Settling for Radicalism

How the Israeli government has fostered religious extremism and fractured its own democracy

by Gershom Gorenberg, 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 of 1967.

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 state.

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 land.

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 one.)

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.

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