Settling for Radicalism
How the Israeli government has
fostered religious extremism and fractured its own democracy
by Gershom Gorenberg
www.prospect.org/, June 15, 2009
The small compound on the green hillside
has several identities. It is the Elisha pre-military academy,
a government-funded training ground for the next generation of
highly motivated Israeli soldiers and officers. It is an illegal
settlement outpost, established by right-wing activists to prevent
an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. And it is also a religious
institute, headed by a charismatic rabbi who teaches his students
an ultra-nationalist form of Judaism that believes Israel has
a divine imperative to rule these hills.
To reach Elisha, I drove up the two-lane
blacktop road that winds into the West Bank mountains east of
Tel Aviv. The compound is just past the Palestinian village of
Deir Nidham and the Israeli settlement of Neveh Tzuf. According
to the academy's dean, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, the spot was suggested
by two veteran settlement leaders, Ze'ev Hever and Pinhas Wallerstein.
The choice fit the wider pattern that they and others have followed
in putting up illegal outposts since the 1990s. The outposts fill
in spaces between existing settlements, creating Israeli-settled
strips that fragment Palestinian territory and reduce the chance
of an Israeli withdrawal.
Elisha consists of a couple dozen weather-stained
mobile homes, most serving as dorms for about 35 students, and
one permanent structure, the stone-faced study hall. According
to a 2005 government-commissioned report by attorney Talia Sasson,
the complex was constructed without government approval and without
the required planning procedure. Nonetheless, I found a bored
Israel Defense Forces sergeant on duty at the gate. The outpost
is hooked up to the national Israeli electric grid, which requires
Defense Ministry approval. Sasson found that the Housing Ministry
spent over $300,000 on infrastructure and buildings at Elisha.
This is a typical profile of the 100-plus outposts: rogue operations
set up by hard-line settlement activists in ostensible defiance
of the government but with the connivance of multiple state agencies.
What makes Elisha unusual is that it is
also a pre-military academy -- part of both the outpost enterprise
and another, less-noticed social shift. Israel has a universal
draft at age 18. But with the army's approval, high school graduates
can defer service to spend a year or more at a privately run preparatory
academy, combining physical training and studies intended to boost
motivation to serve and to take leadership roles. At Orthodox
academies -- which are the majority -- one goal is to strengthen
faith so students can resist the peer pressure to give up religious
practice. Another goal is to create a cadre of ideologically motivated
Orthodox officers and soldiers. Elisha is listed on the Defense
Ministry's Web page of academies. "We're under the auspices
of the Defense Ministry. But the funding comes via the Education
Ministry. We have a pair of parents," Rabbi Nissim tells
me in his tiny office in one of the mobile homes.
Nissim, 41, is a tall man with closely
cropped hair and a full black beard. He established Elisha in
the late 1990s, he says, at the request of his rabbinic mentor,
Haim Druckman, a former right-wing Knesset member, and of Hanan
Porat, the single-most prominent activist and ideologue of West
Bank settlement since it began in 1967. Both teach that the establishment
of Israel and the conquests of 1967 are proof that God is bringing
final redemption. Nissim, who speaks in a quiet, warm voice, says
his students "must understand ... why we returned here after
2,000 years of exile, where that process is leading, the transcendent
quality of [this] land." They should realize, he says, that
they are "part of the redemption of Israel." These are
the code words of the ideology that has powered the religious
settlement movement -- an ideology in which the state of Israel
and control of the "whole land of Israel" have been
transmuted from political goals to ultimate religious values.
From that perspective, Israel's withdrawal
from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 wasn't just a political event
-- it was a theological crisis. The unilateral pullout, which
included the forced evacuation of 9,000 Israeli settlers, meant
the holy state was giving up holy land, in defiance of God's plan.
Nissim says that because "the state is sacred," he disagreed
with rabbis from his own camp who called on soldiers to refuse
an order to evacuate settlements. "That would have been insurrection."
And yet, he says firmly, "I told my students, ?No one carries
it out.'" The comment implies that the soldiers consulted
their rabbi on whether to obey their commanders. His graduates
found quiet ways to avoid such orders -- usually because their
comrades understood their dilemma.
Since the withdrawal, Nissim says, he
has put more stress on finding students with the potential to
become leaders, and he is preparing to expand the academy. He
wants men who will change the military and the country. In his
own view, he is helping Israel to fulfill its true nature.
Seen from the outside, however, Elisha
is the meeting point of two trends. One is radicalization of the
religious settlement movement, which has enjoyed the support of
successive Israeli governments even as it ignores laws and seeks
to impose its views of Israel's future borders. The other trend
-- subtle, hard to measure, but unmistakable -- is the increased
role in the military of soldiers and officers who are politically
aligned with the religious right and the settlements, and who
may show obedience to rabbis as well as commanders. Experts warn
that the army, which rules the occupied territories, is too closely
connected to the settlers. In the future, the government's freedom
to decide on a withdrawal may be limited by its inability to control
the army. The state of Israel may be cultivating the seeds of
its own potential disintegration.
The debate about Israel's 42-year-old
entanglement in the West Bank is often peppered with comparisons
to Algeria and South Africa. Even as analysis rather than sloganeering,
such parallels are only approximate. History offers warnings,
not precise predictions. That said, another warning comes from
Pakistan's experience: In that country, a series of policies,
often adopted for short-term political reasons, have strengthened
fundamentalist education, expanded the constituency for theocracy,
and given religious radicals a powerful role in the military.
More moderate forms of religion, conducive to a modern secular
state, have suffered. Israel certainly hasn't gone as far down
that road. But its citizens, and supporters, should be paying
attention to the direction Israel has taken.
Politicians from Israel's mainstream secular
parties have acted as the patrons of religious settlers since
September 1967, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol backed the establishment
of the first West Bank settlement. Eshkol, head of what became
the Labor Party, saw himself as merely restoring a kibbutz that
was lost in Israel's war of independence. The leader of the settlers,
Hanan Porat, saw the same event in metaphysical terms: He regarded
the West Bank as "redeemed land" whose conquest showed
that God was intervening in history. Porat (along with Haim Druckman,
later to be Nissim's mentor) was a disciple of Tzvi Yehudah Kook,
a rabbi whose mix of messianism and nationalism satisfied young
Orthodox Israelis' search for meaning after the Israeli victory
In the mid-1970s, Porat and Druckman were
among the founders of Gush Emunim (the Believers' Bloc), a movement
that pushed for settlement throughout the West Bank. Gush Emunim
worked with former Gen. Ariel Sharon, who helped choose sites
for settlement. Their cooperation continued after the right-wing
Likud party took power in 1977 and Sharon became the government's
settlement czar. Gush Emunim's efforts served his goal of restricting
the Palestinians to enclaves that could not coalesce into a viable
The settlements not only changed the map
of occupied territory, they induced a social revolution among
Orthodox Zionists. With government support, religious settlers
created ideologically homogenous, membership-only communities
far from Israeli cities. Settlers have become a model for many
other Orthodox Israelis -- a model that often includes not only
hard-line politics but a lifestyle of marrying young, having large
families, sending children to separate-sex schools, and seeking
rabbinic advice on daily decisions. It's a form of Judaism that
defines itself in opposition to wider society -- but also seeks
to transform it.
Socially, the outposts provide an opportunity
for the settlers of a new generation to show that they can match
and outdo their parents' efforts -- and many of the young, radical
activists see veteran settlement leaders as weak-kneed and too
eager to avoid confrontation. Politically, the outposts are a
product of the government flouting its own rules. Since the Madrid
peace process of the early 1990s, says attorney Sasson, Israeli
governments have understood that approving any new settlements
would be "internationally impossible." Yet many officials
remained dedicated to an "ideology of expanding the state"
through settlement, as she puts it. From the mid-1990s, settler
activists began setting up small new settlements. The extensive
support they received from government bodies was illegal. So was
their location -- Sasson's report says that at least half the
outposts are located in part or entirely on private Palestinian
As foreign minister in the late 1990s,
Sharon publicly encouraged the outpost effort. Later, as prime
minister, he reportedly held weekly meetings to pore over maps
with Hever, secretary-general of Amana, a settlement-building
organization originally set up by Gush Emunim. While Sasson did
not find a smoking gun proving Sharon's involvement, the outposts
fit his strategic goals and his methods. The lasting price of
the outpost project, Sasson argues, is that the government itself
has demonstrated that laws can be ignored.
Migron, a 45-family outpost north of Jerusalem,
stands on private Palestinian land, according to the Sasson report.
Along with the Peace Now movement, the Palestinian owners filed
a lawsuit before Israel's Supreme Court in 2006 to demand that
the outpost be removed. The state told the court last year that
it had reached an agreement with the organized settler leadership,
the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, that Migron's
residents would move to a nearby approved settlement. But when
I visited the outpost recently, a leader told me that the settlers
had no intention of carrying out the council's compromise. (At
Elisha, Nissim takes a more moderate line: If his location is
illegal, he says, the government should provide an alternative
As defense minister, Labor Party leader
Ehud Barak is responsible for law enforcement in occupied territory.
So why doesn't he simply evacuate outposts, by force if need be?
One answer is fear of settler violence. But Barak's more dangerous
potential problem may be a breakdown in the army. As political
sociologist Yagil Levy explained in an article in Ha'aretz last
year, the brigade that polices the West Bank maintains close daily
ties with the settlers, and some soldiers are stationed at settlements.
"The regular deployment of a military force within a civilian
community that it is supposed to protect blurs the boundaries
between the settlers and the soldiers," Levy wrote.
The issue runs much deeper than one brigade.
Orthodox soldiers and officers are taking a steadily more prominent
role in the army. Many come to their service directly from institutions
like Elisha that promote the theological nationalism of the settlement
movement. The process began with the establishment of yeshivot
hesder -- seminaries set up in coordination with the army. Hesder
students divide their time between religious study and active
duty in the army, usually in combat units. After 1967, the number
of seminaries grew, and most were then in occupied territory.
They were a means to create a paramilitary presence at strategic
points and to direct more Orthodox men into combat duty. Kook's
messianic message pervaded the teaching from the start.
Beginning in the 1980s, according to Levy
and Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University,
the proportion of Orthodox men in infantry units began to rise
as enthusiasm faded among those who traditionally provided the
army's elite -- the sons of the kibbutzim and the secular middle
class. Meanwhile, the first pre-army academies were set up --
again, mainly in settlements.
Today there are 16 religious academies,
most in the West Bank and Golan Heights, with about a thousand
students a year. The studies are motivational, with stress on
the messianic nationalism of the Kook school. At a class at Elisha,
I listened to Nissim explain true freedom as being faithful to
the "inner character" of the nation. A student, whom
the rabbi summoned to be interviewed with the slightest wave of
his hand, said what he'd gained at the academy was the understanding
that "going to the army is an obligation of halakhah,"
or religious law.
At the officers-training course for infantry,
experts estimate, up to half the new graduates are Orthodox, far
higher than their proportion in the general population. Not all
came through the preparatory academies, and not every student
who did accepts his teachers' views. Measuring ideological influence
is difficult. After the Gaza pullout, the army reported with relief
that only about 60 soldiers had been disciplined for openly refusing
orders. But the number hid the real picture. It didn't include
so-called gray refusal -- soldiers informally avoiding evacuation
duty, in the manner that Nissim recommended. Moreover, Levy notes,
the army avoided assigning units with a high percentage of religious
soldiers to removing settlements.
In daily service, Orthodox soldiers are
more concerned about maintaining their religious lifestyle. Gender
relations are a constant issue, as the Israeli army has been integrating
women into more roles. The trend in Orthodoxy is greater separation
between the sexes. To mitigate the tension, the army has allowed
for single-sex squads in mixed units, but it faces demands from
hesder soldiers for separate Orthodox battalions. That solution
creates a greater risk: large units organized on ideological lines,
further fracturing the military.
In a 2004 article, Cohen notes that religious
soldiers are turning to rabbis for rulings on combat ethics. The
issue suddenly became public during last winter's war in Gaza,
as civilian casualties among Palestinians rose. A pamphlet circulated
by the military rabbinate -- and made public by the Yesh Din human-rights
group -- said, "From a distance the enemy can be obliterated
more easily than from close up. ... Cruelty is a bad quality but
it all depends when." Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski claimed
afterward that he had not seen the booklet before it was published.
Meanwhile, Levy asserts that "the
disintegration of the army when it comes to its control over forces
serving in the West Bank" continues apace. Sasson says one
reason the government has yet to remove outposts is "there's
a fear, which is likely to be expressed quietly, in secret, that
it could break the backbone of the army."
Any peace agreement with the Palestinians
would require removing not only outposts but also large, long-established
settlements. It would mean direct confrontation with an ideological
community that the state itself has fostered, with too little
consideration of the consequences. And if fear of that confrontation
is a consideration for politicians as they weigh the country's
direction -- as it surely must be -- then Israeli democracy has
already been wounded.
Gershom Gorenberg is a senior correspondent
for The Prospect. He is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel
and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The End of Days:
Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. He blogs
at South Jerusalem.