Robert I. Friedman, Zealots for Zion (Random House, 1992).
Palestinians and Israeli leftists shared high hopes at the time of Yitzhak Rabin’s inauguration, but optimism quickly began to fade. Robert Friedman’s new book, published shortly after Rabin took office, participates in that early, post-Likud expectancy. Zealots for Zion examines the settler movement in Israel from its inception after the 1967 war through the fall of the Shamir government. This discussion is bracketed, in opening and closing chapters, by the author’s anticipation of a change in settlement policy under Rabin.
Friedman, a staff writer for the Village Voice, constructs a readable, casual account of the movement, centered around narrative descriptions of his interviews and personal encounters with settlers in the Occupied Territories. Friedman’s portraits of settlement life are detailed and vivid. He is critical of settlement activity and policies of occupation, but approaches his subject with an underlying admiration for “the liberal Zionist ideal.” Through a variety of personalities, the reader sees the ideology of settlement as a part of daily life. The damning first chapter on Rabbi Moshe Levinger, “the father of the settlement movement,” is among the most convincing, thoroughly illustrating Levinger’s violent history of militant religious nationalism. Moving from the infamous to the incidental, Friedman introduces Aliza Herbst, the lead singer in a 1960s Haight-Ashbury blues band who moved to the West Bank settlement of Ofra in 1981. Through Herbst and others, we witness some of the peculiarities of the settlement community and its often incongruous American players. Additional characters include the West Bank’s ultra-religious settlers, members of the anti-Arab terrorist underground, and the suburbanites seeking a better “quality of life” in the Occupied Territories. Friedman has an eye for the persistence of the mundane (cable TV, swimming pools) amid messianism and militancy.
Historical documentation frames and interrupts these narratives. Friedman’s examination of the emergence of the Gush Emunim and the settlers’ underground is particularly thorough, chronicling the Israeli government’s role in bolstering the successes of the former while granting virtual immunity to the latter. He focuses on government support for settlement activity following the 1977 Likud victory, but accurately implicates the Labor Party in the settlement movement’s early accomplishments.
Friedman frequently underscores Israeli policies of occupation, predominantly land confiscation, and their oppressive effect on Palestinian communities. He gives precise attention to the harsh disparities between Jewish and Palestinian life in Gaza. Despite this, the author’s infrequent inclusion of Palestinian voices in the text is striking.
This unevenness is highlighted by an absence of historical and political argumentation. The book’s two chapters on Jerusalem, centering on Ateret Cohanim and the Temple Mount Faithful, illustrate the problem. Numerous aspects of each movement are explored in depth, particularly the 1990 “occupation” of St. Johns Hospice and the 1991 killing of 17 Palestinians on the Temple Mount. Yet Friedman only gives peripheral attention to the larger issue of Jerusalem’s frantic Jewish settlement and expansion since 1967. More important than either organization independently is their participation in the government plan to realize a “United Jerusalem” — a euphemism for the city’s occupied and increasingly “Judaized” status. Despite conflicting policies toward Old City settlement, Labor and Likud agree on this blueprint for the capital. Several pages are devoted to Mayor Teddy Kollek’s condemnation of Ateret Cohanim and his promotion of religious tolerance. True, Kollek has opposed the settlement of Jews inside Arab neighborhoods, but his strategy has been to encircle Arab neighborhoods with Jewish housing, thereby preventing their expansion. This policy complements the severe building restrictions within the city’s Arab sector, which Friedman refers to only in passing. The journalistic format of the book often prioritizes detail over critical discussion. In lieu of a lengthy description of a Manhattan fundraising dinner for Ateret Cohanim, the third such event to be recounted in Friedman’s text, attention might better have been paid to the recent surge in road construction in and around Israel’s capital that treats the city as both pretext and epicenter for the de facto annexation of portions of the West Bank.
The sequence of chapters follows neither a historic nor thematic progression. Several portions of Zealots were indeed first published as separate articles in the New York Review of Books. The book retains the feel of a series of independent yet interrelated writings, lacking a summary analysis of the changes that the settlement movement has undergone over time which might have bound the text together. Friedman establishes the founding role of Levinger and his followers in propelling the movement forward but does not emphasize their increasingly marginal status in Israel. The same is true of his treatment of Gush Emunim and the role of religious nationalism. Friedman says little of the ways in which settlements have been increasingly designed for and populated by suburban settlers rather than messianic pioneers who comprise the overwhelming majority of Friedman’s subjects.
The analytical limitations of this book are most apparent in Friedman’s treatment of US policy. Without even acknowledging scholarship to the contrary, he uncritically accepts the notion of American “hostility” to Israeli settlement, of a history of settlement ventures carried out “in brazen contempt of US policy.” This inaccuracy is even more striking given his emphasis on American institutions and individuals that fund and support settlement projects, culminating in a chapter on “the American Jewish establishment’s powerful neoconservative trinity — AIPAC, the ADL and the Presidents’ Conference.” This is an area Friedman knows especially well. Yet by characterizing US policy as he does, he furthers the simplistic myth of an all-powerful American Jewish lobby working against the grain of official US government positions and policies.
Other myths go unchallenged, too. A series of appended maps charting 1992 Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories fail to provide population statistics. In the absence of these figures, the number and location of settlements exaggerate Jewish presence in the West Bank and Gaza, but stressing the strategy of the Israeli government and settler organizations to convey a sense of the irreversibility of settlement.
Friedman’s talents as an investigative reporter are undermined by his sometimes flawed analysis and insufficient conclusions. Friedman’s use of the word “zealot” epitomizes his limited vision. By focusing his fears for the future of Zionism on the “zealots” — a term which he never directly defines — he obscures both the political sophistication of the settlers and the government’s role in the enterprise, contrary to his own discussion of such issues.