The American Settler You Don't Know

Researcher finds West Bank residents who move from United States share more ideological roots with MLK than Moshe Levinger.

Something strange happened among the hills and red-roofed settlements of the West Bank: Western left-leaning radicalism moved in with right-wing Zionist ideology. At least that's the claim of an American doctoral student, who says American immigrants to Israel who move to the settlements are not stereotypical gun-toting extremists but rather represent a larger and more diverse dynamic than they are given credit for.

"Stereotypes exist because they also have some elements of truth to them, but there is a much wider, more nuanced story behind that," Sara Hirschhorn, 30, said. American Jews who settled in the West Bank represent "a very heterogeneous and dynamic movement," she added. "It doesn't necessarily fit into any preexisting categories. In addition to that, I believe that my findings bring the discussion out of this typical left/right discourse that we have developed when we talk about the settler movement. There is a very wide spectrum, which certainly runs the gamut of everything you can imagine."

Sara Hirschhorn - Olivier Fitoussi - 07102011
Olivier Fitoussi

Hirschhorn's dissertation, which she is doing at the University of Chicago, presents the first known attempt to draw up a comprehensive demographic profile of Americans within the Israeli settlement movement. Her findings seem to imply they are somewhat overrepresented: According to Hirschhorn, who had access to confidential records from the American consulate in Jerusalem, 45,000 settlers have American citizenship, or about 15 percent of the Israeli West Bank population. In comparison, Americans make up less than 8.5 percent of all Israeli Jews, based on estimates of 500,000 Americans among Israel's 5.8 million Jews.

"Jewish-American immigrants [to the territories] were primarily young, single, and highly identified as Jewish or traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious orientation," Hirschhorn said. "They were primarily political liberals in the United States, voted for the Democratic Party and have been active in 1960s radicalism in the United States, participating in the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War. This perhaps does not necessarily correspond to the idea we might have in mind about who these people were before they came to Israel."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a native New Yorker who in 1983 co-founded the settlement of Efrat, concurs. "It's certainly true in my case. I marched with Martin Luther King. I consider myself a liberal and I voted generally for Democrats," he told Anglo File.

Hirschhorn started working on her dissertation three years ago. It is based on archival research and 25 interviews with various leading American-Israelis active in the settlement movement.

"Many of them were activists in the U.S. long before they became activists in Israel," Hirschhorn told Anglo File recently in Jerusalem. "A lot of them were heavily involved not only in secular activism but also in Jewish activism, especially around Beitar and other Jewish-Zionist youth movement in the U.S., some more right wing and some more left wing."

Many Americans who moved to the settlements after the Six-Day War see what they're doing in Israel as an extension of their radicalism in the United States, Hirschhorn said. "They would also say that what some of them consider what they're doing in the territories in part as an expression of their own Jewish civil rights."

"In coming to Israel and participating in the settlement movement these American Jews continued in their radicalism," the Massachusetts native said. "While many other from their generation went back to a more conventional lifestyle - becoming soccer mommies and moving to Scarsdale [and affluent New York suburb] - here they moved to a hilltop on the West Bank."

Hirschhorn added that many Americans who move to the West Bank are trying to recapture the pioneering idealism of the state's Zionist founders, while others are driven by a Biblical imperative to settle the land.

Riskin confirmed Hirschhorn's claim, saying moving was a "chance not to have missed the boat [like] in 1948."

Bobby Brown, who in 1979 was among the first to move to Tekoa and headed the settlement's community council, says a pioneering spirit inspired him.

"I remember the first time they put a very simple wire fence around Tekoa," the New York native told Anglo File. "I said to myself: one side of this fence is part of the Jewish people and one side of this fence is not part of the Jewish people. And only because we're here is that happening."

Hirschhorn's findings confirm the earlier research of sociologist Chaim Waxman, who in 1985 found that an overwhelming majority of Americans viewed the role of the Messiah as "totally unrelated" to their immigration to Israel and their settling in the territories.

Efrat, for example, which has a large number of Americans, did not join the religious Gush Emunim group, which was highly influential among Israeli settlers, because the settlement's leaders did not share its messianic views. "I don't want to control people who don't want to be controlled by me," Riskin once told a Gush Emunim leader, referring to the Arabs living in West Bank.