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The Settlers offers a gloomy view of how continued occupation of the West Bank will affect Israel and Zionism

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk near a concrete wall built to protect Rachel’s Tomb. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone who has been concerned or angered by the debate over the future of liberal Zionism, sparked by Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the New York Review of Books, should hurry to read The Settlers (Yale University Press), the new book by the Israeli journalist and professor Gadi Taub. At the center of Taub’s short, lucid, and thoughtful work is a brief history of the religious settlers’ movement—the Jews who have settled in the West Bank in the conviction that they have a divine mission to reclaim all the land promised to the Patriarchs in the Bible. Numerically, this is not a significant group—Taub estimates it at between 100,000 and 130,000 people, which is “less than 1.5 percent of Israel’s total population,” and less than half even of the Jewish population of the Occupied Territories. (Many settlers, as Taub notes, are not religious, but are drawn to the territories by “cheaper housing and government economic incentives.”) But the radical convictions of the settlers, their role in shaping Israeli government policy, and the terrorist actions of a few of their members, make them central to the whole question of Israeli identity. That is why Taub’s subtitle refers to “the struggle over the meaning of Zionism” and why his book is so timely, at a moment when many American Jews find themselves uncertain of that meaning.

Taub starts out by reminding us that Zionism, properly understood, is a liberal movement. It is nothing more or less than the belief that, in the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations.” The Jewish experience in Europe, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, convinced the early Zionists that it was only in a sovereign Jewish state that this self-determination could be achieved. Indeed, the same belief inspired all the peoples of Eastern Europe, from Lithuanians to Greeks.

It is often said, in reproach of Theodor Herzl and the other founders of Zionism, that their eagerness to establish a Jewish state in Palestine led them to ignore the existence of the Arabs already living there—that they believed in “a land without a people for a people without a land.” In fact, as Taub points out, this is not at all the case. From Herzl onward, the Zionists were aware that any Jewish state would inevitably have a large Arab minority, and Israel’s founding laws established collective rights for that minority, as well as legal equality. As Taub writes, this ideal of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic was not fully lived up to, for a variety of reasons. But it was not until 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War, that the ideal itself came under serious threat. Ever since then, there has been a two-tiered government: democracy in Israel proper, military rule and harsh subordination of Arabs in the Occupied Territories.

The philosophical danger of the Occupation—to say nothing of the diplomatic and military and economic dangers—is that its illiberalism will make Zionism itself look illiberal in retrospect. This is, as Taub points out, the view of the “post-Zionists” in Israel and of much of the left in Europe and America: that “Zionism was never democratic, and the very idea of a Jewish democratic state is a mere contradiction in terms.” Ironically, Taub argues, this is the same thing that the settler movement believes. The difference is that, while anti-Zionists want to resolve the contradiction by making Israel cease to be Jewish (the so-called “one-state solution”), the settlers want to resolve it by making Israel cease to be democratic. For as Taub writes, “the concept of a Jewish democratic state [stops] making sense if Jews are not a clear majority,” and an Israel in permanent possession of the West Bank would, in time, inevitably have a non-Jewish majority.

The reason why the religious settlers can face this prospect with equanimity is that they are not democrats but fundamentalists and theocrats. This is made quite explicit in some of the statements Taub quotes. To Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the chief theologian of “redemptive religious Zionism,” “The Almighty has his own political agenda, according to which politics down here are conducted.” Shlomo Aviner, head of a religious Zionist yeshiva, went still further, saying that settlement is “above moral-human considerations,” because it is a direct command from God. Actually, Taub writes, Judaism has historically had little to say about resettling in the Land of Israel, except to caution against it. According to one Midrash, when the Jews went into exile after the destruction of the Temple, they made three vows: “not to hasten the end of days (i.e., not to do anything to expedite the coming of the Messiah), not to ascend the wall (i.e., not to immigrate to the Land of Israel and reestablish the House of David), and not to rebel against the nations of the world.”

To some haredi sects, these prohibitions still hold, which is why certain fringe ultra-Orthodox rabbis opposed and continue to oppose the existence of the state of Israel (such as Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favorite rabbi). But Zvi Yehuda Kook preferred to follow the so-called fourth mitzvah (mitzvah dalet) of Nahmanides, which held that “we were commanded to take possession of the land which God gave to our fathers … and we must not abandon it to any other of the nations or leave it in desolation.” In the hands of Kook and his followers, this became one of the most important of all commandments, so urgent that it was held to justify sacrificing life—or taking it. When Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, his justification was that Rabin had been branded a rodef (literally, “pursuer”) by some settler rabbis, a halachic designation that meant it was justified to kill him.

For Taub, the Rabin assassination marks the crucial turning point in the history of the settler movement. It demonstrated beyond a doubt that the settlers’ mission to redeem the land of Israel was on a collision course with the security of the state of Israel. For two decades, starting with the election of Likud in 1977, this distinction had been elided: Territorial expansion was the policy of conservative Israeli governments on national-security grounds, which fit in nicely with the settlers’ religious agenda. But when even Ariel Sharon, whom Taub describes as “the patron of the settlers,” decided that Israel must withdraw from Gaza, it became clear that this political alliance was over. Ultimately, all factions of secular and mainstream religious Zionism believed that the secure existence of a Jewish state was more important than its control of the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The larger problem, which The Settlers only begins to address, is how this consensus should be translated into actual policy. For, as Taub acknowledges, the settlers on their own have never been numerous or powerful enough to dictate to Israel’s government. When Israel encouraged settlement in the Occupied Territories, it was because the government believed this policy would ultimately strengthen the state. This has proved to be a huge mistake, and there is little doubt that most Israelis would now be glad to see (most of) the West Bank and Gaza turned over to a moderate Palestinian government. But there is no immediate prospect of such a government emerging—and the fate of Gaza, where Israeli withdrawal led to Hamas rule and a barrage of rocket attacks, makes withdrawal from the West Bank even less likely. “For all its military and economic power,” Taub writes, “Israel was helpless to extract itself from the territories and prevent itself from sliding down the slippery slope to binationalism.” The title of Taub’s last chapter is “Conclusion: What Next?” and he is no more able to answer the question than anyone else. But The Settlers goes a long way toward reminding us of the values that Zionism must preserve, if it is to be worthy of its great history.

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Ken Besig Israel says:

Too bad that you chose another Post Zionist to review. Not surprisingly, Taub somehow overlooks the real problems that Israel faces with a genocidal Palestinian enemy and a belligerent Arab world and can only find fault with Israel.
Taub, as a deeply committed and pro Palestinian radical Leftist Israeli Jew, maliciously and deliberately attacks and expresses his bitterness at Israel, the same Israel that pays his salary, puts food on his families table, and provides an Israel Defence Forces which keep his Arab friends from slaughtering him and the rest of us.
Gadi Taub is a well know Israel basher, notorious in his hatred of the settlement movement, and has even been singled out as one of Israel’s most avid proponents of the Palestinian “Right of Return”, the Palestinian formula for the genocide of Jewish Israelis and the destruction of the State of Israel.
I have to wonder why a pro Israel Internet site like this would soil itself by having anything to do with such scumbag like Gadi Taub.

Joshua says:

I’m going to pile on as well. I notice that you used a picture of Charedim walking toward Rachel’s Tomb, heavily guarded by cement walls. Gee, let’s figure out why those walls are needed. It couldn’t be that the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to destroy Rachel’s Tomb, much as they did to Joseph’s Tomb, could it be? So Israel should allow Muslims to have possession of a parcel of land they stole 1400 years ago and is inconsequential to their religion (the Temple Mount), but should relinquish something that has been Jewish since time immemorial, with the risk of it being destroyed or heavily restricted by our “peace partners”? This is why I can’t trust the peace camp, because it’s clear to me that it’s completely tone-deaf to Jewish sensitivities, yet ready to genuflect over Muslim sensitivities.

The respondents here are woefully obtuse thus far, confusing constructive criticism based on tangible evidence with “Israel-bashing.” Even worse is the designation of Palestinians as “genocidal.” Such blatant absurdities don’t serve Israel, the Jewish people, or humanity.

Apparently Palestinians are allowed to be religious and fervently attached to the land but when Jews are, it’s deemed racist and destructive to the Zionist agenda???

In truth, the varied aspects of what goes down in Israel with religious “settlers” and their Arab cousins are so much more complex than this author suggests. In any case, I am also baffled by Tablet’s uncritical presentation of these opinions.

asherZ says:

Ken Besig has it right. Taub’s book and Kirsch’s review are a waste of time. The conclusion of the review acknowledges this when it states, “there is no immediate prospect of such a government (Arabs sincerely seeking peace) emerging…”. The venom directed at the Zionists living in Judea and Samaria is unfortunately misdirected, because our “partners for peace” just have no place for a Jewish State in their midst. Territory never was the problem, which radical leftists have never recognized. As for calling the residents of the West Bank fundamentalists and theocrats, the secularisits do not understand that our only right to this land is because of the Torah. Otherwise what other claim do we have on this sliver of land? Almost all its residents do believe in a democratic state that exemplifies the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. And they would be very liberal in conceding territory for real peace. But peace tragically is a chimera that for the last 62 years has been beyond the reach of the Israeli people who want nothing more, but have been denied by the intractable leadership of the Palestinian Arab people. That is the core reason for this tragic situation.

Ken Besig Israel says:

It matters very much Ranen that the Hamas and the PLO Charters both call in writing for the destruction of Israel and that both of these terrorist organizations are doing everything in their power to see that every Jew in Israel is killed and that the State of Israel is destroyed.
And what is more disturbing is that there are Jewish dirtbags like Gadi Taub and his fellow idiots like Peace Now and Anarchists Against the Wall who are willing to help the Palestinians do their genocidal dirty work against Israel and the Jewish People.
Instead of denying reality Ranen take a look at the Hamas Charter and check out the Auschwitz plans they have for the Jews of Israel and then come back and explain how this isn’t genocide. Also take a peek at the PLO “Right of Return” and explain to me how this is not just another formula for destroying Israel and murdering the Jewish People.
Really Ranen, do this and then tell me with a straight face that it is an “absurdity.”
There is injustice here and even crimes against humanity, but Gadi Taub and his ilk have maliciously and deliberately lied and blamed Israel for them when in fact it is the Hamas, PLO, and the rest of the Palestinians who are truly and deeply guilty for them.

Zionism was originally a liberal movement? Do you know of any other nationalist movement whidch is liberal? Jewish liberalism remains a death wish. You can’t play by one set of rules while the rest of the world plays by anothre. This is a formula for annihilation. The behavior of Arab and Muslim potentatestowards their enemies II indicates their “liberalism” and what is awaiting the Jews if they ever would have the opportunity. Yes, Israel must be armed to the teeth for its own preservation. While that may be unfortunate, that’s the reality.
Finally, why be concerned about Israel if not that we are all of the Jewsih religion? Should we support Israel because their grandparents came from some shtetel in Europe or because of the shoah? That is not a good enough reason. If we reject Jewish religion and its validity, there is no need for a Jewish state. So you accept successonism and the legitimacy of Christianity and Islam and relegate Judaism to a religion of liberalism and ethical culture? The issue, unansweed, really remains what is Judaism, a nationality, a religion or both?

Judy Lev says:

You state that the settlers are not democrats but fundamentalists and theocrats. What is the criteria used to come to this conclusion? Or are you just spewing the usual demagogic spittle when it comes to the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria. I beg to differ with Adam Kirsch and with Gadi Taub whose book I haven’t yet read. It seems to me that Prof Taub and Adam Kirsch have a hard time coming to terms with the divine nature of Israel and the settlements in particular. It doesn’t fit in with their post modern view of the State of Israel, which would have us believe that there is no room for our historical connections to the land. After all, it’s hard to explain to outsiders, especially the left wing in Europe and America. However, doyen of the Israeli liberal left A.B.Yehosua, had no problem when he wrote that “Zionism aimed at renewing an old identity,” and refers to the early Zionists as “returning to territory defined by borders and a detailed chronological understanding of their own history.” (Jerusalem Post, May 14 2008.)
Prof. Taub accuses the settlers of making Israel illiberal, and wanting to make it undemocratic. Besides badmouthing the settlers with more improvable demagogic statements, what is that supposed to mean? Prof. Taub and his fellow democrats do not have a monopoly on Zionist thought or philosophy. It belongs to everyone, whether they are on the left side of the spectrum or the right. The settler movement is yet another evolvement of Zionist thought and ideology. It might not fit in with what Prof. Taub feels a democratic, liberal society is but like it or not the settlements are here to stay, and Prof. Taub should try and find some way to accept them into the post modern society instead of badmouthing them with unfair and improvable accusations which might sell books but have no relevance to reality.

“Even worse is the designation of Palestinians as ‘genocidal'”

Is that a joke?

Even the most “progressive” or “liberal” Mohamed-worshiper is a genocidal war criminal. Rauf in New York – were he a Christian – would be sitting in prison for his crimes against humanity (assisting the genocidal apartheid kingdom of Malaysia practice its vile Islamonazi death cult).

Until the Islamonazi world is defeated – just like the German Socialists were defeated – and Jews are allowed to live in Makkah and Medinah; there will be no peace.

The problem is the Islamic Religion. Stop. Period. End of Sentence.

And for you leftists: Its not our responsibility as Jews to humanize the 1.5 Mohamedans. Its up to them to abandon their cult and start acting like humans.

Until then – no Justice, no peace! No Mohameds in Israel until there are shuls and batei midrashim in Makkah.

Critics of Taub’s book (and Kirsch’s review) are not entirely wrong, they are simply missing the point. Their comments are as one-sided as some of the points that they have chosen to focus on. The facts of life – and these may very well be what ultimately tips the fate or survival of the State of Israel – are that both Israelis and Palestinians (and many other states) have zealous fundamentalists. Hopefully these remain (in Israel) and can be shown to be (in a Palestinian State)minor elements in secure, functioning societies. This may be naive…but no more so than the notion that the current rush to right(eous)ness will get any of us what we really want.

Randy Shiner says:

OK, but you fail to address the actual arguments Taub makes and instead attack him personally. The history and actions are what they are, and there is no denying them, regardless of the messenger. Evidently you are one of those israelis who aren’t enthused with the notion of a pluralistic Israel with a whirling plethora of the competing ideas, whereby people who have ideas different from yourself have standing to be equally heard. How do you argue with the facts?

allenby says:

These JEWS are Better 1000s times than YOU and ME, and they are incomparable to “jews” like B.Natanyahu or Barak.

These JEWS are TRUE Zionists. They’re REAL Zionists, not all others who are “zionists” on a piece of toilet paper.
Israeli Left and the whole Leftist establishment(The FifthColumn of Israel) are systematically describe these JEWS as “settlers”, “fanatics”, “maniacs”, “bandits”…. The Left systematically poison Israelis with these descriptions, making them to believe it’s really who they are.

West bank, Gaza were captured by Israel in 1967 SixDay War. These lands not only DON’T belong and never belonged to neither mini-nothing-kingdom of jordan nor Egypt. Judea and Samaria and Gaza have been populated by Jewish majority all 2000 years, except the last 100 years when these arabs who live there now, started arriving from arab states looking for jobs.
JUDEA,SAMARIA and GAZA have been ALWAYS JEWISH since our Jewish existence.
Judea and Samaria belong to ISRAEL and BIG THANK YOU to “settlers” for helping to keep these lands and protect them.
This article is one many anti-zionist garbage of this publication.
makes me real sick reading this crap from so called ‘jews’

Morris Abadi says:

One little question. One little doubt. I understand you are saying that the religious settlers are bad for Israel and for Zionism. So can I understand that if the settlers were or are chilonim, no problem? I would appreciate an explanation, as well as I know that this question has no good answer, unless with a lot of prejudice.

Bryna Weiss says:

Well, Allenby’s response shows exactly why the settler’s movement is so dangerous to Israel and to Jews. He’s irrational.

Bryan says:

It is unreasonable to expect the Jewish people in Israel NOT to ultimately eject or terrorize the entire Moslem population as that is how the Moslem population has consistently treated Jewish communities in lands where Moslems are the majority throughout history even to this day as in Malmo, Sweden – the LAST bastion of REAL democracy on Earth. Any poli-sci student or professor who still advocates the viability of an Israeli democracy in the face of Islam is obviously insane.

On the other hand, if there was a slight concession to and acknowledgement of the wisdom of our ancestors in how to govern a true multi-cultural State (i.e. Solomon) – this imminent violent conclusion might be avoided.

But as long as the petro-dollar is the supreme ruler of the world rather than thinking, feeling human beings, the violent outcome practiced against Jews since Christianity began (and imitated by Islam with one single exception) will be a guaranteed outcome regardless of who is the worst of the perpetrators – the Israelis or the Arab States and all who worship (serve with their lives) the petro-dollar like them.

Torah has guidelines for genuine human rule. No modern State (apart from Sweden) has EVER tried it. Maybe it’s time to return to what we know worked in the past and improve upon it so it will work again? Or we can just continue in our arrogance and greed towards self-destruction.

Yale Gancherov says:

a Jewish Israel with Arab minority coupled with an Arab “Palestine”, or whatever they choos to call it, with a Jewish minority, lending to a long-term detente between the two, however tenuous….Unfortunately, the Arab league and other Muslim nations do not, at this time, wish to allow this, for their own reasons….

michele says:

I read you mostly saying this side is at fault or that side is to blame..Frankly, if we don’t somehow come to terms with the foolishness religion causes we are truly doomed…The writing seems to be on the wall so to speak..and no one is coming to terms with the mind control and irrationality that our brain can cause,,I for one hope to pass on your Armeggedon insanity…but alas I reget it is hopeless…

Wonder what Lee Smith would think about these comments.

Demographic determinism – in regards to Israel – is slowly but surely revealed as a canard. West Bank Arab birth rates are lower than advertised, and Jewish birthrates are higher (even among “seculars”). From recent research it seems that at least 66% Jewish majority is secure even if all West Bank Arabs will get an Israeli citizenship tomorrow. Moreover, with a longer horizon and a few conditions attached to Jewish citizenship (such as a declaration of loyalty to the state of Israel), it’s possible that separation form the West Bank will not be necessary.
Additionally, Jordan, a large, orderly, and sparsely populated country with reasonable relationship with Israel, is the natural guardian for the Palestinian people in spite of its ruler’s resistance. The Jordanians act horrified at the possibility at present, but it was only in the 1980s that Jordanian citizenship was stripped away from the West Bank residents. There is no good reason why it should not be reinstated. As for Gaza, as long as they are ruled by Hamas, a blatantly anti-Semitic organization, Israel needs not have anything to do with them. They will take care of themselves, or Egypt will, or the Europeans, or Allah.

I say all that as an Israeli who was once deeply supportive of the Oslo agreement (I was gratified to cast my vote for both Clinton and Barak). That historical moment, however, is gone – never to return, and we all must face reality. There are geographical and societal realities that make the Two State Solution inoperable. In Israel, people on the Right are starting to come up with fresh ideas, which provide hope and are also ethical (read Moshe Arens, for example). On the Left, however, all one hears is doom and self-flagellation – as this new book and its review demonstrate well. It’s sickening. Without fresh thinking the Left numbers in future elections will continue its sad decline.
Finally, it really is high time to do away with the awful double standard: every Arab l


Finally, it really is high time to do away with the awful double standard: every Arab land must be purified of its Jews, while Jews must bend backward to the point of self denial in order to incorporate large Arab minorities. Jews should never be uprooted from their homes again, unless their move is reciprocated by a population exchange on the other side as well.

Never has a country such as Isael given so much time and intelligence to the issues that beset it.

The settlers, whatever this noun means, must be supported, and their efforts endorsed. These text book soluions, phrases, notions, cliches, must not guide Israel. Zionists are not responsible for simplistic notions of nationhood (the British,e.g.), or good seats at the 50 yard line types, who both demand the protection Israel, and on the other hand repudiate that protection because it is not rooted in democracy.
It is not just Palestinians and their chaotic actions that threaten Jewish life and practice in Israel; there is much more to contend with in future, and utopian ideas about Israel are exactly what utopia means, “nowwhere.”

Elijah says:

Tablet? How about take 2 for liberal mental illness.

Gadi Taub spoke at our Shul last year. He was really thoughtful and well-tuned to many of the rather tendentious criticisms posted above. I recommend him as an smart and engaging speaker.

If all the “Settlers” disappeared from the “Occupied Territories” overnight, would there be “peace” in the morning?

Simple question.

I have had quite an introduction to this website tonight. The vindictive nature of the postings takes me aback. Kirsch reviews a book which apparently takes a measured look at a significant issue which will affect the future nature of Israel. Whether one agrees with his observations or not, rational discussion, not ad hominem attacks, are called for. I do believe that religious fervor motivates religious settlers and I strongly disagree with their worldview. But I will not defame or curse them.

I agree with Paul, I thought this was a fair review of Taub’s book. That said, I have not read it – it appears near no-one has – so I cannot make proper judgement. I will say, however, that this is a conflicting issue for me, as a Jew and supporter of Israel.
On the one hand, I can agree with land-for-peace agreements, and the creation of a Palestinian state. On the other, I doubt whether even with the creation of a Palestinian state and signing of a peace accord that there will really be peace.

Peace or no peace, Palestinian state or no state, I can’t help but think that left-leaning westerners (who think that, somehow, after thousands of years of ethnic-based politics, we are beyond the idea of a nation-state) and raving anti-semetic Muslims (who just irrationally hate Jews any hilarious reason) will always find fault with the Jewish state.


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The Settlers offers a gloomy view of how continued occupation of the West Bank will affect Israel and Zionism

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