In Christian theology, the days of the Messiah often involve great upheavals and calamities, giving birth to the Messiah through great pain and suffering. That’s the reason “apocalypse” has come to mean not vision, as it does in Greek, but “catastrophe.” Ironically, this grand messianic scheme has played out in actual 20th-century Jewish history, as two major messianic movements erupted out of the post-Holocaust Jewish world — movements that color significant aspects of it to this very day.
These movements, Chabad and Gush Emunim, exemplify two different genres of messianism. While the former centers around the charismatic figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the latter is a headless creature conceived from the richly optimistic teachings of Rav Kook (Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, 1865–1935) combined with the high-octane energy of modern nationalism.
An extremely creative mystic and thinker, Kook wedded a Hegelian view of history (in which events, both positive and negative, are all divinely directed toward reality’s ultimate, supreme, and self-aware perfection) with a panentheistic vision of God; and he interpreted the breaking away of significant numbers of Jews from their religious tradition, followed by their adoption of Zionism and efforts to found a Jewish state, as an indispensable and foreordained stage in the path to Jewish redemption. The “uppity bound-breakers” (his words) are to do the dirty — but momentously paramount — work of rebuilding the Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land.
Kook did not live to see the founding of the state, but his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, was blessed to witness it. For Zvi Yehuda, not only the land but the state itself was holy (indeed, he considered it to be “the Seat of the Divine on Earth”). He therefore understood the military and political control of more and more of its promised territories as the very steps on which the Messiah would ascend toward final redemption.
With this in mind, we can understand why, after the Six Day War, Judea and Samaria’s coming under Israeli control was construed by Zvi Yehuda and his followers as a clear sign that the messianic momentum was shifting gear. In Kookist circles, it was a given that geula (redemption) had clearly begun and that it was irreversible: “There is not an End clearer than this!” proclaimed the younger Kook, and his followers announced, “The Third Redemption [after the Exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylon in Ezra’s days] is without a stop!”
After the Yom Kippur War, the first settlements were founded by Gush Emunim, then a young and spirited messianic-but-pragmatic movement organized and peopled by Zvi Yehuda’s followers, but supported by many secular Israelis and quietly encouraged by elements from within the government.
Gush Emunim started populating the hills and the occupied cities (such as Hebron) of the West Bank, sometimes by state permission and sometimes using trickery and lies.1 The Gush’s messianic ideology occupied the hearts and souls of leading figures and large numbers of the Religious Zionist public, imbuing it with renewed pride and the exhilarating feeling that its members were finally moving to the head of the Zionist enterprise. Not many years passed, however, before the first crisis of faith erupted.
A messianic vision’s weakness lies in the very thing that allows it to generate so much hope: its unabashed and uncompromising confidence. With the signing of the peace treaty
between Israel and Egypt in 1979, the vision of an ever-advancing redemptive plan was shattered, as the Israeli government promised to hand back the Sinai Desert to Egypt. Rather than continuing to acquire more of the promised land, the State of Israel was now breaking parts of it away. Kook’s followers found themselves in a theological quandry: It was the same Israel that they believed to be holy that was crippling God’s plan.
The withdrawal from Sinai, handing over Palestinian cities after the Oslo Accords, the retreat from south Lebanon and then, most devastating, the razing of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip — these have become an almost insurmountable challenge to the settlers’ messianic worldview. Its adherents today are experiencing a major crisis of faith, and their response to this crisis divides them into a number of distinct groups. Some, like Rabbi Shmuel Tal, have given up all hope for the State of Israel. They no longer see it as divinely ordained, and they have, for all intents and purposes, joined the Haredi world, thus allowing them to shift the center of their religious life from Zionism to halakhah. Some, led by the prominent Rav Tzvi Tao, have delayed redemption indefinitely, and, while still sure it’s on its way, have transferred progress toward it to the dimension hidden from the unlearned eye. At present, they concentrate their efforts on strengthening halakhic observance and education, while waiting for the masses to embrace their tradition.
Other messianist settler groups, like the Jewish underground (early 1980s) or the Bat Ayin Underground (2002), have turned to acts of violence in an attempt to force an apocalyptic event (or simply an all-out war) that will force the state to conquer its forsaken lands. And some, led by the post-Zionist and deeply kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, aim to overthrow the secular government in a revolution of consciousness that will reconnect every Jew to his or her innermost soul. Most Religious Zionists, however, are simply living their bourgeois life, hoping for the best, somewhat less convinced of the state’s divine status, and ever more wary of sweet-talking prophets bringing tidings of the End.
• Of the 350,000 settlers in Judea and Samaria, 85 percent live in the three major “blocs”: Gush Etzion, Ariel, and Maale Edomim; most are not particularly ideological. Fifteen percent live in scattered settlements across the West Bank and in approximately 80 illegal outposts (illegal, according to Israeli law; other settlements are disputed according to international law). These settlers are more fervent.
• Gush Emunim gradually dissolved in the 1980s.
• The Yesha Council, made up of the municipal heads of the settlements, lost its authority after its failure to successfully oppose the governmental withdrawal from Gaza.
1 For one of many examples, see Chaggai Segal, Achim Yakirim, page 237. Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman says that “while settling the Shomron we did some illegal things.” On the same page, Ze’ev Hever, one of the leading figures among the settlers, says: “The dry law in itself is not holy to us, is not holy to any of the people sitting here.”