Interview with Yisrael Harel


On Monday, I met with Yisrael Harel, one of the founders of the Yesha Council, a founder and long-time editor-in-chief of Nekuda, a leading Israeli settlers’ periodical, and current chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. Yisrael was active from young adulthood in Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the religious Zionist movement for Jewish settlement in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

My conversation with Yisrael in many ways paralleled my interview with Pinchas Wallerstein, the former Director of the Yesha Council. Both were significant early leaders in the Yesha settlement movement and both were actively involved in building the institutional infrastructure which ensured that the charismatic early successes of Gush Emunim were translated into solid and sustainable political and material gains. In this interview, I focused on the ideas and attitudes of religious Zionists prior to 1967, the ideological and organizational development of the religious settlement movement after the Six-Day War, and the conflicts which had crystalized between religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movements by the 1970s.

In the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, many scholars have noted that there was an absence of public debate in Israel about Eretz Yisrael Hashlayma (the Whole Land of Israel). Irredentist sentiment, even toward reuniting Jerusalem, was largely muted. Yet after the Six Day War, these sentiments of national history and yearning for the ancient homeland symbolized by the Old City of Jerusalem and Yehuda and Shomron (the West Bank) dominated the public sphere. Very few scholars have meaningfully explored this apparent shift in public perception; among them Rael Jean Isaac and Shmuel Sandler.

Given Yisrael’s personal experience with this shift and his deep involvement with the movements whom many have argued engineered or led this change in Israeli territorial perceptions, I asked him first about the absence of popular claims. He confirmed that Israeli political claims to the whole land were indeed not active in anyone’s mind. However, these conversations continued in both nationalist and religious Zionist circles, particularly within Bnai Akiva and Beitar, the youth movements of the Mizrachi and Revisionist Zionists respectively.

In Bnai Akiva, of which Yisrael was a member, although they were certainly educated about the history of the whole of the land and the Jewish connections to the territory under Jordanian occupation, they were not educated to seek its annexation. This he described as an “authentic but not outspoken” loyalty to the Land of Israel. This contrasted with the ideology of Beitar which, in the tradition of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continued to claim the whole of the British Mandate territory including Transjordan, as rightfully part of the Land of Israel. As scholars have noted, however, the Revisionists political party, Herut, substantially moderated its positions over time in an effort to enter the political mainstream, including a softening of its rhetoric regarding the Hashemite monarchy.

As indicated earlier, after 1967, Israel public opinion underwent a dramatic reversal and popular enthusiasm for Israeli control (if not annexation) of the territories became commonplace. So what changed? Many have argued that religious Zionism experienced a great revival on the belief that Israel’s victory and conquest of the biblical heartland heralded the beginnings of a messianic age. Such characterizations are pervasive in historical and political studies of the post-1967 popularization of religious Zionism and the emergence of Gush Emunim in particular. They have also been integral to branding the movement’s followers as religious fundamentalists.

Yisrael’s outlook as an insider is remarkably different.  First, in Bnei Akiva, as in the other kibbutz-oriented Zionist youth movements, he noted that they were educated to value three main elements: hityashvut (settlement), haganah (defense), and aliyah (immigration). However, it was always the secular Zionists who took the leading role in all three area. Not only did they dominate settlement of the land, they also controlled the most powerful pre-state institutions which folded into domination of the emergent State of Israel. Although well established in their own right by 1967, those who grew up in Bnai Akiva carried with them the stigma and “humiliation” of being religious Zionists in a world dominated by secular socialist Zionism.

This feeling of inferiority was significantly compounded by the loss of the territorial “heart of the movement,” those religious kibbutzim of Gush Etzion: Kfar Etzion, Ein Tzurim, and Masu’ot Yitzchak, which were destroyed by the Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948 along with the secular kibbutz of Revadim. The May 1948 battles in Gush Etzion during which the Legion massacred the entire population of Kfar Etzion exception three men and one woman are remembered both for the great sacrifice of the Gush’s defenders and their ostensibly critical role in slowing the Jordanian advance on Jerusalem. Indeed, several orphans of those killed at Kfar Etzion became prominent leaders in Gush Emunim, most notably Hanan Porat. While the graduates of Bnai Akiva had Gush Etzion “in their veins,” they never thought that they would one day take up arms to liberate their lost lands.

With the sweeping territorial gains of 1967, religious and secular Israelis alike could not help but be astounded by their return to all those places to which they felt close through their reading of the Torah. Indeed, the “bible as history” was widely taught in secular as well as traditionally-oriented state schools. Even today, many secular Israelis can quote biblical verses with a proficiency that puts many religious diaspora Jews to shame. In a single day, Israel had taken back all that was once closed to them. The question quickly emerged, “What am I going to do about it?”

Consistent with the ethnos of settling the land which had ensured the founding of the state just 19 years earlier, leaders within the kibbutz movement turned with a similar attitude toward Yehuda and Shomron. Yitzchak Tabenkin, one of the founders of the kibbutz movement, called for the establishment of 100 kibbutzim in the conquered territories, but, notes Yisrael, no one followed. The secular kibbutz movement simply no longer had the people, might, or determination to settle the land. A number of elite secular Israelis on the left and right, including Tabenkin, then joined together to form the Movement for the Whole Land of Israel in an effort to press the government to keep control of the land. While the movement was incredibly successful in bringing its agenda to the forefront of the Israeli public debate, they were unable to spark widespread settlement.

“It was into this vacuum,” Yisrael maintains, “that we entered.” While the Land of Israel Movement acted as the ideological entrepreneurs of Jewish settlement in the territories, in Yehuda and Shomron, it was largely the graduates of Bnai Akiva who provided the bodies. Motivated by a “desire to prove ourselves which sparkled out after the Six-Day War, we were the most active movement to settle and not relinquish the land.” After long playing second-fiddle to the secular kibbutzniks, the religious Zionists who spearheaded settlement of the territories saw themselves as finally being able to follow the path of the founding fathers of Israel. It then comes as no surprise that their first move after the war was to resettle Kfar Etzion in September 1967, only three months later.

While many of the elites were one-in-the-same, it is important to note that Gush Emunim did not emerge as a formal organization until after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a puzzle which I have remarked upon elsewhere. Yet was Gush Emunim a messianic movement? This well established argument is based on several key facts: Gush Emunim claimed to be guided by the teachings of R’Avraham Yitzchak Kook and his son R’Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who both saw the State of Israel as an instrument in bringing in the redemption of the Jewish people. Moreover, many of its leaders studied together at Merkaz HaRav yeshiva founded by the elder Kook. Finally, the early leadership of Gush Emunim was not shy to characterize its activities in terms of their self-perceived role in the redemptive process.

Yet, Yisrael insists, Gush Emunim was not a messianic movement. Such a perspective takes account of the elites while largely ignoring the followers. While certainly a religious movement, he maintains that some 90 percent of the original followers had never stepped foot inside Merkaz HaRav, nor had they been personally exposed to the teachings of either Rav Kook. Having lived in Ofra, the first Gush Emunim settlement, since its founding in 1974, Yisrael cannot recall more than one or two resident families in its first 20 years whom he would consider to be messianic.

Yisrael himself never had any contact with Merkaz HaRav until R’Tzvi Yehuda requested to meet the young man who had been so instrumental in founding the Yesha Council and Nekuda. Nor did he begin reading the work of R’Kook until he had become deeply involved in Gush Emunim and had to field regular questions and inquiries from politicians and journalists. The early followers of Gush Emunim were, like him, veterans of Bnai Akiva who had been educated like all other Zionists that the borders of the State of Israel had always been practically determined by Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.

While Jewish settlement was sparse in the Negev and Galilee, at the time these regions were considered secure, and did not have the demographic problems which face the state today. By contrast, Yehuda and Shomron in particular were seen as lands in need of settlement to assert a Jewish and Israeli claim. Similarly, although conversations about a demographic threat posed by a large and concentrated Arab population in the territories existed among Israel’s political elite, it was not part of the popular conversation.

Religious Zionists seeking to settle the territories, like the secular Zionists who came before them and who secured the territorial and demographic basis for the State of Israel, were determined not to allow a prospective demographic challenge deter them from establishing facts on the ground. Coupled with a desire to prove themselves as “authentic” Zionists and a deep personal need to overcome the shame of marginality in a secular dominated society, religious Zionists were able to provide the lifeblood of new settlement where the children of the secular Zionist pioneers either could not or would not.

The picture which Yisrael provides of early Jewish settlement in Yehuda and Shomron is significant for at least two reasons. It provides a counter-narrative to common descriptions of Gush Emunim and by extension the modern settlement movement as composed largely of religious fundamentalists removed from calculations of “rational” secular politics. This caricature is useful for the political left who wish to separate the ostensibly despicable goals and methods of the settlement movement from their idyllic visions of their own pioneering achievements.

It also suggests that those who initially subscribed to the movement were motivated largely by mainstream, well-established Israeli values. Yet if the dominant narrative is unproblematically accepted, the settlement movement’s claims must be seen as entirely outside the pale of rational discourse. As such, they are alternatively marginal to resolution of the conflict or dangerous spoilers who, by their very marginality, force the Israeli government into policies which are in no way representative of the Israeli public. Neither approach, upon closer examination, seems to hold water.

One Response to Interview with Yisrael Harel

  1. […] Despite the massive losses suffered by the bloc’s defenders, it did succeed in long delaying a major Arab assault of Jerusalem. David Ben Gurion remarked following the war that if a Jewish Jerusalem exists today, it was because of the sacrifice of those who fought at Gush Etzion. In the 19 year period between the end of Israel’s War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War, former residents of the Gush would gather every Independence Day to commemorate the bloc’s fall and express their hope that they would someday return. Indeed, the first Jewish settlement to be rebuilt in the West Bank following the war was Kfar Etzion, led by many of the grown children whose parents had died defending it. Many too became leaders of Gush Emunim. […]

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