Of Zionism and Anti-Zionism: The Ultra Orthodox and the Settler Movement in Israel

Israel is not only engaged in a fierce battle with the Palestinians over questions of territory and sovereignty, it is also engaged in a critical struggle over its own identity: what kind of society does it want to be?

In the course of this struggle, odd alliances have been forged; one of the most unlikely being the one between the Haredim, or Ultra Orthodox, and the Settler movement. To understand what makes this alliance so unexpected, and what the important implications are, a little background:

The original Zionist ideology that founded the country was largely socialist, secular, and agrarian. The dominance of that Zionism is no more, having been supplanted, as Israel turns toward free-market capitalism and a bourgeois society, by what I suggest we call “Settler Zionism.”

Devoutly religious in tenor and practice, Settler Zionism is founded on the principle that the Land of Israel (its exact contours defined by rabbinic interpretation of the biblical boundaries) is promised to the Jews and that relinquishing land to gentiles, even under the auspices of a peace agreement, is unacceptable. It is also founded on an activist messianism that includes Jewish sovereignty over the entirely of the Land of Israel. While there are considerable gradations in the Settler Movement (some of it is secular and there are less strident forms of its religious branch), its religious ideology is loosely based on these core principles.

Settler Zionism has been enormously successful but it always had a population problem. Its longterm success depends on creating sufficient “facts on the ground” in order to prevent any peace agreement that would include territorial compromise. To subvert any such agreement it needs to populate the territories (it refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria) as quickly as possible. In short, it needs bodies, Jewish bodies.

To meet this need, Settler Zionism has successfully cultivated important alliances, even with those who do not share its theological assumptions.

First, there are the secular nationalists (followers of Zev Jabotinsky, centered in the Likud party) who have capitalized on settler enthusiasm to further their own hegemonic position ostensibly founded exclusively on issues of security but peppered with religious rhetoric (i.e. Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” and referring to “the biblical land of Israel”).

And the settlers have begun to use the language of “security”—even though it is not central to their ideology—because it sells in the world, especially to American Jews, who constitute a crucial support group.

Second, the Russian immigration in the late 1980s brought a large group of secular Jews (and non-Jews) who, being the victims of anti-Semitism, have little or no sympathy for the Arabs; whether citizens of Arab countries, Israeli citizens, or inhabitants of the West Bank.

Finally, and most interestingly, the Haredim, or Ultra Orthodox. This group, mostly descended from Eastern European Jews, were traditionally (and confusingly to outsiders) actually anti-Zionist and not engaged in Israeli politics at all.

The Haredi accepted that it was Zionism that had allowed them to settle in the Holy Land, yet they maintained Israel had no theological status; and this is where their position is incompatible with Settler Zionists. They actually considered themselves to be living in exile in Erez Yisrael (The Holy Land of Israel), which happened to also be the State of Israel.

Haredi communities lived and flourished in Palestine long before the advent of Zionism. Those who vote, vote largely for Haredi parties whose primary interests are local rather than national.

But the Haredim have a big problem, and the settlers and their government supporters have the perfect solution. The Haredim have very large families (some estimates have an average Haredi family in Israel with 6-7 children—think FLDS). Committed to study and devotion, many men do not work, or work part-time, meaning they have little financial means. Yet in many cases they live middle-class lives that seem incommensurate with their incomes. This is due in part to a complex network of Haredi charities and Israeli government subsidies for large families. The solution: develop Haredi communities in the territories where housing is cheap (through government subsidies), where they can maintain a lifestyle separate from secular Israel, and where their communities can continue to grow at an enormous rate.

This is a particularly modern problem. The growth rate of the Haredi world is not solely the result of their big families. When you have a society that is essentially middle-class averaging seven children per family with a very low infant mortality rate and a life-expectancy similar to the most developed societies, you have a society that will grow at an abnormal, or “unnatural,” rate. Grandparents with an excess of forty or fifty grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not uncommon in the Haredi world in Israel. In developing countries with a similar birth rate, this is much less likely. Fewer children reach childbearing age and people simply don’t live that long.

The Haredi-Settler alliance seems perfect. Each gets what they want and what they need. The settlers get the Jewish bodies with a “natural growth” rate that would make any population transfer difficult to justify. The Haredim get their government sponsored neo-ghettos to raise their families and practice their religion.

The one unknown factor necessary to make this work in the long term is ideology. The settlers are banking on the idea that the fact of living in the territories (Judea and Samaria) might produce a new generation of Haredim more sympathetic to the settler ideology. This is both crucial and reasonable. Without it, the Haredim could decide to pack up and leave if the government gave them financial incentive to do so. That is, unless the Haredi “facts on the ground” grow roots, the whole settler project could collapse.

In a July 27 article in the New York Times, “In West Bank Settlements: Sign of Hope for a Deal” Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner point out the soft nature of Haredi sympathy for their ostensible partners.

The article shows that while the Haredim enjoy the benefits of their lives in these settlements, by and large they have not become aligned, or even sympathetic, to Settler Zionism. Their position remains pragmatic; they do not see the state as a vehicle of redemption, and they have a nuanced sense of “security” that is not founded on the activist retention of territory but more on an exilic mentality of accommodation. And even though many Haredim have moved “rightward,” such movement is arguably less ideological than experiential, and thus more open to change.

In other words, as “facts on the ground,” they are open to being transplanted if the conditions are right. While this may be true of the Russian population and other non-ideological Jews living in the settlements, the Haredi community is distinct for at least two reasons. First, they will generally listen to their rabbis and could conceivably move en masse. Second, they have the numbers that no other settler community has. If they decide to move back to Israel, the facts on the ground would change considerably.

This does not bode well for the Settler Zionists. They know that one day, perhaps soon, there will be a peace agreement, and that agreement will include significant uprooting of facts on the ground. The more bodies living in the settlements (now estimated at over 300,000), the harder this will be to sell to the public—much less implement.

But as Bronner and Kershner show, the “natural growth” argument depends primarily on these Haredi communities who are at best “soft” facts. And if the government ceases to provide subsidies to these settlements, and perhaps provides subsidies to new communities inside the Green Line (which is what they should be doing now to prepare for an agreement) many Haredim will go where the money is.

As a result, Settler Zionism’s ideology will remain strong, but its case will weaken. The practical component necessary for its wider acceptance may collapse. In the mid-1980s the fate of the Israel government (Labor or Likud) hung in the balance and would be decided by the Haredi parties. Rabbi Eliezer Shach, then the leading voice among Haredim in Israel, addressed the nation in an unprecedented speech. Rav Shach chose to support the Likud and not Labor because of his utter antipathy for the secularists (Labor) not because of any solidarity with Likud (he always supported territorial compromise).

Thirty years later it appears the Haredim once again find themselves in a position to alter the political reality of a country they barely acknowledge.

The Haredim have lived for generations in complicated diasporic circumstances, and have developed expert survival skills to get what they want and what they need while compromising little in terms of what they believe. Today, given their tremendous growth rate they need to secure affordable housing and sufficient distance from the pull of secularism. As it turns out, it may be that their anti-Zionist or at least ambivalent position is far more pragmatic and far less “soft” than the Settler Zionists may have believed.

It will be quite ironic if, in the end, Settler Zionism fails because the Haredim did not buy it. Instead, they took the money and ran.