The Messianic roots of the modern settler movement

  • Themes: Israel-Palestine

Sometimes the Israeli government and the settlers’ aims are in conflict and sometimes they intersect. Today they are as closely intertwined as they have ever been.

Jewish settlers protest at Tapuach, a major junction in the northern West Bank, 30 April 2013.
Jewish settlers protest at Tapuach, a major junction in the northern West Bank, 30 April 2013. Credit: Imago / Alamy Stock Photo

In a conflict as intractable as that between Israel and the Palestinians who live in the territories it conquered and occupied in 1967 very little changes, except the scale of fighting in Gaza and the pace of annexation in the West Bank.

In the first month after the atrocity of 7 October ignited war on Hamas, 900 Palestinians were forced off their land by West Bank settlers. So far in 2023, at least 2,000 Palestinians have been displaced.

The first time I heard the expression ‘From the river to the sea’, it was spoken by a South African- born Israeli in April 2001. The Second Intifada had just got underway and the Likud party’s Ariel Sharon had just been elected Prime Minister. The young man who assured me that from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea would be just for Jews was named Natan.  He was a member of the Ateret Cohanim, a religious Zionist group using purchasing power and intimidation to end the Arab presence in Jerusalem’s Old City and areas leading into the West Bank. I was interviewing him in the group’s yeshiva on al-Wad street in the Arab Quarter of the Old City.

To understand what is happening in the West Bank today you need to understand that there are two kinds of settlement. There are official West Bank settlements that are bedroom communities for Jerusalem. Places like Ma’ale Adumim and Har Homa. They were marked out on maps going back to the early 20th century when the city and environs were an Ottoman sanjak.

These suburbs are the facts on the ground that fulfill the promise made by the first Likud Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, elected in 1977, that Judea and Samaria, biblical names for the West Bank, would always be part of Israel. Palestinians could have autonomy but not sovereignty there.

Then there are the settlements of religious/messianic Zionists, like Natan of Ateret Cohanim, who think they are in some way re-enacting the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible. Sometimes the government and the settlers’ aims are in conflict and sometimes they intersect. Today they are as closely intertwined as they have ever been.

The modern settler movement began in the years after the 1967 War. Initially, the focus of settlement building was along the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai peninsula, just around the curve of the sea from Gaza. There is a small strip of arable land by the coast and a city of 200,000 called Yamit was planned.

A template was laid down when construction on Yamit began in 1972. First: Evictions of indigenous population – in this case Bedouins – done as quietly as possible, with the Israeli government playing a role in the process. In Yamit, future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led the evictions. Second, Jews making aliyah, returning to Israel to live, would make up a significant number of the settlers. Third: a segment of Israeli society who reject occupation would organise protests. Among the leaders of protests against the Bedouin evictions in Yamit was Oded Lifshitz who was snatched from his home in kibbutz Nir Oz on 7 October, and is currently held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

The final part of the Yamit template was this: as part of its separate peace with Egypt following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent Camp David Accords, Israel agreed to give back the Sinai peninsula. Yamit was dismantled just a few years after it opened. A few settlers vowed to stay and Israel Defense Force troops were sent in to remove them. The settlers threatened to commit mass suicide. They were followers of a radical American rabbi named Meir Kahane.

Kahane is a key, if malign, figure in the unfolding catastrophe in Israel and the West Bank. He was a racist, Jewish supremacist. Before moving to Israel he had been an FBI informant in America and the founder in 1968 of a vigilante group called the Jewish Defense League, which operated with violence against perceived enemies of the Jewish people. At the time of its foundation that meant first, African Americans in inner city neighbourhoods where there was tension with working class Jews who could not afford to join the white flight exodus to the suburbs. The JDL then moved on to confronting Arab-Americans and the Soviet Union.

The JDL slogans were ‘Never Again!’, a reference to the Holocaust, and ‘Jewish Power!’. Assassinations and bombings would eventually lead the FBI to designate the JDL a terrorist organisation but by then Kahane was in Israel and had founded a political party, Kach. He was elected to the Knesset in 1984 on a platform: to expel all Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Territories. As in the US, his support came from poorer Israelis, mostly immigrants from Arab countries who had been forced from their homes at the time of Israel’s founding. His hate-filled rhetoric spoke to their hearts.

Kahane would ultimately be expelled from the Knesset for his anti-Arab racism. At one session, he brought in a noose and threatened an Arab member of the parliament with it. He was expelled in 1988 and Kach was banned. In 1990, Kahane was gunned down at a fund-raising dinner in New York by an Egyptian-American. The Golden Rule is ‘Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you’ but in the Israel-Palestine conflict it is, ‘Do unto others first, before they do it unto you.’

Many thought the death of Kahane would mean the end of his movement, especially when, three years later, the Oslo Accords were signed. Oslo established a process that might have led to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in five years. In fact, the idea of Palestinian control of the West Bank and Gaza revived his Jewish Supremacist movement.

Baruch Goldstein was an American-born settler living in Kiryat Arba, a settlement of several hundred in Hebron, a West Bank City with a Palestinian population of around 200,000. In 1994 he went into the Cave of the Patriarchs, reputedly the site where Abraham and his family are buried, and shot 29 worshippers dead in a mosque on the site. The following year, Yigal Amir, not a settler at Kiryat Arba but drawn into their orbit by Goldstein’s act, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At Rabin’s funeral, his widow Leah refused to shake the hand of a fast-rising Likud politician, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had a radio show which he used to relentlessly criticise the Oslo agreement. In the weeks before the assassination, Netanyahu used the Jewish N-word to describe Rabin: he called him a Nazi and a traitor. This encouraged many who still followed Kahane’s teaching to call for Rabin’s murder. Among them a teenager named Itamar Ben-Givr.

Of the 28 years since Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for more than half of them. All Israeli governments are coalitions and his most recent government, formed at the very end of 2022, includes Itamar Ben Gvir, who now lives in Qiryat Arba and reportedly keeps a portrait of Baruch Goldstein on his office wall. To get Ben-Gvir to join the coalition, Netanyahu created a new cabinet post for him: Minister of National Security, with responsibility for the West Bank.

As I said at the beginning, the only thing that changes in Israel/Palestine is the scale of violence and speed of annexation. The other thing that doesn’t change is the malign legacy of Meir Kahane and the willingness of too many in Israel and the Jewish diaspora to ignore it.


Michael Goldfarb