It was one of the most important and largely forgotten milestones in the history of the state: Forty-one years ago tomorrow, on July 16, 1967, a young kibbutznik got out of his jeep at Aalleiqa, an abandoned Syrian army base on the Golan Heights, and became the first settler in the occupied territories.
Only five weeks separated the end of the battles of the Six-Day War and his arrival. In the days that followed he was joined by more young people. They founded the kibbutz now known as Merom Golan, near the separation-of-forces line with Syria, not far from Quneitra.
They did not wear skullcaps and they did not speak of the imminent Redemption. Secular kibbutz members from the Upper Galilee were behind the settlement initiative. They believed that the "Syrian Heights" must remain in Israeli hands for reasons of security, and that the best way to guarantee this was by creating facts on the ground in the tradition of Labor Zionism. Their "rabbi" and teacher was Yitzhak Tabenkin, the octagenarian ideologue of the Ahdut Ha'avodah (Unity of Labor) party, who supported the vision of a Greater Israel whose borders extended far beyond those of Mandatory Palestine.
Their initiative contravened government policy. On June 19, 1967, in a secret decision, the government of Levi Eshkol offered Syria "full peace on the basis of the international border," with adjustments for Israeli security needs. Nonetheless, labor minister Yigal Allon allocated funds to the settlers from a budget earmarked for work budgets for the unemployed. The head of Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command, Gen. David Elazar, also helped the settlers, as did the Jewish Agency and the Upper Galilee Regional Council. A prologue could be written to the Talia Sasson report on the establishment of the "unauthorized" West Bank outposts that describes the settlement initiative in the Golan Heights in the summer of 1967. At the end of that summer, the cabinet approved the settlers' presence.
Thus the settlement enterprise did not begin with the confrontation between Gush Emunim and the government of Yitzhak Rabin at Sebastia in 1975, at the Park Hotel in Hebron on Passover in 1968, or even at Kfar Etzion in September 1967. It did, however, begin with the belief that settlement would determine the state's future borders, following the example of Zionist pioneers before the establishment of the state.
Contrary to what settlers and their supporters believe, this continuity does not legitimize the settlements. Just the opposite: Sometimes continuity is a fatal error. In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," the American scholar Jared Diamond explains the processes that have led to the collapse of civilizations throughout history. The fatal error common to cultures that faded away can be summed up in one sentence from Diamond's book: "The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity."
In other words, success turns a means into a sacred value; but conditions change, and it is this very value that leads to disaster. By clinging to the value of settlement, Israeli society runs the risk of providing additional proof for Diamond's rule.
In another age, as every school child learns, settlement was one of the fundamental reasons for Zionism's success. It brought Jews back to working the land. After the 1937 Peel Commission partition proposal, settlement was aimed at expanding the territory that would be apportioned to the Jewish state. Settlement became the military foundation for the state in the making. And if it was necessary to deceive the mandatory authorities to carry out these tasks, then putting the cause above the law also became a value.
Starting with the creation of the first kibbutz on the Golan in 1967, however, the new settlement enterprise acted as a boomerang. It did not determine borders, but blurred them. Politicians and other government officials undermined the rule of law. Anonymous activists aspired to set policy in the government's stead, and they succeeded. De facto, a binational entity with an ethnic regime was created, instead of a democratic, Jewish state.
The accepted political debate around the question of which communities are to remain in our hands and which we must concede is futile - until we recognize that the value of settlement is obsolete. Giving up the value is more difficult than conceding territory, but it is necessary. If we continue to cling to it, July 16 is liable to become a milestone on the road to collapse.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." He blogs at southjerusalem.com.