The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Israel's Religious Right

From Israel’s Religious Right and the Peace Process by Nicolas Pelham:

"Yet internally, the settler movement is -- in the words of a former West Bank army commander -- ‘Israel’s most powerful lobby.’ Fearful of additional Amona-style faceoffs with Zionism’s foremost ideologues, few Israeli politicians dare confront the movement. It is growing fast: The drift of the secular-minded out of the West Bank (though not East Jerusalem) has been more than compensated for by the movement’s burgeoning hard core of national-religious activists, who from the outset have promoted Jewish settlement throughout the biblical Land of Israel as a sacred duty. In addition, the movement has coopted Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and traditionally non-Zionist communities, desperate for room for their large families. In so doing, the settlers have jettisoned the slowest-growing sector of Israeli society, secular Jews, and conjoined the two fastest to their project. The West Bank settler population, again excluding occupied East Jerusalem, has tripled from 105,000 on the eve of the Oslo agreement in 1992 to over 300,000 today. 

The population expansion has given the settler movement an ever more religious hue. Ma’ale Ephraim, a settlement on the cliffs above the Jordan Valley whose secular population largely wants out, has opened a hesder yeshiva, a school combining religious study and army training. And in the valley below a national-religious community has entirely taken over Yitav, a once secular settlement. The caravan sites littering the West Bank are also markers of growing national-religious strength in the settlement enterprise and the readiness of the national-religious to put ideology before comfort. In the vicinity of Nokdim near Bethlehem, for example, 30 couples have pitched mobile homes on the hilltop, the latest influx turning a community that once had equal numbers of secular and pious families into a predominantly religious settlement. The Gush Etzion bloc of which Nokdim is a part has no secular school. Like others, it teaches that the Bible, as a local teacher puts it, is a God-given land registry.

Prompted by cheap housing and subsidized mortgages, ultra-Orthodox population growth is even starker, particularly in the overspills near Jerusalem. Beitar Illit, overlooking Bethlehem, has grown from scrub brush to a town of 40,000 in little over a decade. Erected on hilltops west of Jerusalem in 1996, Modi’in Illit is already the largest settlement and is projected to grow to 150,000 people by 2020. Even so, building fails to keep pace with demand, leading families to move ever deeper into the West Bank. The influx has replaced ultra-Orthodoxy’s traditional detachment from the Arab-Israeli conflict with attachment to the land that is now home. Ultra-Orthodox notables are as vocal as the national-religious in protesting any freeze on construction. Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the Shas Party, has called for rebuilding the four far-flung West Bank settlements from which Israel decamped in 2005. 

The demographic weight of pious Jews has increased inside Israel as well as in the settlements. Goaded to multiply by their rabbis, the religious marry younger and have more children than their secular counterparts, fostering three generations in the time that secular Israelis raise two. ‘Normally one must not delay marriage beyond the age of 20,’ advises Yaakov Yosef, head of the Hazon Yaakov yeshiva and son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. From 2007 polling data, the Israel Democracy Institute estimates that 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population aged over 50 and 32 percent of the population aged between 18 and 30 are either ultra-Orthodox or national-religious. By contrast, says the Institute, totally secular Jewish Israelis have declined from 23 percent to 17 percent of the population in a decade.

Numbering about 1.5 million, the religious Jews in Israel proper provide a rear base of moral, electoral and logistical support for the vanguard in the settlements. ‘We have more followers in the army inside the Green Line than in the West Bank,’ says Yisrael Ariel, assistant to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, whose militant sermons attract both an ultra-Orthodox and a national-religious audience. ‘They help us obtain weapons.’ "

Read the whole of this excellent overview of the settler-religious right-state, and while you're at it the editors of MERIP have a smart take on the Obama Nobel Peace prize