High on a Hilltop: Are the Settlers Modern Day Crusaders?

The Jewish settlement project in the West Bank poses a danger to the Zionist project.

David Ohana
David Ohana
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As a political ideology and a national movement, Zionism was, in its self-consciousness, neither Canaanite nor Crusader. Those who founded and initially implemented its principles were challenged by two conceptual provocations. The first, the “Canaanite challenge,” was aimed at severing the Zionist umbilical cord that connected Jewishness with Israeliness. According to the “Canaanites,” the connection the Zionists drew between the members of an extraterritorial religion, the “Jews,” and the indigenous people, the “Hebrews,” was basically untenable. From the culture of the Hebrew revival at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the “Canaanite group” of the 1940s, led by the poet Yonatan Ratosh ־ the thrust of the Canaanite idea is a nativist Israeli nationhood, a geopolitical approach according to which a plot of land defines the inhabitants’ national identity.

The Canaanite conception had no room for the collective memory, cultural heritage, ethnic unity, biological definitions or metaphysical beliefs that forge a nation; only for the physical space and language that integrate individuals and groups into an indigenous, national melting pot. According to this view, place alone (and the language of the place) gives rise to the imagined community.

The second challenge to Zionism emanated from Arab historians and statesmen. Beginning from Israel’s War of Independence, they drew a parallel between the Crusaders and Zionism, between the Christian colonialism of the Middle Ages and Jewish nationalism in the 20th century. From their perspective, Zionism as a colonialist movement encouraged European settlers of Jewish descent to seize control of lands that were already settled by native Palestinians. Modern European ideology, this time pertaining to the Jews, again fomented a Western project alien to the Orient, just as in the historical precedent.

Authentic presence

The Zionist-Crusader analogy documents (or imagines) conquerors coming from Europe in the belief that the land has been promised to them, but who eventually will yield to the logic of the place and, defeated, disappear back to their countries of origin. The rooted, authentic presence of the native Arabs, the militant counterculture of Islam under the leadership of a modern-day Salah al-Din, the desert, and the Orient ־ these will reclaim the land. What will remain are lifeless remnants in the form of empty fortresses or abandoned cities bearing Hebrew names: the arbitrary transplantation of a cultural and mental place that was out of place.

The analogy between Zionism and the Crusader narrative is thus the most negative myth that one can imagine (or repress), with its prospect of obliteration. True, the Crusader myth lacks physical or ritualistic presence (in contrast to the formative Zionist myths, the pilgrimages to Masada and Tel Hai), but it is “present-absent,” and it is precisely this attribute that heightens the mythic dimension of the anxiety it spawns. Fear of the Crusader fate appears as a literary metaphor in Israeli literature: the burning of a Jewish National Fund forest in A.B. Yehoshua’s story “Facing the Forests,” the return of the swamps in a Meir Shalev novel, the howling of the jackals of Amos Oz. It was this anxiety to which scholars of myths such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Leszek Kolakowski referred when they argued that the creation of myths is a response to a confrontation with insoluble contradictions. Does the Zionist genome contain within itself the fear of its annihilation?

Zionism, which considered itself part and parcel of the modern enterprise, possessed a Promethean passion for the rebellion of the new Jewish person against his historical fate, and for the molding of his destiny by himself. In the Zionist challenge, the importance of the “new Jew” is stronger than the Levantine place, which he will shape according to his will. In contrast, the Canaanite idea and the Crusader parallel are driven by the opposite thesis: the argument that place trumps person. “Canaanism” held that the place would draw the person in, because only a native, indigenous place can define the identity of a particular nation. “Crusaderism” maintained that the place would reject the Jewish colonialist who had just now arrived from afar, like an overnight guest. The Canaanite narrative claimed that we are only from here, the Crusader narrative that we are not from here. The last hundred years have proved that neither hypothesis has met the test of historical reality. Of all the dreams that underlie Zionism, one remains: the existence of one state in the world in which the Jews are not a national minority.

Intellectual exercise

History has no laws, it does not repeat itself, its singularity resides in its one-time nature. Historical analogies, which sometimes suggest similarities and sometimes differences, are no more than an intellectual exercise in the historian’s laboratory. In my book “The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites nor Crusaders” (Hebrew edition 2008, English translation published 2012), I argued that Zionism had coped successfully with both challenges: the “Canaanite” and the “Crusader.” The book stirred a controversy on both sides of the political spectrum. The post-Zionist critique is not new and has long since been blatantly rebutted: Zionist settlement in Palestine was undertaken without the aid of military and political forces of foreign countries, and thereby differs from any colonialist movement. Zionism was not a religious but a national movement, which saw in the return to Zion a modern development of people who wished to shape their collective fate by means of their sovereignty and the return to their historical birthplace.

The Israelis established a renewed homeland, forged an identity between a large part of the nation and its land, developed settlement, science and technology, stabilized an absolute majority in the population of the country (partly by means of a population transfer), galvanized a distinctive national identity possessing its own culture, language and creativity, and succeeded in maintaining a democratic way of life (inside the Green Line) amid the most severe test a democracy can face: a prolonged military confrontation. And most important: The Israelis did not feel themselves strangers in this place but felt at home in their homeland. They did not apologize for their national existence, viewing it as the historical realization of a universal right anchored in international recognition, and not as original sin.

The settlement of about one-tenth of Israel’s Jewish citizens over the Green Line is liable to change the character of the State of Israel. Since 1967, and more determinedly since the mid-1970s, with the advent of the “many Elon Morehs” policy ־ launched by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, with the aim of settling more Jews in Judea and Samaria – we have been witness to nothing less than a mutation that is distorting the essence of the Zionist ideology, the intention of its progenitors and the deeds of the first Israelis. Borrowing a concept from the natural sciences, we can say metaphorically – not biologically – that what we have here is a genetic code, and there are mutations in the generational transference.

In its genetic code, Zionism is neither Canaanite nor Crusader. But at the present stage of history, Israel is the world’s longest-existing state with no permanent borders. Its security services control by force of arms a foreign population which defines itself as a national entity; a military regime separates Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects in the occupied areas; and a settlement enterprise that is consolidating Israel’s political grip by means of a massive hold on territory is intensifying from year to year. The mutation, then, has become the essence, and has become a critical mass in the Zionist genetic code.

Like a volcano

The “Crusader-Canaanite” mutation is not static; it is increasingly posing a threat to the whole Israeli body. The changing proportion between the population of the “sender-state,” Israel, and the number of Israelis in the territories is distancing a rational solution of dividing the place between two national movements. The occupation and the settlement enterprise are eating into the potential neighboring state and barely leaving it territorial space – that is, a possible basis for the establishment of a normal sovereign state. In this way, even if a lean, noncontiguous Palestinian protectorate is established in the future, its irredentist demands (for the return of sovereignty over territories across the border) will obviate its normality – it will resemble a volcano that is about to erupt at any moment.

The destruction of the (Zionist) genetic code is liable to engender a two-headed monster: both Canaanite and Crusader. The Canaanite character of the settlements across the Green Line was apparent from the very first settlement, Kfar Etzion. In 1982, the writer Haim Be’er described the “intense ritual worship” around an ancient oak tree in the area in his classic article about the Bloc of the Faithful movement, “Gush Emunim – ‘Canaanites’ Who Wear Phylacteries.” From being a symbol of the longings of the members of Kfar Etzion, who were forced to abandon their home in the wake of the War of Independence, the tree became a ritualized fetish.

In 1967, when the settlers realized the right of return to Kfar Etzion (a right granted to Jews only), the space around the tree became a neo-Canaanite center of worship. Cement was poured into its trunk, lest it collapse; small stone shrines were built around it; and a regulation was devised that stated that no building in the area would be higher than the tree. Go talk to the trees and the stones. Evidence for this is found in the contrast between the universal or rabbinic names (Saad, Ein Hanetziv, Tirat Zvi, Sde Eliahu, Be’erot Yitzhak, Beit Meir) which the Religious Kibbutz Movement gave its kibbutzim, and the Canaanite names Gush Emunim chose for its settlements, such as Kiryat Arba, Elon Moreh, Kedumim and Karnei Shomron.

‘Earthly messianism’

The late philosopher Yosef Ben Shlomo declared that if he should have to choose between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, he would prefer the land over the state. In fact, it was three Orthodox thinkers who grasped so perceptively the settlers’ Canaanite character in preferring the Land of Israel over the Torah of Israel and the State of Israel. The literary critic Baruch Kurzweil, who was one of the first to discern the Canaanite sources of the Hebrew cultural revival, warned after the Six-Day War against “Canaanite messianism,” writing, “Earthly messianism has achieved its goals. Heavenly messianism has been brought down to earth. The ancient myths embraced by Judaism – even if in their rational reworking – have become a historical presence.” The philosopher of education Akiva Ernst Simon also warned against the “political-actual messianism” whose source lies in the falsification of the relationship between sacred and profane, between Torah and the land, a falsification that began in the doctrine propounded by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook.

The third Orthodox thinker, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, was original in his thesis – voiced by a Zionist, not by a post-Zionist – that the occupation was corroding Zionism. He aimed this argument also at the religious Zionist movement, which in his view had been largely transformed into a neo-Canaanite ideology in its helter-skelter sanctification of tree, stone and grave throughout Judea and Samaria. He expressed his apprehension in 1968, noting his concern that Israel “will no longer be a Jewish state but a Canaanite state.”

The settlers’ Canaanism is demonstrated above all in exceeding the tenets of the halakha (Jewish religious law) for the sake of the commandment to settle the land, and giving preference to settling the land over observance of the Sabbath. Concurrently with the struggle in the 1980s over the location of the settlement of Elon Moreh (now known as Kedumim), an argument took place in Gush Emunim over whether one of its activists should travel on the Sabbath to the farm of Ariel Sharon, defender of the settlers. Those who were in favor of violating the Sabbath if necessary argued that this was absolutely essential. In the 1990s, during the demonstrations against Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo accords, Arutz Sheva, a media outlet of the settlers, urged its listeners to attend a rally, even if this entailed traveling before the end of the Sabbath. In the past decade, the rabbi of the settlement of Ofra, Avi Geiser, issued a halakhic ruling that permits construction on new homes in settlements to proceed even on Shabbat. These preferences for the place are additional milestones in the Canaanizing of the religious settlement movement.

But the settlers are not only neo-Canaanites. They are also a type of Jewish Crusader, who are perhaps realizing the dystopia against which Amos Oz warned in his book “Unto Death,” where he intimates that the post-1967 Israelis underwent an act of self-conversion, becoming modern-day Crusaders and displaying cruelty, self-destruction and decadence. Indeed, the Israelis in the occupied territories have a sender-state that underwrites and maintains them, a state to which they can return. This is contrary to the ethos of the State of Israel, which arose from the ashes in Europe and burned its bridges to that place.

The settlers imagine themselves as potential refugees, if the territories are returned. That is a cheapening of the term “refugee.” The 7,000 or so settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2006 are not refugees, but still Israeli citizens who moved from place to place. The settlers, like the Crusaders, settled on the hilltops, and in contrast to the settlers in the first waves of immigration, preferred the holy city and Hebron, the heart of darkness. They do not cling to the land and to farming, but to fortresses and citadels. As in the Crusades, the first to arrive were the “frontier pioneers,” after which the pioneering was normalized with slogans like “five minutes from Kfar Sava.”

With their religious colonialism, the settlers are bent on liberating holy tombs in Nablus, Hebron and Bethlehem, which were taken over by foreigners, just as Pope Urban II called for the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre. How similar is the rhetoric of the 11th-century pope to the well-known speech by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook on Israel’s 19th Independence Day at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, in which he lamented the loss of Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem. Hanan Porat, his pupil, explained there, “We felt that he was, as it were, speaking in the name of the Land of Israel,” as though that primeval voice had burst forth from the bowels of the land of Canaan.

Within three weeks, Porat had become the first settler to realize the prophecy of his rabbi, the revelation of the redemption within the redemption of the land, and had settled at Kfar Etzion. Porat and his colleagues styled themselves “weavers of dreams,” but their dreams of redemption are liable to put an end to the Zionist dream. W

Prof. David Ohana teaches history at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. The English version of his book “The Origins of Israeli Mythology” was published by Cambridge University Press.

Begin and Sharon in Elon Moreh, 1978Credit: Herman Hananya / GPO