Kookism – Settler politics as God’s playing field

"Kookism: Shorshei Gush Emunim, Tarbut Hamitnahlim, Teologia Tzionit, Meshihiyut Be’zmanenu,” (Kookism: The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Subculture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism) by Gideon Aran. Carmel Publishing House, 464 pages, NIS 119

“We have to take a good look at reality, with open eyes and the professional skill of responsible politicians − then we will discover the interior regularity that hides behind things.” There you have it, Kookism in a nutshell: politics as God’s playing field, political reality as the bearer of messianic tidings, the nonchalant presumption to understand the Almighty’s will, and the undoubting faith that our own ilk possesses the secret to deciphering the course of history.

The speaker, one of the leaders of Gush Emunim, goes on to clarify: “This regularity always and necessarily moves toward full redemption. You cannot make do with studying Gemara; you have to go out into the field. There, mainly there, religion will be revealed, the sanctity will be uncovered… Every footstep of ours, every swing of a hand, open and close electrical circuits that switch on lightbulbs in the upper worlds.”

Even these few words enfold the essence of Kookism: the absolute confidence in the approaching salvation, the sanctifying of the profane, and especially the hills of Judea and Samaria, the relocation of the center of religious life from studies to messianic activism, and the arrogance that turns every settler into a kabbalist mystic who mates sephirot (the kabbalistic emanations) and sets processes in motion in the upper worlds.

Gideon Aran brings these quotes straight from the field. Albeit this field no longer exists, since Aran galloped over the hills of Judea and Samaria together with the folks of Gush Emunim in the mid-1970s, and they have long ceased to be bald rocky hills in between docile Arab villages. The Gush Emunim settlement movement no longer exists either, although it had a much longer and more significant life than Aran anticipated. When he joined it as a young doctoral student in sociology, Aran saw before him a movement that was “exotic and charismatic” and a bit “moonstruck.” As someone wanting to specialize in the study of extremist cults, he expected to write about a small group, document the rise and fall of an anecdote. He did not know he was about to become a witness to the religious-social movement that would alter the face of Israel.

Aran shadowed the Gush Emunim people between 1975 and 1978. He joined them in their trips through the occupied territories, in their internal debates, observed their reactions to political and international developments, their formulations of Kookist theology, their joyous occasions, their tragedies, their demonstrations and their clandestine activity. The book before us is the fruit of Aran’s riveting research, which formed the basis for his doctoral dissertation. The readers are therefore exposed to Aran’s documentation and analysis from more than 30 years ago.

The decision to leave the material unchanged has advantages and disadvantages. Ostensibly, the book depicts a picture that has since faded away, a childish innocence, that, when we sobered up from it, we were no longer able to take seriously. On the other hand, that is precisely what makes this sort of primary documentation so important. Rarely is a scholar privy to the formative stages of a religious movement, certainly such a meaningful religious movement. Here stand before us the young and charismatic Hanan Porat, the fervent Moshe Levinger, Yoel Ben Nun when he was still a prominent leader of that public, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in the very days he was formulating his political-religious thought.

The new scriptures

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookThe story of Gush Emunim, according to Aran, begins long before the Six-Day War, in the religious pioneer group Gahelet ‏(Hebrew acronym for Garin Halutzim Lomdei Torah − “cadre of Torah-learning pioneers”‏), in the early 1950s. There began to grow a religious awareness that seeks to subsume everyday reality, that wants to be in the most literal sense religious Zionism.

Two catalysts brought about the formation of this group, the first of which was the establishment of the State of Israel. We are dealing, then, with a messianic movement that arose not out of destruction, but rather out of redemption. The second catalyst was the disdainful and dismissive treatment religiously observant Jews were subject to in the early days of the state. It is hard today to grasp just how contemptible observant Jews seemed then in the eyes of the secular Jews, who huffed Zionism and puffed socialism. Contempt for the “Exilic” religion and derogatory epithets such as adukfistuk ‏(devout pistachio nut‏) created a sense of inferiority, without even the Haredi consolation born of closing themselves off from the rest of society.

Out of this experience arose the members of Gahelet, who tried to redefine the relationship between religion and state. Youngsters like Zephaniah Drori, Yaakov Filber, Zalman Melamed and Haim Druckman − some of the most important rabbis of religious Zionism in our day − enrolled as a group in the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, at that time a marginal and lesser yeshiva. There they found the philosophical-religious foundation that would feed their nationalist ambitions.

That foundation was built, as we know, on the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook. These became the new scriptures, and their interpretation − the weaving of a messianic-Zionistic theological political tapestry. The sides of Rav Kook’s thinking that dealt with private religiosity and general philosophy were usually silenced. The preoccupation with the nation’s uniqueness and the world’s redemption was highlighted ‏(Kookism, therefore, is not really the doctrine of Rav Kook‏). The role of official explicator of Rav Kook went to his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who was then also head of the yeshiva. It was he who put Kookism into words and deeds, and gathered the new students around him like disciples around their admor ‏(a Hebrew acronym for “our master, our teacher, our rabbi”‏).

Aran devotes space to the “admorization” process of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In the eyes of Gush Emunim the latter became a restorer of faith, a Light unto the Nations ‏(Gush members recount that he instilled Torah in “gigantic negros and beautiful models”‏), a healer of the sick, a Torah prodigy, proficient in the world’s languages, knowledgeable in philosophy − and finally a prophet. The late Hanan Porat is quoted as having described Zvi Yehuda Kook’s house as “the center of the world. There is the source of the electric current that sets in motion the machine called Gush Emunim, through which Israel and all of humanity will be illuminated.” Kook’s best-known prophecy was pronounced three weeks before the Six-Day War. In a conversation with his students, he cried out that the people of Israel had forgotten the Land of the Patriarchs, namely the West Bank. A month later, that same land was already in Israel’s hands, and the people of Gush Emunim could set out to enlighten Israel and all of humanity.

Settling in Judea and Samaria became the national expression of Kookism. Before the 1967 war, the Gahalet people were busy ‏(aside from with their Torah studies‏) with a war against “missionaries” in Jerusalem: disrupting a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Binyanei Ha’uma, vandalizing church property, and disparaging clergymen who happened to cross their path.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda and Ariel Sharom placing the corner stome for the Elon Moreh settlmentLiberating the Land of the Patriarchs was perceived as a command by the minister of history to go out and make history − or, more precisely, to bring about the end of history by way of full redemption. The land was transformed into a holy vessel, and settlement into a ritual. In Kookism, Aran writes, there occurs “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, which makes it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time also to disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” If Zionism turned Judaism from a theology into an ideology, then Kookism seeks to go one better and turn Zionism itself into a theology. The sanctity was to be found in the settlement operations.

From here on, pitching tents was a mitzvah. Kookism is set apart by its contention that salvation can arrive before the people of Israel has repented, and even without the Messiah. “Redemption of the land” takes on a new meaning, of redeeming reality in its entirety. Kookism also knows in advance and with certainty the course of events. Another dunam and another dunam mean getting ever closer to the End of Days, when the law will go out from Zion and all the nations will look to it.

Israel’s uniqueness ensures the success of Kookism, but the salvation ushered in by the Gush Emunim people does not pertain solely to Jews. Rabbi Levinger explains to Aran that “by making concessions to the Arabs and the Gentiles of the world, by stopping settlement and withdrawing from the territories, we cause our neighbors harm. Not only would their material situation not be improved, but there would occur a spiritual deterioration that would prevent them from understanding the supremacy of our people and acknowledging its sanctity. Thus, with our bare hands, we would block their redemption.” The Kookists know better than you what’s good for you, and they will impose that good on you whether you like it or not. They don’t do this for their own sake, but rather as loyal envoys of the Almighty; who serve as his vessels and obey his orders in silence and certainty.

From this we can also grasp the depth of the crisis that could occur if the people of Israel were to turn its back on them, if the State of Israel were to bid farewell to occupied territories, if the redemption process were to do the incredible and reverse direction.

Back to Hebrew salvation

Hanan Porat celebrating establishing the camp at Sebastia, 1975We find crisis not only at the end of Kookism. Aran’s innovation lies in analyzing the rise of Kookism precisely as a response to crisis. This is the crisis that stems from the dissonance inherent to the very existence of a successful secular State of Israel. Unlike Rabbi Z.Y. Kook, his successors could not see the divine sparks hidden, supposedly, in the hearts of the secular Jews and in the “inner” layer of their actions. A Jewish state that operates in a secular manner is a contradiction in their eyes, and so they set out to reform reality. “We stand before a national disaster of enormous proportions,” Aran quotes a Gush Emunim supporter as saying. “[The state is] a paradise of messianic realization − ‘Apocalypse Now’ − that makes Judaism redundant.”

The realization of the religious dream, the establishment of a Jewish state, endangers religion. The Kookists sought to restore Judaism to the center of Israeli life, and if necessary − by force. The faith-based tension reached its climax in the Six-Day War: Secular Israel won a glorious victory. The Temple Mount was in our hands, and the cafes in Tel Aviv were full of IDF generals basking in the sunlight. The Kookists interpreted the events as they saw fit and sought to explain their meaning to secular Israelis. The tension between the success of secularity ‏(with the Lord’s help, of course‏) and its unwillingness to draw the obvious conclusion ‏(and become religious‏) was too great. Tension creates movement. Crisis creates birth.

It is an accepted and clear principle in the field of religious studies: Faith-based dissonance generates a desire for harmonization, and that desire creates action. Belief and reality are like two bicycle wheels standing one beyond the other, without touching and without support on the side. Anyone who maintains such a structure in his psyche understands intuitively that if he wants it not to fall, he has to push and move forward. Gush Emunim took to the field as a movement that sought to wed faith to reality ‏(the problem being that the back wheel will of course never reach the front one‏). The terrible blow Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War gave an additional push, and the Kookists channeled the messianic energy into settlement. Hanan Porat summed up the matter: “Gush Emunim is the yearning for the revelation of God in the world.”

In setting out to realize Judaism as a national religion, Kookism revived the ancient Hebrew notion of redemption: political salvation that finds expression in a sovereign kingdom. Kookism did not invent this ideal, but merely translated the biblical aspiration into a modern tongue and action, and added to it Hegelian dialectic and kabbalistic interpretation. It thereby set itself against the processes of Protestantization that world religions are undergoing in our era, in the course of which religion becomes the personal ‏(and psychological‏) business of the individual. The mystical spirituality of Rav Kook was forgotten, and Kookism was left with only a theocratic Jewish messianism, inflexible and destined to break.

Aran presents the reader with historical facts, a plot, and brilliant interpretation. His writing is creative and graceful, and reading the book is a pleasurable experience. It also has a few problems: The lack of an index is a serious oversight, and the lengthy explanations at the beginning about the formation of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century are superfluous. The passage of time is evident in the explanations pertaining to matters of kabbalah and mysticism. But as a whole the text is fascinating, and the book’s editor, Amit Shoham, did an admirable job in reducing the dense abundance typical of a doctoral dissertation into the earthly reality dictated by the constraints of publishing a book.

Aran’s research reveals to us how vivid and innovative Kookism was at its inception: sanctifying the profane, sanctifying the IDF, sanctifying nationalism, the blinding faith in the righteousness of its path, its contempt for passive religiosity, the theological interpretation − in real time − of every political occurrence. His study also reveals to us how great was its failure, how pale its decline. Today the most devout Kookists − Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau and the yeshivas under his leadership − have withdrawn from the public arena and severed themselves from Israeli society. Who better than Naftali Bennett, the high-tech ace from Ra’anana who became the new shepherd of religious Zionism, to herald the end of Kookism as a vibrant social movement. Thirty years after it was written as an introduction to a young movement’s worldview, Aran’s juicy text is now being published as its summation.

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Published in Haaretz, 5.4.13

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