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'City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement'

How does a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra is photographed as seen from the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank, October 20, 2016.

This is an edited extract from City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, published by Harvard University Press, $36. Copyright @ 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Era Rapaport and the Jewish Underground (1980–1987)

The decade of the 1980s was a turning point in the occupied territories. Friction between Israeli settlers and Palestinians quickly intensified and a cycle of violence traumatized both communities. In response, a loose coalition of vigilantes – later dubbed the Mahteret (Jewish Underground) by the media – carried out a series of terrorist attacks against Palestinian leaders and institutions between 1980 and 1983.

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Era Rapaport, a Brooklyn-born Jewish-American settler living in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, played a prominent role in the Jewish Underground as one of the perpetrators of the June 2, 1980, car-bombing of Nablus mayor Bassam Shaaka, which maimed him for life. Rapaport’s turn toward terrorism was part of a prolonged internal ideological dialogue over liberal values and tactics in Israel/Palestine. This journey was self-documented in his 1996 quasi-autobiography "Letters from Tel Mond Prison" (modeled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), structured as a series of actual and reconstructed correspondence illuminating his transition from liberal to terrorist. In the words of his editor, Rapaport’s story attempts to unravel the complex puzzle of “How does a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a gifted social worker, a marcher for civil rights, a loving husband and father, end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?”

Era Rapaport was born in 1945 in Brooklyn, one of three children raised in a religiously observant household. Early in life, Rapaport became immersed in local Jewish and Zionist activism. As a teenager, he traveled in Jewish militant circles, joining a violent gang called the Hashmonaim, which combatted anti-Semitism in his neighborhood. While an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in the 1960s, Rapaport became a passionate civil rights advocate and a visible proponent of African-American equality in New York City.

Rapaport’s first sustained contact with his roots in Jerusalem came as a foreign-exchange student at Yeshivat Mercaz Ha-Rav in 1966–1967. He credited the course as a formative experience that “changed my entire life” and inspired his decision to move to Israel.

In the winter of 1976, Rapaport, his wife, and his brother-in-law turned their attention to a new settlement project: the founding of Ofra, the first permanent community in the West Bank outside of the Etzion Bloc. Shifra Blass, the first American-Israeli woman to live on site, recalled meeting Rapaport in the early days of Ofra – as she later attested, “He didn’t seem to me American enough to my taste, because all the wacky Israeli ideas everyone had, he thought were pretty good!” Rapaport too acknowledged the rift with native Israeli settlers, recognizing, “ I am a Westerner. I wasn’t part of the army that most of them had gone through, I wasn’t part of the culture, I was in a separate line.”

The Israeli settlement of Shilo in the West Bank.
Emil Salman

As skirmishes between the settlement and surrounding villages escalated, his constituents engaged in increasingly open debates about the use of vigilante violence, though they framed the use of force as reactive self-defense against terrorism. Rapaport became convinced that “my Western ways expressed weakness” and that survival in the settlements “forces people into doing what I did.”

After many discussions about possible activities, Rapaport either agreed to take part in, or, as he alternatively insinuates in his narrative, actually instigated a campaign to car-bomb three Arab mayors affiliated with the PLO. He would later characterize these acts as a “preventative action,” especially as they blamed these leaders for previous attacks against Israeli settlers. In an unsent letter to Rabbi Avi Weiss in May 1980, he agonized, “Era, where do you, Brooklyn born and bred, who studied social work because you love working with kids – where do you even come off thinking about attacking PLO mayors and putting yourself in prison?” Ultimately Rapaport conceded that he had reached an ideological and emotional threshold and saw the attack as a way of restoring calm in a “situation of no law and order.”

In the early morning hours of June 2, 1980, a three-person terrorist squad surreptitiously entered the parking garage adjoining the home of Nablus mayor Bassam Shakaa and Rapaport planted a bomb beneath the chassis of his car. Meanwhile, two other vigilante teams were dispatched to Ramallah and Al-Bireh to target city leaders there. When the mayors turned the ignition switches in their cars the following morning, the devices detonated, grievously injuring Shakaa, who lost both of his legs, and maiming the mayor of Ramallah, amputating his foot. The IDF discovered the third bomb in Al-Bireh in time, but it blinded the Druze soldier who attempted to disarm it. Rapaport’s cell remained undetected for months, even as other loosely affiliated groups within the Jewish Underground carried out further attacks against Arab targets.

In 1983 the Shin Bet finally began identifying perpetrators within the Jewish Underground. Rapaport promptly fled to the United States, living as a fugitive in New York City. 

In spite of his shocking crimes, some friends reached out to assist Rapaport when his role in the Mahteret was revealed. Yet most of his American acquaintances were appalled, as Rapaport acknowledged in correspondence with his friend Aaron: “You wrote that you were surprised I was arrested for attacking Arabs. You would not have been surprised, you said, to learn that I had been arrested for demonstrating for their rights.... Era, what did Israel do to you?.... Are Arabs not people? My Judaism teaches ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Is the West Bank more important than that?”

Perhaps as a way of responding to this charge, Rapaport repatriated himself to Israel in 1986, avowing “that for a Jew it is better to be in jail in the land of the Israel than to be free in America.” He was sentenced to thirty months in prison, although he only served less than half his mandated sentence before returning to Shilo. He continues to live in the settlement and works as an Israeli tour guide.

Today, Rapaport is unrepentant. “Knowing that you’re going to maim a person is not an easy action to take,” he says, “but under the circumstances, non-action would have been harder.”

This is an edited extract from City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, published by Harvard University Press, $36. Copyright @ 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.