The frontier in Israeli history

The concept of the frontier, in Jewish terms, is not merely economic, political or geographical.

June 13, 2013 14:22
Netanyahu at newly-approved Rechilim settlement

Netanyahu visits newly-approved Rechilim settlement 370. (photo credit: Meir Berachia/Samaria Regional Council)


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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.”

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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 everywhere.

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.

David Ben-Gurion 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, flourished.

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 watershed.

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 location.

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.

In 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 history.

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 refugee camps.

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 of invincibility.

Infused by renewed idealism, practical realities, and a more receptive government, settlement activity increased.

But the disappointing outcome of the First Lebanon War (1982) and rampant inflation sparked new fires whipped by winds of internal strife.

Expansion also 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 2000.

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 negotiable.

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 well-being.

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 before.

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 confrontational.

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 roots.

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.

Zionism, especially 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.

Although temporarily postponed, the threat to remove hundreds of thousands of Israelis from their homes is constant – insisted upon by most of the international community.

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 society itself.

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 giants.

“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 Jerusalem.

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