How to square a circle: When liberal American Jews become Israeli settlers
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Interview'The myth of the frontier doesn’t hold up so well to historical scrutiny'

How to square a circle: When liberal American Jews become Israeli settlers

In 'City on a Hilltop,' Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn gives an unflinching account of 'pioneering' Americans in the West Bank and the headlines they've spawned

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies and the Sidney Brichto Fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. (courtesy)
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies and the Sidney Brichto Fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. (courtesy)

Popular historian Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn regularly challenges her packed audiences to produce the name of one American West Bank settler. Invariably, the sole contender presented to the Oxford lecturer is Baruch Goldstein.

A resident of the settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron, the Brooklyn-born, Yeshiva University-educated physician is indubitably the most notorious of Jewish-American settlers. On Purim morning, February 1994, the IDF uniform-clad Goldstein entered a mosque at the nearby Tomb of the Patriarchs and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims. Another 125 were wounded before he was beaten to death.

While Goldstein may be the most well-known of American settlers, he is arguably not the most historically influential. In Hirschhorn’s book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” the scholar charts the rise and reach of several other significant American settler figures.

In conversation with The Times of Israel ahead of her book’s release this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War — the genesis of the settler enterprise — Hirschhorn explained “City on a Hilltop” was written in part because of the overwhelming archetypical image of the radical American settler she has witnessed among participants of her lectures.

“They don’t know [Tekoa founder] Bobby Brown, and they don’t know [Ofra founder] Shifra Blass, and they don’t know [Yamit head] Carol Rosenblatt and they don’t know all the other people in the book, but they sure know Baruch Goldstein. And that is part of the stereotype of who American settlers are,” said American-born Hirschhorn, who began her fieldwork for the book in 2007.

Cover of 'City on a Hilltop' by Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn. (courtesy)
Cover of ‘City on a Hilltop’ by Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn. (courtesy)

In vivid, approachable, yet deeply informative prose, “City on a Hilltop,” zeroes in on the diverse personalities behind the phenomenon of the “American settler.” From Yamit’s secular Seventies crowd “who look like they just walked out of a casting call for the 1970s,” to Efrat’s Modern Orthodox “baseball cap and chinos-wearing” former civil rights advocates, Hirschhorn delves behind the headlines into the people who made them.

But this is no whitewashed history. Originally penned as her doctoral dissertation, an additional final chapter was added which looks at the controversial American who’s whos of Israeli Jewish terrorism.

“There’s a little bit of truth to the [extremist] stereotype because there are a number of American settlers that have been involved in high-profile acts of settler terrorism, and that continues,” said the 36-year-old University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.

By their sheer numbers, the American settler movement is worth taking a look at. Out of the ballpark 200,000 American citizens in Israel, Hirschhorn estimates there are between 60,000-65,000 American passport holders currently living in the West Bank — some 30 percent of all American immigrants, and 15% of all Jewish settlers.

(The over 60,000 is “an estimate based on a number of different sources that all have various flaws,” Hirschhorn acknowledged. But for the past 10 years, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics has tracked first points of residency for American immigrants which confirm this estimate.)

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn speaks with a settler in Shilo during a research trip, circa 2008. (courtesy)
Sara Hirschhorn speaks with a settler in Shilo during a research trip, circa 2008. (courtesy)

Chapter by chapter, through anecdotes, archival documents and personal interviews, Hirschhorn charts the settlers’ ideological evolution as the progressively raised immigrants attempted to reroot their “American values” on the foreign soil of Jewish particularism. But what is perhaps most fascinating in the work is Hirschhorn’s examination of the settlers’ motivations in leaving the comforts of the United States for the undeveloped and often hostile territory of post-1967 Greater Israel.

With backgrounds in the civil rights movement and the fight to free Soviet Jewry, following the 1967 Six Day War, dozens of American Jews adopted a pioneering spirit and became instrumental in the foundation of dozens of settlements in the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula, from ill-fated pluralistic Yamit, to rugged Tekoa and the suburban Pleasantville of Efrat.

Little caravan in the big West Bank

Wisconsin-born Shifra Blass was the first woman among the original settlers at Ofra in 1975.

“There were all these men who were living in rough conditions without any sanitation or real amenities, and then she [Blass] showed up and wanted to give the place a kind of ‘womanly presence.’ So the first thing that she did was whitewash the walls of the caravan that she was living in and put up some lace curtains,” said Hirschhorn relating an anecdote told to her by Blass.

Written by an unabashedly feminist academic, Hirschhorn’s book is uniquely sensitive to the fact of differing narratives among male and female settlers. To her, hanging lace curtains, a story so easily overlooked, is a telling episode in Blass’s acclimation.

“Those aren’t the kind of stories we hear about when we read about Gush Emunim [the settlers’ movement]. We hear about pioneering and reclaiming the Zionist vision, and self-realization,” said Hirschhorn.

A 1976 photo of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin speaking with Tekoa residents. (Saar Yaacov/GPO)
A 1976 photo of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, speaking with Tekoa residents. (Saar Yaacov/GPO)

In stark juxtaposition to Blass’s lace curtains, said Hirschhorn, is a fence built by Tekoa founder Bobby Brown. At the end of the chapter on Tekoa, Hirschhorn quotes from a speech Brown made at the settlement’s second anniversary.

“I remember about half a year ago, we were putting up a fence around the area of Tekoa… after a whole day of putting up fences, barbed wire fences, your hands would get all bloody, your pants get ripped, and your coat gets ripped, and you’re cold and you’re dirty and everything. I got home and I felt pretty good… I was actually fencing in land that would belong to the Jewish people,” said Brown.

In the speech, said Hirschhorn, Brown is “staking his claim to the territory. And that’s a very different way of imagining your contribution to the movement: Putting up a barbed wire fence is different from hanging lace curtains,” she said.

But what connects between Blass and Brown’s stories is the idea of that they, and many Jewish American immigrants in the West Bank, conceived of themselves as Zionist pioneers.

Bronx-born Miriam Levinger, a driving force in the Jewish settlement of Hebron, told Hirschhorn that since she immigrated post-1948, she had “missed out on the original pioneering.” Becoming a settler, said Hirschhorn “was sort of a new-age halutz [pioneering] movement that appeals to Americans both in their American background and in the Israeli context.”

“They thought of themselves as reclaiming the spirit of the frontier, especially at a time when the frontier really closed for this group of people — no one was doing manifest destiny in the Bronx anymore, and they weren’t moving out to Oklahoma to homestead. That opportunity had passed for Jews in the United States and even really in territorial Israel,” said Hirschhorn.

Rabbi Moshe Levinger (L), Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat (R) and fellow activists, celebrate the government's 1975 agreement which allows all settlers to relocate to a military camp near the Arab village of Sebastia and additional locations in the Samaria region. (Moshe Milner)
Rabbi Moshe Levinger (L), Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat (R) and fellow activists, celebrate the government’s 1975 agreement which allows all settlers to relocate to a military camp near the Arab village of Sebastia and additional locations in the Samaria region. (Moshe Milner)

Scholars of immigration speak about migration as a “push-pull” phenomenon, said Hirschhorn. “Most immigrants are ‘push’ immigrants, meaning they are pushed out of their country of origin because of war, famine, poverty, or something really horrible. Immigrants from Western countries are primarily immigrants by choice. They’re attracted to Israel, but it’s an elective option.”

However, in their decision to immigrate to Israel from post-1967 America, these otherwise privileged American settlers, argued Hirschhorn, did have a very real “push” factor: their frustratingly overwhelming Zionism.

“These individuals felt that they couldn’t fully realize their Jewish and Zionist vision in the United States. So they were pushed out — maybe not in the same way that somebody fleeing war is pushed out — and they were also pulled by the incentivization of ethnic-return migration, this idea of Aliyah, of realizing their destiny… These are ideological immigrants. Whether it’s the push or the pull, it’s certainly an ideological force,” she said.

A 1971 photo of school children playing in front of the public religious school in Kiryat Arba. (Moshe Milner)
A 1971 photo of school children playing in front of the public religious school in Kiryat Arba. (Moshe Milner)

What makes someone leave Cincinnati, Ohio, for Israel — “in and of itself a pretty big transition” — is difficult to explain. But then to move to the West Bank?

“Trying to explain that bit has been the struggle of the book because for most American immigrants, moving to Jerusalem is enough, so why is it that there is this cohort that feels that’s not sufficient,” she asked.

“There’s this additional ideological piece where they see themselves either in religious terms as wanting to live in the Land of Israel, or in political terms as wanting to be a kind of guarantor of Jewish presence in the occupied territories. Or in spiritual terms, where they felt that only there could they fully realize themselves,” said Hirschhorn.

From 1979, the Ofra settlement headquarters. (Moshe Milner/GPO)
From 1979, the Ofra settlement headquarters. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

These Americans were led to the settlements through the desire to “self-actualize” and create a new utopia.

“But the pioneering also came with the same kind of blindness that those of the pre-state era had, or those in the United States had, and that was to the indigenous population that was already living there. So this is a pattern that we see all over the world, and that is that pioneering sometimes has a darker side, and that myth of the frontier doesn’t hold up so well to historical scrutiny,” said Hirschhorn.

Hippies on a hilltop?

What could be more picturesque: A wind-swept, olive tree-studded hilltop, crowned by a few caravans. Shrugging a rifle on his shoulder, a bearded man guards the barren land as his children frolic amongst the goats.

“The image that we have that is propagated in the media, of that guy in his hippie clothing with his AK-47 on a hilltop in the West Bank — that’s not really what the settler movement looks like today. In essence, the religious nationalist settler that dominates media coverage and our stereotype of who a settler is, is really in decline,” she said. In fact, said Hirschhorn, today’s stereotypical settler would be best portrayed as ultra-Orthodox.

Illustrative image of an ultra orthodox teacher takes the kids from his class to a walk in the sun on March 12, 2013, in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox teacher takes the kids from his class to a walk in the sun on March 12, 2013, in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A goal of the book, said Hirschhorn, is to “complicate the picture of the settler movement today.” As such, one of Hirschhorn’s concerns in the completed book is the paucity of Palestinian voices.

“The book was about settlers, and it wasn’t about Palestinian reaction to the settler movement. So I didn’t go around and really interview Palestinians who were living near some of the settlements. But I did think that it was important to try and insert that side of the story.”

Many figures in the book claim to be living on “empty land,” or that their Palestinian neighbors aren’t the “rightful owners” of their land. In many cases, the scholar paused the settlers’ narratives to bring in a few lines of context which often disputed their claims.

‘I don’t think you shouldn’t produce scholarship about settlements just because it can be instrumentalized. But it’s a danger’

In this “conflict zone,” the Palestinians, said Hirschhorn, “certainly have their own understanding of these events and their own perceptions of settlers, and I thought that was important to bring out — especially when frankly the facts contradict what these settlers have to say.”

With that in mind, she has no delusions the book will be universally warmly received.

“I did my very best to provide an objective scholarly account, but I’m not under any illusion that it won’t be instrumentalized by people on both sides of the debate to service whatever agenda they have, and to use the book as ammunition in that battle,” she said.

“I have the feeling that in a few weeks everyone’s going to be calling me the ‘useful idiot’ of one side or the other,” she said, joking she should print t-shirts with the epithet. “I don’t think you shouldn’t produce scholarship about settlements just because it can be instrumentalized. But it’s a danger.”

How to square a circle

In a chapter on Jewish terrorism, Hirschhorn unflinchingly examines those American settlers who, especially when anguished by the “betrayal” of the 1993 Oslo accords, like Goldstein, eventually resorted to violence. How could they reconcile this intentional bloodshed with their “progressive” American backgrounds.

Baruch Goldstein (photo credit: Flash90)
Baruch Goldstein (Flash90)

“For at least some of these people it’s really the story of confronting what I’d call American values and settler realities, and how do they square that circle. For someone like [Shiloh founder] Era Rappaport, who was a member of the Jewish underground in the 1980s, it was really a story of losing his liberalism,” she said. “How did he go from being a civil rights worker in the Bronx to blowing off the legs of Bassam Shakaa in Nablus, as part of the [1980] bombings of the Arab mayors’ cars?”

When finally incarcerated, Rappaport penned a 1996 autobiography through missives (which won the National Jewish Book Award) called “Letters from Tel Mond Prison,” riffing on “Letters from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“He talks about how he loses his liberalism in this Middle Eastern environment where he understands, in his own sort of way of telling it, that ‘Arabs only understand force and that’s the direction I’m going to go in. All the values I brought with me are incompatible with this Middle Eastern environment, and I see violence as the solution,'” said Hirschhorn.

At the same time, other American settlers, eschewing violence, took to the battlefield of ideas. During their 1990s Oslo-era struggles, some, like Shiloh-based Yisrael Medad, became PR whizzes and spokesmen for the settler movement on the international stage.

View of a hill slotted from development in the Judean Desert in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/TOI)
View of a hill slotted for development in the Judean Desert in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“The other arena Americans have been involved with since the 1990s is the public relations game. And there, instead of rejecting their liberal values, they kind of double down on them and use them to sell the settler project to the international community as really being an enterprise that’s dedicated to Jewish human and civil rights,” said Hirschhorn.

“Talking about the Bible is not a really great marketing point. It’s not a good soundbite. Talking about turning scripture into a soundbite or prophecy into public relations, that’s what they want to do by using the types of discourses that we’re familiar with and that appeal to us in the broader Diaspora and the international community,” she said.

‘Talking about the Bible is not a really great marketing point. It’s not a good soundbite’

The American settlers of her book, said Hirschhorn, have reconciled the tensions between their progressive past and nationalistic present in a way many in the States feel creates cognitive dissonance.

Unwilling to delve into the nuance of the settler movement or how it affects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of today’s young American Jews and much of mainstream left-leaning Israel simply view settlers as “obstacles to peace.”

“I think that at least among my generation of American Jews, we’ve been told that the reason American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel is because of the settlements… And if I snap my fingers tomorrow and every settlement disappears then everything will be kumbaya in the Middle East, and wonderful peace would just be at our doorstep,” elaborated Hirschhorn.

“That’s a lie that people tell themselves to avoid the real issues from 1948 and the future of some kind of Zionist entity between the river and the sea,” she said.

Dr. Sara Hirschhorn: 'Liberalism and particularism, just like nationalism and liberalism, are always in dialogue or in tension.' (courtesy)
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn: ‘Liberalism and particularism, just like nationalism and liberalism, are always in dialogue or in tension.’ (courtesy)

Hirschhorn believes the reason why many young American Jews are turning away from Israel is their inability to hold the ideologies of liberalism and Zionism concurrently.

Referencing contemporary debates on college campuses and in social media, she said, “And then this whole idea that intersectionality is sort of incompatible with Zionism in some way — you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist, you can’t be a Zionist and a liberal, you can’t be a Zionist and an activist for civil rights — I guess this really is the struggle of the post-1967 era.

“Liberalism and particularism, just like nationalism and liberalism, are always in dialogue or in tension, and I think the debate today for our generation is how do we square this circle between wanting to be committed Zionists, but also holding liberal values,” she said.

“This is the whole debate of our generation: Are we going to be able to have a hyphenated identity — liberal-Zionist — and I don’t know,” she said.

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