Gush Emunim: Between Fundamentalism and Pragmatism by David Newman

Gush Emunim

Between Fundamentalism and Pragmatism


David Newman


The Jerusalem Quarterly

Number 39
Spring 1986

The Nature of a Fundamentalist Movement

AT A RECENT COLLOQUIUM held in Jerusalem on the subject of religious radicalism in the Middle East, the term fundamentalism was used to describe a variety of movements, including that of Gush Emunim.1 However, it is not clear to what extent Gush Emunim, as a movement operating within, and manipulating the existing political system, may be compared to fundamentalist movements within Islam, or for that matter within any other religious environment. In seeking an answer to this question, we are concerned with the tension which is caused in any movement when its ideological and philosophical tenets--either fundamental or radical--are put into practice. In such a case, as will be shown to be particularly relevant to the case of Gush Emunim, a movement may undergo a process of dilution of its more extreme ideas as a result of its interaction with the political system, the latter negating the fundamental ideas of the group. This interplay between the two systems is important in our understanding of the ability of any radical group to realize its aims in practical terms, as opposed to remaining in the realm of "words alone."

According to the OED, fundamentalism is the "maintenance, in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs.... " Nicholls2 suggests such an interpretation in noting that a fundamentalist movement is by nature a conservative one, or, in other words, a movement seeking to return to the more ancient, "purer," religious beliefs. Religious fundamentalism asserts that Divine law and its commands are superior to and override the law of man. Religious fundamentalism often arises where society, as guided by the laws of man, negates the ancient religious values, leading to changes in the mores and daily habits of that society.

Alternately, a radical movement suggests a different motivation. The OED defines radical as "affecting the foundation/ going to the root/ desiring reform, change." By definition, a radical movement does not necessarily follow Divine or religious imperatives. Nevertheless, its philosophy may well negate the accepted modes of behavior of society at large, leading it to demand reform and change. Radicalism may be associated more with political change resulting from disaffection with society and its institutional structures.

The driving force behind the Gush Emunim philosophy does indeed stem from the perceived Divine imperative, particularly with regard to its belief in territorial maximalism through the maintenance of control over the "whole Land of Israel." 3 Their recourse to the biblical religious associations of territory points to a philosophy which stresses the supreme obedience to a Divine command as opposed to that of man. Whereas man, in this case the democratically elected governments of the State of Israel, may decide to give up or return territory belonging to the biblically promised Land of Israel, such a decision is invalid since it rejects the Divine imperative concerning the Land. Such an ideology draws its modern interpretations from religious, rather than political, experts, and insofar as it draws support from secular territorial maximalists and politicians, this in no way affects the inherently religious undercurrent of their policies.

Yet such a Divine command concerning territory cannot be said to be conservative in the same way that other fundamental movements argue for the return to religious precepts in their daily way of life. In Israeli terms, this may well be the difference alluded to by Friedman 4 in drawing a distinction between conservative fundamentalism and innovationary fundamentalism. The Neturei Karta reflect the former, while Gush Emunim would reflect the latter in that their philosophy concentrates on an area not necessarily concerned with the traditional ways of daily religious life, but is concerned with a new interpretation of religious sources, one that is particularly appropriate in the current political milieu in which Israel exists. The outstanding question remains as to whether the term "innovationary fundamentalism" is not of itself a contradiction in terms, allowing for all fundamentalism to be of a conservative nature.

If not truly fundamentalist, to what extent does Gush Emunim fit more closely to a radical definition? That Gush Emunim ideology and its subsequent policies, as outlined below, affect the very foundation of the religious Zionist subsect of Israeli society is indeed the case. It questions the very basic values that this subsect holds to be important, particularly in the setting of its priorities. It argues that this subsect is not true to its ideology and that reform and/or change is necessary in order to return the religious Zionists to the true path. In terms of the wider Israeli society, they question the very basic superiority of the democratic system and suggest, from a purely ideological standpoint, a reform which would place the Divine precepts in the role of ultimate decision maker. But this is true of specific values only, these being territorial, while in other cases of religious law--those stressed by Neturei Karta and the like--they are prepared to accept (at least at the present) the continuation of the existing system in which the secular institutions have equality in the decision-making process and in the evolution of new social mores. Gush Emunim are radical in a political sense in that they began as an extreme movement within Israeli politics 5 demanding change in the existing system. Over a period of ten years since their establishment in 1974, their ideology has become partially institutionalized within the political system. To what extent then, does Gush Emunim remain a radical movement, and to what extent has its ideology become more acceptable, and thus less revolutionary, owing to the process of infiltration and assimilation into the body politic of Israeli society?

In describing the nature of their practical policies, and hence the resulting institutionalization of the movement, we shall seek to answer the above question. Whether in fact Gush Emunim is a fundamental or radical (or indeed any other defined) type of movement is, in the final analysis, more of an academic problem. It does not detract from the very real power that the Gush has obtained for itself and its supporters within Israel, making it the most influential extra-parliamentary group within Israel during the past decade.

Policy Implementation and Institutionalization

The transformation of Gush Emunim philosophy into action is one that is dictated to it by its very beliefs. The inherent understanding of Jewish control and sovereignty over the "whole of the Land of Israel" demands the securing of that control through practical means. This was particularly the case during the formative years of the movement (mid-1970s) when it perceived itself as the standard bearer in the face of a Labor government which emphasized territorial minimalism in the hope that this would enable future territorial concessions in exchange for a peace agreement. The very idea that the attainment of peace, another inherently religious value, should result from the giving up of "holy" land, suggested to Gush Emunim that this could not be Divinely ordained peace. In the religious worldview of the Gush ideologues, all Divine imperatives must be attained equally. It should not be necessary to give up one in exchange for the other. Thus, Gush Emunim started out as a movement which not only sought to stress a Divine imperative through its teachings, but sought to implement those beliefs through practical action. Such practical action was concentrated in the field of settlement of the land, a move stressing the link between the people and the land, one which would enable the transformation of an ideological viewpoint into a political one, namely the claim to sovereignty over the land. The settlement process, at first mostly illegal and later sanctioned by the Likud governments following 1977, led in its wake to a whole series of political connections and associations. This, in turn, led to the adoption of more pragmatic and technocratic approaches to the political and planning systems in order to obtain the maximum possible resource allocation for their activities. The radical ideology, while continuing to provide the ultimate raison d'être for their actions, was less audible, coming to the fore only in times of crisis such as the return of Sinai and following the discovery of the Jewish underground activity in 1984.

An analysis of this process is carried out at three levels: political relations between the Gush and the Israeli institutional framework; the settlement activity of Gush Emunim and its supporters; and an analysis of the activities of the Gush ideological leaders themselves in working within the system, rather than remaining as lone voices outside.

The Political Framework

One of the more interesting facts about Gush Emunim is that the movement has never formally transformed itself into a political party--through which its real support may be tested by means of recourse to the electorate--nor does the movement have any formal membership. Rather, the Gush attempts to portray its populist image through such means as demonstrations and mass rallies, like their annual Independence Day march through Samaria. The Gush Emunim leadership is probably aware of the fact that there is a wide gulf between an emotional identification with any movement and one that demands formal membership, in turn often requiring the cancellation of membership in other organizations and political affiliations.

That does not, however, mean to say that the Gush and their beliefs do not find representation or support within the parliamentary system. On the contrary, I would argue that Gush Emunim have very successfully manipulated the existing political institutional framework to the extent that they have at least as much, and probably more, representation within the Knesset than if they had become a formal political party. Support for the Gush and the belief in a Greater Land of Israel is to be found in all the parties of the Right, both secular and religious. This ranges from the Likud maximalists to the Matsad and Tehiyah nationalists and the Kach ultra-nationalists.

The Gush as such has never identified totally with the Likud coalition, and indeed became distanced from them following the decision to return the Sinai peninsula to Egypt as a result of the Camp David Accords. The Tehiyah party was established as a new nationalist focus, but one which claimed to remain loyal to the Greater Israel concept and which refused to accept the return of Sinai to Egypt. There was much debate within Gush Emunim as to what should be their relationship with this new political party. On the one hand it was argued that the Gush should become an integral part of the party, thus joining in the electoral process. On the othe hand, there were those who argued that the Gush should have no formal connection with the Tehiyah party, not least because it would destroy the populist image of the movement, but also because the new party was secular while Gush Emunim was a religious movement (which welcomed secular members into its fold).6 The outcome was that individuals within Gush Emunim supported and even became active within Tehiyah, without the movement ever giving its formal approval. Thus in the 1981 elections, one of the leading personalities of Gush Emunim, Chanan Porat, was elected to the Knesset, while in the 1984 elections--following the departure of Porat from the party--two more Gush personalities Gershon Shafat and Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, were elected to the Knesset. The 1984 election results provided the Tehiyah party with five members, making it into the largest of the many small parties in the Israeli Knesset.

Despite the relatively large degree of support given to the Tehiyah party within Gush circles, there were nevertheless those who refused to identify with a secular party. This group perceived its struggle as being essentially a religious one, believing moreover that its job was to reform the national religious establishment from within in a revolutionary manner. This group was headed by another leading religious personality of the Gush, Rabbi Haim Druckman. He had been summoned to the ranks of the Nations Religious Party for the 1977 elections and given the number-two slot on the party list, in order to attract the ultra-nationalist religious vote which the party was afraid of losing. Druckman believed inherently in the need to work within a religious movement, this stemming from his leading role in the Bnei Akiva youth movement of the National Religious Party. It was precisely from this youth movement that the majority of the first generation of Gush leaders had sprung, and from which it was hoped to draw future support and settler nuclei. Druckman continued to work within the National Religious Party until 1984, including the period of Camp David and the establishment of Tehiyah. He broke party discipline in voting against the Camp David Accords, but continued to believe in reform from within. The gradual switch in nationalist support in the religious camp away from the National Religious Party and the self-questioning within the NRP as a result of the Lebanon War in 1982, finally led to the break with the party. Nevertheless, Rabbi Druckman was still unprepared to work within a secular framework, and this led to the establishment of a new religious Zionist party, Matsad, stressing the territorial and nationalist objectives as Divinely ordained. In the 1984 election, Matsad itself probably received enough votes to account for one of the two seats that it obtained through its election coalition with the Poalei Agudat Yisrael party. An analysis of the election results would suggest that in the Gush Emunim strongholds in the West Bank, such as Ophrah and Eilon Moreh, it was Matsad rather than Tehiyah that received the votes. This may be explained by the fact that the ideology of Matsad was closer to that of Gush Emunim, particularly with its stress on the religious and the Divine.

The general trend towards the Right and in favor of territorial maximalization amongst both the secular and religious population in Israel bore fruit during the 1981 and 1984 elections. Apart from the two parties outlined above, the Gush received much support from leading personalities within the Likud, ranging from Begin and Sharon (the latter as chairman of the Interministerial Settlement Committee during the first years of the Likud government to be followed by Tehiyah leader Yuval Ne'eman) and later the ultra-nationalist Kach leader Meir Kahane.

This wide range of parliamentary support--each instance of which was suitable for particular occasions or demands--enabled the Gush to maintain a high degree of political presence and manipulation. In principle, the Gush resorted to exerting pressure on the Likud government through its supporters in Tehiyah and Matsad or directly through its friends in the Likud itself. During the period 1977-1984, there were occasions when the Gush was dissatisfied with the Likud and resorted to working through other political parties. On more favorable occasions, it could work directly through the Likud coalition. This high level of parliamentary presence meant that Gush Emunim worked with the political system during this period rather than against it. Its fundamental ideas were transformed into hard facts on the ground through political pressure which enabled them to receive resources and aid in their settlement campaign. With the exception of the Camp David Accords, they were a partner rather than an opponent--unlike the period before 1977, when the Labor governments were opposed to Gush Emunim policies. It may even be argued that the Gush prefer to have a Labor government in power against whom they can fully vent their spleen--through demonstrations, establishing illegal settlements and generally raising the public consciousness, actions from which they were considerably daunted while a government favorable to them was in power. It is clear, though, that during the seven-year period from 1977, the fundamentalist outcries were minimal as the Gush became absorbed into the body politic of Israel, albeit in an informal fashion and through their settlement activities.

The Settlement Framework

The most significant power base of Gush Emunim lies in its settlement activities. The Gush has undertaken to implement its philosophy through action, which is aimed at ensuring the continued control over the "whole Land of Israel" and especially over those areas of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) which comprise the heartland of the ancient independent Jewish kingdoms.

In attempting to understand the importance of Gush Emunim as a settlement movement, it is necessary to understand the environment within which new settlements are planned and established in Israel. Traditionally, there has always been a rigid ideological distinction between those settlements termed "urban" and those "rural" in Israel. The latter have always received priority in the allocation of resources due to their perceived ideological superiority. This has led to the development of close political contacts between the government on the one hand (socialist dominated) and the rural settlements on the other (kibbutzim, moshavim, etc.). A major role in this process is played by the settlement movements. Any rural settlement is obliged to be affiliated to a settlement movement, and these in turn are affiliated to particular ideological and/or political parties. Traditionally, this has meant that the various kibbutz and moshav settlement movements have obtained a large degree of power due to their close links with the dominant political parties. The government, in turn, has always been able to control the nature of new settlement development through the aegis of the settlement movements.

For Gush Emunim to establish rural settlements, it was necessary for them to work through a settlement movement. During the formative years, that is before 1977, the government was opposed to the very essence of the Gush political philosophy. As a result, it was not possible for the appropriate framework for planning and development to be legally established. One of the first moves by the Likud government following its election in 1977 was the formal recognition of the Amanah settlement movement of Gush Emunim. This body thus acquired the same legal status as the existing settlement movements and was thus entitled to receive resources and government support through the same legal channels.

Unlike many of the more traditional settlement movements, Amanah is not overtly concerned with the type of settlements established under its aegis but rather with the location of the settlements in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.7 Nevertheless, Amanah has become the major authority to deal with the new type of "rurban" settlements in Israel, more commonly known as the kehillati villages.8 These new settlements were first developed in the West Bank and have now spread to other areas in Israel most particularly the Galilee, a region faced with similar demographic and political problems. A number of additional settlement movements have also become involved in the establishment of these new settlement types, while kehillati villages have become the major focus of activity to be undertaken by the rural planning authorities in the past eight years.

The Amanah settlement movement has developed into a powerful and increasingly technocratic body. It has established various subcommittees similar to those belonging to the other settlement movements, and involves itself in such activities as the selection of new settlers, the provision of industrial aid and advice and a multitude of additional planning activities. Paradoxically, despite its beginnings as a settlement movement based on a more open, freer enterprise approach than the kibbutz or moshav movements, Amanah has become increasingly rigid in its ideological position concerning the proposed development of these settlements. Like all other political organizations, it realizes that the more rigid it is, the stronger its control over its settlements. This has led to a limited amount of antagonism between some of the settlements and Amanah itself. Interviews with this author have revealed that there is also a certain degree of tension between the technocratic approach of the Amanah personnel and that of the ideological/fundamentalist line as laid down by its Gush Emunim political parent.

The Gush Emunim ideology is also promoted through a number of additional bodies, representing the settlements. In the first place, the establishment of regional councils throughout the West Bank has led to the de facto extension of civilian municipal services to this area. Despite the fact that these regional councils receive their authority through an army order (due to the "occupied" status of the territories), the actual functioning of these councils is the same as those within the Green Line. The regional councils collect municipal taxes from the rural settlements and in return supply them with basic services as laid down by the law. In the case of the West Bank, there exist five such regional councils. In all but one case (that of the Jordan Valley--largely unaffected by Gush Emunim settlement), the influential chairmen and regional planners of these councils are members of the Gush Emunim settlements. Thus, these organizations are run by individuals who are able to push for the implementation of the maximalist territorial policies of Gush Emunim.

Other important institutions include a number of private developmental authorities established and managed by Gush Emunim personnel, usually in an informal capacity. These include Chevrat Sheva--a company whose objective it is to raise capital for the development of industrial and economic concerns in the West Bank and Keren Legeulat Ha'adamot--a body whose professed aim is to purchase as much land as possible throughout the West Bank in order to bring it under Jewish control. Mention must also be made of the Mo'etzet Yesha, the ultimate political voice of all the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This body is composed of representatives of all of the settlements. Due to the overall majority of Gush Emunim settlements in these areas, it goes without saying that Gush personalities are also the most dominant in this organization.

The above description points to the high degree of institutionalization undertaken by Gush Emunim in their attempts to translate ideology into action. The only organization mentioned who has any formal affiliation to Gush Emunim as such is that of Amanah. All the other political, settlement and administrative authorities are managed--and to a certain extent manipulated--by Gush personalities, despite the non-formal nature of these activities. The relative success of these activities points to the technocratic, somewhat pragmatic, approach by these functionaries, an approach which is a far cry from the fundamentalist Divine ideology which provided the initial boost for the settlement activities.

The Leaders

It follows from the above that we would expect to find a significant number of Gush Emunim leaders involved in the various political and settlement institutions. Despite the fact that a large number of the functionaries are not necessarily the early ideological founders and leaders of the movement, we would nevertheless not expect to see a total break between the ideological on the one hand and the technocratic on the other. A brief examination of the current positions of a number of the earliest ideological leaders would point to the accuracy of such an assumption.

Of the small group which are reported as having formally decided upon the establishment of Gush Emunim in 1974,9 a number have occupied prominent political positions during the past ten years. Rabbi Druckman has been a member of the Knesset since the 1977 elections, first representing the right wing of the National Religious Party, and more recently the Matsad ultra-nationalist religious party. He has remained true to the Gush Emunim ideals, constantly lobbying for them in the Knesset. The leadership of Chanan Porat came to fruition in his active part in the establishment of the Tehiyah Party, which he represented in the Knesset in 1981-1984. Similarly, the head of the Kiryat Arba Yeshivah, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman currently represents the Tehiyah party in the Knesset. As mentioned above, the important posts of the West Bank regional councils are all occupied by Gush Emunim personalities, the most notable being the head of the Samaria regional council, Benny Katzover, also a prominent member and activist of the Tehiyah party.

It is interesting to note that there has only been one significant personality who while continuing to remain faithful to Gush Emunim ideology has nevertheless remained outside the institutional system. This is the charismatic personality of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, probably the most dynamic, and by far the most fundamentalist, of all the Gush Emunim leading religious figures. It has been argued that Levinger, more than any other personality, has been responsible for the majority of the developments which have taken place in the West Bank since he first arrived to establish the Kiryat Arba suburb of Hebron in 1968. Levinger remains the ultimate prophet of Gush Emunim, a role he plays forcefully, constantly reminding the movement and its followers that its earthly, practical successes are only part of the overall ideological worldview of Gush Emunim. His position as the unofficial head of Gush Emunim suffered a setback early in 1985, when the movement formally appointed a woman as its Secretary General--somewhat surprisingly for an orthodox/religious movement. Nevertheless, Levinger remains the undisputed ideological leader of the movement, and his proclamations are followed with concern by spectator and politician alike.


The relative success of Gush Emunim in establishing a strong settlement framework has been due to its ability to understand and manipulate the existing institutional and political system, rathser than in working against it or for its downfall. This is the very essence of a successful political pressure group. At the same time, the fundamentalist message has been downplayed, despite its message providing the continual undercurrent and raison d'être for the policy implementation.

The fundamentalist, or radical, nature of the movement has nevertheless come to the fore during times of crisis. The very establishment of the movement in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in what has been described as a crisis of identity within Israeli society 10 is indicative of this fact. On two other occasions, the Gush has demonstrated its ability to raise ideological issues. The first of these took place immediately following the Camp David Accords with Egypt, when Gush Emunim and its supporters took a leading role in the Campaign to Stop the Withdrawal From Sinai.11 The discovery of the Jewish underground activity in 1984 similarly resulted in a form of ideological trauma. At first, a deep divide was felt during the immediate period of shock following the disclosure. Some leading Gush personalities even went as far as disassociating themselves from the activities of the suspects. Nevertheless, there has since been a gradual convergence of opinion within Gush Emunim, towards sympathizing with these extreme activities and their perpetrators. This was highlighted in the formal "rebirth" of Gush Emunim as a movement, following a period in which it had taken second place to the various settlement institutions outlined above. Furthermore, in early 1985, Gush Emunim became responsible for the welfare of the suspects and their families, a task which had been undertaken previously by an independent organization. In both the case of Sinai and that of the underground, fundamental ideological questions were brought to the fore, the answers to which could only be found by resort to the theological rather than the practical.

Thus the Gush Emunim phenomenon has been maintained through two parallel streams. On the one hand there has been the gradual political institutionalization and manipulation described above. On the other, there has remained a loose configuration of spiritual personalities who continue to retain the fundamentalist/radical image which is commonly attributed to the movement. But the ability to implement this viewpoint does not require revolutionary or structural change. This has led to a certain degree of tension between the pragmatic and the technocratic on the one side with the ideological and the philosophical on the other. But such tension has not created a threat of any serious break between the two, as it is recognized that the fundamental provides the basic raison d'être for the actions carried out. Without the fundamental there would be no other level of operation.

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About the Author

David Newman teaches at the Department of Geography, Tel Aviv University.


1. The colloquium was held at the Truman Institute in May 1985. A number of unpublished papers mentioned in the following notes were delivered on this occasion.

2. W. Nicholls, "Fundamentalist and other Western Christian Attitudes towards the Arab-Israel Conflict" (unpublished).

3. The most comprehensive analysis of the Gush Emunim movement, its beliefs and its actions are provided in D. Newman (ed,), The Impact of Gush Emunim, Croom Helm: London. 1985,

4. M. Friedman, "Radical Religious Groups in Israel--Conservatism and Innovation" (unpublished).

5. See, E. Sprinzak, "Extreme Politics in Israel," The Jerusalem Quarterly, No.5 (1977), pp. 33-47.

6. For an analysis of the secular-religious problem, see J. Bauer, "A New Approach to Religious-Secular Relationships?" Chapter 5, pp. 91-110 in D. Newman (ed.) op. cit.

7. Amanah has also established one settlement, Mitzpeh Netofah, in the Lower Galilee. This settlement became affiliated with Amanah due to the technical expertise offered by the latter and not because of any ideological sympathies or affiliation.

8. "Rurban" is here defined as being a small settlement located in a rural environment, but whose functions are urban (commuting, industrial, etc.). Such a settlement has both rural and urban characteristics. See, D. Newman, "The Development of the Yishuv Kehillati in Judea and Samaria: Political Process and Settlement Form," Tijdschrijt voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, Vol. 75 (2), 1984, pp. 140-150.

9. The establishment of Gush Emunim is recounted in Nekudah (the West Bank settlement journal) marking the tenth anniversary of Gush Emunim in February 1984.

10. L. Weissbrod, "Core values and Revolutionary Change," Chap. 4, pp. 70-90 in D. Newman (ed), op. cit.

11. See G. Aran, "Eretz Israel: Between Politics and Religion--The Movement to Stop the Withdrawal from Sinai." (Hebrew), Jerusalem (The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Research papers, No.18) 1985.


The Nature of a Fundamentalist Movement
Policy Implementation and Institutionalization
The Political Framework
The Settlement Framework
The Leaders
About the Author

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