maliciousness and cruelty that disturbed him. He highlighted, to take one particularly poignant example, the comments made by the publisher of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, Amos Schocken, in response to President Herzog’s visit to Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs at the end of 2021. Making reference to the 2001 murder of two-year-old Shalhevet Pass by an Arab sniper in Hebron, Schocken took to Twitter to react to the president’s trip:
Shalhevet Pass was killed because of the irresponsibility of her parents, who thought that they could bring up their children in a war zone; and also because of the Welfare Ministry, which in any normal country would have removed children from a war zone.
Facing criticism for the tweet, Schocken doubled down:
There’s nothing terrible about that statement. It’s a statement that is entirely correct. What is terrible is the obstinacy of Jews in establishing a Jewish civilian presence in Hebron.
After years of enduring this sort of vitriol, it is unsurprising that many religious Zionist settlers have shed the idealism for which they were once known. By and large, when discussing the settlement project, these settlers no longer speak as pioneering mystics on the cusp of a messianic redemption, but as battle-hardened veterans who understand, firsthand, the cost of each success and the price of every failure. Yet in contrast to the marginal groups associated with Od Yosef Chai or the Hilltop Youth, this new grittiness does not generally represent a change in these settlers’ core Kookean ideology. On the contrary, religious settlers (with the exception of the Ḥaredim, who will be discussed later on) overwhelmingly continue to celebrate the creation of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption,” recite psalms on Israel’s Independence Day, and serve proudly in the IDF—where they are dramatically overrepresented in its elite combat units and officer corps. Compared to the movement’s founders, however, they tend to have less confidence in the inevitably of the redemptive process and far less trust in the state to see it through. Consequently, there is, as Magid notes, a widespread eagerness among today’s religious settlers for a more assertive and uncompromising mode of political activism.
The much-discussed rise of Otzma Yehudit (literally, Jewish Power) is arguably the clearest manifestation of this shift. The political party, whose leaders nearly all have roots in Kahane’s Kach movement, has existed in some form since Israel’s 2006 parliamentary election, but never succeeded in independently garnering enough support to secure seats in the Knesset. In the lead up to the 2021 election, however, when it became clear that the more mainstream religious Zionist party, Tkuma, also risked falling below the necessary vote threshold, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a merger between the two parties. The joint list, known as the Religious Zionist party, was an electoral success, allowing Otzma Yehudit’s current leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to enter the Knesset for the first time.
It is no surprise that Ben-Gvir’s sudden ascendance to power was greeted with shock and alarm by many political commentators. After all, Ben-Gvir got his start in politics as a Kach activist in the 1990s, spent much of his legal career defending Price Tag attackers from terrorism charges, and hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein—the man responsible for killing 29 Muslims in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. Though Ben-Gvir consistently refuses to be identified as a Kahanist, he campaigned on many of the same proposals that made up the Kach platform and used his first speech before the Knesset to defend Kahane’s legacy.
Given this rap sheet, many have pointed to Ben-Gvir’s rise as conclusive evidence that the radical ideas of the Kahanist fringe have gone mainstream. Without attempting to obfuscate Ben-Gvir’s ideology—which, despite his protestations, does indeed seem clearly Kahanist— I’d like to suggest that those ringing the alarm bells have somewhat overstated their case.
To be sure, there is among the settlers a core group of Otzma Yehudit supporters who are completely onboard with Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist ideology. But among the religious Zionist voters I spoke with, the far more common reaction to Ben-Gvir was a perplexing mix of genuine disapproval and sincere admiration. “If [Ben-Gvir] started a school,” one young religious Zionist supporter explained, “I wouldn’t send my kids there, but I respect his courage.” I frequently encountered similarly tepid endorsements of Ben-Gvir, with many settlers distancing themselves from Ben-Gvir’s more extreme positions while simultaneously celebrating his public appearances on contested land—particularly on the Temple Mount—as well as his confrontational temperament and tactics in the Knesset. After years of Arab terrorism, forced evictions, and criticism from the press, these settlers are galvanized by Ben-Gvir’s willingness to punch back without shame or apology. And it is this sort of populist energy, more than true ideological alignment, that appears to be the primary driver of Ben-Gvir’s support among the vast majority of religious Zionist settlers who don’t identify as Kahanists.
Nevertheless, there’s no question that the widespread existence of even this less-than-wholehearted endorsement of Ben-Gvir represents a noteworthy development in the pro-settlement, religious Zionist camp. Where once the leaders of the settler-backed National Religious party joined the political left and right in leaving the Knesset during Meir Kahane’s speeches, their most prominent successors now campaign alongside his disciples. Even while recognizing that Otzma Yehudit only represents a minority of contemporary settlers ideologically, it must be acknowledged that there is now dramatically more room, and even substantial sympathy, for the party’s confrontational mode of activism than at any point in the past.
III. Messianic Retreat and a House Divided
As certain groups of settlers responded to the bloodshed and looming possibility of territorial concessions of the last few decades by embracing a more confrontational approach, the crisis these trends engendered pushed others in a very different direction. Just a short distance south of Bethlehem and north of Hebron, in the first Jewish community reestablished over the Green Line, the leaders of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc responded to the theological crisis of Kookean Zionism by moderating their messianic ideology and expectations. Though, perhaps on account of this moderation, this group attracts less attention from commentators than its more hardline counterparts, its distinct understanding of the settlement project has grown into a movement that is no less important.
At the center of this story is Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder and longtime leader of Yeshiva Har Etzion—the Alon Shvut-based yeshiva which many Jewish Americans may know for its pre-college yeshiva program and its close ties to Yeshiva University. Amital, who arrived in Israel as a Holocaust survivor in 1945, considered himself a disciple of the elder Kook and was well known in religious Zionist circles for his messianic interpretation of current events. As a result, when the settlers of Gush Etzion set out to establish a yeshiva in 1968, they turned to Amital to lead it.
For years, the approach of Amital and the Har Etzion Yeshiva developed in parallel with the thought of the rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and his Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva—the spiritual center of the religious Zionist world. Though, compared to the younger Kook, Amital’s thought stressed the need for national t’shuvah (repentance) over the need for settlement, both camps were united in their reverence for the elder Kook, their view of contemporary events as a part of an unfolding messianic process, and their belief that the settlement enterprise advanced that process. Over time, however, in response to Arab terrorism and the possibility of “land for peace,” Amital’s position began to evolve in a different direction.
In his 2012 book Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Territorial Compromise, the historian Motti Inbari carefully traces Amital’s gradual “retreat from messianic mysticism.” Inbari notes that even as early as the 1982 Lebanon War, Amital differentiated himself from the religious Zionist mainstream in his open “willingness to consider territorial compromise in order to avoid the loss of Jewish lives in wars and terrorist attacks.” However, Inbari observes that it was not until the beginning of the Oslo peace process, in the immediate aftermath of the first intifada, that Amital publicly broke with the teachings of the elder Kook.
“The complete redemption has not yet been realized in our times,” Amital declared to his students at Yeshiva Har Etzion in 1994:
We have not yet been privileged to see a state that is [as Rabbi Kook claimed] “the foundation of the throne of the Eternal Lord.” But we have been privileged to see with our own eyes the ingathering of a large part of the dispersed Jews in their land, and this phenomenon in itself may be considered tantamount to “the first shoots of redemption.” . . . Even for a partial redemption that does not include all the components of complete redemption, let us say our thanks and praises to He who chooses His people Israel.
In the late 1990s Amital was joined in Gush Etzion by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a founding leader of the settlement movement, and together they preached a revised understanding of the settlements that reflected this break with “orthodox” Kookean Zionism. The current reality did not, as they had once thought, reflect the immediate and inevitable unfolding of the messianic process. And because the Jews were living through what amounted to an only “partial redemption,” aggressive attempts to accelerate the messianic process were not always valid and might even slow or reverse it—as was the case, they argued, in the divisive language and politics adopted by other pro-settlement groups. In consequence of this ideological revision, Amital and Bin-Nun were often far more open to territorial concessions and political compromise than many other religious Zionist leaders.
This branch of religious Zionism may have remained marginal if it had not received substantial support from an unlikely source: American Modern Orthodoxy. This support was the result of two related factors. First, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein—a student and son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the major intellectual force behind Modern Orthodoxy—joined Amital as a co-leader of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in 1971. Over time, the personal connection between the leaders of YU and Har Etzion made it is easy for deep institutional ties to develop as well.
Second, though Modern Orthodoxy has long shared the religious Zionist community’s commitment to Israel and maintained a similar openness to secular learning, it never widely accepted the messianism that would come define Israel’s religious Zionist movement in the years after the Six-Day War. In that sense, Rabbi Amital’s moderated form of Kookean Zionism created room for American Modern Orthodoxy in a way unique among the ideas of Israel’s Orthodox leaders. To this day, the Har Etzion yeshiva and the settlements around it serve as a natural home for Modern Orthodox Americans seeking to study or live in Israel among like-minded religious Zionists.
This special relationship to the large and relatively wealthy American Modern Orthodox world helped facilitate the elevation of Har Etzion’s authority and the spread of its ideas. As things stand, the Amital/Bin-Nun/Lichtenstein brand of religious Zionism predominates among the 30,000 settlers living in and around Gush Etzion—in settlements like Alon Shvut, Elazar, Neve Daniel, Tekoa, and the relatively large town of Efrat. And because the settlers in these communities are more likely to be fully bilingual, well credentialed, and well connected to the organs of American Zionism, they punch well above their numerical weight in Zionist politics and Jewish religious life.
Though, today, much of Amital’s and Lichtenstein’s legacy lives on (the former passed away in 2010, the latter in 2015), the settlers of Gush Etzion have also adapted to changing historical circumstances. Amital, for example, was famous for founding Meimad, a religious Zionist party that supported the peace process and aligned with Israel’s Labor party. But after watching the peace process fail and the security situation deteriorate, today’s Gush Etzion settlers generally don’t share their teachers’ optimism about “land for peace,” even as they also don’t share other settlers’ desire for confrontational expansions of the settlements.
“I just don’t think it’s practical or humane to build in every instance,” one resident of Efrat told me. He affirmed Israel’s claim to the whole of the West Bank, but stressed the need for prudence. “More settlement is good, but it’s not the only thing we should care about—we have to be realistic and moral at the same time.”
Another settler, a rabbinic student at Har Etzion, echoed Bin-Nun’s revised Kookeanism in describing the “long process of redemption.” He told me that the restoration of sovereignty over the entire land is divinely ordained, but noted that he is “just as skeptical of those who say ‘we’ll have peace if we give up this or that settlement’ as those who say ‘we’ll have mashiaḥ if we build this or that settlement.’”
Increasingly, then, it seems that this branch of religious Zionism largely overlaps with the more generic, right-wing Zionist case for settlement development. Like Amital and Bin-Nun, settlers in this camp tend to affirm that the whole Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and hope to expand settlements throughout it, but without believing that the progress toward redemption is measured solely or even primarily by the amount of land under Jewish control. Though there is a widespread recognition of the religious, cultural, and strategic value of Jewish settlements, these settlers’ lowered messianic expectations means that there is little appetite for advancing the settlement cause through more combative or divisive forms of activism.
Unsurprisingly, there remains a great deal of tension between these settlers and those described earlier. Among the latter, the settlers of Gush Etzion were frequently described as unreliable partners, at best, and as traitors, at worst. The willingness of Har Etzion’s leaders to support land-for-peace deals with the Arabs—deals that would have involved the eviction of other settlers—was a major source of ill will.
“Zionism-lite” is how one one activist from Ofra, only half-jokingly, described the worldview of Gush Etzion’s leaders. The aforementioned former Hebron community leader expressed a similar disappointment when speaking about the Gush Etzion settlers. He seemed genuinely pained by the community’s “lack of solidarity” with the other settlements during Oslo and the 2005 disengagement. Even though Gush Etzion settlers have largely abandoned their affiliation with the peace camp, he was visibly saddened and angry when discussing the community’s current posture: “They speak as if the road to Efrat isn’t the same as the road to Hebron . . . as if their hands are clean and ours are dirty.”
Still, though a full rapprochement between the Mercaz HaRav and Har Etzion branches of religious Zionism looks doubtful, at least in the near future, it’s worth noting that the ideological lines between the two are blurring to a certain extent. After all of the setbacks and disappointments that the Kookean world has endured, even those settlers who are critical of Gush Etzion’s leaders now frequently echo Amital’s language of a “partial” or “incomplete” redemption. This is a particularly noticeable trend among younger settlers who grew up in a post-Oslo world that was robbed of the messianic zeal and anticipation that characterized the early years of the settlement movement. For many of these young settlers, who lack their parents’ (or grandparents’) messianic understanding of modern Israel, and who are therefore left struggling to reconcile their instinctive commitment to secular Zionism with their deeply felt Jewish faith, the religious Zionism of Har Etzion may ultimately prove, in time, to be very attractive.
IV. New Voices
No study of the contemporary landscape of Israel’s settlements would be complete without an acknowledgement of the tremendous growth in the settlements’ non-religious Zionist population. These newcomers can be roughly sorted into two categories: secular settlers and ultra-Orthodox Ḥaredim, who now respectively comprise a staggering 29 percent and 36 percent of the total Israeli population in the West Bank.
While the first settlements were established by and for religious Zionists, the settlement movement gradually began to grow the number of “mixed” communities, where both religious and secular settlers would live side by side. Many of the latter were activists in right-wing youth groups, like the Beitar movement, and sought to structure their communities according to the same agrarian model of the religious Zionists and the Labor pioneers before them.
Such agrarian communities still exist, but the major setting of recent growth for the secular settler population has been urban settlements like Ariel (population: 20,600) and Ma’ale Adumim (40,700), and Tel Aviv suburbs like Alfei Menashe (8,500) and Beit Aryeh (5,600). Though such settlers largely affiliate with the political right, their primary motivations for settling has at least as much to do with cost and quality of life concerns as it does with ideology. Housing is significantly cheaper in these areas and, following years of state investment in transportation infrastructure, a great many Israeli families—particularly Russian-speaking immigrants, in the case of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim—feel that the lower prices, extra space, and slower pace of life make living in these towns and cities worth the slightly longer commute to Israel’s center.
Much the same is true regarding those who seek out settlements in more rural mixed communities like Nokdim, Kfar Adumim, and Eli. In addition to ideology and the desire for cheaper real estate, secular settlers moving to these communities are attracted by the pastoral setting and small-town feel. One young, soon-to-be settler captured the spirit of this group well when he explained his interest in moving to Sde Boaz, a relatively new, rurally set settlement in Gush Etzion: “It’s beautiful out there; the people are friendly and not too religious.” Plus, he added, “there’s a food truck with really good Indian food.”
Similar quality of life considerations have driven the Ḥaredim into the settlements in even larger numbers. For many years, the leaders of the ḥaredi world were famous for their opposition to settlement. For example, Rabbi Elazar Shach, a longtime leader of the non-ḥasidic ḥaredi community, denounced settlement construction through the 1980s on the grounds that it constituted an unwarranted “provocation of the Gentiles” that would lead to senseless violence and death. Over time, however, his position softened. After receiving a promise from Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin that the Modi’in Illit settlement, situated just over the Green Line, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, would be integrated into Israel proper in any future peace deal, Shach gave his blessing for the establishment of a ḥaredi community there in 1995. Shortly thereafter, a similarly conceived community began to take shape in Beitar Illit, a short drive south of Jerusalem.
Still, even after Shach approved the establishment of these communities, he kept his distance from the settlement enterprise and even continued to endorse territorial concessions as a means to achieve peace. For Shach, who passed away in 2001, and for the many thousands of his students who moved across the Green Line in his lifetime, the establishment of ḥaredi settlements was emphatically unrelated to any ideologically fueled efforts to expand Jewish sovereignty or hasten the redemption (a view many Ḥaredim regard as heretical). Instead, the ḥaredi move into the settlements was overwhelmingly motivated by the need for cheaper housing.
That need has remained substantial enough to drive Ḥaredim into the West Bank in large and now politically significant numbers. Modi’in Illit currently has a population of 83,500, while Beitar Illit has a population of 66,700. The two cities are remarkable not only because they are now by far the two largest Israeli settlements east of the Green Line, but also because they are nearly 100-percent ḥaredi.
It is generally assumed that the Ḥaredim remain ideologically detached from the ideology of religious Zionism. It appears that this remains the dominant position. One of the residents of Beitar Illit whom I spoke with elegantly captured the prevailing sentiment among the Ḥaredim I encountered when I asked him if it was important to him that he was contributing to the broader settlement effort: “Listen,” he told me, “If Joe Biden showed up with $50,000 and told me he’d pay me to leave, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. I don’t think any of us would.”
But it’s interesting to note that a number of the non-ḥaredi settlers I spoke with identified Yitzḥak Pindrus, a member of Knesset for the ḥaredi party United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as the most reliable defender of settler interests. One commonly cited piece of evidence was Pindrus’s supposed role in helping sway the rabbinic leaders of the ḥaredi world to commit UTJ to a more hawkish approach to land-for-peace proposals. The story, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, has it that during his conversation with the late Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a successor to Shach, Pindrus asked what he should tell the Americans in response to the Israeli land concessions called for in President Trump’s 2019 peace plan. “Tell them,” Kanievsky responded, “that the Arabs should make concessions” if they want peace. This dramatic reversal of Shach’s position did not go unnoticed by pro-settlement activists, and several settlers I spoke with argued that it demonstrates a modest but significant shift in ḥaredi public opinion.
In support of this view, recently released public polling suggests that if Itamar Ben-Gvir ran as a leader of his own party (either as the head of a united Religious Zionist coalition or on his own as the leader of Otzma Yehudit), he would receive substantial support in Israel’s upcoming elections at the expense of the ḥaredi parties. Perhaps even more significant than the polling itself was the ḥaredi leadership’s response to its publication. Within days of the first poll’s release in June, a host of fierce condemnations of Ben-Gvir appeared in the ḥaredi press, accompanied by denunciations by leading ḥaredi rabbis. In a highly unusual move, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel went as far as publicly to accuse Ben-Gvir of “desecrating God’s name” and “going against the g’dolei ha-dor,” i.e., the spiritual leaders of Israel, for ascending to the Temple Mount. Though these efforts were obviously intended to demonstrate the ḥaredi leadership’s firm opposition to Ben-Gvir, they are also a telling indicator of the emerging threat Ben-Gvir and his brand of religious, activist, and aggressively pro-settlement politics pose to the ḥaredi political establishment.
V: Going Mainstream
In the leadup to the September 2019 elections, and in a last-ditch effort to galvanize support and energy for his caretaker government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intention, upon his election, to annex the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea. Unsurprisingly, the international community denounced the move as unhelpful and inflammatory, at best, and as “a war crime that would bury any chance of peace,” at worst. More surprising is that Benny Gantz, at that time the co-leader of the main opposition party, Blue and White, did not object to the annexation plan and instead accused Netanyahu of stealing his idea. “The Jordan Valley,” he declared, “will be a part of Israel forever.”
The strange episode passed without much fanfare, but it should be remembered as a major milestone on the settlement movement’s road to political normalization. Here, for the first time since before the Yom Kippur War, both major parties in the Knesset were fighting to outdo the other’s commitment to expanding Jewish settlement and sovereignty.
In February 2021, another such milestone was quietly reached when the Jewish National Fund (JNF) announced that it would invest in Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The JNF’s resources are vast—it owns 15 percent of the land in Israel—and its decision to directly purchase land within the area under Israeli military control (60 percent of the entire territory) was a major strategic victory for the settlement movement. Perhaps just as significant, given the JNF’s storied role as the NGO primarily responsible for developing the Land of Israel since 1901, the decision was powerful symbolic victory for the settlers who have long been excluded from the Zionist establishment.
The JNF’s decision came 30 years after the Madrid Peace Conference, when the “peace process” began in earnest, and it’s difficult to overstate the near complete reversal of fortune that the settlement movement has experienced in the decades since. For years, the settlers feared for the very existence of the communities they had labored to build. Not only their homes, but their entire worldview hung in the balance as Israeli leaders debated the settlers’ fate. Though so many of settlers I spoke to repeatedly stressed the degree to which their work had not yet been finished—“Hebron is still awaiting redemption!”—I cannot help but observe that they have already succeeded in the most essential ways. The peace camp is, if not dead, largely politically impotent while the settlement project is embraced by the Zionist mainstream. To me at least, it appears that the settlement movement has emerged more secure and more powerful than ever.
How secure is that power? And what does the future hold for the settlement movement?
That’s hard to say. But any discussion of the future of the settlement movement must begin with an honest acknowledgement of the simple fact that the movement no longer exists as a coherent whole. Though the many constituent groups that compose the modern settlement coalition do continue to share important interests and aspirations, those concerned with understanding their future trajectory and impact on the Jewish state would be wise to start paying attention to the many differences between them.