Settler realities: New book spotlights Jewish Americans in the West Bank

The author admits to still struggling to understand how Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories see themselves and their role within the Israeli settler enterprise.

Settlers at a protest rally on the ruins of the Sa-Nur settlement in Samaria (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Settlers at a protest rally on the ruins of the Sa-Nur settlement in Samaria
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

HISTORIAN SARA Yael Hirschhorn has a problem with American Jewish settlers. Her problem is where they live.

City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement” is based on the research she compiled for her dissertation. Using archival data, miscellaneous documents, newspaper articles and personal interviews, she discusses 'the clash between Jewish-American settlers’ liberal personas and their illiberal project.”

This project is the establishment of Israeli-Jewish communities located in Judea and Samaria, i.e., the West Bank, or as the author prefers, “the occupied territories.” The book’s publication marks 50 years since the Six Day War whose outcome served as the catalyst for the creation of these communities. The central question she raises is “How did so many otherwise liberal American Jews who relocated to these places go off the political deep end (i.e. to the right)?” Did they abandon their formative values?

Hirschhorn is University Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies, Faculty of Oriental Studies and Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. Her op-ed contributions to Israel’s Haaretz, The New York Times, USA Today, among others, identify her as a person of the left. This political view is reflected in the book and prevents it from being an unbiased and purely scholarly work. To her credit she includes numerous quotations from people she interviewed that reflect views and opinions with which she disagrees.

June 1967 was, writes Hirschhorn, the “moment” that became a “movement.” Israel’s stunning military victory boosted Jewish pride throughout Diaspora communities. It also facilitated Jews’ access to territories from which they had been expelled and barred since 1948. Many young, liberal American Jews who opposed the US’s war in Vietnam and were active in the movement for civil rights, had also been brought up on Zionism or embraced it in the post-June 1967 euphoria. Moving to Israel, and especially living in these new areas, gave them the promise of pioneering and an adventurous and meaningful future. Others were motivated to emigrate, at least in part, when leaders on the New Left, such as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, came out in support of the defeated Arab states and particularly the “Palestinian guerillas.” In a sense, some reported to Hirschhorn, they didn’t leave America, America left them.

Hirschhorn focuses on the approximately 60,000 American passport holders who live in Judea and Samaria, about 15 percent of the total Jewish population there. The author does not cover Americans living in eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, such as Gilo and Ramat Eshkol, which are technically part of the West Bank.

The author first takes readers to Hebron and Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, south of Jerusalem, where they are introduced to some of the more ideological representatives of the “settlement enterprise.” To Hirschhorn they embody “many of the themes and contradictions of Jewish-American settlement in the occupied territories, combining tropes of messianic redemption with modern-day pioneering, hawkish territorialism with Jewish history, sacred promise with suburbanization, ultra-nationalism with utopian idealism, and most importantly, liberal values with an illiberal project.”

However, the bulk of the book is devoted to three community case studies, Yamit, Efrat and Tekoa. Hirschhorn relates the story of Yamit with more empathy than the stories of Efrat and Tekoa. Might this be because the town of Yamit was built on empty sand dunes belonging to a sovereign Egypt and not upon land the author believes to belong, de facto if not de jure, to a dispossessed Palestinian people? Furthermore, the American immigrants who moved to Yamit lost their homes in April 1982 as a consequence of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt.

Although Hirschhorn views them as settlers, “Ultimately, members of this Jewish-American group were both idealists and pragmatists, who built their dream city, but peacefully allowed it to wash away… they abandoned their city of the sea, looking to the horizon of peace between Israel and her neighbors.” They were willing to pay the price for peace; therefore, “good” settlers.

Not such good settlers are the Americans who immigrated to and still live in Efrat and Tekoa. Much of Hirschhorn’s depiction of Efrat is epitomized by her interview with one of the town’s central figures, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Riskin is one of Efrat’s founders and continues to serve as its chief rabbi. Before moving to Israel with his family in 1983, he was the spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

The author’s attitude emerges in comments such as, “Rabbi Riskin likes to tell his version of how Efrat was established in the mid-1970s…This [is a] carefully honed narrative, which Riskin has perfected in interviews over the past forty years…;” and “‘we [Lincoln Square Synagogue] were written up in Time Magazine,’ Riskin recalled without great modesty.” (My emphases – A.G.) She contends that Riskin only “allegedly” demanded that Israel government officials confirm that “the municipal boundaries of Efrat would not be drawn on parcels with pending Palestinian private ownership petitions...”

Her skepticism goes so far as to link Riskin’s involvement in the establishment of Efrat to “his and his congregants’ willingness to participate in a [municipal sponsored] gentrification program [near Lincoln Square Synagogue] that drove out blue-collar African-American and Hispanic residents in favor of the white collar middle class.” Perhaps, she intimates here, Rabbi Riskin and his crowd were never really liberal.

HOWEVER, HAD the author broadened her interviewee pool to include Palestinian Arabs from communities surrounding Efrat she would have learned that the town’s creation not only did not displace Arab villagers nor dispossess them of their lands, but that since the arrival of Efrat’s first residents in April 1983 these villages have expanded in size and population, and their residents have enjoyed unprecedented economic and health benefits. Her statement, “Efrat has been embroiled in conflict with her Palestinian neighbors for almost four decades and could be evacuated as part of a final status agreement,” sounds more like wishful thinking.

If Hirschhorn takes a dig at Efrat for its American suburban-like atmosphere, she presents the residents of neighboring Tekoa as belligerent Wild West cowboys whose relations with their Arab neighbors have been beset by violence since 1979. Still, even though she disagrees with them, it is the voices of Tekoa’s residents that offer readers insight into what brought American-Jews to these places.

For example, Bobby Brown, one of Tekoa’s founders, states, “The people who go on aliyah to the liberated areas are a special kind of the best people. They’re people who are not only willing to make a hard life for themselves, but almost the hardest in the appreciation of certain ideals…that living in Yehuda and Shomron is a mitzvah, living there will protect the land for future generations…”

Equally revealing in terms of motivation is that many of these immigrants express a strong religious right to reclaim this land as Jews. This is particularly applicable to the barren rocky hills that the government of Israel determined to be ownerless. Hirschhorn considers such political “rights talk” mere tropes, statements at the ready used to justify certain behavior. It is clear to her that their commitment to the philosophy of religious-Zionism, as they understand it, supersedes whatever liberal values these American Jews initially brought with them to Israel.

The author presents a handful of cases of Jewish-American terrorists who emerged from these communities, though not all fit Hirschhorn’s “liberal turned illiberal” model. The infamous Dr. Baruch Goldstein was an acolyte of Rabbi Meir Kahane before moving to Israel. Jack Teitel, convicted in 2013 of murdering two Palestinians, appears to have been mentally unstable at least from his American high school years.

Hirschhorn also addresses “Jewish-American settler public relations.” Here she examines the efforts by “media-savvy propagandists” from within these communities to redeem the “tarnished image as settler terrorists.” At no point does she suggest that these public relations efforts resorted to “fake news.” Rather, says Hirschhorn, to serve their own ends “they introduced a new discourse mixing prophecy and public relations… By deploying a liberal rights-based rhetoric that reconciled Western universalism with Jewish particularism, they revolutionized how the settler movement appeals to and mobilizes international audiences.” While at odds with their mission, one senses a hint of admiration on Hirschhorn’s part for their initiative and relative success.

Hirschhorn admits to still struggling to understand how Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories see themselves and their role within the Israeli settler enterprise. What she refers to as “settler realities,” both a recalcitrant Israeli bureaucracy and the physical danger of terrorism, has over the years, she feels, contributed to the coarsening of these once young, idealistic and liberal immigrants. She does not consider their Jewish “rights rhetoric” as compatible with the lives they have chosen to live. But whatever they once were or have become, Hirschhorn concludes that “it is clear that Jewish-American settlers in the occupied territories will be part of a chapter-heading rather than a footnote of the future of this region.”