BEITAR ILLIT, West Bank — The mid-afternoon quiet was disrupted by a sea of children streaming into the streets on their way home from school.
Though Hello Kitty and Spider-Man backpacks peppered the crowd, the gendered separation of white button-down shirts from navy blue tights made it impossible to mistake the young students for anything other than ultra-Orthodox.
Most striking, though, was the sheer size of the throng, the next generation laying claim to the streets. While a reasonable guess would have placed these pupils in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem, they were actually in one of the West Bank’s largest settlements — Beitar Illit — where an astounding 66 percent of the roughly 50,000 residents are under the age of 18.
Now home to 30% of the approximately 400,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the eight ultra-Orthodox settlements have slowly turned the archetype of the typical Israeli settler on its head.
While the leadership of these residents may not be anywhere near as vocal as the heads of the religious national camp that has long been synonymous with the settlement enterprise, it is among the movement’s most consequential. Increasingly so.
The concept of ultra-Orthodox settlement beyond the Green Line did not develop without profound objection from within the Haredi sector. One of the movement’s late leaders, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, vehemently opposed the idea of moving into the biblical Judea and Samaria when the communities began sprouting up in the 1980s, arguing that it “provoked the gentiles.”
He also cited the religious imperative of pikuah nefesh (preserving human life), which he believed superseded the commandment of settling the land. Living in isolated settlements far from the Green Line placed residents in unnecessary danger, he argued.
However, Shach’s opinion on the matter would evolve. When he was approached for his blessing of the Modiin Illit settlement in 1995, Shach provided it, citing a promise made to him by then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that the community would remain under Israeli control in any future deal with the Palestinians.
Leaving ideology out of it
The ultra-Orthodox families initially moving to the West Bank were not doing so for ideological reasons, and most of those moving there nowadays are not either. The Haredim have not been at the forefront of settler protests against the evacuation of outposts, or demonstrations demanding wider settlement building; there’s been little ultra-Orthodox black among the settler protest orange.
“We came here due to the housing distress. This is where the government sent us,” said Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubenstein, referring to the subsidized housing successive governments have offered the burgeoning Haredi population since the 1980s.
Lee Cahaner, an Israel Democracy Institute expert on the state’s ultra-Orthodox population, explained that the urgent Haredi need for housing “coincided with the state’s interest in expanding Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line.”
The ever-growing housing demand in ultra-Orthodox communities has led to a paradox in which, today, the two largest settlements are made up of residents with generally minimal nationalistic fervor.
Established largely as an alternative destination for the young Haredi families who couldn’t find affordable housing in Jerusalem, Beitar Illit is outnumbered in population only by Modiin Illit (also known as Kiryat Sefer), which was founded in a similar vein for Bnei Brak residents and is now home to some 65,000 of the 125,000 ultra-Orthodox settlers.
Both these settlement cities are located near the Green Line, and within the settlement blocs that most Israelis expect will never be ceded, as Rabin had promised Shach. “We don’t feel like we’re settlers,” said Rubenstein. “We’re no different from any of the residents in Bnei Brak.”
While no other ultra-Orthodox settlements have reached anything close to the size of the two cities, two additional larger communities have been established. Emmanuel in the northern West Bank was founded in 1983 and now boasts 3,500 residents; and in 1990, the settlement of Kochav Ya’akov south of Ramallah inaugurated the Haredi neighborhood of Tel Zion, where some 5,500 now reside.
In addition to these four communities, four smaller settlements were developed in the early 1980s: Ma’ale Amos and Metzad in the southern West Bank, Matityahu adjacent to Modiin Illit, and Nahliel north of Ramallah. The populations of each hover between 400-700 residents.
While Cahaner said the distinction has blurred over the years, she differentiated between the larger communities, whose residents moved there “out of necessity,” and the smaller ones, whose residents are further from the blocs and slightly more ideological.
“The latter group consists of members believed to be outside the ultra-Orthodox mainstream,” Cahaner said, referencing English-speaking and French immigrants along with Haredi Jews from the Breslov and Chabad communities. Their more nationalistic attitude is sympathetic to the ideological pull of West Bank settlement, she said, but the small populations of these communities indicate that they have been less successful and are outside of the norm.
Gush Etzion Regional Council deputy head and Ma’ale Amos resident Yoel Silber disputed Cahaner’s classification, saying that none of the ultra-Orthodox settlers crossed the Green Line for ideological reasons. “We certainly sympathize with the ideological arguments and believe that we have every right to live here, but that is not the reason we do so,” he said.
Silber also disagreed with the implication that the small size of Ma’ale Amos — 60 families — made the community any less successful than other Haredi settlements. He cited a number of significant housing projects in the works and insisted that Ma’ale Amos was growing.
“More and more Haredi families are considering this place as an option, and when we become as big as Beitar Ilit, everyone will be familiar with the community,” he predicted.
Changing and being changed by the settlement enterprise
Beyond the impact that the growth in Haredi residents living over the Green Line has had on the settlement enterprise, the phenomenon has also marked the community itself. “What was once both geographically and politically distant is now much closer,” said Cahaner of the settlements and their characteristically right-wing ideology. “Places like Ma’ale Amos and Tel Zion no longer seem so far away when looking at them from Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit,” she added.
The eight communities have shifted the broader Haredi community further to the political right, Cahaner argued.
The more ultra-Orthodox residents living beyond the Green Line, the less likely the two main parties representing them in the Knesset (Shas and United Torah Judaism) will be interested in joining a coalition intent on returning West Bank territory to the Palestinians, said Haredi political strategist Avraham Kroyzner.
This does not mean that such a scenario is no longer possible, however, he added. “I, for example, would be willing to leave Matityahu if given the appropriate amount of compensation, and I think most ultra-Orthodox settlers would do the same,” Kroyzner said.
“The Haredi sector has moved to the right just like all of Israel has, but that does not mean we take the [Torah] commandment of settling the land any more seriously than the others,” he argued. The essence of the Haredi dispute with the national religious camp is the latter’s decision to place settlement above all other commandments, Kroyzner said.
The political strategist pointed out some larger issues that the ultra-Orthodox residents of the West Bank have with the leadership of the settlement movement that represents them. “The Binyamin Regional Council does not see us as being as ideological as some of the more isolated caravans in [the now dismantled outpost of] Amona, which has prevented us from receiving the attention we deserve,” he lamented, citing infrastructure problems in his native Matityahu that have not been addressed.
But the Haredi settlers still feel they are represented by the Yesha Council umbrella settlement group, despite the differences in opinion, Kroyzner clarified.
Yesha Director General Shilo Adler spoke positively of his ultra-Orthodox constituents. “They show that the general population in Israel is becoming more accepting of the settlement movement. They are absolutely part of us.”
“What may have started as a method to solve the housing crisis in Haredi communities has also become an opportunity for them to connect with their heritage by living on land where 80% of the Bible took place,” Adler said.
With the ultra-Orthodox constituting the fastest-growing population within the settlements (2,000 babies are born each year in Beitar Illit), one might expect the community to be exerting the most political pressure for an increase of building beyond the Green Line. “We’d love to see them more active and present in our movement, but we understand the difficulty in them doing so publicly,” said Adler.
“We don’t participate in the protests, but we are absolutely pressuring our representatives behind closed doors to increase building numbers,” Rubenstein insisted.
Asked whether living under the direct protection of IDF soldiers in the West Bank has generated an increase in enlistment numbers from the ultra-Orthodox residents, Silber dismissed the notion outright. The Ma’ale Amos resident did point out, however, that his synagogue recites the blessing for Israeli soldiers during services each Shabbat.
For now, that’s the closest nearly a third of the West Bank’s Jewish residents will get to the archetypal settler of both battlefield and synagogue.