Gush Emunim: Politics, Religion, and Ideology in Israel by Kevin A. Avruch

Gush Emunim: Politics, Religion, and Ideology in Israel


Kevin A. Avruch


Middle East Review

published by
The American Academic Association for Peace in the Middle East
Volume XI, No. 2
Winter 1978-79
pp. 26-31

In the period following the Yom Kippur War, a new movement began to gain increasing popular support in Israel. Called Gush Emunim (The Bloc of the Faithful) this movement presented an irredentist stance vis--vis the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and other "administered territories" (the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights). The focus of Gush's activities was the establishment of Jewish settlements in the territories beyond the "Green Line." The settlements were founded with volunteer labor and without the consent of the (then) Labor Government.1

To the political opponents of Gush, these settlements were illegal; a blatant act of defiance against the Government. Many demanded their removal; if necessary by force. The Gush response was to reject all the political arguments. In its view; each settlement was but a further move toward the integration of Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) into a Third Jewish Commonwealth. The leaders and supporters of Gush saw themselves as standing "above party politics" and, if necessary, above the parliamentary process. They claimed, for their movement, a legitimacy based on religious (i .e. , nonpolitical) values, the ultimate value being that of Messianic Redemption. In this light, the advent of the Jewish State was, to them, less the result of the triumph of a particular "movement of national liberation " (i.e. Zionism) than the beginning of a divinely inspired and ordained redemptive process. And this process depended, among other things, on the territorial integrity of Eretz Yisrael.2 Failure to settle The Land, or withdrawal from presently occupied territories was viewed as only secondarily a military-political "blunder." This failure—or withdrawal—would constitute man's (or his government's) direct contravention of God's will: it would cause the interruption, br worse, the cessation, of the redemptive process.

When, on May 17, 1977, the right-of-center Likud Party headed by Menachem Begin came to power, the new Prime Minister chose the Gush settlement of Kaddum as the site for his first post-election speech. There he proclaimed Judea and Samaria to be "a part" of Israel. By July, the Government had announced plans for the creation of sixteen new towns on the West Bank. Of these, seven were listed as projects planned by Gush Emunim. Two related transformations had occurred: "political" and "religious" legitimacy, hitherto separate, appeared to have united, in the form of a Likud Government fostering a Gush Emunim program. And Zionism, it was claimed, had undergone a major and inevitable reorientation finding, at last, its "true expression."

An examination of the roots of the Gush Emunim movement shows that these transformations did not come about de novo with the replacement of a left-wing by a right-wing government. They are rooted in the development of Zionist ideology and in its transformations after statehood. The rise of Gush is connected with the rise of certain movements and with ideological change in the context of ongoing social change. Insofar as "social change" means "modernization," a social movement whose ideology is based on religious or traditional values and symbols must "secularize" this ideology if it is to remain viable.3 Where, however, the original movement—in this instance, Zionism—was based, from its beginning, on a more complex ideology, fusing religious-traditional and secular-modern values and symbols, does the course of ideological change clearly lie in the direction of secularization? This question will be discussed later.

The Emergence of Gush

The rise of Gush Emunim dates to the days following the Six Day War. At issue was the disposition of the territories occupied in the course of that war. Formerly Jordanian-held East Jerusalem and some of the city's hinterland were annexed, but the Government balked at annexing the other areas. Instead, an "Open Bridges Policy" was instituted for the West Bank. This kept the area tied to Jordan in several ways.

In reaction to this policy, a movement called HaTnuah L'Eretz Yisrael HaShlema (The Whole Land of Israel Movement) arose that demanded immediate annexation of the territories, and its supporters represented most shades of religiosity and political orientation in Israel, including Mapam on the left. In time, the religious, Orthodox components of this movement became increasingly conspicuous in it. Chief among these was a Land of Israel faction, composed of relatiyely young people concentrated in the HaPoel HaMizrahi (Religious Worker) segment of the National Religious Party (NRP). This faction had thought to find, in the NRP, the political leverage that the Land of Israel Movement lacked in the Labor parties. In the NRP, the "Youth Faction" kept pressing their elders to make settlement of Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) the sine qua non of the NRP's participation in any Labor-led coalition government. The NRP elders, however, treated the issue with caution, and their public statements on it were ambiguous.

In the aftermath of the war of October 1973, the Youth Faction hardened its stand on the territories. They despaired of the NRP leadership, which seemed to follow Labor and, even worse, which failed to defend Likud when Labor portrayed Likud to the 1973 electorate as the "War Party." For those reasons, (among others) the leaders of the Youth Faction began to dissociate themselves from the NRP and to organize a movement that would be above party politics. Based on the issue of settlement, this movement would, in addition, owe no responsibility to the ideological or organizational demands of any given party.

But in claiming to stand above parties on the issue of settlement, this movement first had to validate its right to talk down to the parties. This right could not be based on values of political legitimacy unless the movement was itself to become another political party—and this its leaders wished to avoid. Therefore, the movement and its issue were linked to values of a "higher order," i.e., to religion. They were linked to the very bedrock of religion: to Redemption, the End of Days, the Coming of the Messiah. In February 1974, this new movement, Gush Emunim, was officially named and founded at Kfar Etzion. Several hundred people attended the event. Two years later, Gush organized a two-day march through Samaria in which some 20,000 Israelis participated.

Gush is linked to the "bedrock of religion" through the writings and teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) as interpreted by his son, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook (b. 1891).4 Rav A. Y. Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, was the founder of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva (The Rabbi's Center) in Jerusalem in 1924. Headed by his son, the Yeshiva is today the spiritual and ideological center of the Gush Emunim movement. It was here that many of the activists and leaders of Gush received their religious training from the 1950s onward, and the Rabbis Kook (father and son) are considered the spiritual founders of the movement.

In the early twentieth century, Rav A. Y. Kook had defended Zionism against its Orthodox critics by portraying the emergence of the Zionist movement as a sign of the beginning of Divine Redemption. He held that the Jewish people's tie to The Land of Israel was part of the "very essence" of their nationhood, and that Jewish resettlement of The Land was both an indicator of, and a spur to, the redemptive process. From these premises he was able to argue that all Zionists, be they secular or even antireligious, insofar as they were engaged in reclaiming The Land—and whether they knew it or not—were acting as agents of the Divine Will. He therefore enjoined pious Jews to work with secular Zionism and not against it. Calling the secularists wrong in separating the "religious" from the "political-national " concepts of Judaism and the Jew, he believed that the intrinsic holiness of Eretz Yisrael and the unfolding sacredness of ge'ulah (Redemption) would, in time, correct this secular misconception. At the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva he instilled, in hundreds of students, this fervent "religious Zionism."

The Rabbis Kook taught a religious Zionism that possessed a dynamism lacking in secular Zionism. Because this religious Zionism is based on the process of Redemption, it comes with an explicit theory of change. Among other things, this theory relates political and social change, e.g., the isolation of Israel in the international arena, the alleged decline of Zionist commitment among Israeli youth, and so on, to ideological change. As the redemptive process continues, the theory holds, certain transformations of Zionism necessarily occur. Secularists would come to see the error of their separation of "political-national" from "religious" conceptions of Judaism and the Jew; religious legitimacy would replace the "mere" political legitimacy of the Zionist movement and, thus, Zionism would find its "true expression" at last.

For the Rabbis Kook, a crisis of ideological secular Zionism was to be expected as part of the workings of the process of Redemption. However, a process of a different sort was also at work. For the Rabbis, what was of importance was the dynamism of Redemption. But what was also occurring was that the dynamism of the nationalist movement was facing the crisis of its routinization.

Ideological Crisis and Change

Charisma, in the Weberian sense of that which is aussertaglich, can be applied to movements as well as to individuals.5 Zionism (in both its secular and religious forms) developed into a movement whose appeal, authority, and mission were imbued with charismatic qualities (as were individual Zionist leaders, beginning with Herzl). The charismatic character of Zionism became especially clear when the magnitude of the European Holocaust became known, and in the critical days immediately preceding and following the establishment of the State. With the establishment of the State, Zionism began to face a long period of heightening ideological crisis. In part, this crisis focused on the tension between the encroaching routinization of Zionism's charisma and the demands placed on Zionism that it continue to design a modern state (and people) and chart the course of this state toward, in the words of Ben-Gurion, "the fulfillment of its historic mission in redeeming mankind." 6

What, the question came to be asked, was Zionism's role to be after the creation of the State of Israel? If the sole aim of Jewish nationalism lay in the establishment of a Jewish State, then once the State was established, Zionism's "task" must surely be over and done with: routinization (or the coming of "normalcy," in the Zionist's own parlance) ought to be welcomed. However, it was welcomed neither by the secular Left nor by the religious Right, and their method of countering routinization was to deny that the "task" of the Zionist movement was over. In pursuit of the continued task; the staunchly secular Ben-Gurion could speak rhetorically of "mission" and "Redemption," but the parties of the Israeli Left could never quite bring themselves to institutionalize this rhetoric into a party platform or an ideology: there were, after all, problems of consistency and dissonance. Consequently, with Ben-Gurion, they made another "impossible" (i.e., Messianic) task the primary focus of Zionist attention. This was kibbutz galuyot, the "ingathering of the exiles," with the goal of the complete dissolution of the Jewish Diaspora. The State was to become the means to this end.

Kibbutz galuyot might have served the function of resisting the routinization of Zionism but for one key problem. The Jewish Diaspora, especially in the democratic West, stubbornly resisted its own dissolution. Even those in the Diaspora who considered themselves staunch Zionists regarded kibbutz galuyot with what can only be termed "ambivalence." Zionism—far from being revitalized—suddenly lay in danger of fragmentation into "Israeli" and "Diaspora" varieties, each hostile, wary, or merely uncomfortable with the other. As the dream of the Ingathering of the Exiles remained unfulfilled, the debate in Israel about the demise of Zionism intensified.

In this debate, the religious Right, unlike the secular Left, held one important advantage: it could use such terms as Mission and Redemption unselfconsciously; after all, these constituted the basic charter of religious Zionism. Nevertheless, the religious Right did not make consistent or effective use of the terms in the years preceding the Six Day War. In part this was because the Left still claimed the monopoly on such Zionist symbols of the Good as halutziut (the pioneering spirit), avoda atzmit (self labor), and hagshama (self-realization through immigration to Israel). More importantly, however, it was because the Left had forced the religious Right into seeking the legitimate access of power and decision-making through the vehicle of the party, i.e., on inherently political grounds. Thus, the religious Right came to fight its quotidian battles in the political arena, and these battles, even in the service of halakha (Rabbinic law), brought to the religious parties the same taint that accrued to all parties in the political arena. Israelis, even religious Israelis, were cooly skeptical when it was a minister with portfolio who spoke of Mission, Redemption, and the End of Days. They were even more skeptical when the individual was not a minister, spoke like a prophet but was suspected of eyeing a portfolio.

While the religious Right fought constant holding actions with the aim of conserving the status quo in matters of religion (especially those concerning personal status) it was unable to make effective and unselfconscious use of its basic Zionist charter: the notion of Redemption. But it did not, for twenty years, fight its holding actions in vain. The crisis of ideological Zionism, the routinization of the movement in the face of demands that it remain charismatic, did not abate (if anything, the institutionalization of ideology into parties—by which the Left kept legitimate power inherently "political"—hastened routinization at the expense of sustaining charisma). The Left's program of kibbutz galuyot continued to fail and, in time, the lack of Zionist commitment among Israeli youth became yet another topic of apprehensive debate. Through all this, the religious Right could wait: for if Zionism was in trouble, it was the predominant concept of secular, Left-Zionism that suffered the most. Holding actions were being fought on levels higher than that of the jurisprudence of personal status.

The swift military victory of June, 1967 was followed in Israel by a period of elation, relief, and hope. The hope focused on the chances for peace with Arab neighbors; chances that were thought to be good. This bright period was short-lived. Although the war was followed by an economic boom and increased immigration from the West, Israel became increasingly isolated in the international arena and warfare, now in the form of terror-raids and Israeli reprisals continued. Western immigration began to decline after 1972 and this period also saw the beginning of a significant emigration of Israelis to the Diaspora. As the scene darkened and the debate on the "deterioration" of Zionism continued, The Land of Israel Movement took shape and was able to attract non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox support. Soon, "settlement of the Land" replaced kibbutz galuyot as the major future-oriented task facing Zionism and Zionists. The Land, which had once shared primacy in the Zionist movement with other nationalist goals—sovereignty and the revival of the Hebrew language (culture)—now came to embody the reactive thrust of Zionist charisma in its entirety.7 Out of all this, and after the near-disaster of the Yom Kippur War, the movement called Gush Emunim crystallized. It was, in a sense, eminently adapted to appeal to Israelis for several reasons, and primarily the following:

1. Gush maintained that Zionism would change, in accordance with the redemptive process. What, in Zionism, the secularists bemoaned and saw as symptoms of its continuing demise, the religious (following the Kooks) regarded as a "natural" development toward its true expression.

2. The concept of the territorial integrity of Eretz Yisrael was central to the Kooks' dynamic of Redemption: as "The Land" was put forward as the premiere symbol of Zionism, according to Gush it was the Kooks' religious ideology, based upon Redemption, that was best adapted to capitalize on (and encourage) the symbolic shift.

3. Rav A.Y. Kook had conceived his Zionism as divorced from the arena of party politics; he had stood aloof from all parties, religious as well as secular. By following the Kooks, Gush was able to justify its own aloofness from parties and its formal dissociation from them. Here; at last, was a segment of the religious Right that was effectively and unselfconsciously able to use the notions of mission and Redemption unhampered by portfolios, or the lack of them. Here, finally, was a segment of the religious Right that was able to seek and claim legitimacy in values other than political.

4. By focusing on the issue of settlement, Gush was able to co-opt some of the key symbols formerly monopolized by the secular Left. Primary among these was the idea of halutziut, (the pioneering spirit). The new halutzim (pioneers), Gush claimed, were those willing to settle those areas now occupied by the Israeli Army.

5. Rav A.Y. Kook's mystical ideas regarding the intrinsic holiness of Eretz Yisrael and the unfolding sacredness of Redemption were amenable to interpretation by Gush as a mandate for its fight against the moral impurities of the times.8 The battle against the secular Left thus became a battle against hityavnut (Hellenization). With the Left cast as the Hellenizers and Gush Emunim as the Maccabees, this battle ultimately became a conflict—as sociologist Janet O'Dea puts it—against "the fears of the possibly unsettling or disintegrative effects of"—nothing less than—"Western culture." 9

As previously mentioned, proponents of one theory of modernization argue that social movements whose ideology is based on traditional values must, in the face of modernization, secularize their ideology if they are to remain viable. But in Zionism we have the case of a social movement whose overarching ideology was a fusion, or integration, of both secular-modern and religious-traditional elements. It was, moreover, the secular-modern elements (such as class, party and State) that predominated until the establishment of the State and beyond. Leaders representing these elements were prominent among those who shaped the institutions of Israel, and who held the monopoly on Zionist symbols of the Good. Those representing the religious-traditional elements were forced into fighting holding actions aimed at conserving the status quo. Social change in Israel (the ongoing modernization of the society) should, therefore, have presented few, if any, problems to a transcendent Zionist ideology that was, in its predominant expression, already "modern." To face the needs of modernization, the secularization of the Zionist ideology had, it appeared, a fine and felicitous headstart.

The real situation was, however, far more complex. Modernization encountered another process: the routinization of the Zionist movement. This routinization was resisted by both the religious and the secular sections of Zionism, the Right and the Left, and their resistance plunged Zionism—the movement and the ideology—into crisis. The secular Left and the religious Right confronted this crisis in different ways. The Left pushed forward the program of the Ingathering of the Exiles. (The religious Right, it should be noted, did not oppose this program. The Ingathering of the Exiles is part of the eschatology of the End of Days, and if the Left had succeeded, therefore, its very success would have provided further evidence of the correctness of Rav A.Y. Kook's characterization of Zionism and the State of Israel as representing the beginning stages of Redemption.) But as it became apparent that the program would fail, the onus of its failure fell on the Left—and on the predominant conception of Zionism that had guided the Zionist movement and the State.

Added to this crisis of ideology were the continuing social and psychological crises of a state and its people living under siege. After 1967, and particularly after 1973, a segment of the religious Right was able to appear with an explanation for all the crises that beset the State, its people, and Zionism. Religious-traditional elements had always been a part of the overarching Zionist ideology, but they had appeared to be a subordinate and disappearing part. Putting forward the integrity of the Whole Land of Israel as its goal, but formally divorced from political parties, Gush Emunim now offered a formula for the continued viability of the Zionist enterprise. In the face of any, and all, "social change," Zionism must resist further secularization and, in fact, "return" to its only "true and possible expression:" the expression of the Divine Will.

Gush has, it appears, been trying to traditionalize Zionist ideology in response to modernization. In a sense, the most traditional elements of Zionism have been mobilized and put into service; and it is in this sense that Gush chose very carefully to label its most insidious enemy, not Labor, the Left, or the hostile Arab regimes, but Hellenism. For, in keeping with the traditional Jewish weltanschauung, it is, in the final analysis, Hellenism and Hellenization against which Gush does battle.

One crucial question remains, however. In whose "service" are these traditional elements being put? Is it in the service of a "revitalized" Zionism, of the Jewish State, or of a new religious-political movement that calls itself "The Bloc of the Faithful" and denies its own political existence?

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About the Author

Dr. Avruch is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. He completed his research in Israel on post-1967 Jewish immigration from the West (supported, in part, by the Jerusalem Center for Anthropological Studies).


1. In some cases the settlements pre-date the actual formation of Gush (e.g., Kiryat Arba, in Hebron). These were in the main associated with the Whole Land of Israel Movement. Today, however, these settlements are fully identified with the efforts of Gush Emunim.

2. What exactly constitutes "Eretz Yisrael" is a matter of some controversy; a maximalist Biblical interpretation (e,g., Genesis 15:18) puts the borders as extending from the Nile to the Euphrates.

3. On social movements see, e.g., R. Heberle, Social Movements (N.Y.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951), and W.R. Cameron, Modern Social Movements (N.Y.: Random House, 1969). For a view of secularization see K. Markides, "Social Change and the Rise and Decline of Social Movements: The Case of Cyprus," in American Ethnologist. 1: 309-330, 1974.

4. Some of Rav A.Y. Kook's writings are included in Orot (Lights), Jerusalem, 1950 (2nd edition).

5. Cf. M.N. Zald and R. Ash, "Social Movements Organizations: Growth, Decay, and Change," in Social Forces. 44: 327-340, 1966.

6. Quoted in D. Leon and Y. Adin's The Voices of Jewish Emancipation (Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1972). p. 58.

7. Cf. Ben Halpern, The Idea of the Jewish State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 25ff.

8. Including the several scandals that wracked Labor's camp in the months preceding the elections of May, 1977.

9. See Janet O'Dea, "Gush Emunim: Roots and Ambiguities," Forum 2 (25):46, 1976.

Table of Contents


The Emergence of Gush

Ideological Crisis and Change


About the Author

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