Settlements in Focus - Vol. 1, Issue 12: Ultra Orthodox Jews in the West Bank


Settlements in Focus

The Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the West Bank (Vol.1, Issue 12)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

What is the difference between the ultra-Orthodox and other religious Jews in the settlements?

The ultra-Orthodox settlers come from a political-religious faction of Judaism that is distinct from the one that gave birth to the religious-nationalist settlers who founded the settlement movement. This factionalism reflects an ongoing and contentious debate within religious Jewish circles (that predates the birth of Israel) over questions of religious interpretation (i.e., what does God want Jews to do?) and social transformation (i.e., how should Jews live in an era of secularism and political emancipation?). For additional information about this subject, we recommend: Katz Jacob, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870. Cambridge, Mass, 1973.

Ultra-Orthodox immigration to Israel began long before the earliest waves of Zionist immigration in the 1880s. Also known as the "haredim" (meaning "those who fear God"), the ultra-Orthodox are the ideological descendents of devoutly religious Jews who opposed change and modernization, including social and cultural adaptations to the country in which their community lived. This rejection of change can be seen today, most obviously, by their retention of traditional European "shtetl" dress (black wool suits and, on Saturdays and holidays, hats with fur known as "Streimel," even in the heat of the Middle East). The ultra-Orthodox have historically rejected activist Zionism, continuing to believe that the path to Jewish redemption is through religious, rather than secular activity (e.g., piety, devotion, study of Torah, while awaiting divine action). Some actively anti-Zionist positions in the ultra-Orthodox community persist to this day, with the most extreme form being the virulently anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect (

This is in contrast to the religious-nationalist settlers, whose positions derive from an ideology that combines religious devotion with activism. From their perspective, activities like settling the land is defined not as secular activism (as it would be seen by the ultra-Orthodox) but rather as religious activism, since they view the return of Jews to the land of Israel as fulfillment of God's will. This view was strengthened after Israel's 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, which many religious-nationalists saw as evidence of divine intervention in human history and validation of their ideology. These beliefs were the driving force behind the birth of the settler movement (known since 1974 as Gush Emunim, meaning "Bloc of the Faithful"). Starting in the 1970s, the religious-nationalist settlers became one of the most coherent and influential political and social forces in Israel. For their part, the ultra-Orthodox were not involved in this movement, focusing their energies on fighting secularism and "heresy" inside Israel.

Why are the ultra-Orthodox moving to settlements, if not for Zionist reasons?

The first ultra-orthodox settlements were established in the early 1980s, when the pace of erecting new settlements in the West Bank was at its peak. At that time, the declared policy of the Likud government was to establish as many new settlements as possible, with the goal of attracting Israelis from all social and religious strata. In the ultra-Orthodox they found an ideal target: a group that preferred to live in segregated, homogeneous communities, whose rapid birth rate was causing them to constantly outgrow their communities inside Israel, and who suffered from a chronic lack of resources. The ultra-Orthodox were a natural fit for the new settlements, which offered cheap housing, segregated communities, and easy access to Israel (with the new ultra-Orthodox settlements located close to the Green Line).

In addition, while the ultra-Orthodox did not actively support the Zionist aspect of the settler movement, they were pragmatically agnostic when it came to questions about whether Jews should or should not move into the West Bank. It was later observed that the axiom "if you build it (and offer strategically-designed incentives), they will come" applied to the Israeli government's efforts to attract the ultra-Orthodox to the settlements.

Does this mean that most settlers are religious-nationalists?

According to polling data, just over half of Israeli settlers identify themselves as religious - a result which is intuitively logical, given that most of the largest settlements are the "bedroom" communities like Ma'ale Adumim, Ariel, and Givat Ze'ev - non-ideological communities with non-religious atmospheres, to which Israelis from across the religious and political spectrum are attracted for quality-of-life reasons. However, as discussed above, the religious/ideological settlers have, from the outset of the settlement movement, represented a leading political and sociological power in Israel. As a result, even though the religious-nationalist settlers are a minority of the total settler population, the entire settlement enterprise has come to be identified with them and their political viewpoint. This phenomenon has been reinforced by the very active religious-nationalist community living inside Israel, which in recent decades has become closely identified with the hardcore Israeli right, and which has succeeded in making support for the settlement movement a sine qua non of the Israeli right in general.

On what basis can a settlement be defined as ultra-Orthodox?

The clearest criterion for defining ultra-Orthodox settlements is voting patterns. Two parties claimed the bulk of the ultra-Orthodox vote in the last Israeli elections (held in January 2003) - United Torah Judaism (which won 5 seats in the Knesset and is actually the merger of several small ultra-Orthodox parties - more information at and Shas (which won 11 seats in the Knesset, drawing its votes not only from the ultra-Orthodox but also from a populist/traditionalist Sephardic constituency - more information at For the purposes of this analysis, an ultra-Orthodox settlement is considered any settlement in which either of these two parties won a significant portion of the vote. Trends of voting in the last two general elections in Israel can found at the Knesset website. Results for the last election can be seen at: (Hebrew only)

In addition, inasmuch as the ultra-Orthodox generally reject change and modernization, they also generally prefer to live in religious, homogeneous communities (whether in Israel or in the West Bank). Thus, few ultra-Orthodox live among the religious-nationalist or secular settlers, making the definition of a settlement as ultra-Orthodox even clearer.

How many ultra-Orthodox settlements are there? What are their key characteristics?

There are eight ultra-Orthodox settlements in the West Bank. They are (in order of size):

  • Beitar Illit: Established in 1985, Beitar Illit is one of the largest settlements in the West Bank and is one of only four settlements classified by Israel as a "city." Beitar Illit is located close to the Green Line, west of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

  • Modi'in Illit (also known as Kiryat Sefer): Established in 1996 (i.e., post-Oslo), Modi'in Illit is also one of the largest settlements in the West Bank and is in the process of being classified by Israel as a "city." Modi'in Illit is located a few kilometers east of the Green Line and about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It anchors the Modi'in Illit bloc - a population center that spreads across both sides of the Green Line.

  • Tel Zion (section of Kochav Ya'akov): Established in 1997 (i.e., post-Oslo), Tel Zion is officially a neighborhood of the settlement Kochav Ya'akov, which is located north of Jerusalem. However, for all intents and purposes Tel Zion functions and is treated as an autonomous settlement. Evidence of this can be found on the Benjamin Regional Council website, whose list of all settlements under the Council's jurisdiction includes separate listings for Tel Zion and Kochav Ya'akov. (Hebrew only). Similarly, Tel Zion maintains its own website and presents itself as its own settlement (Hebrew only). According to its website, Tel Zion is planned eventually to be a town of over 35,000 people, living in more than 7000 housing units.

  • Immanuel: Established in 1983, Immanuel is a medium-sized settlement located in the heart of the West Bank, about 10 kilometers southwest of the Palestinian town of Nablus. The longstanding lack of growth in Immanuel (where the annual growth rate is zero, and in some years has actually fallen) reflects the fact that ultra-Orthodox settlers are not driven by the same ideological zeal as the national religious settlers to live deep inside the West Bank, with its attendant dangers and diminished quality of life.

  • Mattityahu: Established in 1981, Mattityahu is located to the immediate southwest of Modi'in Illit and close to the Green Line. It is a small settlement that has seen little growth in recent years, in all likelihood due to the rapid growth of neighboring Modi'in Illit.

  • Ma'ale Amos: Established in 1981, Ma'ale Amos is a small settlement located deep inside the southern West Bank, along the Jordan Valley's eastern ridge. Like the other ultra-Orthodox settlements located far from the Green Line, Ma'ale Amos has consistently failed to thrive as a settlement, with a population that has remained stagnant or shrinking.

  • Nahliel: Established in 1984, Nahliel is a small settlement located in an isolated area northwest of the large Palestinian city of Ramallah. In Nahliel there is a growing group of very radical settlers who are on the fringes of the ultra-Orthodox society, making Nahliel atypical of the ultra-Orthodox settlements (a fact reflected in the settlements voting trends, discussed below). Nonetheless, Nahliel is similar to the other isolated ultra-Orthodox settlements in its overall failure to thrive and grow.

  • Asfar: Established in 1983, Asfar is a small settlement located south of Ma'ale Amos, with only limited access via a single narrow, twisting road. Like the other ultra-Orthodox settlements located far from the Green Line, Asfar has failed to thrive and grow, and its population over the years has been stagnant or declining, once again reflecting the fact that the ultra-Orthodox do not generally share the religious-nationalist commitment to the settlement enterprise.

Are the ultra-Orthodox settlements expanding?

The two largest construction projects in the West Bank today are found in Modi'in Illit and Beitar Illit. These two projects alone represent more than 50% of the total current settlement construction taking place in the West Bank.

How many ultra-Orthodox are living today in the West Bank?

Today there are over 70,000 ultra-Orthodox living in the West Bank. Most of them are in the settlements listed above, with a few thousand spread between other settlements (like Ma'ale Adumim. Givat Zeev, and Kiryat Arba) where there is a mixed population. This means that the ultra-Orthodox today account for over 25% of all Israeli settlers.

Broken down by settlement, the ultra-Orthodox population is as follows (the first number is for year end 2003, the second for year end 2004, and the third, where available, is for June 30, 2005):

Beitar Illit - 22,926 / 25,020 / 28,500
Modi'in Illit - 24,290 / 27,301 / 28,500
Tel Zion - 3819 / 4377 / 4600
Immanuel - 2455 / 3054 / 2600
Mattityahu - 1365 / 1386 / not available
Ma'ale A'mos - 299 / 361 / not available
Nahliel - 248 / 340 / not available
Asfar - 232 / 327 / not available

All numbers are based on the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. See:

Are the increases in the ultra-Orthodox settler population due to "natural growth" (i.e., birth rates) or new people moving to settlements?

Much of the increase is due to natural growth, since the ultra-Orthodox have the highest birthrate of any part of the Jewish population of Israel (or the West Bank settlers), with an average of 7 children per couple. At present, about 70% of children born to West Bank settlers each year are born to ultra-Orthodox families.

In addition, there is substantial growth due to immigration to settlements from inside Israel: the ultra-Orthodox population living inside Israel has and will continue to have a pressing need for additional new housing, the bulk of which, at least at present, is being provided in the West Bank.

What are the voting trends among ultra-Orthodox settlers?

As noted above, the most straightforward criterion for defining a settlement as ultra-Orthodox is the voting patterns of that settlement. This criterion is valid because (a) the two ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) represent exclusively the interests of the ultra-Orthodox in the government, and (b) the ultra-Orthodox historically account for most (but not all) of the votes for the Shas party, and for virtually all of the votes for United Torah Judaism (and its precursor parties). This does not mean that all of the ultra-Orthodox vote for these two parties; in recent years there has been a notable new phenomenon of larger numbers of ultra-Orthodox casting their ballots for non-ultra-Orthodox parties associated with the far right - mainly Herut (a party that did not receive sufficient votes in the last election to get into the Knesset, and whose hard-line positions flirted with political ideas associated with Meir Kahane's outlawed Kach party - more information at and, to a lesser extent, the National Union Party (HaIchud HaLeumi - more information at This trend toward supporting the hard-line right-wing parties over the traditional ultra-Orthodox parties is strongest, as one might expect, in the smaller, isolated ultra-Orthodox settlements:

Nahliel: Herut (39.3%), National Union (8.3%)
Asfar: Herut (17.3%), National Union (5.3%)
Immanuel: Herut (14.3%), National Union (4%)
Tel Zion: Herut (11.9%), National Union (2.2%)
Ma'ale A'mos: Herut (9.5%), National Union (4.8%)
Beitar Illit: Herut (approx. 8.5%), National Union (approx .5%)
Modi'in Illit: Herut (approx. 1%), National Union (approx. 0.1%)
Mattityahu: Herut (0.8%), National Union (2.3%)

These numbers compare with the ultra-Orthodox communities inside the Green Line like Bnei Brak, where Herut and National Union won 0.5-1.5% of the vote, and El'ad, where they won around 2% of the vote. (Numbers for Beitar Illit and Modi'in Illit are approximate, due to a difference in the voting procedures in the very large settlements).

These changing voting trends among the ultra-Orthodox became much more evident during summer 2005, when many ultra-Orthodox engaged in anti-disengagement protests and activities. For the first time in Israel's history, significant portions of the ultra-Orthodox community not only expressed very hawkish political positions, but also took an active role in efforts to block the plan's implementation, including participation in violent protests. At the same time, the political and religious leadership of the ultra-Orthodox (which are often intertwined) refused to take a clear stand on the disengagement issue.

Were there ultra-Orthodox settlers in Gaza and if so, where did they go?

There was no significant presence of ultra-Orthodox in the Gaza Strip settlements.

What is likely to be the future political impact of large ultra-Orthodox settlements?

A few observations can be made about the likely future impact of the major ultra-Orthodox settlements.

First, most of these settlements are, in all likelihood, safe from any threat of evacuation or being left on the Palestinian side of any temporary or permanent border. Their safety is a function of several factors: location (they are close to the Green Line), size (they are very large), and politics (they are connected to the ultra-Orthodox communities inside Israel and thus represented by a powerful political voice and voting bloc that any Israeli government will have to take into account).

Second, they are likely to continue to expand. As noted elsewhere in this analysis, there is and will continue to be a need for additional housing for the ultra-Orthodox, reflecting the high birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox communities on both sides of the Green Line. The provision of new housing for them in the West Bank dovetails well with the apparent Israeli government desire to reinforce the Israeli presence in certain areas of the West Bank, and in particular near the Green Line.

Third, the ultra-Orthodox settlers are likely to identify increasingly with the religious-nationalist settlers, as evidenced by the voting trends identified above and in the recent ultra-Orthodox activism against disengagement. Impacts of the Intifada and threats to settler subsidies are also likely to reinforce a sense of common interests and common threats among these historically distinct groups. This change is reflected in the website of Tel Zion, which notes: "In contrast to other settlements of the Binyamin Regional Council, only a few (residents) came to this place because of ideology. The large majority found comfortable houses and good (economic) conditions near Jerusalem. At the same time, a connection of the residents to the place and a sense of belonging are developing. The residents are showing a great willingness to integrate into the systems that address security needs, and they respond to volunteer missions in the framework of Zaka, Magen David Adom, security response teams, and guard duties." (, Hebrew only)

Finally, some religious-nationalist settlers are coming to recognize that the ultra-Orthodox community represents a potentially potent ally in the battle to keep the West Bank. This is despite the fact that the two communities have often been at odds in the past, in particular in battles over budgets and benefits in Israeli politics. In a recent Israel Radio interview, Rabbi Levanon of the hardline settlement of Elon Moreh - an influential figure in the religious-nationalist settler movement (see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 10, for more details, - noted that a lesson learned from the disengagement experience was that the religious nationalist settlers must engage and make common cause with their ultra-Orthodox brethren.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel), and Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now