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

By Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Sara Yael Hirschhorn approaches the subjects of her book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement, with some sympathy. She wants us to see American-Jewish settlers in the West Bank not as fanatics, but as individuals who share similar backgrounds to other American Jews of their generation. Malka Chaiken, a mother of eight from Springfield, Massachusets who lives in Hebron, reminds her a little of her own “Mom”: “[She] is a nice person engaged in a not-so-nice political program.” The American-Jewish settlers Hirschhorn interviewed for the book see themselves as progressive and even liberal; they have adapted the American values of their youth to their cause, with a blind belief in the righteousness of their actions.

Hirschhorn focuses on three settlements: Efrat and Tekoa, both in the West Bank, and Yamit, in the Sinai, dismantled as part of the peace agreement with Egypt. Hirschhorn estimates that American Jews form 15% of the approximately 60,000 Israeli citizens living in the occupied territories. Many of the settlers she profiles were 1960s liberals, who seamlessly transferred their support for universal rights to settler ideology. A striking example is Era Rapaport, born in Brooklyn, who maimed the mayor of Nablus, Basaam Shakaa, in a car bomb in 1980. As a young man Rapaport was a dedicated civil rights activist in New York and a supporter of African–American equality. He tells Hirschhorn that he wondered how he, a former student of social work who loved kids, could “even come off thinking about attacking PLO mayors and putting yourself in prison”. He justifies his resort to terrorism as a way of “restoring calm in a ‘situation of no law and order’”, consciously abandoning his liberal values. Sentenced to just 30 months in prison for grievous bodily harm and membership of a terrorist group, he served less than half his sentence. He now works as an Israeli tour guide.

Rapaport’s peers in City on a Hilltop share similar, if less criminal, mindsets. They appropriate liberal rhetoric to justify illegal  actions, one even decrying any ban on settlements as “outrageous in terms of human rights” and an affront to liberal values. Hirschhorn brilliantly captures the deluded romanticism and contradictions of her subjects, who combine “sacred promise with suburbanization, ultra-nationalism with utopian idealism”. While most were prepared to rough it in the early days, many now live in some of the most expensive real estate in the region (described as “Occupied Scarsdale” by one observer). An apartment in Efrat can cost 1.5m–2m NIS (£417,000).

The Six Day War was the turning point for American–Jewish commitment to Israel. Hirschhorn tells the old joke about Zionists – one Jew giving  money to a second Jew to send a third to Israel. Before 1967, most American Jews wanted to distance themselves from Israel, viewing it as parochial and chauvinist.  But with Israel’s victory, there was a sea change. With support for Israel galvanised, the country became a new focus for American-Jewish identity. Hirschhorn sees the shift as paving the way for American-Jewish settlers, as it did of course for the settlement movement as a whole: Israel’s Labour government began establishing settlements three months after the Six Day War.

Following the horrifying massacre carried out by Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, Israeli politicians sought to distance their country from American–Jewish settlers. Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister, described Goldstein as a foreign implant and Chaim Herzog attacked the US as a breeding ground for extremists, both ignoring Israel’s pivotal role in establishing  what remains the greatest obstacle to a two-state solution.

While City on a Hilltop does not deal with the wider historical context of the settler movement, it is a deeply researched history that illuminates the motivation of Jewish Americans who saw the West Bank and the Sinai as land that could be occupied “by way of suburbia as much as the sword or scripture”.

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