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How some Israelis see the sacred in settlements

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"Everything that happens, there's a divine reason and a divine hand behind it," says David Wilder, spokesman for the Israeli settlers of Hebron. "We believe that our being back here is a stage in the redemption of the Jewish people, which will culminate in some point in time with mashiach," the anointed one, or Messiah.

Evolution of religious Zionism

When Zionism began gathering momentum as a secular European movement to establish a home for the Jewish people, many religious Jews looked askance at it. Many denounced it as a heretical plan to try to hasten God's redemptive process.

Enter Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Torah scholar originally from the Russian Empire, who incorporated teachings from the mystical branch of Jewish thought known as kabbalah. He argued that Zionists were an unwitting part of the divine plan to bring the exiled Jewish people back to Israel, or Zion, and that it was incumbent upon religious Jews to take part – and eventually persuade their secular brethren of the divine mission they shared.

In 1924, while Palestine was still under British rule, Mr. Kook founded the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem, which became a spiritual and intellectual headquarters of religious Zionism.

He and his son cultivated generations of religious Zionists, including Ben Meir, who arrived from Chicago as a teenager.

On a recent evening, the yeshiva was pulsating with Hanukkah music as the latest crop of students celebrated.

"That's one of my students on the guitar," says Rabbi Yehoshua Magnes with a twinkle in his eye, listening to the concert from his apartment across the street. Surrounded by hundreds of books, he marvels at the depth of Jewish thought and philosophy cultivated during nearly 2,000 years in exile.

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