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Settling in the Hearts: Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories, by Michael Feige. Wayne State University Press, 2009. 328 pp. $54.95.
Michael Feige presents in his new book superb observations on the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlement movement. The title of the book, “Settling in the Hearts,” contains much of its essence. While the Israeli audience might immediately understand the context, the non-native Hebrew speaker might ask for explanations. The book attempts to describe, mostly through anthropological observations, the ways in which the Israeli settlers’ community is trying to establish its enterprise in the consensus of the majority of the Israelis. Are they succeeding? Whereas Meron Benvenisti, an established scholar identified with the Israel left, argues that the settlement enterprise is an unchangeable fact, Michel Feige puts a question mark into this argument, stating that the “settling in the hearts” project so far had failed.
Gush Emunim traces its roots to the 1967 Six Day War and the development of a Greater Israel ideology, which sought to maintain Israeli control of the West Bank and other newly acquired territories. The religious movement, which became a political force by constructing settlements within contested territory, is one of the key players in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In his book, Michael Feige analyzes the success of Gush Emunim through an examination of its ideology, practices, and symbolic construction of space and time. He argues that by constructing the meaning of contested territories as a national homeland, the ideological settlers attempt to redefine Zionism, Israel, and Judaism.
The book contains thirteen chapters that analyze in depth this newly developed Jewish community in the heart of the biblical parts of the Land of Israel, a territory which is also highly populated with hostile Palestinian communities.
Feige does not focus on the history or politics of the movement, but he describes the settlers’ life, such as time, space and memory, semiotics and semantics, or the perception of themselves vis-à-vis others. In doing so, he always contrasts the settlers’ view to the logic of the non-settler Israeli society and thereby comes back to his actual task of analyzing to what extent the settlers succeed in incorporating their narrative into the wider Israeli narrative.
In the first section of this volume, Feige explores how the Gush Emunim settlers reinterpret Jewish history, secular Zionist ideology, religious faith, and the Bible to discern the settlers’ attitudes toward the Jewish exile experience. Feige identifies the crucial principles at work in the settlers’ attempts to appropriate land, particularly in their use of collective memory, referring both to ancient times and to more contemporary events. In the second section, he presents fascinating case studies of Jewish settlements that Gush Emunim built beyond the green lines, in important symbolic centers such as Hebron, Ofra, and Gush Etzion. The concluding section analyzes the contemporary changes, conflicts, and crises that have affected Gush Emunim in the last years. Settling in the Hearts is based on a variety of qualitative sources, including interviews, participant observation, settlers’ publications, and visual documents.
Michel Feige has written a book that will be quoted everywhere, not only because of the important research conducted, but also because so little has been written on the national religious society. Feige’s comprehensive study is well conducted. His writing is not polemic, not explicitly or implicitly, unlike other books published recently. The book is full of details and references, which create the basis of information on the topic.
One note, pedantic maybe, is about the use of the term “Gush Emunim” for the national religious group and their alias. With all due respect, the impact of Gush Emunim is unquestionable. However, this movement has not existed for many years. Gush Emunim leaders turned each one to his way, and most of them are no longer in positions of influence, where others came in their place. It is better that in such an important research one should not generalize, even on a very low level of accuracy, and treat the settlers as “Gush Emunim.”
The “settlement on the ground” project was very successful, with more than 250,000 Jews living in the West Bank. Settling in the hearts is a different story, however. Why is it so? Feige devotes his last chapter to answering this question. The Oslo Accords, the peace treaty signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, was the settlers’ biggest failure ever. The partition of the land and the creation of the Palestinian Authority foiled the Greater Israel idea. The privet road system, which was established in order to protect the settlers from driving through Palestinian territories, and the fencing of the West Bank as part of the Separation Wall project, proved that the Gush Emunim idyll of settling in all of the territories of the West Bank was impossible. From that point on this project has been perceived by the majority of the secular Israelis—left and right—as an obstacle, a problem that requires constant attention and protection. The Rabin assassination in 1995 was another blow to the movement’s image: the assassin, who came from the religious Zionist circles, and the ideology that motivated him, took away the moral zeal they once held.
However, their biggest problem, Feige claims, lies in the transformation of Israeli society: “The settlers failed to settle in people’s hearts because they proposed a vision that ran counter to dominant trends in the society. . . . They offered collectivism in the age of individualism, traditional commitment in times of personal self fulfillment, sanctification of place in age of cyberspace and easy territorial mobility, and memory in an era of forgetting” (p. 274).
Where do we go from here? Is this enterprise reversible? Will the State of Israel be able to uproot the settlements for peace? These questions remain open. Much depends on the ability of the settlers to win the hearts of the Israelis in crucial times that are still to come.
University of North Carolina at Pembroke