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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2012
Number 76
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Neo-Zionist Vision

The Settlers and the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism by Gadi Taub, New Haven: Yale University Press
A review essay by Philip Hollander

The back flap reference to the author as an assistant professor in Hebrew University’s Department of Communication and School of Public Policy proves deceiving, since the seeming objectivity of his title obfuscates his prominent role in the culture wars that have raged in Israel for the last two decades. Best known for his influential work The Dispirited Rebellion (1997), Taub has called for a renewed embrace of liberal democratic values in Israel and the emergence of a supportive contemporary literature. While The Dispirited Rebellion focused on the threat posed to Israeli society and culture by postmodernism, the present volume concentrates on the challenge presented by Jewish fundamentalism. Taken together these two works advance a conservative neo-Zionist position that looks to maintain Israel’s Jewish spirit without sacrificing its free, open, and democratic character.

Published in Hebrew shortly after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in summer 2005, the book simplifies a seemingly complex political landscape to get at what Taub views as the heart of the matter. While opponents of disengagement argued that it would tear Israeli Jews apart, evacuation of settlements failed to plunge Israel into civil war. This, Taub argues, was due to the Sharon government’s rejection of the previously sacrosanct idea that continued territorial occupation beyond Israel’s 1948 borders could effectively guarantee Israel’s national security. This security argument had led to the temporary coalescence of two groups sharing radically different views of Zionism, but the decision to withdraw severed this alliance to expose a small minority composing less than two percent of the Israeli population as the primary advocates of territorial occupation. Religious Zionist followers of the charismatic rabbi Tzvi Kook , who composed this minority, placed Jewish settlement of the whole Land of Israel before the State of Israel’s sovereignty, because they viewed it as the prerequisite for divine redemption of the Jewish people. As they demonstrated during the Gaza disengagement, when sovereignty and Jewish settlement came into conflict, they were prepared to act against the state. While Likud party leaders beginning with Menachem Begin had argued for the right to settle the whole Land of Israel, this right was considered secondary to state needs and the rule of law, as attested to by the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in accordance with the Camp David agreement. Thus, despite the Likud party’s advocacy of settlement, a fundamental difference separates Kook’s Religious Zionist followers from supporters of the major secular parties. A desire to elucidate the overlooked ideology of this centrist bloc open to territorial compromise constitutes Taub’s primary objective. There is a stated assumption that by making mainstream Israeli Jews aware of what binds them one to another greater social cohesion can be achieved that will increase the possibility for further territorial compromise and eventual achievement of regional peace.

The long-term occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the denial of citizenship and equal rights to their Palestinian residents have damaged the Zionist heritage and led many, including some Israelis, to equate it with colonization and oppression, and, as a result, Taub feels compelled to elucidate an alternative Zionist vision he sees uniting mainstream Israeli Jews. This vision emphasizes national self-determination instead of land colonization and individual liberty rather than oppression. While academics might find Taub’s advance of the state as a guarantor of individual liberty and rhetorical separation of the state-building project from Palestinian Jewish settlement problematic, the neo-Zionist vision he presents proves persuasive and it serves as a strong rebuke to those who would try to delegitimize proponents of territorial compromise by labeling them advocates of Israel’s dejudaization.

As Taub correctly reminds readers, the desire for Jewish liberty, rather than the Land of Israel, propelled the Zionist movement forward. In European countries where Jews had been emancipated, as well as in those where they were still denied civil rights, Jews lacked equal status and freedoms available to non-Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Viewing it as impossible for Jews to overcome this secondary status as individuals, Zionists looked to nationalism as a way to acquire such rights collectively. Multiple locations were considered for the envisioned Zionist state, but, as the Balfour declaration attests, having it “in though not necessarily all over” (31) the Land of Israel proved logical to Jews and non-Jews alike. When the Land of Israel was finally selected, “painstaking, sober institution building,” (108) led to the preparation of an almost fully-functional state by the time Israel declared its independence. Once established this state created democratic institutions considered best capable of guaranteeing Jewish liberty without denying that of its national minorities. While not always successful in achieving these aims, Israel’s governing bodies deserve credit for have soberly confronted an often murky and ambiguous reality and sacrificed many cherished beliefs to best realize them.

In addition to taking up settlement as a step towards redemption, Religious Zionists embraced it as an opportunity to recast themselves as heirs to the early Zionist settlers and emerge from Israeli society’s margins. This provided them with esprit de corps and raised their status. Taub does his best to dismiss this genealogy and proposes an alternative basis for status. Instead of the founders’ sober calculation, a misplaced romantic desire motivated Rabbi Kook’s followers and disproves their desired lineage. As Taub notes, settlement stood in opposition to Zionism’s declared aims from the outset and doomed it to ultimate failure, since it demanded either the renunciation of democracy through the denial of basic civil rights to resident Palestinians or the denial of the state’s Jewish character through creation of a Palestinian majority. If Religious Zionists indeed desire to act in the tradition of the early Zionist settlers and achieve an elevated position vis-à-vis their fellow citizens, Taub calls on them to reject their blind attachment to land and embrace civic virtue.

Whether or not one agrees with Taub’s analysis of the Gaza disengagement, his compelling interpretation of events makes him an important commentator on contemporary Israel worthy of consideration.


Philip Hollander is a professor in the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a contributing editor.

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