Word of the Day / Yihud: Conversion Not of the Mind, but of the Land

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Bedouins and the Jewish town of Maaleh Adumim, right next to each other.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, a consequential process has been revolutionizing the human and natural environment for over a century. Beginning with the first Zionist immigrants and continuing in into the present day, yihud [yi-HOOD], Judaization, is the term used to describe Israel’s official spatial policy.

So whereas the verb legayer means to convert someone to Judaism, leyahed is used to describe a geo-demographic kind of transformation: to create a Jewish majority in a given area.

Yihud has been an official policy of successive Israeli governments, which cite the need to ensure the country’s territorial integrity and also to redress the disparity in its population distribution, densely packed in the center of the country as it is. Moreover, some see Judaization as the earthly tool of achieving a divine promise – claiming the Land of Israel in its entirety for the People of Israel.

Organized Judaization began during the waves of Zionist immigration that arrived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine in early 1900s. Soon, a Jewish territorial core evolved along the central coastal plain and the Jezre’el Valley. This ethnic pattern of settlement largely determined the borders of the envisaged Jewish state under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine – but it was military outcomes, not European-drawn lines, that shaped the newborn Israel.

Judaization 2.0
Instead of the Jewish state comprising 56% of Mandatory Palestine, Israel emerged from its War of Independence controlling 78%, precipitating a veritable spatial revolution. The exodus of up to 750,000 Palestinians from Jewish-controlled areas, and the influx of a comparable number of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Islamic world in the years directly preceding and following statehood, dramatically altered the demographics of the territory within the Rhodes armistice lines, which became known as the ‘Green Line.’

As a result, the core goals of Judaization were achieved – the establishment of an independent, territorially contiguous Jewish-majority state.

While waves of Jewish immigration may have confronted the nation with critical absorption challenges, they also provided unparalleled opportunities to ‘people the periphery.’ Cities, towns, villages, factories, roads and other infrastructure were built in areas that were previously only sparsely inhabited by Jews.

Prior to 1967, the focus was Yihud HaGalil (Judaization of the Galilee) and Yihud HaNegev. Then came Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, and the uber-controversial Yihud HaShtachim – the Judaization of the West Bank – that followed, though the area has never been formally annexed by Israel.

This three-pronged spatial enterprise is ongoing. Meanwhile, according to Israel’s official statistics, Jews remain a minority in both the Galilee and the West Bank, constituting less than 45% and 25% respectively.