This interview was previously published in Fathom Journal of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). Dr Sara Hirschhorn’s recent book “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement” (Harvard University Press, 2017) discusses what drove over 60,000 Jewish-Americans to leave their homes and settle in the center of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
To shamelessly quote from American constitutional history, we may find this truth to be self-evident: there is an emerging nexus between the Trump administration and the Israeli settler movement. Last summer, the Trump campaign opened an office in the Israeli settlement of Karnei Shomron to ‘get out’ the Israeli-American vote for the Trump presidency. Members of the Trump administration have deep ties to the Israeli settler movement, specifically to Beit El, which the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman supports politically and philanthropically. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special advisor on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also has deep ties to the settlements. Now these people are in power. Talk of the ‘alleged occupation’ by Ambassador Friedman, as quoted in the press, perhaps portends a shift in the administration’s policy to the settlement question as part of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But this relationship goes far beyond the Trump administration. Today over 60,000 American Jews live in the occupied territories – they constitute 15 per cent of the Israeli settler movement and about half of the total number of America Jews in Israel on either side of the Green Line. Their story begins across the ocean back in the United States of the hippie generation, with the coming together of the dynamics of the Six-Day War and other concurrent trends of ‘the Sixties’ including the civil rights movement.
1967 and the war that turned American Jews into Zionists
American Jews living in the occupied territories have often grabbed the headlines for shocking acts of terrorism or as the public relations spokesperson for the Israeli settler camp, but very little is known about why they chose to devote their lives to living at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Six-Day War was a watershed movement for American Jewry as a whole and specifically for the cohort of American Jews who would later migrate to Israel and then move to the occupied territories. As the US neoconservative Norman Podhoretz once said, the 1967 war turned American Jews into Zionists. Prior to 1967, American Jewry was rather agnostic and sometimes ambivalent about the Zionist movement. Whilst they were financially and politically supportive of the birth of the state, Israel was not really the centre of the American-Jewish agenda until the 1967 war. Commentary magazine published a symposium about the state of American Jewry in 1966. Though it ran to 130 plus pages, the word ‘Israel’ only appeared twice and not in the most positive context. American Jews were more concerned with the questions of assimilation, antisemitism, and the post-World War II identity of American Jews in a world in which, outside of Israel, American Jewry was becoming the centre of Jewish life worldwide.
The Six-Day War changed this. American Jewry was revolutionised politically, emotionally, philanthropically, psychically, and most certainly intellectually after the dramatic victory of the State of Israel and the conquest of new territories: a second Holocaust had been forestalled, but to many, the State of Israel had been threatened. (Despite the fact that Israel’s victory was mostly assured after the airstrike eliminating the Egyptian airforce on the first morning of the war.) Many Americans I interviewed spoke about how obsessively they followed the events. One woman told me that once the war broke out she knew she would be moving to Israel. Others saw the 1967 war as an opportunity to redeem themselves, or their generation, for what they perceived had been the indifference or lack of assistance by American Jews during the Holocaust. The founders of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, children of Shoah survivors, told me that they saw the war as a potential second holocaust. Realising the precariousness of Israel’s existence they decided that what they needed to do to ensure its future was move there. Others thought they would feel great guilt if they didn’t contribute to Israel’s security in the future. One man who I spoke to, very much part of highly educated and upwardly mobile demographic of future settlers and who later settled in Karnei Shomron, had just graduated with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and was about to take a job with General Electric. Instead he moved to Israel in 1969. He told me that he worried what he would say to his children if, they asked him what he did when Israel was about to be destroyed.
The 1967 war brought about profound changes in the political attitudes of American Jewry – 99 per cent supported Israel in the war. The war also prompted theological change; Israel moved into the mainstream of American liturgy. There was a much more rigorous intellectual engagement with the idea of the state of Israel and what its future might be.
American Jewish Settlers and ‘the Sixties’
The war was not experienced in isolation. What I call the 1967 moment was also shaped by other factors.
First, American Jews were speaking more openly about the Holocaust than they had in the two decades after the Second World War. The equating of the 1967 war and the Shoah became a very important part of why the war had such a profound impact on American Jews at the whole.
Second, the US was experiencing that movement towards ethnic identification that we are all familiar with today. Hyphenated Americans arrived: African-Americans, Polish-Americans and other white ethnics. Jews were also rediscovering the ethnic part of their identity and realising that the assimilationist impulse of the US, which often encouraged new Americans to leave behind their ethnic trappings, could be lived in new ways. American Jews were influenced by African-Americans and black power and developed a Jewish pride.
With Israel’s great victory in the 1967 war and the sense of euphoria in Israel, these two trends reinforced each other.
Third, the 1967 war took place against the backdrop of great social and cultural change in the US: the civil rights struggle, the anti-Vietnam movement of which American Jews were heavily involved, and the New Left. When the Black Power component of the New Left really turned against Israel and its activities in 1967 it was a moment of reflection and angst for many radical American Jews who were trying to understand how to be both radical and Jewish at the same time. They came to realise that these progressive forces were no longer as friendly towards them after 1967. Today, Zionism has become incompatible with other forms of identity politics – you can’t be a Zionist and part of the Black Lives Matters movement or the feminist movement, and generally you can’t be a Zionist and part of the progressive movement. Well, all this really started in 1967, leading American Jews to question their place in the radical social movements of their day.
For some this manifested as turning away from their Zionism; but for many it led them towards being more active in Jewish particularist causes, whether that be the student struggle for Soviet Jewry or Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defence League. They wanted to express their radicalism as Jews while devoting themselves to Jewish causes. When I spoke to one of the founders of Tekoa he said that prior to 1967 he had been demonstrating for everyone (the Native Americans, the Eskimos, African-Americans) – everyone except for Jews. While Birnbaum first tried to seek new purpose after the 1967 in service of Jewish particularist activism in the USA, his ultimate dedication to Jewish rights led him to move to the occupied territories.
Into the Territories
The 60,000 American Jews who came to Israel between 1967 and 1977 were part and parcel of their generation: young, upwardly-mobile, traditional but not necessarily strictly Orthodox in their religious practice, highly engaged in and sympathetic to the social movements of their day and the Democratic Party. They were not neo-conservative right-wing activists. When they moved over the Green Line after the 1967 war they didn’t leave this heritage behind, but instead perceived themselves as continuing their activism for human and civil rights for Jews. In their eyes, their project in the territories was a way of expressing the human rights discourse they had grown up with.
Between 1967 and 1973 there was only very little limited settlement over the Green Line – the reestablishment of the kibbutzim in Gush Etzion region outside of Jerusalem which had existed prior to the 1948 war and the reestablishment of a Jewish presence in the city centre of Hebron which had existed up until the 1929 Hebron riots. Americans were engaged in both of these projects – Sandy Amichai from LA had been a member of the Bnai Akiva youth group in the US and joined the new kibbutz Kfar Etzion and Miriam Levinger, wife of Moshe Levinger, the founder of Gush Emunim, came from the Bronx and famously brought her refrigerator and several children to settle in Hebron in the Spring of 1968.
Others had ideas that never came to fruition in the immediate aftermath of the war. One Rabbi, a real estate developer from Baltimore, had the idea to create ‘Shalom City’, a pretty radical idea of what an American city might look like in the territories, which I like to call a ‘city on a hilltop’. In fact, visions of pioneering and the building of utopian communities in the American style really did come to pass after the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
Yamit, Efrat and Tekoa
The three settlements financed and built for American Jewish immigrants that I study in the book are Yamit in the Sinai, Efrat and Tekoa in the West Bank.
Yamit was founded by American Jews from Cincinnati, Ohio along with others from across the United States. The settlement was backed by Moshe Dayan in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. He wanted to establish a major Israeli military presence in the Sinai – it was a civilian settlement to house the staff of nearby military base and it was thought that Yamit would become a nuclear weapons depot. However, for Americans who had got wind of the place thought it would be a great place to live and have a coastal existence! The Israeli government had other ideas and this led to a huge amount of friction. That friction is part of this larger story of American participation in the Israeli settlement movement – a story of the unpredictable and shifting alliances that formed between the American Jews, Israeli government, Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
At Yamit the Americans came up against the hostility of the government that didn’t really see how they fitted into its strategic plan of settling the Sinai. The Americans prevailed and managed to establish homes and industries in Yamit up until 1978 and the Egypt-Israel peace process.
For Americans, the story of Yamit was one of a Paradise Lost – a decade of utopian idealism, pioneering on the Sinai frontier, and interest in co-existence with their Palestinian and Bedouin neighbours effaced like sandcastles on the shore. One of my interviewees even described the disengagement as “his own personal Holocaust.” However, despite the intense movement around the disengagement from the Sinai – mostly led by religious-nationalists who had never lived in the settlement – the American cohort chose to leave peacefully. While many grieved for their youthful experience for years, they also rebuilt lives in Israel and abroad – understanding that peace outweighed their personal dreams. Perhaps they are both a cautionary tale and model for a future disengagement from the West Bank.
While Yamit became a casualty for peace because it existed outside the national will of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, Efrat – the largest American-Jewish settlement in the territories and the best known – has always billed itself as within the consensus and has traded on the fact that there were pre-existing settlements prior to the 1948 war to secure itself within the national discourse. Efrat was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Risken, also known as ‘Stevie Wonder’, a dynamic spiritual leader from the United States who has done much to revolutionise progressive Modern Orthodoxy. He came from the upper west-side of Manhattan, and his congregation, with other followers from the New York region, came to settle in the West Bank in the 1980s, alongside another group from South Africa. What’s interesting about Efrat – which Rabbi Risken said should be known as ‘Occupied Scarsdale’ –is that it was originally the product of an partnership between a native Israeli settler activist who had been a child in the pre-1948 kibbutzim and a dynamic American spiritual leader who is known for progressive, religious innovation, but who turned out was not progressive when it came to his own political doctrine.
The story of Efrat is the radicalisation of what was known as a moderate, bourgeois settlement during the 1990s. We know that Yigal Amir, who would assassinate Yitzhak Rabin, had been active in the protest movement in Efrat in 1994-1995. So the question is really how is it that a future assassin of a prime minister emerged from taking part in activism in a bourgeois settlement in the West Bank – a story of lifestyle politics meeting political realities.
Efrat, which also became known as the high street of the West Bank where you can have a million dollar mansion alongside the messianic, is perhaps not your moderate settlement after all.
This contrasts with the settlement of Tekoa which was founded deliberately in the midst of the Camp David accords to prevent the success of a Palestinian autonomy track and further Israeli disengagement from the West Bank in the early 1980s. While Tekoa’s remote location was once described by its founders as ‘Turn Left at the End of the World,’ this slogan also evokes the political milieu in which the settlement’s leaders have been immersed in the United States prior to their immigration to Israel. For them, Tekoa was a project to stake a claim (literally!) to Jewish rights in the occupied territories, whereby they would manifest a destiny of continued Jewish presence that would prevent a future disengagement. Despite very primitive beginnings – and intense hostility from their Palestinian neighbours in a cycle of violence that has lasted 3 decades in this corner of the West Bank – today Tekoa is a victim of its own success; it has grown so dramatically that the idea it would ever be evacuated has been taken off the table; not to mention that Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s own settlement is right across the street. Tekoa is also a story of how the vision of the Americans does not coincide with the political realities regarding how it might fit into a larger peace accords.
Since Oslo American Jews in the Israeli settler movement have gone in two directions. The first is the path of settler terrorism. If you ask a person to name one American settler you often hear ‘Baruch Goldstein’ the perpetrator of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. Goldstein’s story and his radicalisation deserves attention and is chronicled in the book. He is not alone. There have been several other high-profile Americans who have been active in vigilante terrorism against their Palestinian neighbours. Of course, for the most part American-Jewish settlers have been law-abiding citizens of the State of Israel who have settled in the territories with their government’s permission. Tarnished with the same brush as Baruch Goldstein, some have reacted by turning to public relations to try to promote the idea of a liberal struggle for human rights in the territories. These American settlers are the public relations faces of the settler camp: savvy, English-speaking cosmopolitans who know how to communicate to Western audience using terms we understand, such as the language of ‘rights’. Fifty years from now we may find that this was their most significant contribution to the movement.
Question 1: Are there people within the settler movement who recognise the reality of a Palestinian presence and are prepared to talk about how to find pragmatic ways of living with the Palestinians?
Sarah Hirschhorn: The American settlers were often people who had been highly engaged in and sympathetic to leftist movements in America. Initially, they didn’t believe that they would have to abandon these values, and many have struggled not to. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in saying you are a liberal living in the West Bank today. The book is about that clash between liberal values and what I call settler realities.
Remember, most people came prior to the First Intifada. Much like the original Zionist blindness, they did not intuit that there was going to be a significant Palestinian presence – literally in their own backyard. I also don’t think that they had internalised that this relationship was going to turn violent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially when there weren’t that many Jewish Israelis living in the occupied territories, the friction was low. But as the 1980s went on they realised that, as one of my interviewees said, it was not going to be all ‘peace, love and happiness’. They realised there would be a cycle of violence very close to home.
In response some just left, but they were a minority. Others began to think in terms of a hierarchy of rights. They said to themselves ‘We’re for Palestinian economic rights, we want there to be more opportunity and development for the Palestinians, but we draw the line when it comes to political rights, and certainly when it comes to national rights’. Putting it in contemporary terms, the attitude was, ‘It’s great to build a new Soda Stream factory in the West Bank, it’s great for you to come and build my house; I think you should have fair wages, but we are not interested in Palestinian statehood or political rights which may jeopardise the future or the Jewish character of the State of Israel’.
And as the violence got worse, it has become a zero-sum game. Even Rabbi Riskin, who at one time talked openly about a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, has reversed his position and rejected the views of his youth. Now he says this is a zero-sum game, and that if they come and try to take his home he will resist.
Question 2: So, where would you find people who may still have views about reconciliation with Palestinians or Palestinian statehood?
SH: Well, there are a few groups. The followers of Rabbi Fruman from the settlement of Tekoa are active in Palestinian-Settler dialogue. His followers have founded an organisation, Roots, that reaches out to Palestinian activists like Ali Abu Awwad. But where is this really going? The hugs and hummus are very important from a confidence-building perspective, but are they really on the same page about the endgame to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I don’t think so. I think the settlers still envisage Israeli sovereignty at the end of the day.
I think you can find those who are willing to accept Palestinian statehood as long as the vast majority of the land remains Israeli territory; not just the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank but the annexation of Area C. This is obviously a non-starter for the Palestinians. I’m sorry to say that there are not a huge amount of people you could talk to who would be sympathetic to Palestinian sovereignty. That reflects the shift in the Israeli public more generally. I was in Jerusalem in the last month and if you use the term ‘Occupied Territories’ you’re a ‘leftist’ pariah. The issue is almost foreclosed among the Israeli public, settlers amongst them.
Question 3: What is the extent of the British Jewish involvement in the settlements and what does it look like?
SH: According to the latest Jewish Policy Research (JPR) statistics only about five per cent of British Jews move to the settlements. It’s because of what the settlements mean to the Americans that drives them over the Green Line more than other nationalities. It accords ideologically with what many of them believe. Some of the settlements also provide a lifestyle that accords with what they left behind – Efrat for example. Americans respond to the ideas of ‘pioneering’, an opportunity that they missed out on in the US and in pre-1960s Israel. This idea that they can literally manifest their own destiny in the Occupied Territories; it’s a kind of utopian self-realisation project. In fact the title of the book, City on a Hilltop, is drawn from this idea that the lore of American history has been woven in; that the settlements would be like a beacon to American Jewry and the rest of the world about how to manage your affairs and to realise your interests.
I think British, and certainly French people who are moving to the Occupied Territories are doing partly because they hold positions that are sympathetic to Israel’s security and strategic calculations in holding on the Occupied Territories, but for the most part they are going there for economic reasons. French immigrants are moving more and more to the Occupied Territories and some map the politics of France onto the politics of the occupied territories. Still, most of the French people who are moving to the Occupied Territories are the people who can’t afford Tel Aviv and Netanya. Most of the French I spoke to hold the same opinions as those who live in Netanya and Tel Aviv, so what’s keeping them in the Occupied Territories is that they don’t have the money to live elsewhere. But for Americans, quite honestly, if you can afford a million dollar house in Efrat, you could afford an apartment in Jerusalem and you have other reasons for wanting to be there. You want to be part of the settler movement.
Question 4: At the point at which the ’67 generation were deciding to do this, was there any ideological debate among American Zionist Jews as to whether this was a good idea or not. Why go to the territories? Why not go and live in a kibbutz on the Gaza border, or the shore of the Galilee, or the Negev?
SH: Here is an anecdote I recount in the book about two founders of Tekoa who were living at the time in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan debating with each other about their ‘Aliyah project’. Eli Birnbaum says to his friend Bobby Brown, ‘I want to go to Yerucham [12:10]’, this is a town in the Negev with very severe social problems which he as a clinical psychologist felt he could make a difference in. Bobby said to him that while that was great, Yerucham is going to be here 50 years from now, and that if he didn’t come and settle in what became Tekoa, then it wouldn’t be part of Jewish territory in the West Bank. Brown gave him the choice between building something or going to the Negev, and Birnbaum chose Tekoa.
Question 5: Fathom recently had a piece by Gilead Sher and Orni Petruschka who argued that the settlements are perceived to be a more formidable obstacle to the two-state solution that they actually are. Will the Israeli government have a problem getting those American Jews back across the Green Line as part of a peace agreement?
SH: Yes, I think so. There are ideological settlers and some of them live in violent and heavily armed settlements, especially the former supporters of Kach or members of Meir Kahane or Kahane Chai. These are people who aren’t going to just accept compensation and leave. We might see a repeat of what we saw in Efrat in the 1990s – suburbanites camping out on a hilltop with weapons to physically stake a claim to the next hilltop over. If people who live in a white picket fence universe are willing to do that than you’re going to be in for some trouble. As Alan [Johnson, Fathom editor] has heard me say a thousand times, I don’t think the issue is necessarily settlements, but partition of the land more generally and whether this is a principle that is still valid and accepted in popular opinion. I think we may be moving towards a One State reality in which the question of settlements becomes moot.