In 1862, at the beginning of the Civil War, Congress passed and president
Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which granted unclaimed and
uninhabited state land to American “settlers.”
This act was meant to
encourage pioneer farmers, some of whom referred to their new territory with
biblical names, like “Zion.”
To a large extent, these pioneers defined
America’s national character – “rugged individualism,” boldness and courage and
a deep belief in American destiny. The frontier became a symbol of American
freedom, independence and ingenuity.
Nearly 75 years ago, an American
historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, asked a fascinating question that has been
the subject of professional debate ever since and that might be relevant for
Israel: What was the impact of the frontier on American history? He proposed
that the frontier functioned as a sort of socioeconomic safety valve and was a
perennial democratizing force in American society. The loss of the frontier
(around the turn of the century), he concluded, meant not only the loss of land,
but the loss of an ideal – “liberty” and “freedom of opportunity” and a
“creative vision of a new order of society.” Settlement of the West was, Turner
believed, the essence of the American experience.
The current dilemma
over Israel’s borders offers an application of Turner’s thesis. If Judea and
Samaria (the West Bank) can be considered Israel’s frontier, what does it
represent in terms of a national psyche and what might be the psychosocial
effect of its loss? Is Jewish settlement in this territory central to the future
of Israel? And are Israeli settlers today doing what their predecessors, the
pioneers, did generations ago? Opponents of settlements argue that Israel’s
“occupation” of territory which it conquered as a result of the Six Day War in
1967 undermines democratic values, encourages oppression and exploitation and
fractures Israeli society.
For Palestinians the expansion of Israel’s
frontiers (indeed Israel’s very existence) and the “occupation” are a disaster.
The nakba (disaster) which is observed by Arabs inside and outside of Israel
refers to the establishment of Israel in 1948; the loss of more territory in
1967 made things worse, they claim.
Those who support Jewish settlement
present its advantages: a profound historical homecoming, cheap land, abundant
resources and critical security issues. The right of Jews to live anywhere in
Eretz Yisrael is the essence of the re-establishment of the state; most believe
it is embedded in the meaning and purpose of the Jewish people as well. But the
issues of settlements and borders did not begin in 1967. Where, then, do
Israel’s frontiers lie? And to whom does Judea and Samaria belong? BEFORE
BECOMING a state, Israel’s frontier was marked by purchasing vacant land and
swamps for reclamation projects. Palestine was known by Jews as The Yishuv, the
settlement, because all of it was just that. Nationbuilding made everyone a
pioneer. Settling the land was the essence of Zionism; the frontier was
Despite Arab gangs attacking whenever and wherever they
could, Jews bought land and built settlements.
In 1948, the newly
established State of Israel was attacked by five Arab countries, led, supported
and supplied by England and France. Armistice lines of 1949 never became
borders; Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria –
both supported terrorist raids against Israel.
Following Israel’s War of
Independence the Negev desert became a frontier.
envisioned its settlement as critical to the future of the state and to set an
example retired to an isolated desert kibbutz, Sde Boker. The harsh conditions
of the Negev, however, did not attract the masses, even with the establishment
of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba in 1969. The desert towns around it held
on; some even expanded.
Beduin villages and towns, on the other hand,
The Galilee also offered many opportunities for settlement,
but even today, Jews are barely a majority there. Jews needed cities, hi-tech
and industrial parks; Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa were more attractive than
the countryside, the desert and farms.
The Six Day War in 1967 was a
It opened many possibilities as well as problems, all rooted
in the controversy of Israel’s birth. While the War of Independence solidified
Israelis around armistice lines, this demarcation was never accepted by any Arab
country; the 1967 war created a geographic separation between new settlers and
older ones. A connection was always there, the difference was in
Except for the Sinai and Golan, these areas were accessible to
major cities and industries. Rich in natural resources and agricultural
potential, they were (except for the Sinai) historically more relevant than most
of what had comprised Israel previously.
Settlement in the areas acquired
after 1967 began largely for ideological reasons, inspired by a renewed vision
of Zionism – reclaiming much of what was, throughout history, Eretz Yisrael, the
biblical Land of Israel. There were also important economic reasons: cheaper
land and housing, farming opportunities and ample water resources.
addition there were critical security considerations – control of the mountain
ranges which overlook major Israeli population centers. This new settlement
movement had deep spiritual implications for religious as well as secular Jews
and had direct economic and strategic advantages.
Returning to ancient
Jewish sites and rebuilding Jewish towns near archeological ruins named for
Shiloh, Beit El, Kiryat Arba/Mamre, Hebron, Sussiya, Gamla and Katzrin and many
others, inspired an entire generation. Moving back into Jerusalem’s Old City and
building new neighborhoods in the surrounding hills was the realization of a
dream for Jews everywhere. It was, in a sense, fulfilling Jewish
Jews were able to pray freely at the Western Wall for the first
time in 2,000 years. Archeological excavations brought thrilling dimensions to
Jewish history. The problem was that Israel’s new frontier was not empty. Nearly
a million Arabs lived there, mostly in towns, villages and UNRWA-sponsored
Israel’s expansion relieved a security problem and created
another. Prior to the war in 1967, Israel was vulnerable along its
15-kilometer-wide border between Tel Aviv and Haifa, its northern border with
Syria and Lebanon, and the Gaza strip, from which terrorists launched raids. The
new borders that followed Israel’s victory in 1967 and the sense of overwhelming
military superiority gave Israelis a new level of comfort and expectations. This
did not last long.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 shattered Israeli illusions
Infused by renewed idealism, practical realities, and a
more receptive government, settlement activity increased.
disappointing outcome of the First Lebanon War (1982) and rampant inflation
sparked new fires whipped by winds of internal strife.
created a security problem. In the late 1980s, violent Arab riots – the intifada
– erupted throughout the West Bank, spoiling what most people hoped might become
a “new Israel,” and destroying domestic complacency and a spirit of cooperation.
The Oslo Agreements in the early 1990s enabled the establishment of a
Palestinian Authority (which governed 95 percent of Arabs living in the West
Bank) and brought economic prosperity and renewed hopes for peace. But these
were dashed as Yasser Arafat and Hamas opened a terrorist war against Israel in
Attacks on Jews traveling to and from their homes in the West Bank
became an almost daily occurrence.
Israeli shops, hotels, buses and cafes
were targeted. Mobile killing squads of Arab terrorists traveled the roads,
attacking Jews. The intensity of these attacks increased after the Oslo
Agreements, encouraged by what the Arabs perceived as willingness by Israel to
abandon the West Bank and halt settlement activity. Terrorist bombings became a
regular occurrence, encouraged as part of a holy war (jihad). The idea of a
pioneer frontier also deteriorated from within.
Israeli society became
consumer hungry, a barbecue of Western commercialism wrapped in a pita. Seduced
by movies, malls and mass culture Israelis gave in. Becoming part of the modern
technological world, a spinoff of American culture, meant there was a price to
pay: loss of Jewish and Zionist identity and values.
The split in Israeli
society between religious and secular communities and those who supported
settlements or opposed them deepened. The issue of settlements was an indication
of what had been achieved and, as well, where one stood on the political,
religious and even the social spectrum.
The ideology of Religious Zionism
was a threat to the secular elites who controlled the media, and the political/
economic life of the country. Settlers were portrayed negatively and became
anathema, the “West Bank,” a burden to left-wing governments. Not only was a PLO
state agreed to officially, but those Jews who lived in the territories that
would be surrendered would pay the price. Moreover, the issue of Jerusalem,
considered by nearly all Jews as a symbol of national unity and purpose, became
UNILATERAL WITHDRAWAL from the Gaza Strip and the destruction
of 21 Jewish communities there (as well as four in Northern Samaria) in the
summer of 2005 not only set a precedent – it emboldened Hamas, a terrorist
organization, and led to its takeover of the area. For the first time in
history, a country controlling an area over which it claimed historic rights was
prepared to relinquish it without any rewards or security benefits. Israel’s
frontier was suddenly abandoned.
“Why then,” some ask, “could not the
idea of the frontier in Israel be within its pre-1967 borders? Isn’t there
enough land in the Negev and the Galilee? Would it not be better to be satisfied
with less if that is the price for peace? Is the fabric of Israeli society being
destroyed by suppressing Arab/Palestinian nationalism? Why not agree to a PLO
state with Jerusalem as its capital, a complete withdrawal from the Golan
Heights and be done with it?” But if settlement was wrong after 1967, what made
it right before? What makes a frontier? Frontiers are more than measures of
land, or a struggle for space; they are expressions of national identity. As
physical boundaries, Turner suggests, frontiers can be translated into
selfperceptions and behavior – a state of mind. The erosion of an external
frontier erodes the psychological borders of emotional security and
Withdrawal from Judea, Samaria and Gaza threatens the
legitimacy of all Jewish settlement and sovereignty and – with a terror-based
state as a neighbor – leaves Israel even more vulnerable than it was
Israeli facts of life – the constant, daily struggle against
terrorism and threats of annihilation – destroy any sense of security and
increase general anxiety. The more vulnerable and unprotected one feels, the
less flexible, more irrational and defensive they become. This condition
contributes to an Israeli personality that is arrogant, brash, rude and
Survival of the fittest, in Israel is not simply a way
of life, it is a raison d’etre.
The threatened loss of more than 150
Jewish communities and relocation of hundreds of thousands of people has
exacerbated deep schisms in Israeli society – a kulturkampf. Characterized as
“obstacles to peace” by opponents of Jews who live in the “occupied
territories,” settlers and their supporters are vilified by the Left and a
hostile media. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin even went so far as to
exclude them from the body politic of Israeli society, although most of the
settlers are religious Zionists, the backbone of Israel.
If settlement is
inherent to Zionism, the notion of a frontier lies at its
Abandoning the frontier in Judea and Samaria would certainly
diminish the notion of Zionism and would create a chasm, a deep sense of loss
and alienation within the Jewish people. It is not coincidental that today
Zionism itself is under attack. “Post-Zionists” argue that separating from
Israel’s founding ideology might be healthy.
religious Zionism, runs directly counter to supranational (and, of course, Arab)
interests because it is, by its very nature (the prophetic Ingathering of
Exiles) irrational and subjective – even romantic.
That may explain why
Jewish settlers are castigated as messianic. Appeals to biblical and prophetic
sources are considered irrelevant, at best; at worst, they are a threat to the
idea of a multinational, secular, democratic state.
The loss of Israel’s
frontier and the vilification of Jewish “settlers” bring into question the
fundamental premises of Zionism, and in the wake of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza
and Northern Samaria, a self-induced tragedy. And it’s not over.
temporarily postponed, the threat to remove hundreds of thousands of Israelis
from their homes is constant – insisted upon by most of the international
The result seems to be a psychic loss of identity (what does
it mean to be a Zionist, an Israeli, a Jew?), a sense of national betrayal
(reflected in widespread government corruption), hopelessness and despair (a
political system without accountability). Withdrawal may result in massive
economic disruptions as well as physical and psychological dislocation. On a
practical level, withdrawal would mean the loss of critical water sources and
strategic position, threatening Israel’s existence.
Turner’s insight was
not his description of what the frontier actually was, or how it functioned, but
the image that it served in nation-building. The loss of a major part of what
now constitutes Israel, and the creation of a hostile state in that area, as
well as the Second Lebanon War, drive the debate over Israel’s frontiers into a
head-on collision with the threat of extinction.
Jews who have settled in
Judea and Samaria and their supporters argue that the essence of Israel is the
right of Jews to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael.
Their opponents assert
that this policy will undermine the state and lead to its demise. The crucial
debate is not over territory, but about nationality, the nature of Israeli
WHAT MUST emerge from this struggle is not simply a new
set of borders, no matter what they are, but a new concept of Zionism and of the
State of Israel. Ultimately, the question is not whether Israelis can face the
Arabs, but whether they can face themselves.
Frontiers, by nature, offer
challenges and demand conquest. They are, by definition, to be discovered,
explored, and tamed. But as we learn from the story in the Book of Numbers, when
scouts came back from searching the Land of Israel, they reported that
conquering was impossible for it was a land that appeared to be full of
“Moreover the land eats up its inhabitants...
We were in
our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs.” In despair, they lost
their perspective and vision.
The internal debate over Israeli borders
reflects a self-perception: are Jews the legitimate inhabitants of the Land of
Israel, responsible for its use and maintenance, or illegitimate occupiers? The
return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael after 2,000 years of exile and in
the shadow of the Holocaust is not about land, but meaning and purpose; it
offers the opportunity to fulfill a Divine mission.
The concept of the
frontier, in Jewish terms, is not merely economic, political or geographical. It
is essentially a vision that has been at the core of Jewish existence since the
time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 4,000 years ago. Conquering Eretz Yisrael was a
historic and theological definition of the Jewish People’s mission – building a
Torah-based society. Creating a political, economic and social structure in
which the ideals and values of Judaism are realized, is what real Zionism is all
about. ■ The writer is a PhD historian, a writer and journalist living in