The Plight Of The Secular Settlement

Ariel is an illegal secular Israeli settlement deep in Palestinian territory

The demographics of Israeli settlers are pretty interesting.  Naturally, there is a high percentage of religiously motivated settlers due to the biblical claims to the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria.  On the other hand, there is a significant number of secular Jews who are settling in the West Bank to take advantage of the financial support.  Generally, though the secular settlements are located relatively close to Israeli cities and offer a cheap (and illegal) alternative to living in expensive cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Yet as the Israeli government shifts to the right, so does the composition of the settlers.  Secular settlers, it seems, are quickly losing ground to their ultra-religious brethren.

[tweetmeme] A couple of days ago, The Economist published a profile or sorts on Ariel, a large illegal settlement outside of Nablus in the West Bank.  When I lived up in Nablus, I took a day to visit the settlement, which has a full university with 9,500 students and a total population of 16,500.  The city was very quiet during my trip.  Overall, the emptiness of the city struck me as bizarre.  Stores, streets and cafes were barren.  Interestingly, the few settlers I did come across were from Russia and didn’t speak Hebrew.  The Economist picks up on the eery almost post-apocalyptic emptiness I experienced.  The reason?  A dearth of secular settlers:

Mr Nachman always wanted his city to be the West Bank’s Tel Aviv, full of secular people. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, only moderately religious, make up half the population, but their birth rates are low. To boost numbers he has recruited thousands of students from the coastal plains, turning fanatical garrisons into bourgeois dorms. But most students move on before they have families.

That leaves settlement leaders urging an ailing Mr Nachman to abandon his secular dream and welcome ideological rather than economic settlers. Not only are they more committed to populating the West Bank, but they breed faster.

For now, Mr Nachman continues to spurn the ultra-orthodox Jews who have peopled much larger settlements. But seemingly holding his nose, he has welcomed religious “Anglos”, or English-speaking Jewish immigrants, including a South African rabbi. He has also made room for some of the religious settlers Israel moved from Gaza when it pulled out in 2005. But if it is to survive, Ariel will have to swallow its pride and admit less tolerant and flexible folk. Not such great news after all.

This massive decrease in secular settlers to more remote settlements such as Ariel demonstrates the drastic shift towards ultra-conservatism within Israel’s settler community.  With most moderate, secular settlers now limiting themselves to the ‘settlement suburbs’ outside of Jerusalem or within major settlement blocs, more conservative religious settlers have taken over the mantle of colonization and have become more active  in lobbying the government.  Secular, moderate settlers, on the other hand, have seen life in large, illegal settlement blocs become normalized, reducing the incentive for political participation.

Of course, it seems bizarre to label a settler as moderate in the first place.  However, in the event of a peace settlement, thousands of settlers will be forced to relocate back into Israel proper.  It seems fairly obviously that those driven to settlements by economic concerns would be easier to uproot than those who have an ideological attachment to the land.  Hence the strong political efforts of the ultra-conservative settler community and the over-representation of hard-line settler interests in the current Israeli government.

Photo: Chris Keeler 2010

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