Secular Zionists: The Settlements Are Your Fault, Too

It might be comforting for secular Zionists to pin all the blame on religious, messianic theocrats for the failure to divide the land into two states, a view recently voiced by Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken. But that's evading responsibility, both for the past and the present.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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The West Bank settlement of Itamar.
The West Bank settlement of Itamar.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

Who said this? "Zionism, in practical terms, is Jewish settlement in the entire Land of Israel."

No, not Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Those are the words of Yisrael Galili, one of the founders of the Labor Party, at a party debate in 1973 on "policy in the territories." (The word "occupied" wasn't used). Galili was the cabinet member in charge of settlement, and one of Prime Minister Golda Meir's closest advisers. He was actually quoting a speech he'd made in April 1948 as head of the Haganah's national command. Back then, he was a leading figure in the radical socialist Ahdut Ha'avodah movement, which had opposed partition of Palestine.

The words make me uncomfortable. That's not my Zionism. As a historian, though, I feel obligated to call attention to them in response to one sentence in Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken's article last week ("Only International Pressure Will End Israeli Apartheid"). Explaining what brought us to the current reality of settlement and occupation, Schocken writes, "Zionism, which was always prepared to divide the land of Israel with its Arab inhabitants, was replaced by the godly promise of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people."

I actually agree with Schocken on the need for international pressure to change Israel's policies. But that one sentence glaringly doesn't fit the argument. It does, however, reflect a very common view in Israeli society: that we're neck-deep in the quicksand of settlement because messianic theocrats wrested control from secular Zionists, and that the political argument over the occupation is congruent with the religious-secular divide. This is bad history, and so mistaken as a portrayal of politics today that we have to ask what keeps the thesis attractive.

Zionism was "always prepared to divide the land"? All Zionists?

Not quite. Before statehood, there were three separate Zionist political camps that saw the right to the Whole Land of Israel as inviolable: right, left and religious. On the right, followers of Ze'ev Jabotinsky demanded Jewish sovereignty over Trans-Jordan as well as Palestine. On the socialist left, among followers of ideologue Yitzhak Tabenkin, the Whole Land also included the Golan and southern Lebanon.

Neither Jabotinsky nor Tabenkin were concerned with God. The religious Whole Land stream was the least influential, because religious Zionists as a whole were a small minority.

And yes, faced with the opportunity for statehood through partition, more pragmatic Zionists won the day. David Ben-Gurion's Zionism defeated Jabotinsky's and Tabenkin's - for a time. But proponents of the Whole Land of Israel, on the left and right, didn't abandon their dream.

Then, in the ecstasy of victory in June 1967, it reverted from dream to program. Legendary poet Nathan Alterman, formerly a Ben-Gurion loyalist, founded the Movement for the Whole Land of Israel that summer. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan's proposal to keep the West Bank, and to give its Arab residents local autonomy but not citizenship, turns out to be a very rough plan for today's anti-democratic arrangement. Galili and his Ahdut Ha'avodah colleague minister Yigal Allon became the architects of settlement.

With the merger of three parties in 1968, Dayan, Galili and Allon became part of the new Labor Party - which, by the time it lost power in 1977, had established nearly 80 settlements in occupied territory.

Meanwhile, a theology of the Whole Land did in fact sweep much of the religious Zionist camp. Religious settler activists clashed at times with the government on locations and pace, but could never have imposed the settlement project as a whole. They were its subcontractors, under Labor and then the Likud.

You won't find proponents of the Whole Land on the secular left any more. That's because the meaning of the words changed: If you favor keeping land, by definition you're on the right. And belatedly, slowly, some of the erstwhile rightists realized that you can't have the Whole Land, a democracy and a Jewish state. So Tzipi Livni is now "left," regardless of her economic views.

Let's face it, though: Today's Likud stands for settlement, keeping the Whole Land, and more settlement. Its only pragmatism is Benjamin Netanyahu's on-and-off lip-service to a two-state outcome. Netanyahu is a classic secular rightist - not a theologian, not a closet messianic. Neither he nor anyone else in the Likud is faking to get votes.

Yet it seems that for many left-leaning secular Israelis, it's so much more comfortable to identify the colossal mistake of the settlements with strange-looking hilltop youth than with a bare-headed prime minister - this one, or the others back to 1967.

And the world looks simpler if you can believe that there's a line on one side of which are people who agree with you on everything - and on the other, those who disagree on everything.

That picture, though, is factually mistaken and politically self-defeating. It leads you to underestimate opponents and alienate potential allies. It evades the need to rethink what Zionism means. Along with international pressure, we need some intellectual pressure to look with clear eyes at how we've gotten into the quagmire we're in now.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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