Magid on Hellinger and Hershkowitz and Susser, 'Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience'

Moshe Hellinger, Isaac Hershkowitz, Bernard Susser
Yehuda Magid

Moshe Hellinger, Isaac Hershkowitz, Bernard Susser. Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience. New York: State University of New York Press, 2018. 348 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-6839-6.

Reviewed by Yehuda Magid (Indiana University Bloomington) Published on H-Judaic (February, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version:

Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience is an impressive analysis of the long-standing tension between religious Zionism’s commitment to the extension of Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel and its religious loyalty to the State of Israel within partition boundaries. The book seeks to enrich the debate surrounding the settlement project in two distinct ways: first, by providing a thorough examination of the disparate views within the settler movement, including the proper balance between the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, the legitimacy of disobedience in the advancement of the Jewish settlement movement’s objectives, and the often tense relationship between religious imperatives and democratic norms; and second, by outlining discernable trends within the movement’s theo-political orientation over time. It does so in a style that is both approachable and edifying.

The authors organize their study around a central puzzle: why haven’t religious Zionists been drawn into mass violent disobedience despite the severe traumas the movement has undergone since the early 1970s? Their answer is that a “normative-theological balance” has acted as “a safety net [that] prevents descent into unbridled violence” (p. 24). The authors contend that at the heart of the settler movement is a dynamic balance between the holiness attributed to the state on the one hand and its patently secular character on the other. This balance requires simultaneous support for the government and its edicts (mamlachtiut) and resistance to its policies that violate the religious values and precepts of the movement. According to the authors, the “clash between the two poles of loyalty—the legally binding decisions of an elected government and the call of religious duty—creates an intra-religious tension that has dogged religious Zionism since its origin more than a century ago” (p. 24). The book provides a nuanced analysis of the ways in which religious authorities have navigated this tension as they have responded to the political reality in the occupied territories.

Through extensive survey of the ideological, halachic, and political justifications for Israeli settlement espoused by the settlement movement’s religious leadership and their responses to events deemed threatening to the settlement enterprise, the authors show that the balance between the imperative to support the government and to settle the land is constantly in flux. Overall, the authors argue, religious Zionist rabbinic authorities have favored the religious imperative to support the state and the popular will of the (Jewish) people over the imperative to advance and protect Jewish settlement of the land of Israel. However, the need to maintain the balance has also led authorities to legitimize limited disobedience in the response to threatening government policies. Consequently, the reaction of the movement to Israeli policies that threaten Jewish settlement has been fractured as the community resists authorities on a limited scale while simultaneously maintaining its ultimate deference to the government. The authors show that over time, however, the delicate balance has been shifting away from commitment to the state and toward more intense disobedience in the face of government policies that are deemed threatening to the settler movement. As a result, a growing proportion of the settler movement has engaged in increasingly radicalized resistance to government actions that undermine the settlement project, resulting in an increasingly contentious relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish community in the West Bank.

After a short introduction, the authors begin with a theoretical chapter that develops their central argument through a survey of contemporary liberal approaches to the issue of disobedience in democratic societies and a number of intellectual approaches to disobedience that are typical of religious Zionism. In the following chapters, the authors examine critical historical junctures in the development of the religious Zionist discourse of obedience vs. disobedience in regard to the Land of Israel. Chapter 2 examines the responses to the first Rabin government’s resistance to Israeli settlement (1974-77), the Yamit evacuation (1982), and the revelation of the Jewish Underground’s violent activities (1981-84). Chapter 3 deals with the religious Zionist response to the Oslo Accords and their aftermath (1993-95). In the fourth chapter, the authors examine the effects of unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip (2005). Finally, chapter 5 examines struggles over Israeli settlement in the West Bank from the disengagement to the present (2005-18).

The strength of the study lies in the breadth of the analysis and the evidence the authors present in defense of their claim. As the authors readily point out in chapter 1, the central question and argument they advance is not entirely novel. However, others advancing this and related claims have primarily focused on the religious Zionist response to the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza while ignoring how the settler movement has reacted to other challenges they have faced. To remedy this shortcoming, the authors survey the writings of a multitude of religious Zionist leaders over time. They do so by carefully analyzing primary source material in which individual rabbinic authorities articulate their views about the appropriate balance between the competing imperatives to maintain their deference to the government and to defend the settler movement in the face of threatening government policies. This dynamic approach allows the authors not only to make claims about the disparate views expressed by religious Zionist authorities, but also to reveal clear trends in the views of religious authorities over time. This nuanced reading of primary source material allows the authors to argue that while the imperative to support the will of the Jewish people (as embodied by the state) has traditionally superseded the imperative to settle the land for the vast majority of religious Zionist authorities, this balance has been shifting away from mamlachtiut and toward disobedience and increasingly radical resistance to the government and its policies.

Despite the significant strengths of the book and its contribution to our understanding of the settlement movement, there are a number of limitations to this approach. One limitation of the methodological approach the authors deploy is the near absence of agency afforded to ordinary settlers. While they convincingly argue that the theo-political views of the rabbinic leadership are essential for understanding the absence of mass violent disobedience within the settler community, in my view they tend to underplay the degree to which the views espoused by the rabbinic leadership are affected by the demands of the settler community. The authors do acknowledge the mounting pressure on the rabbinic leadership by the settler community to legitimize disobedience, particularly in their discussion of the Gaza evacuation and its aftermath. For example, in their discussion of violent resistance by Israeli settlers to the 2006 evacuation of the West Bank settlement of Amona, the authors claim that “one of the consequences of the evacuation was a general weakening of rabbinic and communal authority among the extreme wings of religious Zionism” (p. 224). However, their focus on the theo-political views of rabbinic authorities does not sufficiently appreciate the degree to which these views are affected by popular opinion within the movement. Given this growing support for disobedience among the settler community, it is not surprising that “within the rabbinical-spiritual leadership … very warlike voices were being heard—and not only at the margins” (p. 221). In sum, while the study adroitly traces the ways in which the theo-political positions of the rabbinic leadership affect the willingness of ordinary settlers to engage in disobedience, it does not sufficiently appreciate the endogeneity of this relationship.

A second limitation concerns the theoretical argument advanced by the authors. They do not adequately explain the behavior of those members of the settler community outside of the Kookist religious Zionist camp. As the authors themselves acknowledge, there is a significant portion of the settler community that cannot be classified as religious Zionist. Specifically, followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane “do not belong to the normative religious Zionist camp even though they broadly espouse religious Zionist views” (p. 114). Despite this, Kahanists have also refrained from carrying out mass disobedience, even if they have been more willing to use violence at the margins. If the normative-theological balance explains the absence of mass disobedience, it is curious that those portions of the settlement community that are not characterized by this tension exhibit the same pattern of behavior as those that do. Additional clarification is thus needed to explain this behavioral symmetry.

Finally, while the book addresses both the behavior of the Israeli community toward the government and toward the local Palestinian population, it is not clear how the two are linked theoretically. While the normative-theological balance is advanced to explain the absence of mass violence against the government and its agents, this tension does not apply to the violent behavior of settlers targeting Palestinians because the religious Zionist world view does not attribute any degree of holiness to the Palestinian population. The authors address Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in their discussion of the Jewish Underground in chapter 2 and in their discussion of “price-tag violence” in chapter 5. In both cases they present a range of rabbinic responses both supportive of and opposed to these activities, but in both cases the authors fail to link these debates to the normative-theological balance that is at the heart of their argument. For this reason, while these discussions are informative, it is not clear how they relate to the book’s central argument.

Overall, Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project is a significant scholarly contribution to the study of the Israeli settler movement and its complex relationship to the State of Israel. As such, the book should be required reading for scholars and students of the movement and of contemporary religious Zionism more generally.

Citation: Yehuda Magid. Review of Hellinger, Moshe; Hershkowitz, Isaac; Susser, Bernard, Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. February, 2019. URL:

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