After the war his students, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, remembered. Rabbi Levinger located the new settlers within the historic mainstream of Zionism: “Like emigrants and settlers at the turn of the century and the kibbutz farmers, we, too, are pioneers.” The overwhelming majority of he early settlers, in Gush Etzion, Hebron, and Samaria, were religious Zionists.
To be sure, as the years passed secular Israelis searching for affordable housing relocated into sparkling new settlements that were appealingly accessible to major Israeli cities. Now the largest settlements, closest to Jerusalem, are ultra-Orthodox communities. But the pioneering stronghold of religious Zionism is Hebron, where 700 Jews and their 6,000 Kiryat Arba neighbors (surrounded by more than 100,000 Arabs), remain faithful to its centrality in Jewish history and determined to continue three millennia of Jewish habitation there.
With all that is happening in the Middle East, the Israeli left (enthusiastically supported recently by J Street) continues to cling to its dogma that Israeli “occupation” is the axis on which the region turns. But this anti-settlement fervor should be recognized for what it is, and always has been: an expression of the fear of secular Zionists – including prime ministers across party lines – that religious Zionism may yet challenge their cultural and political hegemony.
For that partisan impulse to override Israel’s ever more precarious security situation could be catastrophic. It already confronts Hamas in Gaza (with Mubarak no longer available to enforce the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty), and Hizbullah, controlled and armed by Iran, on its northern border. Israel hardly needs to add a vulnerable eastern border, where even Jordan has recently rumbled with internal discontent.
More than ever, Israel’s security – and, perhaps, survival – depends upon its continued control of the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, where there is a string of Jewish settlements stretching from Ariel to Hebron. These ridges, demographer Yoram Ettinger observes, “constitute the ‘Golan Heights’ of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” where 80 percent of Israelis live.
Considered in this geopolitical context, Israeli settlements are not an “obstacle to peace” but a vital security barrier. Middle Eastern turbulence and uncertainty should not be permitted to override reality. And Israeli prime ministers might recognize that international law – however distorted its current restatements – protects, rather than undermines, Jewish settlements.
The largest Jewish settlement in the Middle East, after all, is the State of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena,” to be published this spring.