‘The settlements are a side issue’

‘The settlements are a side issue’

Questions for Charles Selengut

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In Our Promised Land: Faith and Militant Zionism in Israeli Settlements, published in August by Rowman & Littlefield, Charles Selengut illuminates the ideology and motivations of the 356,000 Israelis living in the West Bank territories. A resident of Teaneck and a professor of sociology at the County College of Morris in Randolph, Selengut explores the roots of the settlement movement and why they continue to defy those calling for them to be dismantled. 

In an interview with NJJN, Selengut explained what captured his interest and why he believes “settlers are very important for the existence of Israel.”

NJJN: What made you want to write about and study the settler movement?

Selengut: I was fascinated by how a small group who were opposed by haredim, secular Israelis, the political establishment, and the military establishment were able to develop a movement involving the whole of the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria) against the wishes of the majority of the establishment. Now there are half a million people living there! 

NJJN: You interviewed people in several different settlement areas with different histories for the book. Can you recount a little of what it was like for you visiting with and hanging out with settlers?

Selengut: It depends on which settlement. They are much more variegated than the media makes out. Many of the young people — those under 35 — are much more militant [than older settlers]. They feel let down by the Gaza expulsion of Gush Katif. One young man I met with said, “The rabbis promised they wouldn’t leave. They lied. Now we have to take things into our own hands.” But [in more moderate settlements like] Kedumim, they are much more willing to compromise.

NJJN: In your book you discuss the religious Zionist settlers, the haredim who oppose the settlements, and the secular Israelis who oppose the settlements, but you do not include religious Zionists who oppose the settlers. Can you speak to this?

Selengut: Religious Zionists who oppose the settlements are a very small group. De facto religious Zionists have become messianic Zionists. The Meimad Party [a dovish religious party founded in 1999] couldn’t elect anyone to the Knesset [today], and they have no standing in the Orthodox Jewish mainstream. 

That old Mizrahi middle-of-the-road religious party is defunct, in large part because the yeshivot where the Orthodox study are led by settler rabbis or people with the settler ideology, even if they are living in Tel Aviv or Petach Tikvah. Look, even in Teaneck, where I live, you’d find few among the Orthodox Jews who are against the settlers. Orthodox Jews and elements of haredi Jews are now part of the settler world view, at least to some degree.

NJJN: It’s clear from how you write that while you were visiting settlers as an academic observer and researcher, there are certain ways in which you are sympathetic. Is that true, and if so, was it a conflict for you? Was it difficult to keep perspective? 

Selengut: Yes, in many ways I am very sympathetic to the settlers. I think settlers are very important for the existence of Israel. I think they are Israel’s first line of defense. But this book was not written for a shul but for the university. It was a conflict for me, and it was very difficult, but I believe I was successful [in being objective]. 

I tried very hard to see the position of the secular person who thinks these people are crazy. I felt, let me not be so narrow-minded that just because I’m hanging out with the settlers they are right. But the bottom line is, settlers are very important, and they are very much in line with the future of Jewish history.

NJJN: In light of the fact that some say we are on the verge of a third Intifada, and that it will have been precipitated by the murder of a settler couple, can you speak to whether you think settlers in general are imposing an unfair cost on the country, or whether they ought to continue to pursue their belief in building settlements and claiming the land of Israel? 

Selengut: The real issue, in my view, is not [settlements in] Hebron or Ofra, but Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petach Tikvah. This is a conflict between Islam and Judaism over a land mass. The settlements are a side issue. Yes, they may exacerbate the real issue but if all the settlers were to leave tomorrow, there would still be violence against the State of Israel. 

NJJN: In Ari Shavit’s history of Israel, My Promised Land, he devotes a chapter to the settler movement and he is critical of them. What are your thoughts on his take on the settlers? 

Selengut: Many secular Israelis have a very naive understanding of the modern world. They refuse to believe that religion can motivate people. So they believe a realistic political solution can be reached. But all of the history bears out that this will not work. Ultimately, this is not a practical problem. It’s not about orange groves or employment. It’s about sacred land promised by divine reason. Ari Shavit refuses to recognize that the basis of this conflict is religious. I wish he were right, but he’s wrong. He’s misguided. As I argued in my previous book, Sacred Fury, religious violence fueled by religious belief cannot be reduced to rational political or economic reasons.

NJJN: You are very careful with your language, particularly when it comes to using “West Bank” or “Judaea and Samaria.” How did you decide to use both in your book?

Selengut: I wanted to give a fair voice to all of the participants. Settlers call the land Judaea and Samaria. Others call it the West Bank. I actually think of it as both in my own mind, because in reality, it is unsettled. I thought this would be a good way to handle it.

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