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Reviewed by:
  • The Settlers: And the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism
  • Philip C. Wilcox Jr. (bio)
The Settlers: And the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism, by Gadi Taub. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 217 pages. $32.50.

Israel's 40-year project of occupation and settlement of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967 has thwarted a two-state peace and intensified debate over the meaning of Zionism. Israeli columnist and professor Gadi Taub argues in The Settlers that Religious Zionism, the messianic theology that helped galvanize the vast settlement enterprise, is a distortion of Judaism and a grave challenge to the idea of a Jewish, democratic state supported in principle by Zionism's founding fathers and the majority of Israelis. This is true indeed, and Taub's thorough deconstruction of Religious Zionism is compelling.

But Taub's singular focus on Religious Zionism as the main threat to a Jewish, democratic state is unsatisfying. "Mainstream" Zionism is still contested and undefined. Right-wing secular Zionism, sometimes described as "revisionist," was also part of Israel's pre-1967 legacy. It was no less important than Religious Zionism in Israel's subsequent and continuing policies of occupation and settlement. Taub says there was no continuity between pre-1967 mainstream Zionism and the settlement movement thereafter. If so, why did Israelis yield so easily and allow settlements, which violated the liberal and democratic strain in Zionism, to become Israel's national project for the past four decades? Why have many of Israel's governing institutions, including the military, supported occupation and settlement? Taub's decision, which he declares, to avoid deeper analysis of other ideological, historic, and political elements in Zionism's struggle for identity creates an incomplete picture of why occupation and settlement policies occurred and why Israel remains deeply divided 62 years after its birth.

The strength of The Settlers is its history of the philosophical and political evolution of modern Religious Zionism. It started with Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, who taught that Zionism was ordained by God as a phase toward the coming of the Messiah. Kook died in 1935, but his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, went further by calling on Jews to take political action to speed Redemption. This violated traditional Jewish teaching that only God could ordain the messianic End of Times.

The euphoria of Israel's conquests in 1967 gave Kook's followers their chance. By aggressive politics, aligning with the secular vision of Greater Israel supported by the Likud Party and some hawkish Labor Party politicians, Religious Zionism and settlement thrived. A new, radical generation of rabbis schooled at Zvi Yehuda's Markaz Harav Yeshiva worshiped settlement of the land as Judaism's highest duty, rejected the primacy of Jewish values of justice and sanctity of human life, and dehumanized Arabs and other non-Jews. Religious settlers, increasingly, followed edicts of such fanatics as former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Aviner who claimed that God's command to settlement "is above moral, human considerations," and even "human life."

Nevertheless, settler leaders, aware of their dependence on the state, soft-pedaled theology. The Supreme Court's Elon Moreh decision that land seizures for settlement were illegal unless needed for security was a setback. But the settlers persevered, with growing support from Israeli authorities, and proclaimed [End Page 143] patriotism and security as their rationale. When years passed and the Messiah did not come, "operation doubling" accelerated new "facts on the ground." But public criticism began to grow, beginning in the 1980s. Settler terrorism, like the Goldstein massacre in Hebron, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a settler fanatic, and gradual public understanding that settlements and occupation threatened Israel's Jewish majority led to public disillusionment over settlements. This growing alienation, and especially Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its settlements, have seriously undermined settler morale and unity.

Taub believes that public recognition among Israelis of the political and moral bankruptcy of Religious Zionism and disillusionment among religious settlers themselves has opened the way for a resurrection of liberal, democratic Zionism. He even claims that the old Greater Israel is dead. But this seems premature in view...


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