Extreme Politics in Israel by Ehud Sprinzak

Extreme Politics in Israel


Ehud Sprinzak


The Jerusalem Quarterly

Number 5
Fall 1977

The Table of Contents can be found at the end
of this document and also by clicking the section headings.


EXTREME POLITICS is a type of political activity which is not directed and controlled by the institutionalized and established centres of authority in a given political system. In a democratic regime, extreme politics is that political activity which involves the direct action of extreme groups, and has to do with protests, demonstrations and systematic infringements of the prevailing law and order. Extreme politics does not concentrate therefore around the parliament and the cabinet, is not aimed at election day and does not follow the accepted rules of the game played by the big parties, major interest groups and central economic blocs. Extreme politics is not necessarily anti-democratic. It is basically an anti-establishment activity. In certain situations. even established elements would turn to extreme politics in order to express intense feelings. Under special circumstances, extreme politics is likely to lead to violence, but it would be erroneous to identify extreme politics with violent politics. Extreme politics is becoming anti-democratic when it is connected with an ideological position which denies the legitimacy of the democratic regime. At that stage it becomes possible to talk not only about extreme politics, but also about politics of illegitimacy or politics of delegitimation.

When we deal with extreme politics in Israel, it appears possible and desirable to analyze it and its impact on the functioning of the Israeli political system in a historical perspective—since the creation of the state. One may discern in the short history of Israel three main phases, of which the first (1948-1967) was characterized by a marked decline in the intensity of extreme politics (inherited from the pre-state traditions), combined with the development of what we shall later on define as the operative consensus. The second (1967-1973) period witnessed the emergence of a rudimentary type of extreme politics, which was too small (the Black Panthers excepted) to seriously threaten the Israeli operative consensus. It was only in the last period, after the Yom-Kippur War, that extreme politics became an important element in the political system.

1948-1967: Crystallization of the Operative Consensus

Even a superficial examination of the history of extreme politics in Israel between 1948 and 1967 suggests a marked decline. The State of Israel was established amidst deep conflicts between the organized yishuvand the so-called "secessionist" groups, the Irgun and the Stern Group. Not only had the secessionist groups differed in ideological perspectives regarding the character of the state-to-be, but facing a situation of struggle with the British, and war with the Arabs, they developed their own semi-military organizations which refused for a long time to abide by the policy directives of the Jewish Agency—the representative body of the organized yishuv in Palestine—and by the instructions of its unified semi-military organization, the Hagana. This conflict within the Jewish population of the pre-state yishuv led to serious ideological clashes, occasional violent confrontations and bloodshed. The establishement of the state was accompanied by a serious threat of bloody civil war. Fortunately, the nascent state did not face this threat for long. The elation on achieving sovereignty, the invasion by the combined Arab forces surrounding the new state, the determination of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to establish a unified political and military autilority—by force if needed—and the sense of public responsibility shown by some of the secessionist leaders, all contributed to the virtual disappearance of the phenomenon of "secessionism." Ideological differences notwithstanding—the political system that emerged from the turbulent period of 1947-1949 was a parliamentary one unified by a single legal order, accepted set of rules of the game, and a peculiar pattern of consensus. The most extreme group of the late Mandate period, the Stern Group (Lehi), disbanded after the murder of the first UN peace negotiator, Count Folke Bernadotte, and was never to re-emerge as an organized underground.

It is true that outbursts of extreme politics did occur in the 1950s, but none of them left a significant impact on the Israeli political scene. Thus two small underground organizations were uncovered, Brit ha-Kana'im (The Covenant of the Zealots), in 1951, and Mahteret Tzrifin (Tzrifin Underground) in 1953. While the first was composed of ultra-Orthodox elements protesting against the secular character of Israeli society, the second was a mixture of ultra-nationalist and Orthodox youngsters, who planned an insurrection aimed at establishing a Greater Kingdom of Israel. Both organizations, however, were very small and amateurish and after some of their key members were tried and sent to jail, they dissolved. Two other famous outbursts of what could be considered extreme politics also occurred in that decade. The first was the Reparations demonstrations in 1952 when for a few days violent demonstrations, organized by the Herut party, against the Reparations Agreement with Germany took place in Jerusalem and around the knesset (the Israeli parliament). The second was the Wadi Salib disturbances in 1959 when Moroccan Jews protested violently against social discrimination and poor housing in a slum area of Haifa and some other development towns. But although these incidents sent shock waves through Israeli society, they did not generate further activity. They remained simply outbursts of rage against specific wrongs.

The only exception to this trend of declining extreme politics was the growth of the special religious, social and political subculture of Neturei Karta (The Guardians of the City), and the Edah Haredit (the ultra-Orthodox community)—which could well be named a subculture of political delegitimation. Founded at the beginning of the century, this fringe group of ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jews is centered in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. It does not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state and has always refused to subscribe to its ideological expression, modern Zionism. The Neturei Karta, especially, which is a few hundred families strong, deeply believe that not until the coming of the Messiah should a Jewish state be established in the Land of Israel. Consequently, they possess a sectarian Weltanschauung of a peculiar nature. Even today, they refuse to speak Hebrew, to carry Israeli identity cards, to pay taxes and to be considered citizens of the State of Israel. From time to time they demonstrate publicly against the violation of the Sabbath, the hospitals' practice of autopsies, the opening of pornography shops and other manifestations of modern secular permissiveness. Occasionally they resort to violence. However, they are not really relevant to the present analysis, since their "counter-culture" is almost totally cut off from the main body of Israeli life. Their insularity has kept them apart from public issues of national concern and their violent outbursts have been easily controlled by the police. As a social subculture, they remain little more than a curiosity.

The decline of extreme politics during the 1948-1967 years was closely connected with the emergence of what may be termed the Israeli operative consensus. As defined by Edward Shils in his latest book, consensus is that situation where the greatest majority of the adult population of a certain society is agreed upon the division of authority, status, rights, wealth, revenues and other scarce values of that society about which conflict may otherwise develop.1 Such consensus exists when this proportion of the population has a sense of affinity with the rest of the population. Operative consensus is, however, less than a general consensus. It is a situation that prevails when the political centre is able to develop certain rules of the game and to function according to them without active interference from the social periphery and independent groups that exist within it. The only exception to this lack of interference, in a democratic regime, is of course election day when the question of the composition of the political elites in the centre is brought to the periphery and is decided by the voters. In a situation of operative consensus it is quite possible that opinion polls held in the periphery would indicate a fundamental difference on major public issues, principles, policies, and the division of scarce values, discussed by Shils. But as long as these differences are not translated into organized action and open conflicts inside the periphery, we may assume that the operative consensus exists.

Between 1948 and 1967 there developed in Israel a stable political regime which relied to a great extent on an operative consensus. This operative consensus was characterized by the fact that serious conflicts which emerged occasionally, evolved at the political centre and were resolved at that centre without a meaningful peripheral interference, and without strong grassroots pressures or demands directed at it. Thus, there were in Israel strong disagreements on questions such as the relations between religion and state, the structure of the economy and Israel's relations with Germany. These disagreements have caused occasional governmental crises, early calling of elections, heated public debates and ideological controversies. But all these crises, controversies and ideological conflicts were held within the political centre. They were also resolved there without a serious intervention of peripheral independent groups and forces. Ideologically-oriented Israeli politicians, members of the main parties, have found pragmatic ways of resolving their conflicts without peripheral intervention.2

In the period under consideration, there was only one conflict that seriously endangered the Israeli operative consensus. This was the conflict that emerged around the Lavon Affair and its ramifications. The political storm that arose around the Affair had aroused strong public reaction, including the creation of a Movement for the Defence of Democracy within the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Min ha-Yesod (From the Foundation)—an ideological group which was not entirely anchored in the political centre. However, it did not take long for Mapai (predecessor of the Labour Party), at the centre, to eliminate the peripheral aspects of this controversy and to contain the conflict. Thus, even this conflict remained, in the final analysis, within the borders of the political centre, as indicated by the title of the most detailed description of this political conflict, Natan Yanai's Chasm at the Top [Hebrew].3

1967-1973: Emergence of Small Extremist Groups

There is no doubt today that the Six-Day War in June 1967 has had an immense effect on Israeli political thinking and has altered the course of Israeli politics altogether. The swift victory over the combined Arab armies, the occupation of vast territories, and especially of the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank, have reopened a whole set of issues related to the interpretation of modern Zionism and to the permanent borders of the State of Israel which remained unresolved after the War of 1948. A new ideological split between a minimalist camp, willing to trade territories for peace, and a maximalist camp, insisting upon the concept of a Greater Israel at any price soon developed and, not surprisingly, cut across party lines and previous political commitments.4 This new split was to have a decisive influence on the political map of Israel, though it took the better part of the last ten years to crystallize.

Most relevant to our analysis is the emergence after the Six-Day War of small but vocal dissident political groups within the Israeli periphery, especially in extreme leftist circles. Three groups belonging to this camp deserve mentioning. They are Matzpen (the Israeli Socialist Organization), Siah (New Israeli Left) and Yesh (An Arab-Israeli student group at the University of Haifa). Disturbed greatly by what they considered the government's failure to make peace with the Arab countries, because of a stiff position on the occupied territories, these groups were the active spearhead of a larger number of Israelis who counted themselves as minimalists, or doves, on the territory question. Each of these groups, or rather groupuscules (as the French would have called them) emerged in its own way, which we shall not describe in detail here. What all of them shared and which sets them apart from the larger left, was their readiness and ability to use tactics of direct action and extreme politics. Thus the anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian Matzpen, the leftist Zionist Siah and Yesh—concentrated mainly in the campuses of Israel's three major universities, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa—have introduced to Israeli politics a new dimension of political behaviour—vocal demonstrations, symbolic acts of violence, sit-ins, teach-ins and petitions expressing their sense of rage and protest. But the small leftist groups did not remain the sole combatants in the arena of extreme politics. Soon they were joined by rightist elements. Most notable among them were a very small Jerusalem group named Dov (whose initials in Hebrew stand for dikui bogdim (Supression of Traitors) and Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defence League (JDL ) [please see: "Kach and Meir Kahane: The Emergence of Jewish Quasi-Fascism" by Ehud Sprinzak—web edior]. These rightist groups were mainly formed to counterbalance the initiative of the extreme left, but the JDL, active especially since 1971, became—insofar as symbolic acts are concerned—the most imaginative among them. Under the tutelage of its leader Rabbi Kahane, it imported American methods of getting into the headlines and attracting public attention.

The most vocal of all the extreme groups of that period and by far the most influential one, was not, however, a group that emerged as a response to the outcome of the war, but rather as an expression of a social and ethnic tension long felt within Israeli society. The group that borrowed the American name Black Panthers emerged in 1971 in Jerusalem to protest against poor housing conditions, poor education and mistreatment of juvenile delinquents of oriental origin, especially Moroccans. Composed of a nucleus of youngsters from a poor Jerusalem neighbourhood, Morasha, the Black Panthers initiated mass demonstrations which often ended in physical violence. It soon won the support of the Israeli extreme left and for a while dominated the extremist arena, winning the respect of friends and foes alike. Israelis long accustomed to believing in Zionist melting-pot ideology never anticipated such social and ethnic upheaval in the Jewish state.

A full account of the activities of the small groups that sprung up in the 1967-1973 period cannot be given here. It is a story of radicalization and deradicalization in a short period of time, of great hopes at the beginning and disillusionment at the end.5 Historically speaking, it is quite clear today that all these groups, from their point of view, failed miserably. Thus, it is not too early to judge that much of their activity was a weak imitation of the campus revolution that swept the West in the second half of the 1960s. Since Israel neither had a Vietnam nor a very serious university problem and in addition did not develop the conditions conducive for a genuine generational revolt, the Israeli radicalism of that period never got off the ground. A consequent result of all this is the fact that the activity of the small groups did not leave an impact on the central process of decision-making of Premier Golda Meir's cabinet.

The protest activity of the small leftist groups did not move the cabinet to a more dovish position vis-à-vis the Arab states and the extremist counter-activity of the rightist groups did not push the cabinet to adopt an extreme annexationist line towards the occupied territories. Only the Black Panthers scored some success. They managed to make the Israeli public aware of the existence of a culture of poverty living on the fringes of Israeli society. Meir's cabinet could not ignore this exposition and large sums of money have been allocated since 1971 to the identification and preliminary solutions of the complicated problems of the disadvantaged. The immediate response to the outcry of the Black Panthers, after the cabinet had learned that they could not be silenced, was the appointment of a special government Investigation Committee for the study of the problems of disadvantaged youth. Following the critical report of that Committee, a new position of special Adviser to the Prime Minister was created and a permanent ministerial committee at the cabinet level for departmental coordination of all the relevant activities has been set up. But even the Black Panthers failed, both as a movement and as an organization. A lack of organization skill coupled with personal conflicts caused internal splits which greatly diminished their public appeal. Thus, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, the extremist groups were clearly unable to mobilize much support within the Israeli periphery. The fact that all of them, with the exception of Matzpen—an extremely anti-Zionist group which never succeeded in building a serious peripheral constituency—decided to run in the knesset elections, was a sure indication of their failure. Having failed to act at the periphery they were all opting for the political centre, accepting the rules of the game after all. Meir's cabinet and the political centre in general could well claim a victory over the first Israeli peripheral revolt.

It should be noted, however, that the Israeli political scene on the eve of the Yom-Kippur War was not the same as it had been six years before. The new types of action may not have succeeded in changing governmental policies, but they did introduce new forms of political participation and involvement. The Israeli politicans at the centre learned to their great surprise that they were no longer omnipotent. They discovered to their dismay that the mass media love extremist activity and give it maximal coverage. In retrospect, it seems also that the events of 1967-1973 legitimized new styles of political behaviour unknown to the Israelis before. These forms of direct action were not destined to reappear regularly on the Israeli political scene. But they were now in the realm of possibility and could be reverted to under conditions of drastic change. Truly enough, the situation did change dramatically as a result of the Yom-Kippur War.

1973-1977: Erosion of the Operative Consensus

The Yom-Kippur War and the psychological earthquake that followed profoundly changed once again the course of Israeli politics. What occurred in Israel was a crisis of authority; this is a crisis in which the authority of the political leadership is dealt a severe blow as a result of an unforeseen historical event. The fact that Israel had scored a military victory did not compensate for the Israelis' loss of faith in their political leaders. So deep was the shock that not only was the cabinet leadership charged with wrong-doing, but the whole political centre lost a great deal of prestige. Public opinion polls may not have shown the degree of public shock expected by some observers, but the reaction of the Israeli press and key elite groups towards the political leadership was clearly very critical. Two major phenomena deserve mentioning in this context—the post-Yom-Kippur protest movements, and Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful).

Post Yom-Kippur War Protest Movements

The history of the protest movements that emerged in the wake of the war lasted no more than six months and did not even have a name. No single organized group stood out in this short-lived period of protest, which, nevertheless, profoundly influenced the course of Israeli politics. It began with the solitary vigil of Captain (Res.) Motti Ashkenazi, field commander of the northern position of the Bar Lev defence line on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, the only position that withstood the Egyptian surprise attack. Ashkenazi, who lost many of his men as a result of what he considered the "blunder" (mehdal) of the military authorities, vowed that if he survived the war he would stage a one-man sit-in in front of the Prime Minister's office until Defence Minister Moshe Dayan resigned. Ashkenazi survived, and started his personal vigil with no great hopes for a large following. But when he started his sit-in on a rainy day in February, 1974, he discovered that his act gave expression to a very strong public sentiment. A spontaneous protest movement formed, which expressed itself in intense demonstrations, public petitions and anti-govemmental sit-ins and teach-ins. The effect of this non-violent movement was far-reaching. In spite of a public report by the prestigious Agranat investigation committee, which cleared the political authorities of direct responsibility for the unpreparedness for war, the top ministers of Golda Meir's cabinet, including the Prime Minister herself, were forced to resign. They were replaced by a new team—an unprecedented political revolution in the history of Israel.

Having neither an independent or affiliated ideology, the protest movements largely responsible for this revolution were united by two elements: a) censure of the government's negligence in the face of war, which came to be known as the mehdal (blunder) without agreeing on precisely what this involved; b) the demand ly, it resembles certain pre-Yom-Kippur War groups: its purpose is the war—first Dayan, and later Meir and her senior team. [this text is reproduced as printed—web ed.]

Our study of the written documents of the protesters clearly shows that only later in the development of the movement was a general protest against the Israeli political centre expressed, and a concern about the "low quality of life" voiced. The problem with this later stage was that so many undefined issues came under the heading "low quality of life" that it could not provide a foundation for a serious political movement. By the time the amorphous body had finally chosen a name, Israel Shelanu (Our Israel), most of its potential members had lost interest and the movement disintegrated.

But even at their high point the protest movements did not attract large numbers of people to their ranks. Their major operation, the demonstation on March 24, 1974, at the Prime Minister's Office, drew no more than 5,000-6,000 participants. The effectiveness of the protest movements was due mainly to the quality of their members, their wide geographical spread and their peculiar ability to penetrate the political centre. A study of the quality of the members indicates that this was an elite group. Ashkenazi's supporters were not deprived citizens, alienated intellectuals or enraged students. They represented the "positive Israelis" members of well-established kibbutzim and moshavim, reserve army officers of all ranks, senior managers from an branches of the economy, scientists, intellectuals and white collar professionals, from the nation's first families. These distinguished members of the Israeli periphery were later joined by integral units of the army reserves which immediately following their release from active duty came to Jerusalem to express their frustration before the symbol of the Israeli political centre—the knesset. If the number of actual participants in the demonstrations was not large, their geographical spread was. They flocked to Jerusalem from an over the country and seemed to represent a greater number of their compatriots.

The protest movements were clearly an expression of a peripheral revolt against the political centre and its rules of the game, including the operative consensus. This is confirmed by the fact that the protest took place shortly after the national elections which gave the ruling party a renewed mandate to rule the country. The Israeli politicians of the centre interpreted the election results as a sure sign of "business as usual," but this was by no means the mood prevailing among key elite groups at the periphery. What is interesting in this context is the fact that soon after the beginning of the protests, serious cracks developed within the centre, which led ultimately to the resignation of Golda Meir and her top ministers. There were repeated statements by leading members of the Labour Party, supporting the demands of the protest movements and lending their nominal participation to some of the protest activities. No official vote of non-confidence in the top Labour leadership was ever taken but months of unrelenting protest and strong criticism from within its own ranks made it impossible for Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to remain in office. They finally resigned, joined by senior ministers of the cabinet, Abba Eban and Pinhas Sapir. Here the revolt of the periphery was crowned with total success.

Gush Emunim

If the protest movements represent spontaneous form of extreme politics, with little organization, comprehensive ideology or duration, Gush Emunim—the other significant post-Yom-Kippur War expression of extreme politics—represents an established, highly organized and ideologically motivated group. Ideologically, it resembles certain pre-Yom-Kippur War groups: its purpose is clear and unbending. Structurally, however, Gush Emunim is unlike the pre-Yom-Kippur War groupuscules. These groups remained small and never struck roots in the Israeli political culture, while Gush Emunim, since its fornlal inception in 1974, has become well entrenched. As a peripheral group acting on the political centre, Gush Emunim has been very effective. It has managed to establish some of its settlements in the West Bank, in clear defiance of government policy and altogether has left its mark on the government's foreign and defence policies. The fact that over the last three years no settlement with the Arabs could be developed without considering the possible reaction of Gush Emunim and its supporters, is a sure indication of its importance as a political factor in Israel today.

Gush Emunim was officially created in March 1974, when an activist segment of the National Religious Party decided to form a bloc faithful to the idea of Greater Israel and its settlement. Relying on a core of activitsts who, following the Six-Day War, established settlements in the Hebron area of the West Bank, the Gush has set itself the task of opposing at all costs any Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank. Using methods of direct action such as open protests, demonstrations and the establishment of illegal settlements, the Gush has managed to attract the support of other groups opposing compromise on Judaea and Samaria.

Gush Emunim, to be sure, was not the first organized group pushing towards these goals. Some of the groups mentioned above had also been working towards this goal, and a non-extremist (in our terms), but highly ideological and large movement—the Land of Israel Movement, has been preaching this philosophy ever since 1967. As an action group, however, none of these has been so influential and effective as Gush Emunim.

What sets Gush Emunim apart form all other groups is its religious foundations. Its key members and leaders were trained at the Mercaz ha-Rav Yeshiva (Rabbinical Seminary) in Jerusalem and were disciples of the Yeshiva's head, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In contrast to most of the Orthodox yeshivas of Israel, which have always been in conflict with secular Zionist philosophy and its goals, Mercaz ha-Rav has managed to coexist with the Zionist drive. This is owing to the unique interpretation of modern Zionism made earlier in this century by the late Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, Zvi Yehuda's father. The late Rabbi Kook saw in the emergence of modern Zionism a sign for the beginning of a new messianic age that was bound to end in the redemption of the Jewish people. He believed that, though secular, modern Zionism was part of a divine plan, which the secular Zionists themselves were not aware of. Consequently he was ready to legitimize the secular Zionist project in Palestine and to cooperate with its activities in many fields. His son has continued to preach these ideas in Mercaz ha-Rav and educated a new generation of young religious zealots committed not only to the cult of learning, but also to the promotion of practical Zionism as they see it. This young generation saw in the outcome of the Six-Day War, the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the conquest of the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria)—a clear indication that God's master plan was in full operation. Consequently, they were among the first to push for a Jewish settlement in old Hebron and the adjacent Etzion Bloc, which as a result of the 1948 War remained in Arab hands. The need to make peace with the Arabs was subordinated to the drive to fulfill God's plan.

While it would be difficult to explain the phenomenon of Gush Emunim without reference to its strong religious foundation, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that Gush Emunim is also a social and political movement, and there are other facets to its existence which explain its importance and effectiveness in Israeli politics. Since there is no formal membership in Gush Emunim—for tactical reasons, to be discussed later—its social makeup can be ascertained only from interviews and talks with its activists. These interviews show that the hard core of Gush followers-members do come from the Mercaz ha-Rav and other yeshivot close to it in spirit and philosophy, which are called in Israel Yeshivot ha-Hesder. Members of Ezra and Bnei Akiva, religious pioneering youth movements, come next and only then come members of certain synagogues of Zionist nationalist orientation, the religious public at large and non-religious supporters.

The Gush Emunim leadership is impressive. In the rather plodding atmosphere of Israeli politics today, it is hard to find a more unified leadership, embodying the principles of self-sacrifice in the name of a higher purpose. The failure of pre-Yom-Kippur War radical groups must be due in some measure to the lack of inspiring leadership. In contrast, Gush Emunim's leadership seem to inspire excitement and personal commitment and possess organizational ability. If a genuine extremist leadership is defined as being able to win the confidence of a large number of followers and obtain large funds, to organize huge marches and to outmanoeuver the army in illegal settlement operations than Gush Emunim's leadership must be acknowledged as such.

The deep religious inspiration of Gush Emunim, its appeal to Orthodox Israelis and the personal and organizational quality of its leadership largely account for its political success. But its most significant achievement, undoubtedly a real political breakthrough in the traditional patterns of Israeli politics, has been its ability to penetrate the borders of the Labour movement and attract some core members of this movement, including members of kibbutzim and moshavim, well known for their staunch resistance to anything religious. This particular phenomenon requires some explanation. What initially struck a chord with these Israelis had nothing to do with Gush Emunim (which had not come into existence at that time), but rather with the territorial consequences of the Six-Day War. This did in fact motivate many of them to join the Land of Israel Movement, unmindful at all of any possible religious implication. The reason so many were later drawn to Gush Emunim was its position as a pioneering movement of settlement neatly fitting into some prestigious and accepted pattern of modern Israeli history. Of all the groups and movements discussed thus far, only Gush Emunim has not mainly been a protest movement or an extremist organization, but a movement of pioneering and self-fulfillment. Thus, the hard core of Emunim's leaders do not just believe in settling Judaea and Samaria, but actually do it. What makes Gush Emunim an extremist group, and fits it into the conceptual framework developed in this article, is not its inherent character, but the fact that up until the last national elections, it was acting in defiance of the cabinet decisions, and consequently it had to apply the means of extremist politics. But for these Israelis, the hard core of the Labour movement, it never was mainly an extremist or deviant movement. For them the Gush has become perhaps the sole heir to a Zionist tradition that had almost disappeared from their own political camp. A prime factor in the political culture of modern Zionism has been the practical element of self fulfillment in contrast to the traditional Diaspora pattern of dream and aspiration. This political culture and the consequent set of implied norms has never stressed ideological discourse for its own sake.

Moreover, the rule of law or formal constitutional democracy was never the foremost in modern Zionist outlook. The Zionist ethos, developed largely by the Labour movement, and especially by its active part in the labour settlement movement of the kibbutzim and moshavim, grew in the pre-state days out of illegal pioneering activity in such areas as defence, immigration and settlement. Modern Zionism was realized in the Land of Israel by imaginative illegal steps necessarily taken in defiance of the British authorities, the legal masters of the area. This orientation is today characteristic of Gush Emunim, as tellingly revealed in an interview with one of its leading activists. When asked about the attitude of the Gush to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, the man replied:

It is shocking that Yigal [Allon—Israel's then Minister of Foreign Affairs] talks about law. When he makes up his mind about something, no law bothers him. When he decided to fight for Hebron, he sent armaments there under the table from Kfar Etzion. —Stealing from the chicken coop is a norm established by the Palmah... 6

Thus we can sum it all up by saying that Gush Emunim's remarkable success with secular Israelis and its appeal to traditional members of the Labour movement may be attributed to its image as a positive answer to a hidebound political establishment. This is in contrast to the pre-Yom-Kippur War radical groups, who always remained outsiders. Paraphrasing the American saying, the Gush is as Isareli as apple pie is American. Its tacticians are of course aware of this, and they carefully do their best to play down their strong religious commitment in public. They also avoid formal membership which would have forced them to connect membership with religious philosophy. Taken altogether, this appears to be the secret of the success of Gush Emunim.

Concluding Remarks

What are, then, the conclusions to be drawn from the historical genesis of Israeli extreme politics presented above and especially from the developments that followed the Yom-Kippur War? It appears that in this political realm—as in others—the year 1967 was a watershed. Until 1967 and the Six-Day War, the pattern of operative consensus—which meant a strong control of the Israeli periphery by the political centre—was crystallized and stabilized. For a while it seemed to be the most stable pattern of the Israeli political system. But the war of June 1967 shattered this pattern. Instead of solidifying the operative consensus, which would have been expected after a victory of that magnitude, its results gave rise to rudimentary types of independent peripheral activities unknown before. It is true that what I called the first Israeli peripheral revolt failed, but it did not fail without leaVing its mark on Israeli politics and collective consciousness. And with the crisis of authority that followed the Yom-Kippur War—which could not be disassociated from the Six-Day War—a far more serious peripheral revolt was initiated. The Israeli periphery could no longer be silenced and it acted with surprising effectiveness. Although great differences exist between the protest movements and Gush Emunim, both represent the unwillingness of the Israeli periphery to abide by established directives. Thus began the trend towards the erosion of the operative consensus. While a greater participation of the Israeli periphery in active politics may be taken as a welcome development, the erosion and possible disappearance of the operative consensus may have grave political repercussions. It should be born in the mind that in Israel's early years, the operative consensus was the basis for her political stability. It enabled the young state to pass through serious internal ideological crises, wars, national efforts like the absorption of mass immigration etc. Under an eroded consensus, such tasks may not be fulfilled so easily in the future. Moreover, when peripheral pressures prevail and when they are associated with extreme politics and possible open confrontations, the foundations of any system of orderly behaviour are threatened. Gush Emunim—in spite of all its positive traits—has been pushing relentlessly in this direction for the past few years. It has greatly damaged the authority of the government and legitimized certain extreme practices which may be adopted by other groups in the future.

In many public discussions and deliberations, the dangers of the erosion of respect for the rule of law and of violent confrontation with the authorities have been associated with the activities of Gush Emunim. This is not, however, the greatest danger, especially not under the new Likud regime in Israel, which may accept most of Gush Emunim's programme, and thereby deradicalize it. My interviews with the Gush leaders, coupled with an analysis of their publications, show great respect for the state, its military and other national institutions. A grave danger is that the illegal activity of Gush Emunim may give rise to a leftist extremist movement, which will employ the same tactics to counterbalance the effectiveness of Gush Emunim. Historical precedents show that when two extremes collide, the last barriers to violence may break down, as each attempts to coerce the other, and none accepts the arbitration of the established authorities and the police.

It is risky at this juncture to predict the future of Israeli politics in general and extreme politics in particular. The standard bearer of extreme politics today, Gush Emunim, may be neutralized by the new Likud coalition, which supported the Gush when in the opposition. In any case, Gush Emunim has contributed to the erosion of the operative consensus. It will not be surprising if the seeds of disrespect for public authorities which sprang up after the Yom-Kippur War will grow in still other directions.

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About the Author

The author is indebted to the Eshkol Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for providing the funds for the research upon which this article is based. This article is a revised version of a lecture delivered at the 1976 meeting of the Fellows of the Eshkol Institute. Dr. E. Sprinzak teaches at the Department of Political Science, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


1. Edward Shils. Center and Periphery , Essays in Macrosociology, Chicago and London (The University of Chicago Press) 1975, p. 164.

2. Limited space does not allow us to go into the details of these conflicts and their resolution. The following works are valuable sources of material on this subject: Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, "Authority Without Sovereignty," Government and Opposition, Val. 8, No.1 (1972). pp. 48-71; Martin Seliger, "Positions and Dispositions in Israeli Politics," Government and Opposition, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1968); Emanuel E. Gutmann. "Some Observations on Politics and Parties in Israel," India Quarterly, January-March 1961, Vol. XVII, No. 1; Emanuel E. Gutmann and Jacob M. Landau, "The Political Elite and National Leadership in Israel," in George Lenczowski (ed.), Political Elites in the Middle East, Washington. D.C. (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research) 1975. pp. 163-199.

3. Natan Yanai,Kera-ba-Zameret, Tel Aviv, (A. Levin-Epstein) 1969.

4. A reliable account of these developments is now available in English; cf. Rael Jean Isaac, Israel Divided; Ideological Politics in the Jewish State, Baltimore and London (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 1976.

5. The development of the small groups is described in Ehud Sprinzak. Nitzanei Politica shel Delegitimiut be Israel 1967-1972, Jerousalem(Levy Eshkol Institure. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) 1973.

6. The Palmah was the main military arm of the Haganah—the pre-state defence forces closely attached to the Labour movement. Its units, bred in kibbutzim, were well known for their tricky acts. Yigal Allon was the last commander of the Palmah.

Table of Contents



1948-1967: Crystallization of the Operative Consensus

1967-1973: Emergence of Small Extremist Groups

1973-1977: Erosion of the Operative Consensus

Post Yom-Kippur War Protest Movements

Gush Emunim

Concluding Remarks


About the Author

Further Reading on Gush Emunim

Further Reading on Gush Emunim

Gush Emunim—A False Messianism by Yigal Elam

Gush Emunim: The Politics of Zionist Fundamentalism in Israel by Ehud Sprinzak

Gush Emunim: The Tip of the Iceberg by Ehud Sprinzak

Gush Emunim: Between Fundamentalism and Pragmatism by David Newman

The National Religious Party and the Religious Settlers in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

The Nature of Gush Emunim Settlements by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

Foundations of a Political Messianic Trend in Israel by Uriel Tal

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