Israel’s Messianic Settler Movement
President-Elect Donald Trump’s appointment of David Friedman, a supporter of the radical right-wing settler movement in Israel, as his ambassador to the Jewish state has given a huge shot in the arm to exclusively Jewish settlements in the West Bank whose expansion up to now Washington has opposed as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.
Most of the rest of the world regards them as illegal under international law. But they have nevertheless grown steadily over the years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations and even in the face dovish governments in Jerusalem as they negotiated with the Palestinian Authority to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
Today, there are an estimated 547,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, whose status under the 2003 Camp David accords was also subject to negotiation and mutual agreement. As the Trump administration prepares to take power, fewer and fewer people believe in the likelihood of implementing proposals that entail moving tens of thousands of these settlers into Israel proper to make way for a Palestinian state on the West Bank and restoring Israel’s status as a democratic state with a Jewish majority within internationally recognized boundaries.
For a significant portion of West Bank settlers, that means not only that they can count on staying where they currently and conveniently live, on land that is, thanks to government subsidies, both more spacious and cheaper than what they could obtain in the country’s urban center; it means, too, that they are bringing the coming of the Jewish messiah much closer to fruition.
Indeed, elements within the broad settler movement that were once at its far fringe are taking an increasingly commanding role in its direction and development.
One of the most important figures in this surging cohort is Yehuda Glick, an affable grandfather of six with a bushy red beard and a Brooklyn accent who moved to Israel from that New York borough at age nine with his parents. Glick, who to his own surprise, became a Knesset Member affiliated with the mainstream Likud Party last May,has shown a genuine genius in his ability to transform the idea of restoring Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount from ancient times from a fringe messianic religious issue into a mainstream issue of civil rights and national pride.
The issue is a super-sensitive one. The Temple Mount, a Jerusalem site holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is currently the location for two ancient revered mosques, and has been under the control of Muslim religious authorities for centuries. Government authorities decided to respect this status quo when they conquered the Arab sector of Jerusalem in 1967, in part out of concern that forcing Jewish prayer onto the site would inflame the wider Muslim world and turn a war with Arabs into a war with the whole Muslim world.
Glick, for all his fervor about this issue, is a staunch believer in the authority of the state. The same is not true for another stream within the settler movement that has lately come to the fore. The so-called Hilltop Youth are a cohort of mostly young Israeli Jews who were born in the West Bank and brought up there as settlers, and who know no other home. They are in open rebellion against their own parents and the state, which they view as too accommodating to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Many of these youth, who often live in unauthorized outposts on hilltops in the Judean hills, have been involved in so-called “price tag” attacks on Palestinian civilians—an organized response they have developed as a way to respond by any effort by the army to limit their takeovers of land from Palestinians or their harassment of them. Two were charged this year with setting fire to the home of a Palestinian family that resulted in the death of an 18-month-old infant and his parents.
Some of these youth claim Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, another American born immigrant as their spiritual and ideological guide.
If early indications are any guide, these settlers will have a freer hand than ever before during the Trump era.