Gush Emunim: The "Iceberg Model" of Extremism Reconsidered by Kevin Avruch

Gush Emunim:
The "Iceberg Model" of Extremism Reconsidered


Kevin Avruch


Middle East Review

published by
The American Academic Association for Peace in the Middle East
Volume XXI, No. 1
Winter 1988
pp. 27-33


In 1981 the Israeli political scientist Ehud Sprinzak published a paper on the irredentist Israeli religio-political movement Gush Emunim ("The Bloc of the Faithful") entitled "The Iceberg Model of Political Extremism." 1 In it he argued that the Gush is best understood not as a classical protest movement, like the Israeli Black Panthers, nor as a small ideological group, like some on the New Israeli Left, nor even as a political counter-culture, like the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta. Instead, the Gush is to be best understood as the extremist tip of a large social and cultural "iceberg," in effect a religious subculture, which supports and nurtures the Gush. Pyramidal in structure, this iceberg—Gush's social and political bases of support—broadens as one moves from the politically extremist tip to the non-extremist base.

Among its other virtues, Sprinzak's iceberg metaphor allows one to see easily that Gush Emunim did not arise de novo or from a social vacuum. The support for the Gush, like the submerged base of a pelagic iceberg, is much broader and more ramified than appears to observers on the surface. To understand the Gush demands consideration of the religious subculture and social structure that underlie it. In all this Sprinzak was basically correct. But in attempting to develop his iceberg metaphor he ran aground.

First, he imagined his iceberg in more tropical waters: a Likud Government which, until the Camp David Accords at least, seemed to support Gush's West Bank settlements almost unequivocally. In these warmer waters the iceberg melted somewhat and the tip lost is "acuity": extremism was muted. Then he imagined the frosty weather returning after Camp David with the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the dismantling of Yamit and the tip becoming sharp once again. But Sprinzak invoked the iceberg image primarily because it enabled him to argue that the non-extremist base—the submerged, larger part of the iceberg—would serve to limit and temper the political extremism of the tip. Thus, though there may be more to Gush than meets the surface-bound eye, it is not so frightening, by which Sprinzak explicitly meant, "anti-democratic."

Whatever his gifts as an imagist, Sprinzak is clearly no sailor. For sailors know that the dangerous part of an iceberg is the invisible portion beneath the surface. And this part is so dangerous because it is made of exactly the same material as the observable tip: hard and unforgiving ice. An iceberg is ice from top to bottom. Its broad base does not limit or temper it in any conceivable way, but simply gives it more mass. So too with the religious subculture and social structure that underlies Gush.

By 1985, when Sprinzak's 1981 iceberg piece was reprinted,2 Israeli security had already broken the West Bank Jewish terrorist underground responsible for planting bombs which injured the Arab mayors of Nablus and Ramallah and an Israeli sapper in El Bira, and for launching an attack on the Islamic College of Hebron. It was soon evident that this underground had direct links with Gush Emunim. The reprinted version of Sprinzak's article added a Postscript that attempted to deal with this untempered (and unpredicted) extremism by arguing that the "vigilante" aspect of Gush had been overlooked.

In his most recent exploration of Gush and the iceberg,3 Sprinzak analyzed court testimony and conducted his own interviews with some of the defendants in the "Jewish terrorist underground" case. His research revealed that the links of the underground to Gush—indeed to its rabbis, the spiritual center of gravity of the movement—were very extensive. As early as 1978 (when the Gush iceberg was supposedly basking in the warm, pre-Camp David warm waters of Likud munificence, the tip was becoming less acute, and extremism was muted) leaders of what he now calls the "Gush Emunim underground" met not to talk about reprisals for Arab West Bank violence or PLO terrorism, vigilantism, but to plan for nothing less than the dynamiting of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque. It is now clear that the base of Gush Emunim's support may not temper its extremism but rather lend it political and social mass. And it is clear also that this has implications for the democratic character of the Israeli polity.

To return to Sprinzak's metaphor for the last time, it is as if what he originally perceived as a free-floating iceberg was no iceberg at all, but an ice mountain standing square on the continental shelf.


Since its founding in 1974, Gush Emunim has dedicated itself to Jewish settlement of the entire biblical Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, as a prelude to the Messiah's coming. Analyses attribute the rise of Gush to three sets of factors.

The first set is comprised of the great events of recent Israeli history. The Six-Day War was the seminal event: it not only reunited Jerusalem but also brought Jordan's West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, under Israeli control. The swift course of the war and its decisive outcome were seen by many as miraculous and a sign of the Messianic imminence. The establishment of the Whole Land of Israel Movement, a precursor to Gush, dates from this period. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the subsequent shock, anomie, and feeling of betrayal by the political leadership, are likewise seen to have precipitated the formation of Gush, out of a fear that this near-defeat, too, was another divine sign suggesting that the momentum of Redemption was being lost.

The second factor usually cited as having encouraged the rise of Gush is the ideological vacuum created by the demise of secular, leftist, Labor Zionism. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, various analysts took varied approaches in attempting to explain this demise. Invoking Weber, I described the routinization of Zionist charisma.4 Lilly Weissbrod5 talked about the national "crisis of identity," while Daniel Elazar,6 among others, stressed the "end of ideology" in Israeli politics. In a particularly provocative analysis, Yonathan Shapiro7 posited the failure of the first-born (secular) sabra generation to question the authority of the Zionist founders of the State. Concentrating their energies on military careers, they left politics to the old men (and Golda Meir) and never formulated an independent worldview. But whatever theory or vocabulary one favors in attempting to account for the demise, the fact of the demise is itself incontrovertible. The old and powerful symbols of the Zionist movement had either lost their affective and political potency—how can one call for the dissolution of the Jewish Diaspora and the Ingathering of Exiles when native-born Israelis are leaving the country in large numbers every month?—or were captured and transformed by the new ideologies (that of Gush, for example) that were arising. The old value of "the pioneering spirit" for the reclamation of the Land, indeed for self-actualization, so important to the kibbutz movements of the 1930s and '40s became the value invoked in the late 1970s and '80s to found and populate the so-called yishuv kehillati and kfar kehillati—the suburban bedroom communities, if such banal terms can be applied to such incendiary places—on the West Bank.

The third factor cited in attempts to account for the rise of Gush addresses the substance of what filled the vacuum created by the demise of secular Labor Zionism. What filled the vacuum was not the ideology associated with the Jabotinsky-Begin social and economic program—right-of-center liberalism, free-market capitalism, and anti-collectivism—but rather its maximalist and irredentist territorial claims. But such claims do not by themselves constitute a compelling ideology. One can advocate them for reasons of realpolitik negotiation or military security (as was done by the Allon Plan, which sanctioned Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley, but not the West Bank in general, for example). Instead, what did come to constitute an ideology—the "New Zionism," as many have termed it—was the linking of this maximalist territorialism to a particular construction of the Jewish messianic idea.

When we consider this particular construction of the Jewish messianic idea, we are very close to plumbing the "genuine" religious subculture and social structure, as Sprinzak puts it, that form the base of Gush Emunim's support. But first we must differentiate this one construction of Jewish messianism from others. In other words, we must specify the variant of Judaism, and the configuration of the religiously Jewish establishment (political parties, etc.) that will comprise the primary forces for social and political change in Israel in the years to come.


Messianism has no inherent linkage with territorialism and Zionist nationalism. Indeed, the initial response of pious and Orthodox Jews to the goals of secular Zionist pioneers in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) was exceedingly hostile. The Orthodox viewed Zionist attempts to set up a Jewish state as heretical, since only God, according to His own timetable, can establish the Third Jewish Commonwealth. For men to attempt this is to force God's hand. Even today the Neturei Karta still deny the legitimacy of Israel for these reasons, and for what they regard as its general impiety and Godlessness.

Thus Orthodoxy and Zionism had to be construed in a special way to enable even some Orthodox Jews to ally themselves with secular Zionists. This was accomplished by those Orthodox Jews—primarily Rabbi A.I. Kook (1865-1935), a spiritual founder of Gush—who argued that attempts to found a Jewish state were divinely inspired, even if the secularists who took part in them did not themselves know this. Religious Jews should therefore support the Zionist enterprise, and later the state of Israel, in aid of the larger process of Redemption.

This messianism is the principal ideological foundation of "religious Zionism," although it is true that in the actual organization of religious Zionist parties, such as Hamizrahi in 1902 by Rabbi I.J. Reines (1839-1915) a more pragmatic and this-wordly orientation was evident. Occasionally, in fact, Rabbi Kook criticized Hamizrahi for what he regarded as its excessive involvement in the quotidian politics of the Yishuv. But it is precisely this combination of messianic belief with pragmatic political organization and involvement that is still the basis for alliances made today in the "Land of Israel Movement" between the Orthodox of Gush Emunim and secularists who support maximalist territorial claims and settlements. Such an alliance gave rise in 1981 to the political party Tehiya (in 1984 elections Tehiya-Tzomet), which included Orthodox and secularists, and ran on one issue, the imposition of Israeli sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza. In 1981 the party captured three, and in 1984 five, seats in the Knesset.

Thus in jumping from the pre-State days of Rabbi A.I. Kook to the founding of parties like Tehiya, or of extra-parliamentary movements like Gush Emunim, it is important not to give the impression that messianism and Redemption were motivating ideologies central to the political agendas of religious Zionist parties. They were not. Until the Six-Day War and the birth of Gush these concepts were very far from the center. At the center of the day-to-day agendas of the religious parties in Israel, whether Zionist (such as the National Religious Party) or non-Zionist (for example, Agudat Israel), were goals much humbler than hastening the End of Days. They were the goals of maintaining the status quo position of Judaism (as recognized under the Ottoman millet system and later the British Mandate) in a predominantly secular state. On the eve of independence, Ben-Gurion conceded some additional gains for the Orthodox, such as state funding of a religious school system, and the enforcement of kashrut in public institutions.

In this period the role of the non-Zionist Orthodox right-wing Agudat Israel, (which did not join a governing coalition between 1952 and 1977) was to keep pressure on the Zionist Orthodox, the NRP, to ensure that no backsliding on religion took place. Occasionally, even if it meant the embarrassment of the NRP as a coalition partner, Aguda would try to push NRP to support the extension of Orthodox religion's influence in the society. (And, although politics in Mea Shearim get a bit opaque to outsiders, it is likely that Aguda was looking over its shoulder to its right, pressured by the anti-Zionist haredi rabbis and their yeshivas.) There were times in the 1950s and 1960s when fierce clashes (not unlike those of today) took place in the streets between the ultra-Orthodox and secularists. This was the time when observers began to predict a Kulturkampf between the groups. Then, as today, the basic dispute, raised by the Law of Return and Nationality Law and not yet resolved, was over who gets to define the meaning of Jewish in the Jewish state.

But for all the conflict and the looking-over of one's shoulder toward one's religious right, for the first thirty years of the state's existence, when religious Zionist parties in one guise or another were part of the ruling Labor coalition for government after government, their primary goal was to use coalition partnership to make sure the position of halakha (Rabbinic law) was not eroded in law. In return for this, the religious parties gave parliamentary support to the secular parties and leaders who were allowed a more-or-less free hand to shape economic and foreign policies.

What changed the orientation within the Zionist religious parties from that of a single-issue ("protect Judaism"), pragmatic "camp party,"8 to support of extremist visionaries whose settlement activities would transform Israel's foreign, domestic and economic policies so radically? The answers lie in changes in the religious subcultures and political institutions of Israel. Once again the Six-Day War may be seen as the crucial, precipitating event, but only because certain transformations had already begun to occur among (predominantly Ashkenazi) segments of religious Zionist youth in the decade preceding the war. These had been nurtured in a special track of a revitalized religious state educational system.


By 1953 Israel had made three separate educational tracks available to Jewish youth. Two were controlled directly by the state, under ministerial direction: the "state-secular" and "state-religious" (that is, Zionist-religious) tracks. The third was independent of ministerial controls over curriculum and faculty, but received subsidies from the state. The state-religious ("Mizrahi") system was patronized by the National Religious Party, and many of the students in it were Jews of Oriental (Afro-Asian) origin. The third track, consisting of traditional yeshivot on the Eastern European pattern, had the patronage of the Agudat Israel party. Many individual yeshivot also successfully solicited funds from Orthodox Jewish communities outside Israel. The student body of the third track was composed of Ashkenazi non-Zionist Orthodox and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox (haredi).

By the late 1950s the Mizrahi system, especially at the high-school level, came under severe criticism by many religious Zionists. The teaching staff was suspected of lacking religious devotion, and the curriculurn was criticized for not giving enough instruction in Talmud. The basic complaint was that the schools were failing to stop the secularization of Israeli society by failing to hold religious youth to the pious path. Attempts to overcome this dissatisfaction (and especially the efforts of the youth movement of the National Religious Party, B'nei Akiva) led to the establishment of yet another track of secondary schools within the Mizrahi system. These were high schools that were modeled in some ways on the traditional yeshiva pattern of the Agudat Israel—they were boarding schools and stressed the study of Talmud, for example. But they had the important difference that they enabled and encouraged students to Perform military service and land-settlement national service (Nahal), which the Agudat and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas did not.

The student body in these schools is overwhelmingly middle-class and Ashkenazi. The establishment of these schools caused an Ashkenazi exodus from the existing Mizrahi high schools. These were left with a student body comprised overwhelmingly of low class and Oriental youth (social categories that seem intractably coterminous in Israel). The older track of religious-Zionist secondary education has languished.

The new yeshivas had other, far-reaching effects. Sociologically, they created cohorts of young men (yeshivas for females were added in the 1960s) who went through school, army service (often in the same units), Nahal service, back to yeshiva again, and out into the world, all as a solidary group. Israelis call these cohorts the "knitted skullcap" (kipa srugah) generation. Culturally, they helped to engender a rendering of Judaism—more precisely, of the role Judaism should play in Israeli society that was significantly different from that promoted by their Mafdal elders. In their vigorous pursuit of piety, in fact, the "knitted skullcaps" were closer to the non-Zionist Agudat Israel. Where they differed from the Aguda was in linking this increased traditional concern with piety to a Zionist concern with the transformation of Israeli-Jewish society, and in subsuming these concerns under an old Zionist symbol, now messianically transformed and empowered: settlement of the Land. And the land is on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

After the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, part of this cohort formed the "Young Guard" faction within the National Religious Party. This faction was an important early source of support for Gush Emunim, and much later (in time for the 1981 and 1984 Knesset elections) an important source of strength for the smaller political parties—Tehiya and Morasha especially—that have weakened the National Religious Party by siphoning off parts of its former constituency. Twenty years ago one of the leaders of this faction, pushing his elders in the NRP, the Zionist religious establishment, to be more open to Gush and less defensive about the role Judaism should play in Israel, was Zevulun Hammer. Today he represents the Zionist religious establishment; he is Minister of Religious Affairs.

It is ironic that the failure to react against their elders and formulate an independent world view (and an effective political apparatus) that Shapiro9 blames on the secular sabra inheritors of the Labor tradition did not occur in the camp of the religious Zionists. In fact, the opposite occurred. The irony is that the generational revolution occurred in the religious camp, among those dedicated to upholding "tradition "—and not in the secular-Labor camp, among those dedicated to social change.

Coming out of shared experiences in revitalized yeshiva high schools and the army, and no longer defensive in their piety (a charge which they had levelled against their elders) the knitted skullcap generation injected a new religious activism into Israeli politics. No longer content with a narrow concern for maintaining the status quo ante to protect the role of Judaism in society, they soon came to their proper concern as the expansion of Judaism's role in all aspects of life—social, political, economic, and foreign policy-related—in the Jewish state. When the "old" National Religious Party failed to fulfill these functions, the "knitted skullcaps" did not hesitate to support, indeed to create, other parties as instruments for realizing their goals. Because of the proportional-list system of Israel politics and the disproportionately large role that relatively small parties can play due to the politics of coalition-formation, they have been successful in attaining many of these goals. And finally, because of their goals were linked to messianic and cosmic values—the advent of the Third Jewish Commonwealth and the End Of Days—some among them never hesitated to set up other instrumentalities that stood outside political parties and the parliamentary process entirely: in the mid-1970s, Gush Emunim; in the late 1970s, its West Bank settlement arm, Amana; and in the 1980s, the terrorist underground.


Increased, and increasingly effective, activism in the political arena is one way to measure the success of the new religious Zionists. Another yardstick is the rise of the New Zionism itself. To some this has become the new Israeli civil religion, one which borrows heavily from the traditional symbols of Judaism.10 While not identical to the Orthodox Judaism of Agudat Israel and the haredi, the new civil religion affirms commitment to Judaism as the sine qua non of the modern Jewish state. Rejecting the universalism and anti-clericalism of the Yishuv's Leftist Zionism, it injects the Talmud and post-Exilic Jewish history into the biblical and statist civil religion of Ben-Gurion's time. It is against the background of the new civil religion that one understands the return of Jewish ritual to secular kibbutzim, or the fascination (and apparent sympathy) of secular Israelis with the phenomenon of the secular Jew who "returns" as a penitent to the folds of Orthodoxy.11

The key questions about the New zionism and the new civil religion do not concern political activism alone—the formation of this new party or that new faction within an old party. Rather, they concern the extent to which the terms of political debate have been changed, and the nature of political discourse reconstituted, by a religious Zionism that pushes Israeli political culture toward something closer to religious Zionism's own image of tradition. Even the opposition to the New Zionism of Gush Emunim on the question of West Bank settlements, such as Oz Veshalom and Netivot Shalom, is framed within the terms of this tradition: halakha rather than demographics, is the idiom of opposition.

In light of this, we can no longer view the broad base of Sprinzak's iceberg as a moderating influence on extremism. Instead, we must wonder about its implications for framing the political debate in Israel that might accompany any Jewish withdrawal from the West Bank similar to the withdrawal from Sinai. The implications seem ominous. Israeli troops were called in to clear Gush Emunim out of the town of Yamit. Serious confrontation was avoided, to be sure; on the other hand the Sinai was not considered a part of biblical Israel, while Judea and Samaria together were biblical Israel. But more than this, a political discourse that is constituted by the symbols and canons of revelatory, nationalistic, and Orthodox-like Judaism may be many things, but it cannot be the political discourse of a democracy.

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About the Author

Dr. Kevin Avruch is a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University. This paper was written with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Parts of it were presented at the 41st annual conference of the Middle East Institute, in October, 1987, in Washington D.C. For their comments on earlier drafts the author thanks Sheila Avruch, Shaul Bakhash, Peter Black, and Aliza Kolker.


1. See Ehud Sprinzak, "Gush Emunim—The Iceberg Model of Political Extremism." Medina, Mimshal Veyahasim Binleumiyyim (State, Government and International Relations) 14; 25-52, 1981.

2. In David Newman, editor, The Impact of Gush Emunim: Politics and Settlement in the West Bank. (New York; St. Martin's Press, 1985).

3. Ehud Sprinzak, "Fundamentalism, Terrorism, and Democracy; The Case of the Gush Emunim Underground." (Washington, D.C.; The Wilson Center, Occasional Paper Number 4, 1986).

4. In Kevin Avruch, "Gush Emunim: Politics, Religion and Ideology in Israel." Middle East Review 11 (2); 26-31, 1978; and also "Traditionalizing Israeli Nationalism: The Development of Gush Emunim." Political Psychology 1 (1); 47-57, 1979.

5. See Lilly Weissbrod, "Core Values and Revolutionary Change," in Newman, op. cit.

6. See Daniel Elazar, "Israel's Compound Polity." In H.R. Penniman, editor, Israel at the Polls (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1979).

7. Yonathan Shapiro, "Generational Units and Intergenerational Relations in Israeli Politics." In Asher Arian, editor, Israel: A Developing Society. (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1980).

8. Menachem Friedman, "The NRP in Transition—Behind the Party's Electoral Decline." In D. Caspi, A. Diskin, and E. Guttman, editors, The Roots of Begin's Success. (London: Croom Helm, 1983).

9. Shapiro, op. cit.

10. See Charles S. Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya, Civil Religion in Israel. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

11. The phenomenon of the secular Jew who "returns" to Orthodoxy in Israel is described and analyzed by Janet Aviad, in Return to Judaism: Religious Renewal in Israel. (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1983).

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