From Selma to Settlements |

How Progressive American Jews Morphed Into Hardline Israeli Settlers

In her new book 'City on a Hilltop,' Sara Yael Hirschhorn explains how 1960s idealism and activism deeply informed the American Jews who began settling in the occupied territories in the '70s.

Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner
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Israeli settlers react as Israeli police mobilize on the second day of an operation to evict the hardline occupants and their supporters from the West Bank settler outpost of Amona on February 2, 2017 after the High Court determined the homes were built on private Palestinian land.
Israeli settlers react as Israeli police mobilize on the second day of an operation to evict the hardline occupants and their supporters from the West Bank settler outpost of Amona, February 2, 2017.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP
Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner

“City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $36

The cover of “City on a Hilltop”.

At one point in the right wing’s civil (actually uncivil) disobedience campaign to stop the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the settler leadership invoked the name of Martin Luther King and compared their ranks to the ’60s civil rights protesters in the South – and I thought, Where do they get the chutzpah? If they’re the civil rights protesters, who are the Southern whites in this equation – the Palestinians? Do they really believe their press releases, or is this just an incredibly cynical con job?

>> Read and exclusive excerpt: 'City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement' <<

Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s fine new book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” traces the origins of that PR exercise back, indeed, to the 1960s, whose idealism and activism, she writes, deeply informed the American Jews who began settling in the occupied territories in the ’70s. These ideological pioneers led a community that now numbers upwards of 60,000, comprising about 15 percent of all 400,000 West Bank settlers.

“[M]ost of these new arrivals voted for Democratic Party candidates, and were politically supportive of and active in the liberal and leftist politics of the 1960s and 1970s, including the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War struggle prior to their immigration to Israel,” Hirschhorn writes. “Thus, the portrait that emerges is one of a group of youthful, idealistic, intelligent, and seasoned liberal American Jewish Zionist political activists who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler enterprise.”

They’ve come a very long way, and not just geographically. So what happened to these people? The change, writes Hirschhorn, a lecturer in Israel studies and Jewish studies at Oxford and a contributor to Haaretz, began years before they reached Israel – with the big bang of the 1967 Six-Day War, which of course electrified American Jewry as a whole. Soon they found themselves alienated from the antiwar and minority movements they’d supported before. “American Jews of the New Left, who had cheered Israel’s victory in the 1967 war,” the author writes, “suddenly realized that Zionism was no longer seen as the national liberation movement of the Jews, rather as a colonial and oppressive anathema.” Then came the movement for Soviet Jewry, which combined ’60s-style activism with Jewish nationalism and anti-Communism, and the young idealists, who as a rule grew up with a strong Zionist background, were now fired-up Jewish right-wingers, whether they knew it or not, and the adventure of settler pioneering in the land of the Bible, the chance to make Jewish history, called to them.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.Credit: Emil Salman

Yet years and decades after they came to live in the occupied territories – the book, which follows them in the West Bank and, briefly, in Sinai – they went on promoting their cause as a new Zionist version of Selma. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the pied piper of Manhattan modern Orthodoxy who went on to found Efrat (nicknamed with a mixture of self-deprecation and defiance as “occupied Scarsdale”), never tired of repeating that he marched in Selma with King. As Hirschhorn tells it, “Riskin was arrested at a sit-in protesting the evacuation of Efrat’s illegal outpost while cloaked in a tallit (ritual prayer shawl), holding a Torah scroll, and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with a circle of American Jewish activists as they locked arms in civil disobedience.”

Then there was Era Rapaport, a member of the 1980s Jewish Underground and author of “Letters from Tel Mond Prison,” which, Hirschhorn notes, was “consciously modeled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’” In it, he asks, “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?” (Read and exclusive excerpt from the book, about Era Rapaport, HERE.)

Then there was Yehiel Leiter of Scranton, Pennsylvania, an erudite spokesman for the Yesha Council of settlements and one-time Kahanist, whose writings, in Hirschhorn’s description, “seamlessly combine U.S. history and Israeli hawkishness, liberal rhetoric with resistance to the peace process, civil disobedience with religious doctrine, and American political philosophy with settlement promotion.”

And there was Shmuel Sackett of Queens, a member of Kahane Chai until it was outlawed in Israel, and the devoted strategist and sidekick of former Likud MK and still-prime ministerial hopeful Moshe Feiglin, a sabra Arab-hater and author of the 2009 essay, “I Am a Proud Homophobe.” During Sackett and Feiglin’s attempts to bring Israel to a standstill in protest against the Oslo Accord, for which they were convicted of sedition, they inspired protesters to hold signs reading, “Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Moshe Feiglin.” Hirschhorn writes: “With his new consciousness as a liberal, Feiglin formulated a vision of ‘Walden in the West Bank,’ citing everything from the Talmud to Thoreau to justify his theories of nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Demonstrators rally in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, April 27, 2004, to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw settlers from Gaza.Credit: Reuters

‘Turn the other cheek’ is not a Jewish ideal

Naturally, the book has a section on the most infamous American settler of all, Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron on Purim 1994. Hirschhorn writes that most of the activists were appalled by the massacre, but also felt unfairly stigmatized by it. “We’re all tagged as ‘settlers,’ and with that word alone we’re already put two pegs below everyone else,” says Bob Lang of Nanuit, New York, who would become religious affairs director of Efrat. “After the massacre, those of us who are Americans dropped down another peg. Now we’re all seen as Baruch Goldstein.”

Yet Hirschhorn notes that a “radical fringe of Jewish-American settlers was deeply inspired by Goldstein’s heinous massacre of innocents.” Mattiyahu Alansky, a New York native in Kiryat Arba, told her, “We are proud of what he did. He has given us pride as Jews. He is a hero. People may have died, but he has given life to the country.”

The American settlers, like so many non-American settlers, speak nostalgically about their friendly, neighborly relations with the Palestinians before the first intifada came in the late ’80s and ruined everything. “For many the price they paid was the reappraisal of their own liberal American identities and their position toward their Palestinian neighbors,” Hirschhorn writes” “‘It was peace, love, and happiness when I first moved here,’ maintained Murray Allon, formerly from Brooklyn, in 1991, invoking the hippie slogan of the 1960s, ‘I thought we’re making peace with the Arabs by living with them. They work with me, I visit, they visit. I thought we were moving in the right direction, but the intifada threw me for a loop.’”

One of the good things about Hirschhorn’s approach to her subject is that on the one hand, she makes it clear she disapproves of the settlements and the occupation, and is very dubious of the high-minded claims her subjects make in defense of their cause. She speaks of the “cognitive dissonance” generated by “the clash between Jewish-American settlers’ liberal personas and their illiberal project.” Yet Hirschhorn doesn’t keep pounding away at that point – she tells the big story, but gives her protagonists room to tell their personal stories.

In this Sept. 5, 2011 file photo, Jewish settlers stand on the rubble of a house demolished by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank settlement of Migron.Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

The book is the product of a decade of research, including interviews with several settler activists. Except for a few lapses into “academese” in the introduction and conclusion, it’s written in strong and graceful narrative prose and reads like a good non-fiction book.

Hirschhorn writes that it is not her aim to psychoanalyze these settlers, to explain how they can think of themselves as the descendants of black civil rights marchers, of Lincoln, of the Founding Fathers, when they can hardly fail to notice that in the West Bank they are the lords of the land, and that the millions of Palestinians around them live without the most basic civil rights and under the control of an enemy state and its army.

After leading Efrat’s victory over its Palestinian neighbors to keep the illegal outpost Givat Hadagan, Riskin can still say, “We’ve worked hard to develop a reputation for fairness toward our Arab neighbors,” while adding, “[T]his land is too small for a separate Palestinian state. It’s a prescription for war, and I don’t want to commit suicide – that’s also an ethical value. ‘Turn the other cheek’ is not a Jewish ideal.”

Yet while the author leaves the psychological issue aside, it’s an inevitable question for the reader to ask: How can these people think of themselves as activists for equality, for democracy? If those are their ideals, how can they not see the abject hypocrisy of what they’re doing? It would have been interesting to see Hirschhorn press her interviewees for their answers and see what they come up with, but that doesn’t happen.

Israeli settlers carry the body of Nathaniel Ozeri, who was killed in a Hamas attack, in January 2003. Ozeri cowrote a book praising Baruch Goldstein.Credit: AP

For this reader, the answer is that theirs is the psychology of all ultra-nationalists (including the inverse nationalists of the ultra-left): Their cause is everything good and pure. Because these are Americans who came of age when they did, their formative symbols of goodness and purity are Martin Luther King, civil rights, etc. How much of this is honest belief and how much is spin? For ultra-nationalists, the line gets erased: Whatever serves the cause becomes true.

“Borrowing from anthropologist Kevin Avruch’s description of his own work, this book too is ‘half about “Jewishness” in contemporary America, and half about “Americanness” in contemporary Israel,’” Hirschhorn writes. I don’t know how important the story of American Jewish settler pioneers is to the story of American Jewry, nor how important these people’s story is to the Americanization of Israel. But theirs is a unique story in both contexts, one from the extremes of American Judaism and of Israeli “Americanness,” and a compelling story, too, as told in “City on a Hilltop.”

Larry Derfner is the author of the memoir “No Country for Jewish Liberals”(Just World Books), which was published in April.

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