From Anti-Zionism to Settler Post-Zionism: What do the Settler Movement and Neturei Karta Have in Common?
There are arguably no two movements in Israel as disparate as the Settler Movement (known as Yesha) and Neturei Karta. Yesha represents the community of Israelis who live in the West Bank. It does not support a two-state solution and remains wed to a Greater Israel ideology that claims all of historic Erez Israel belongs to the Jews. Many, but not all, see Zionism in messianic terms, an idea promulgated by their patriarch Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) and continued by his disciples to this day.
Neturei Karta is an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox movement that is often mistakenly conflated with the Satmar branch of Hasidism. While it is true that the Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1897-1979) was the titular figurehead of the Erez Israel-based Neturei Karta movement until his death in 1979, even as he lived in Brooklyn, the movement was actually initiated by the non-Hasidic Jerusalem born ultra-Orthodox rabbi Amram Blau (1984-1974). Its center in Jerusalem remains the non-Hasidic Lithuanian yeshiva “Torah ve Yirah” in the shuk (market) in Meah She’arim. This small movement became more exposed to the public under the leadership of the American-born Rabbi Moshe Hirsch (1923-2010) who became Arafat’s “foreign minister.” It recently achieved media attention when some of its members attended a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran.
Members of Neturei Karta are what we might call premillenialists. They are against a Jewish State in the Land of Israel claiming that tradition dictates that the messiah will come solely by divine fiat and the job of the Jews is to perform mitzvot and passively await his arrival. Anyone who attempts to hasten that arrival is guilty of the prohibition of “forcing the end.” Unlike his mentor Rabbi Hayyim Elazar Shapira, the Hasidic rebbe of Munkacs (1872-1937) who argued that the Zionists had defiled the land, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum demonized Zionism but believed the land retained its sanctity nonetheless. He wrote in his introduction to his book on the Six-Day War ‘Al Ha-Geula ve ‘al ha-Temurah that Zionism was a sin worse than the sin of the Golden Calf. To use terms certainly not familiar to him, Zionism is the Jewish anti-Christ. But Neturei Karta is not opposed to the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Quite the opposite, many continue to live in the Land of Israel, believing it a mitzvah (Jewish commandment) to do so, and continue to believe in its intrinsic holiness. What they oppose is any form of Jewish political sovereignty in that land.
For Settler Zionism, broadly conceived, the land and statehood were always inextricably intertwined. Jewish sovereignty over the land was superimposed on the religious sanctity of the land. Speaking on the nineteenth anniversary of the establishment of the state, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook made what was perhaps his most famous, and certainly most influential, speech. The shocking speech was delivered right before the Six-Day War in 1967.
“In those first hours [of independence],” Rabbi Kook said,
I could not make peace with what was done [in 1948], with the horrible news [of partition], that God’s words from the prophecy in the Twelve Prophets: My land was divided was coming true….Where is our Hebron? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Nablus? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Jericho? Are we forgetting it? And where is our east side of the Jordan? Where is every lump and chunk? Every bit and piece of the four cubits of God’s land? Is it up to us to give up any millimeter of it? God forbid! In the state of shock that took over my body, completely bruised and torn to pieces – I could not rejoice then.
These strong words were seared into the minds of many of Kook’s young listeners who would become leaders of the Yesha movement. What Rabbi Kook was saying was that there is no acceptable sovereignty without the wholeness of the land. Later he made the case even stronger when he stated that one may be obligated to give one’s life, to become a martyr, to save every inch of Erez Israel. Not necessarily the state, but the land. It can be argued that for some in Yesha the land became more important than the state, Erez Yisrael overrode Jewish sovereignty. Kook’s use of the term “four cubits” referring to Erez Israel is quite telling as that term conventionally refers to the “four cubits of halakha (Jewish law)” as the sine qua non of Judaism. The implication here is that living on the land is tantamount to Judaism itself! Aside from that arguably heretical point (substituting land for law), in some way Yesha and Neturei Karta almost meet except that for the latter the state has no role whatsoever or, more strongly, only a demonic role to play in the messianic drama. For Yesha the state has a role, even as holy role, but settling the land is pure sacrality.
In any case, the fissure between land and state in the settler movement became apparent some years ago when two settler rabbis, Menachem Fruman (1945-2013) and Yoel Bin Nun raised the possibility that they would consider remaining in West Bank settlements even if it became part of a Palestinian State. This would include holding Palestinian passports. That is, after Oslo, as the prospect of Greater Israel became dimmer, Fruman and Bin-Nun considered the possibility of choosing land over state. Setting aside the impracticalities of such a possibility, its mere suggestion is quite telling. This possibility was raised by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week when he floated the idea of some settlements remaining in a Palestinian State. It is true that the Yesha movement immediately rejected this possibility, the Prime Minister likely used it as a ploy to bait the Palestinians, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has surely not embraced it, but for my purposes that is all beside the point. I suggest that the very possibility of such was an idea is embedded deep in the subconscious of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook’s religious Zionism. It was born in that 1967 Independence Day speech when Greater Israel was soon to become a reality.
The tension between state and land has always existed in the settler movement. It is just that the Greater Israel ideology has kept it at bay. For the Greater Israel ideologues, Erez Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael are identical. That is the backbone of Kook’s religious Zionism. But Oslo, Camp David II, and now the emerging Kerry parameters, raises the hammer that may shatter the identity of state and land. That rupture is called “the two-state solution.” Many settlers will have to make a choice: state or land. Most will choose state. Some may choose land. Those that choose land, even if in reality they cannot manifest that choice, have moved close to Neturei Karta where only the land is sacred. That is the core of their anti-Zionism. For the settlers, if land is preferred to state, even in principle, the final death of Greater Israel may give birth to a kind of Settler Post-Zionism.
In some sense this is happening in other ways. Outlying and illegal settlements, most inhabited by young men and women who have abandoned the bourgeois settlements of their parents, view themselves as more and more distinct from the state. Some refer to Israel as “the lowland state” (medinat ha-shefelah) or “the state of Tel Aviv” (medinat Tel Aviv), a reference to the secular state. Many in these outlying settlements rarely go to Israel proper. Some have even openly rejected allegiance to the settler rabbinic authorities. For them, the land is what matters, almost exclusively, even if living on it eschews Israeli law. They are arguably already post-Zionists.
These are admittedly small enclaves as are the number of settlers who openly state their preference for land over state. But they exist, and they are growing. And as they do, we are witnessing a strange mutation of settler ideology that moves toward the position of Neturei Karta: the holiness of the land uber alles. If a two-state solution really begins to loom on the horizon, the choice will become more and more relevant. If this happens it is significant to note this is not new but is embedded in Kookean religious Zionism from that fated day in 1967 when Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook openly said he could not celebrate Israeli Independence Day.
The question as to whether Jewish settlers will have the opportunity to remain in their communities if a Palestinian State comes into existence remains open. It’s not clear that they will want to remain and it is not clear that the Palestinian authorities would allow it. In his 2012 book Embracing Israel/Palestine Michael Lerner argues that those settlers who are willing to live as law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian state (just as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now live as law-abiding citizens of the Israeli state) should be allowed to remain in their West Bank homes. If negotiations ever get that far, this might be a way to accommodate those religious settlers for whom the holiness of the Land of Israel is really their deepest commitment. In making this choice, religious settlers would be reflecting a post-Zionist perspective where land becomes more important than sovereignty. It is here where settler post-Zionism and Neturei Karta converge in giving religious Israelis a way to overcome the seemingly intractable opposition of many to any peace agreement that would force fellow Jews to move from their homes in seeming violation of the mitzvah to settle and live in the entirety of the Land of Israel.