Gush Emunim: Settling all the land
By Rabbi Ed Snitkoff
Gush Emunim was founded in 1974 under the slogan “The Land of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.” Its founders perceived the state of Israel as the instrument through which God was bringing redemption, making it imperative upon the people and the state to take practical steps to ensure Jewish sovereignty over all parts of the Land as it was defined in the Bible.
The Roots of Gush Emunim
The roots of the Gush Emunim philosophy are found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the later interpretations of his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook.
The elder Rabbi Kook believed that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel were mystically bonded by the spirit of God.
In his view the Zionist movement, even at its most secular, was a divine instrument in bringing the redemption, which is close at hand. He interpreted Zionism according to the kabbalistic notion of “practical messianism,” which links divine redemption to the actions of human beings. According to Rabbi Kook, the return to Zion and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel will lead to redemption and the Messianic Era.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook took over as head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva upon his father’s death in 1935. He spent the next 50 years teaching, expanding, interpreting, and publishing his father’s practical-messianic ideas. Eventually, the elder Rabbi Kook’s belief that settling and building the Land of Israel would bring the Messiah would be interpreted by his son to apply especially to lands captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
While both father and son were highly respected in the national-religious community, many leaders of this camp distanced themselves from their messianic teachings. Some moderate religious Zionists felt that the younger Kook was misinterpreting the teachings of his father according to his own, more radical theological and political beliefs.
Between 1948 and 1967, the national-religious camp became an important part of the political landscape in Israel, bringing a moderate interpretation of Judaism that fully integrated itself into Israeli society. This political moderation was massively transformed by the Six-Day War.
The Six-Day War
In May 1967, three weeks before the Six-Day War, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook gave a speech that set the agenda for the future of the young generation of the national-religious camp:
“…Nineteen years ago, on the night when news of the United Nations decision in favor of the re-establishment of the state of Israel reached us, when the people streamed into the streets to celebrate and rejoice, I could not go out and join in the jubilation. I sat alone and silent; a burden lay upon me. During those first hours I could not resign myself to what had been done. I could not accept the fact that indeed ‘they have…divided My land’ (Joel 4:2)! Yes [and now after 19 years] where is our Hebron–have we forgotten her?! Where is our Shehem, our Jericho—where?! Have we forgotten them?!
“And all that lies beyond the Jordan–each and every clod of earth, every region, hill, valley, every plot of land, that is part of Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel]—have we the right to give up even one grain of the Land of God?! On that night, nineteen years ago, during those hours, as I sat trembling in every limb of my body, wounded, cut, torn to pieces—I could not then rejoice.”
These words would resound prophetically following the Six-Day War in June 1967, which resulted in Israel’s takeover of all of Jerusalem, Shehem (called Nablus by the Palestinians), Jericho, and Hebron. Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook and his followers were confident that the victory was another sign from God that the redemptive process was fully underway.
As it became clear that the Israeli-Arab impasse would remain, the Israeli government began to plan and establish strategic settlements in areas occupied in 1967. These settlements were built to widen and defend the pre-1967 border (known as the Green Line), usually avoiding areas of concentrated Arab populations. At the same time, the messianic overtones of this period led many within the national religious world to dream of settling all of Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland.
The Founding of Gush Emunim
The national trauma following the 1973 Yom Kippur War equaled the ecstasy that followed the Six Day War. At this time, the members of the young religious faction left their burned out tanks and bunkers with renewed determination that the secular, strategic settlement plan was not to be depended on any longer. This crisis led to a meeting in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in 1974, the outcome of which was the founding of Gush Emunim.
Gush Emunim’s platform defined the movement’s mission in the following way: “To bring about a major spiritual reawakening in the Jewish people for the sake of the full realization of the Zionist vision, in the knowledge that this vision’s source and goal in the Jewish heritage and in Judaism’s roots are the total redemption of both the Jewish people and the whole world.”
According to Harold Fisch, an ideologue of Gush Emunim and a professor at Bar-Ilan University, the Jewish people’s divine imperative to settle every inch of the Land was a value above all others. In his 1978 book, The Zionist Revolution, he interpreted Zionism according to the Gush Emunim worldview, stating that the covenant between the Jews and God behooved the Jewish people to act in the interests of the Land of Israel and exercise their right to settle and control it.
To Fisch, the Arab opposition was “suicidal,” and the Jewish people must not compromise with them in any way. The Jews’ role as the vanguard of the redemption means that they will never be a normal nation among the nations, and they must operate in a different dimension, fulfilling their God-given destiny.
But Gush Emunim was by no means monolithic, and there were many clashes within the movement. Moderates wanted to concentrate on settling the land while downplaying the messianic undertones; militants emphasized the redemptive aspects of the settlements and were interested in rebuilding the Temple, displacing the Arabs, and re-establishing the biblical kingdom. In addition, about 20 percent of Gush Emunim supporters were secular, attracted to the movement by its idealism and nationalism, rather than by its messianic aspects.
The Success of Gush Emunim
In light of its view that settling the Land of Israel will hasten the redemptive process, Gush Emunim established settlements throughout the territories captured in 1967, especially in Judea and Samaria. The belief that Jews have a God-given right to settle every part of the Land of Israel—and that no government, foreign or Israeli, has the right to prevent this—became a central pillar in the tactics and planning of the movement.
After the conservative Likud party won control of the Israeli government in 1977, Gush Emunim found a sympathetic partner in Prime Minister Menachem Begin and other hawkish leaders, who supported Gush Emunim’s efforts to populate large areas of Judea and Samaria in order to thwart the possibility of an eventual “Land for Peace” agreement with the Palestinians.
Gush Emunim members also succeeded in bringing the practical-messianic message to center stage, as Gush Emunim’s philosophy became widely accepted within the religious community. Many students of Merkaz Harav and similar yeshivot became teachers in the state religious school system, allowing them to disseminate “practical-messianic” notions on a large scale. Additionally, the personal commitment of Gush Emunim members inspired the young generation, many of whom joined the ranks of the settlers.
Gush Emunim saw itself as taking the baton of pioneering Zionism and running to complete the Zionist vision, bringing the redemptive process to a zenith. The Gush Emunim outlook became normative in most national-religious circles, although many moderate Orthodox rabbis, educators, and leaders were vocal in their opposition to the movement.
Ideological or Settlement Movement?
Following the death of Tzvi Yehudah Kook in 1983, conflicts among Gush Emunim leaders intensified.
Rabbi Moshe Levinger, for example, felt the movement’s leaders were too involved in politics and settlement building, leading to the loss of ideology and direction. He told the Ha’aretz newspaper: “Over the years, we continually talked about the value of Jewish settlements…We never mention the Jewish people’s spiritual mission in the world, our duty to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ nor do we explain that, just as that mission could never have been carried out in Uganda, it can never be carried out in only part of the Land of Israel.”
A major crisis occurred in 1984, when police uncovered a Jewish underground whose members—many of them linked to Gush Emunim—planned attacks on local Arabs and aimed to destroy major Muslim landmarks, such as the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. Their arrests opened a major debate over the nature of the movement and its relationship to the rule of law.
These debates were soon moot, as the post-Kook Gush Emunim movement became overshadowed by the products of its success. The Amana organization, created by Gush Emunim to establish settlements in all areas of the Land of Israel, and the Yesha Council, the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, took over the pragmatic settlement and political work, leading to a gradual demise of Gush Emunim through the 1980s.
Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.