The new Jews

The new Jews

Teaneck professor examines settlement movement in ‘Our Promised Land’


Our Promised Land

When Dr. Charles Selengut was growing up in Manhattan he learned the Jewish response to an anti-Semitic insult or a potential fight.

“We were told to run away,” he recalled recently.

Today Dr. Selengut lives in Teaneck; the former student at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn is now a professor of sociology at County College of Morris in Randolph. His new book, “Our Promised Land: Faith and Militant Zionism in Israeli Settlements” examines the “revolution” he has seen in his lifetime. The one that began with Israel’s Gush Emunim, its settlement movement, and has spread through Orthodox Jewish communities around the world.

“The settlement movement said Jews in the State of Israel or the diaspora won’t accept their inferior pariah status, but would become not passive but aggressive and determined to establish their own identity,” he said. “This is a psychological stance that is new in Jewish history. As a sociologist, I saw it transforming contemporary Judaism. Almost all modern Orthodox Jews are now supporters of the settler movement.” And though charedi leaders reject the movement, with its messianic claims, “If you talk to the charedi people in the streets, there’s a great deal of sympathy.”

While the psychological reality it has created is new, Dr. Selengut shows how the settler movement draws on ancient strands in classical Jewish teachings.

“Our Promised Land” was named one of the ten best religion books of 2015 by the American Library Association. It combines fieldwork — many visits to the settlements and interviews with their residents, starting a decade ago and intensively between 2010 and 2012 — with an analysis of their religious beliefs, as seen through the teachings of such pivotal yet seldom translated figures as Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who was the son of Israel’s first chief rabbi and the spiritual guide behind the founders of Gush Emunim in the early 1970s.

“One of the tragedies in Israeli intelligence and in the American Jewish community is the refusal to acknowledge the power of religious motivations,” Dr. Selengut said. “What motivates religious settlers is not political issues or economic issues, but a feeling that history is on our side, that God promised us this land, and that even through suffering we will somehow inherit our rightful land.”

The key religious innovation of the settlers, he said, is the belief that “the creation of the State of Israel means the messianic era has occurred and everything has changed. We can make war. This is not Poland, this is not Baghdad. We can defend ourselves.”

He cites a quotation from Rabbi Kook, who died in 1982: “The Ramban” — Nachmanides, a 13th century halachic authority — “clearly determines that conquering the Land of Israel to ensure Jewish sovereignty is the milchemet mitzvah, holy war, of the Torah. This is a precept of the Torah and there is no getting around it.”

Rabbi Kook acknowledged that this mitzvah hadn’t been practiced in previous generations — “Because we were in a situation where, against our will, we could not.”

But today, Rabbi Kook said, “we have the weapons of war and this precept has returned to our hand. Torah, war, and settlements are three sides of a triangle. and how incredibly  privileged we are to be assertive in all.”

Charles Selengut
Charles Selengut

Dr. Selengut said this idea was not exclusive to Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, an American Talmudist who taught at Yeshiva University, similarly “justified holy war on this basis,” Dr. Selengut said, and ruled that “It is obligatory for the Jewish people to engage in battle” against any gentile nation that seeks to deter Jews from rights in the whole Land of Israel.

In short, Dr. Selengut said, the settlers “have a great deal of halachic and rabbinic data on their side. You can argue against them — the charedim do that — but one cannot argue that they’re de novum.”

Besides having historical rabbis on their side, they also claim the mantle of the lessons of 20th century Jewish history, he said. That gives their cause resonance among Jews who don’t necessarily take the Talmud and its commentators as holy writ.

“The argument of the settlers is that the whole Zionist movement was imbued with faith that was realized, even though it didn’t seem rational or realistic,” he said. “If I were to say to a German Jewish burgher in Munich in 1920 that there would be  a Holocaust or State of Israel, he would have laughed.”

Yet there are plenty of debates within the settler movement. Dr. Selengut finds the largest fault line to be generational. “Among the young people, under 35, there’s much more militancy, a sense the leadership betrayed them, disappointed them,” he said. “That shocked me.”

The sense of betrayal is rooted in Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was traumatic for religious Zionists. “They say their rabbis promised them they would never have to leave Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip,” Dr. Selengut said.

Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who succeeded Rabbi Kook as head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and served as Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi for a decade, had promised that God would prevent the withdrawal.

God didn’t.

“We can’t trust them,” Dr. Selengut quoted this generation as saying of the older generation of rabbis and leaders. “All we have is ourselves.”

This has led many of them to embrace a militancy that the older generation, the generation that founded the settlements on hilltops in the West Bank, largely rejected. The militancy takes the form of so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinian and sometimes Israeli government targets. While most attacks consisted of vandalism or property damage, in July the phrase “price tag” was left on the scene of a fire bombing in Duma in the West Bank that killed a Palestinian infant and his parents.

“The settler movement presents itself as very mainstream but there are elements that are gurgling under the surface that are very Kahanist in their outlook,” he said.

Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg is a central figure in these extremist circles.

“The settlement establishment can’t stand him, but he’s a very important figure,” Dr. Selengut said. “Hundreds of young people come to his lectures. He articulates their concerns. De facto he has a lot of ground troops. He’s a version of Meir Kahane; more sophisticated perhaps.

“Yitzhak Ginsburg has the idea that for kavod, the honor of the Jewish people, violence may be legitimate.” This is a variation of a statement by Rabbi Kahane that Dr. Selengut quotes in his book: “A Jewish fist in the face of an astonished Gentile that has not seen it for two millennia, this is Kiddush Hashem,” sanctifying God’s name.

“That also is not new,” Dr. Selengut said, noting the idea’s origins in the Zionist thought of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his Beitar movement. “These things have histories.”

Dr. Selengut said that Rabbi Ginsburg and his followers are mistakenly dismissed by mainstream supporters of the settlement movement as “crazy people” and “homeless people.”

“This is their opinion,” he said. “It’s not the truth.”

Dr. Selengut came to the project of “Our Promised Land” in part to answer the question of how Zionism became messianic, in part because he saw “a new Jew, people who were frum, Torah observant, determined to take their destiny into their own hands.”

It also served as a more focused follow-up to his previous book, “Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence,” which looked at all the Western religions to ask “How is it that an institution like religion, that preaches love and kindness and chesed, also kills and maims people in its name?

“There are two sides of religion. One is loving kindness, loving the other as you love yourself. On the other hand, there is the idea that we have to kill the infidel, we have to follow our scriptures and kill those that disagree with us. There’s a tension in all religions between those two. I try to show how this develops in the Western traditions and try to offer some ways out.

“You see it in Islam. Islam talks about tolerating other religions but there’s a lot of violence. You see it in Christianity in the religious wars. Even in Judaism, think of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Or even with the chief rabbinate, where people convert and they’re not welcome. On the one hand, you want to welcome the stranger; on the other hand, you want to deny people the right if they don’t agree with the minutiae of your point of view.

“The solution can’t come from the outside. The solutions have to come from people within the system. Nothing the Christians or Jews will tell Muslims will change them. It’s from Islam itself, from people who are knowledgeable about the Koran, the hadiths, the traditions in Islam. People who are scholars can make changes in a religion, not the people who are outside.”

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