Scan the headlines for news about Israeli settlers, and you are likely to be overwhelmed by stories of a radical and violent religious nationalism: extremists marching on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, guarded by Israeli soldiers, to pray atop the Temple Mount; West Bank colonists torching olive trees and cars, or making midnight jaunts into Palestinian villages armed to the teeth, to put a “price tag” on both Israeli state slowdowns of the settlement project and Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets. But lately tales have emerged of a kinder, gentler settler as well. Take this Associated Press dispatch:

Micha Drori is living the Israeli dream: a house, a yard, a wife and three kids. The 42-year-old businessman has found an affordable alternative to Israel’s booming real estate market in a quiet community he loves, with a commute of less than half an hour to his job near Tel Aviv.

What’s the catch? He’s a West Bank settler.

Drori does not match the stereotype of the settler who is willing to fight for the idea that God gave “Judea and Samaria” to the Jewish people. “We will not sit here and burn tires if the government will tell us to leave,” he says. “We will just leave.” Drori lives not in the inner ring of settlements around East Jerusalem, which most Israeli Jews describe as “suburbs,” but in Barkan, a colony of 400 families about halfway along the highway from Tel Aviv to Ariel, deep in “Samaria” — the northern West Bank.

Stories like Drori’s juxtapose a sane, rational middle class with an ideologically driven movement that places a theological mandate before the comfort and safety of its adherents — as well as that of the nation at large. In contrast to the stereotypical settler, Drori seems reasonable, willing to compromise and respectful of the law.

If the international press has only just learned that not all settlers are, to quote the AP dispatch, “gun-toting zealots,” it is not alone in this discovery. Over the last few years, the secular Israeli Jewish public, too, has grown more accepting of the burgeoning settler community, even as it continues to be conflicted about West Bank settlement itself. As the strongest segment of Israeli society — economically and politically — secular Jews have become the most important supporters of the growth of settlements in the lands beyond the Green Line, or the line of the 1949 armistice that demarcates the internationally recognized borders of Israel.


Jewish Israeli society has long been marked by tensions between secular and religious Jews. Noah Efron dates the difficulties to the pre-state period, describing an antipathetic relationship between the settlers of the First Aliyah (the first wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, between 1882 and 1903) and the native Palestinian Jewish community. By the end of the nineteenth century, not only Palestinian Jews but also those who Efron calls “traditionalist” Jews across the world had rejected Zionism as a new form of Hellenism or false messianism. [1] The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) condemnation of Zionism has survived until today, even among certain sects in Israel-Palestine.

The settlement or colonization of Palestine was thus from the early Zionist period a secular endeavor, not because it was non- or anti-religious or rejected by religious Jews, but because it remade a Jewish religious tradition — “next year in Jerusalem” — into the cornerstone of a modern nation-state. Only after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the conquest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was the Zionist settlement project taken up by certain segments of the Jewish religious community.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox in their wide-brimmed black hats, the national-religious Jews in their knitted skullcaps embraced the Zionist ideology of settling the Land of Israel, with a focus on the territories occupied in 1967. Despite the overlap between the interests of national-religious settlers and those of the state, the movement has nonetheless been understood by many secular Israelis as a threat to state control and the Israeli social order since it burst onto the scene in the 1970s.

Prone to violent protests not only against Palestinians, but also at times against the Israeli army, the settler movement is commonly portrayed as a volatile element standing in the way of peace. The problem, according to conventional wisdom, is that “extremists” among the Israelis and the Palestinians — settlers and suicide bombers — thwart the genuine longing for peace felt by the “moderate” majority on both sides. This narrative has long held up Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier assassinated by a national-religious radical in 1995, as a crusader for peace whose tragic end soured the optimism of those secular Jews who had formerly filled city squares in support of groups such as Peace Now. The pessimism hardened with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

This narrative still dominates. On its face, therefore, the press coverage of reasonable, middle-class settlers such as Drori may appear to be the result of a far-right hasbara (propaganda) campaign to improve the image of the settlers — and that may, in part, be true. Settlers have taken up new forms of outreach, from the establishment of the “Samarian Foreign Ministry,” handling public relations abroad, to “Samaria on the Bar,” a self-described hasbara campaign that sends settlers from the northern West Bank to Tel Aviv watering holes, where they stress the pleasant, non-threatening “social composition” of the settlements. But Drori’s stated willingness to leave Barkan should the state so dictate hints that the Palestinians are negotiating with a different Israel than that of the 1990s.

The Israeli Dream

In the AP article, Drori’s West Bank residence is described as the “Israeli dream,” as well as the answer to “Israel’s booming real estate market.” The latter phrase is something of a euphemism: While the real estate market may indeed be “booming,” housing prices have become so inflated as to make it difficult if not impossible for many young people and middle-class Jewish families to find what they deem high-quality housing.

This problem was the subject of the #J14 protests of 2011, which demanded “social justice” in the form of affordable, comfortable housing. At their height, these protests attracted over 400,000 people and saw tent cities spring up in green spaces across the country — including in a handful of settlements, such as Tekoa, southeast of Bethlehem. The demonstrations exacerbated the sensitivity of secular-religious relations in Israel by highlighting government spending on religious communities and institutions at the expense — the activists claimed — of the overburdened secular middle class.

One government response to the protests was to announce the construction of more housing units in settlements. But the way that these settlements have been linked to the housing crisis is somewhat disingenuous. The young people who cannot find housing in Tel Aviv are not the same as the people who end up in the West Bank, who are generally looking for a quieter life than Tel Aviv would afford. Moreover, the notion that settlement housing is less expensive is not entirely true. Homebuyers in the West Bank do not usually spend less than they would have had they remained in the suburbs west of the Green Line — they just get more for their money. Settlements are designated as Priority Area A, meaning that homeowners get property tax breaks. But Israeli property tax is calculated not on the basis of overall property value, but on square footage. Settlers get significantly more square feet for the price, but they ultimately pay more in taxes than if they had purchased a modest apartment west of the Green Line.

In short, while the housing crisis is about a lack of both urban housing and affordable housing across the board, settlements — particularly commuter settlements outside the Jerusalem ring — are less about price than quality. They are a response to (or perhaps a manipulation of) a vision of wealth and home ownership that has become associated with the “middle class” (which nearly everyone identifies with), but which may be untenable on a large scale in such a small country. It is this desire that has anchored the settlement project in the expansive Israeli middle class.

The #J14 protesters also did not buy the connection between their demands and the settlements. Mariano Idelman, known for portraying Benjamin Netanyahu in the popular sketch TV show, “Eretz Nehederet,” appeared as the prime minister at a satirical press conference in a live performance at the tent city in Tel Aviv. Holding up a sign labeled “Order of Priorities,” Idelman explained that until then, the government had put the settlers first, the haredim second, and everyone else after that. “But today,” the comedian proclaimed, bringing out a second sign, “we change these priorities! Now the budget will cover first the haredim, then the settlers, and then everyone else!”

Two and a half years later, it is no longer the case that the secular middle class regards settlers and haredim as more or less interchangeable in terms of their deleterious impact on the state budget. Although the budget debate rages on, particularly with regard to religious Jews, there has been a realignment of actors, resulting in an unprecedented closeness between secular Jews and the national-religious settler movement.

Equal Rights/Equal Obligations

The realignment was evident in the February 2103 national elections, whose unexpected star was Yair Lapid, chief of the adamantly secular Yesh Atid party. In the runup to the contests, candidates such as Lapid and the Labor Party’s Shelley Yachimovich restated the basic claims of the 2011 protest movement, with Lapid taking a robust — albeit vaguely formulated — stand for the middle class, which he famously claimed had become “the ATM” for the nation. Lapid won support from a wide spectrum of voters, who welcomed the charismatic newcomer as a departure from politics as usual. The new member of Knesset was named Netanyahu’s finance minister.

Throughout his campaign and following his cabinet appointment, Lapid frequently substituted broad and often vitriolic anti-haredi sentiment for the specifics of a coherent economic strategy for the state. But his forcefully secular — even anti-religious — approach has now been offset by his perhaps counterintuitive alliance with another big winner in the 2013 elections, Naftali Bennett, head of the national-religious party Jewish Home.

Commentators, when they view this partnership as at all noteworthy, describe it as corrupt or purely instrumental. Uri Misgav, a writer for Haaretz, wrote contemptuously of a “brotherhood of fat cats”: “When people speak of ‘politics as the art of the impossible,’ it is generally uttered with at least a touch of irony or humor, but there is nothing artistic or funny about the alliance between Lapid and Bennett. There is also no reason to acquiesce to such a constellation of political forces, which is an expression of corrupt values. This alliance spans across the country’s political map and therefore it actually represents contempt for and abuse of democracy.” [2] But the very possibility of such an alliance signals something much more: The renewed public interest in the government budget has reinscribed long-standing secular-religious tensions along economic lines, with haredim assuming the role of welfare parasites whose anti-nationalism is expressed in a refusal to serve in the armed forces. In this way, the term “equal rights” has entered the vocabulary of a broadening range of politicians and voters — but always paired with “equal obligations.” The pairing of “equal rights with equal obligations” brings together the haredim with the other group exempted from national service, Palestinian citizens of Israel. While Israeli Jews are aware that Palestinians claim discrimination on the part of the state, for many the argument is simply unconvincing. Rather, both Palestinians and haredim represent ungrateful beneficiaries of the state — leeches who often do not even identify with the Jewish state, let alone serve in the army.

In contrast to both the haredim and Palestinian citizens of Israel, national-religious settlers are proudly nationalist, as displayed by their growing representation — in fact, overrepresentation — in the military, particularly its elite units. These units, paratroopers, pilots and special forces, traditionally drew upon secular Ashkenazi kibbutzniks but now take a swelling number of recruits from the national-religious settler movement. While data on the religious/secular breakdown in the Israeli military is hard to come by, figures released in 2010 suggest that between 1990 and 2007, the proportion of religious infantry officers rose from 2.5 to 31.4 percent, with most of the growth coming after 2001. [3]

Prior to the evacuation of the settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005, the national-religious presence in the army caused a gnawing anxiety among Israeli Jews. Twenty-three years earlier, the army had been in a parallel situation with the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. For the first time, the Israeli military was turned against Israeli Jews to enforce state policy. Sinai settlers clashed with the army, but ultimately were removed from the region. The images of the violent removal of settlers remained with Israelis, however, and were recalled as the evacuation of Gush Katif in Gaza grew near. With ever greater numbers of religious soldiers, questions were raised as to the fidelity of this faction to state orders, particularly on the sensitive issue of settlements. On the one hand, it was only right that religious Jews contribute as their secular counterparts do; on the other, secular Jews worried that the religious Jews in the armed forces would refuse to enforce the “disengagement,” leading to dissension in the ranks or even civil war.

But the evacuation of the Gaza settlements saw neither of these things happen. It was understood as a serious misstep by the state, and a national trauma, but the national-religious elements in the army remained loyal. Afterward, the years of rocket attacks from Gaza also confirmed to many Israelis the importance of settlers as a buffer between Palestinians outside the pre-1967 borders and Israelis within them. The very notion of swapping land for peace lost credibility. For many of the #J14 protesters, the occupation was a problem not on ideological grounds (at least not primarily), but because it heavily taxed both the wealth and the labor of the secular middle class.

But settlers had proven themselves willing to provide the labor — not (only) through vigilante gangs roaming the West Bank hills, but also by taking on dangerous tasks for the most prestigious units of the armed forces. This difference between them and the haredim became even starker when the Tal Law, which grants military exemptions to yeshiva students, came up for renewal in 2012. The law was allowed to expire, meaning that haredi yeshiva students are now subject to conscription like any other Jewish citizens. But only a small number of haredim were drafted, leaving secular resentment to fester and sparking bitter debate in the 2013 electoral campaigns.

These are the conditions in which Lapid and Bennett came together. What is remarkable about this relationship — what one Haaretz columnist called a “bromance” [4] — is not only that the anti-religious Lapid joined with the national-religious Bennett, but also that Bennett joined the chorus of anti-haredi critique, pushing forward legislation for the haredi draft together with Lapid, as well as speaking directly to the haredi public, urging for greater “integration” into Israeli society. “There is a feeling that you’re being persecuted and that people want to harm you,” he told them, “but it’s the exact opposite.” [5]

Bennett spoke to haredim as an insider/outsider: a religious Jew fully a part of Israeli secular society, indeed allied with secular Jews. Hailed by many as cynical politics par excellence, the Bennett-Lapid alliance rather reflects a major political reorientation within the Israeli state and society. While only a few years ago, the rift lay between the secular Jews, on one side, and the national-religious and haredi Jews, on the other, now it is secular and national-religious Jews shouting together at the haredim across the chasm, indicating that what is at stake is not religion per se, but something else entirely.

Roadblocks to Peace

The framework inherited from the 1993 Oslo accords — which inaugurated the golden age of the “peace process” — says that peace requires centrist partners, on both sides, open to dialogue and prepared to triumph over extremism. On the Israeli side, this logic means that the “partner for peace” must be willing to butt heads with the settler movement and remove Jewish settlements from the territory of the envisioned Palestinian state. But what happens if the centrists are already in the settlements? What happens when settlers are part of the definition of political moderation?

The answer is that, while public opinion and political alliances have shifted to ally the secular middle class with the settlers, the Israeli “partners for peace” have always been invested in settlements. The popular narrative about Rabin, for example, falls apart upon examination of his track record. Like his post-1967 predecessors and all those who followed, he massively expanded the numbers of settlements and settlers in the Occupied Territories. As many have argued, the Oslo process secured the future of the occupation, rather than its end. In early January, the Knesset voted down a bill that would prevent the state’s annexation of land outside of the context of a negotiated two-state solution, in effect reserving the right for the state to annex part or all of the Occupied Territories and maintaining the 65-year status quo in which the state has refused to recognize any of its own borders. Yesh Atid and Jewish Home votes were key to the bill’s defeat.

Returning to Drori once again, one can take at face value his statement that he would leave Barkan if the Israeli state requires it. It is not a cheap propaganda claim or at all insincere. But neither is his vow an offer to vacate his home for peace. It is simply an affirmation of subordination to the state and thus serves as the justification for him to remain in his home in the occupied West Bank so long as the government does not ask him to pull up stakes. It is the commitment of settlers to act within the strictures of Israeli law, as well as contribute to the state and nation, that legitimizes the settlements in the eyes of many Israelis.

Settlers like Drori may be of relatively new interest to the press, but they have lived in the Occupied Territories for nearly as long as they have been occupied. They are the base of the settlement project rather than its vanguard. Today, nearly one in ten Jewish Israelis lives in a settlement designated as illegal by international law, but the overwhelming majority of these settlements are considered legal under Israeli law. While the settlements in East Jerusalem have long been accepted as normal by most Israeli Jews, those such as Barkan that are “deeper” into the West Bank have gained social approval only recently.

What the story of Micha Drori gets right is that settlers are not exceptional in Israeli society. Rather, most settlers are driven by an economic rationale and display a middle-class mentality that draws them closer to secular centrism than to religious extremism. In a 2002 Peace Now survey, over three quarters of settlers cited not religious ideology but “quality of life” as the reason they moved to a settlement.

Moreover, they are fully, legally incorporated into the state and invested in the rule of law on either side of the Green Line. The new face of Israeli settlement is reasonable, rational and friendly. At the same time, and despite widely held views to the contrary, secular Israelis have long supported colonial expansion, both within and beyond the 1949 armistice line. Long portrayed as a problem of zealous actors beyond the control of the state, settlements today are actually the result of a conscious state policy of Jewish civilian suburbanization of the West Bank, which has become increasingly accepted within secular Israeli society. These settlements, which are only now gaining widespread traction, are the result of a boom in construction dating to the early 1980s, and may be understood as the continuation of a secular project of colonization in the pre-state era. Settlement as a secular, state-driven project is a pillar of Jewish Israeli society. It is not simply the “facts on the ground” but settlement as a growing public endeavor that stands in the way of peace.


[1] Noah Efron, Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
[2] Haaretz, August 31, 2013.
[3] Amos Harel, “Sharp Rise in Number of Religious IDF Officers,” Haaretz, September 15, 2010.
[4] Michael Handelzalts, “Lapid and Bennett: A Fine Bromance,” Haaretz, June 7, 2013.
[5] Ynet, June 12, 2013.

How to cite this article:

Callie Maidhof "Settlement Secularism," Middle East Report 269 (Winter 2013).

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