Sara Yael Hirschhorn joins us to discuss her book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement, and the big questions that it raises for how we understand Israel, American Jewry, and those American Jews who have moved to Israel and participated in the settler movement beyond the Green Line in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Sinai Peninsula: Why so many Israeli Jewish settlers are of American origin, how we can understand them as real people and not caricatures, and how looking closely at this group can help unsettle assumptions or preconceived notions about the nature of the settlements in the occupied territories.
- Purchase City on a Hilltop
- Sara Yael Hirschhorn, “Israeli Terrorists, Born in the U.S.A.” (NYT, 2015)
- Follow Sara on Twitter at @SaraHirschhorn1
Sara Hirschhorn is Visiting Assistant Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University’s Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. You can follow Sara on Twitter at @SaraHirschhorn1.
City on a Hilltop, which received the 2018 Choice Award as a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, presents a fascinating study of American Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories: the West Bank, and before that in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. She argues that the 1967 six-day war presented an important moment that catalyzed the immigration or Aliyah of many American Jews to Israel, many of whom ended up settling in the occupied territories. And through a series of case studies, she sheds light on a group which today constitutes about 60,000 Jews—out of a total of around 400,000 settlers total. This means that 15% of Israeli Jewish settlers are of American origin, which is far disproportional to the number of American Jews in Israel.
What she presents is quite fascinating, because it tell us something quite counterintuitive: instead of being paragons of conservativism, the American Jews she studies turn out to have been liberals in America! As a result, it causes us to question many of the assumptions that we might have about this group, and also to think through what caused this group to take the path that they did. As she argues, in a certain way they tried to bring about the dream of a “city on a hill” in Israel—as a “city on a hilltop.”
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Making History Personal
Jason Lustig: I really enjoyed reading this book and I think one of the things that’s really so great is that it’s very personal: this is a topic where you’re dealing with tens of thousands of people, but you are able to put it into very personal terms. I think this really comes through in the opening of the book very strongly. You open the book and you also close it by talking about this one family, the Chaikens, who characterize the phenomenon of American Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. What was interesting about them in particular is that they illustrate one of the things I think is a really important point in the book—that this is a history about the individual life choices that people make. And the book is also an attempt, I think, to understand how people from the same origin sometimes take very different paths. You noted in the introduction to the book that you’re from Springfield, Mass., and so is Yona Chaiken, one of the members of this family. So it raises, I think, some really interesting questions because, in a certain way, it highlights the way in which this history is very personal. It has to do with how you get from point A to point B. So I guess what that lead be me to ask and to think about is, how might you characterize the kind of ideological and personal paths of the American Jewish settlers that you’re studying? How do you comprehend or try to understand the vastly different paths that people from the same or similar cultural or political milieus might take over the course of their lives?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: All right. So, I mean, first of all, the story of Yona Malka Chaiken was an important one for me—and I could tell you that I put a lot of effort into tracking (her) down and getting her to agree to speak with me because it seemed quite poignant to me to illustrate the story of someone who came from my hometown who shared many aspects of my own upbringing, if maybe in my case a generation later, but more or less a contemporary of my father, and to try and understand how they made this journey from what I called “Springfield to settlement,” and reflecting on some of the choices that I’ve made in my own life and how I see their story.
I think it’s very hard to be quite so reductionist about the story of over 60,000 Jewish American immigrants and to say that basically for every for two every settlers there’s three stories, as the phrase might go in Jewish life. And the story has really been about the polyphony of voices and the various choices and ideological views of this cohort that certainly share a great deal in common, but have gone in many different directions over the past fifty years.
JL: When you talk about this polyphony of a voices, what are some of the varying chords, so to speak, that have been struck, in terms of the varying approaches, the ways in which people are following all these different paths?
SYH: I tried to stress in the book that people choose to make their life in the settlements out of evaluating not only ideological choices but also associational and lifestyle factors. And each individual really gave that constellation of factors a different way. For some, they would live in only the most ideological settlements in the occupied territories, and felt that their self-realization project was to take part in the most hardcore communities within the larger settler enterprise, like the Chaikens, who wanted to spend their life—though that was perhaps something of an accident—in the middle of the city center of Hebron, which is probably the most highly contested settlement in the occupied territories today. Others had different routes to find themselves and their self-realization project in the settlements. Some came because their brother-in-law or their friend or someone they knew from the United States happened to be living in a particular settlement, and then they later made their home there, and made a different kind of ideological contribution once they were there. Others weren’t willing to sacrifice and the kind of lifestyle amenities that they had once shared in the United States in order to make their own contribution to the settlement enterprise. So, say, a settlement like Efrat, which I profiled at length, was a place where people could have messianic redemption alongside million-dollar mansions. And for them, the quality of life and the way they were going to live their life, especially in a settlement that often resembles a kind of tony suburb in the United States, was equally important as the kind of ideological value of the project—that they wanted to have, you know, basically what one settlor said to me, she frankly just wanted to have, you know, her bagel and eat it too, as you might say. And that was something that she could find in a settlement like Efrat.
JL: This is really great, in terms of trying to understand the nuances and the complexities of the reasons why people become settlers. I think it’s very easy to you know to paint them with a very broad stroke, to see them in a way that is perhaps oversimplified, and this is something that I think comes across really strongly in your book: that you are trying to unsettle some of the preconceptions about the ideological and political commitments of the people who settled in the West Bank and the other occupied territories. I think one of the most interesting claims that you make in the book is the idea that many of these settlers in the occupied territories were not conservative, so to speak, but actually liberal, at least in their lives in the U.S. You describe them—and I’ll quote from the book—you say that they are, or they were at least, “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.”
I’m really curious about this. In what ways did your encounter with the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories surprise or otherwise confirm what you might have otherwise suspected about the motivations, the ideologies, the associations, and affiliations of this group of people?
SYH: I think that the real theme of the book is what I call the clash between liberal values and settler realities, especially in the wake of the first Intifada, where many Jewish American immigrants who would move to the occupied territories in the years before the real eruption of violence in the West Bank and elsewhere. (They) had to reckon with a real kind of clash of civilizations and between sort of the world that they had come from and one that they in many ways still clung to, and the realities of their project and their ideological commitments. It certainly came as a surprise to me, although very much later, (it) became part of the, as you say, the kind of unsettling of stereotypes in this book, to learn that many of these Jewish American immigrants, who are of a 1960s generation—the largest group of Jewish American immigrants not only to the occupied territories, but to Israel/Palestine more generally, came in the wake of the 1967 war. And to try and understand that they were very much part and parcel of their Jewish American generation, and had been Democratic voters and active in and sympathetic to the progressive social movements of their day like the Civil Rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam protests, and in many ways they were trying to translate some of their liberal partage and in many cases liberal discourse, which we could speak about a little bit more a bit later, to the Israeli settler enterprise. And they didn’t necessarily see themselves as leaving this kind of progressive heritage on the other side of the Green Line the moment that they crossed into the occupied territories, but rather they saw themselves as applying the values they have brought with them (from) the United States to a new project over the Green Line.
The question was, how did they ultimately square the circle? As I said, prior to the first Intifada perhaps, that dilemma wasn’t quite as pressing on the consciousness of Jewish American immigrants who, like many generations of Zionist blindness, perhaps didn’t necessarily recognize the ultimate clash between an indigenous population and a group of self-consciously Jewish activists. But later on, as the settlement project grew, and the resistance to the settlement project in turn grew, they had to begin to confront these clashes between their backgrounds and their current activities.
JL: How is it that you have come to understand and to explain this clash between what you call the liberal persona of many of these people and the fundamentally illiberal project of the settlement of the occupied territories?
SYH: I mean, I think for many of the readers of this book—I imagine yourself included—that you probably found it quite cognitively dissident to think that these were people who had been marching for civil rights in the United States and ultimately involved in a project that at least most of the international community considers to be denying others rights as a nation and as a people. But I don’t think that’s necessarily how Jewish American settlers came to find themselves in the occupied territories to begin with, and certainly not the way they saw their project initially. This was a project, in their mind, of self-realization, and one of struggling for their own civil rights. As Ellie Birnbaum, who was one of the founders of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, said to me: For years he had been marching on the streets of the United States for the rights of, as he called it, you know, African-Americans and the Eskimos and everybody else, and he started to ask himself, why aren’t I struggling for anything Jewish? And he saw his participation within the Israeli settler movement as part of this larger civil rights struggle for Jews. Obviously, for the Palestinians, they would have seen this differently.
Israeli Settlers and American Dreams
JL: For me, one of the things that is so exciting about this book, is it contributes, I think, something to a broader revision that we need to consider about how we understand the nature of the Zionist project. Like you said, many people might assume that, especially from the perspective of the present moment, that the settlement project was fundamentally illiberal from it’s very beginning. And they might also assume, thinking about some historical concepts like the idea of the negation of the diaspora, that people who are making their way from, say, the Jewish community in the United States to the state of Israel were in a certain way trying to reject their diaspora identities or their diaspora affiliations. And there’s also a tendency, I think, to think about immigration, certainly to the land of Israel, in ideological terms, that people throughout the history of the Zionist movement moved there for the purpose of pursuing an ideological objective.
And I think one of the things that is really quite interesting is that we need to rethink all these issues because most people, when they migrate, they’re not just doing it because they have some ideological aim. They’re doing it for all sorts of personal reasons. People in Israel may have talked about the idea of the negation of the diaspora, shelilat ha-galut, but in reality they were not doing that. And we see this, I think, throughout the history of the Zionist movement, that broadly speaking—and this is not just in the case of American Jews—Jews who migrated to Palestine hoped that they might put into practice all sorts of political and social dreams or utopias that they had about the places where they came from, that they might have felt were impossible to achieve there. So for instance, look at the Socialist Zionists, who made their way to Palestine: they hoped to create a socialist state or society there in the same way. And so, I think that what you’re doing here is really telling a similar kind of story: that the Jews from America who made their way to Israel in the aftermath of the ‘67 war were not trying to run away from their American identity. But they were really bringing it with them, in some perhaps similar ways.
SYH: I think that’s true, but I’d also think that American aliyah or American immigration to Israel is a bit exceptionalist. We’ve long known in the scholarship that many of Israel’s successive waves of immigrants during Yishuv were not all great Zionists. And certainly, many of them were not card-carrying Zionists. They were people who were motivated by poverty, by lack of opportunity, by the destruction of Jewish life in other parts of the world, or the opportunity to continue to contribute to communities that really called home—especially if we think about the story of Mizrahi Jewry, who were really, I think, reluctant Zionists, who came only after 1948 because of the deterioration of relations between Israel and the Arab world. But I think American Zionists, and more broadly Western, privileged Zionists have come to Israel, mostly, out of ideological conviction.
But the question is, I guess, what kind of ideology are they bringing? And how much are they leaving behind? American immigrants after 1967 also came to Israel at a time where they weren’t necessarily forcedto leave as much behind as immigrants of a previous generation. The state of Israel had already been around for twenty-plus years and some of the requirements of absorption into the Israeli identity or the Israeli ethos, I think, had slackened a bit by that time, unlike those who came during the Yishuv who were asked really to take part as ideological pioneers in the Zionist project, and even Mizrahi immigrants who were asked to leave behind very important parts of their culture, language, community in order to be fully acculturated into a white Ashkenazi Israeli society. American immigrants after the 1967 war, in fact, maybe didn’t meet such stringent demands by Israeli culture to leave as much behind. They were also able to introduce more of their value system into Israel, just because of the changing way Israel had begun to look at immigrants, and also because Americans, like Brits and other Anglos, are bringing skills and capital that many of the previous generations of immigrants to Israel were not as lucky to bring with them.
But certainly, I want to stress: This is a transnational story, and this is part of a tradition of American Jewish history and American Jewish liberalism as much as that of Israeli history and politics,
JL: I think, like what you just said, that this is a book that is just as much about America and about American Jewry. It was very clear just from the title, where you talk about in the idea of a “city on a hilltop.” This very clearly makes a reference to American history as well and about this question of merging together how we understand this history of liberalism in America and how we can talk about the limits of liberalism, in both the U.S. and also within the state of Israel, when you talk about this population.
SYH: Yes, and also I think in the United States, both amongst Jewry and more broadly within the American population, as a nod to the kind of history of U.S. foreign policy or American studies, I also wanted to gesture to the idea that these Jewish American immigrants are foreign policy actors abroad. And they’re following in a larger tradition of the post-Vietnam generation in practicing human rights at home and, perhaps, practicing imperialism abroad. So in that sense, I think we have to ask ourselves: How much of this story is truly a Jewish story, and how much of the story is an American story? And that’s and that’s been one of the tensions that’s really animated the book.
Settlers as People, Not Caricatures
JL: I want toto delve into the stories of these people and their communities, because I think it’s important to try to understand in a very deep way was going on here. I guess one way to begin to think about this set of issues is, when you were working on this project and as you talk about it and engage with it, how is it that we can understand these people, the settlers, as real people with full personal lives and motivations, and not as caricatures?
SYH: I wrote a lot in this book about the nature and theories of historical empathy, and I think for various reasons, it’s very difficult to apply those concepts to Israeli settlers and to various ethnic and immigrant populations within the Israeli settler movement, because I think that there’s a lot of suspicion that historical empathy is equivalent to political sympathy. And part of, I think, the discipline of this book was trying to divide those two concepts: that it’s possible to put ourselves in the shoes of historical actors without necessarily drinking the Kool-Aid of their political ideology. And to stress that in fact is really important part of what historians need to do today in working with a whole variety of controversial groups—that these are groups that merit historical treatment, a deep and rigorous inquiry into their behavior, despite the fact that we may have many questions about their political behavior.
And in some ways, the book is trying to take a step back and learn (from), as well as contribute to, a broader understanding of do historians study controversial populations, one that continue to influence our foreign policy, our communities, our understanding of global events, without slipping into a polemic.
JL: I think this is a really important distinction, between historical empathy and political sympathy, as you put it. And I think that there is an important resonance within our own contemporary moment, with how we talk about American politics, for instance.
SYH: Absolutely. I mean, many of the same debates have come up about talking about the new right in the United States. I remember the New York Times ran an article, sort of a deep dive into who some of the actors in the latest protests have been. And there was a about this article, because the understanding was: how dare the New York Times treat these people so humanely, and illustrate that they are complex human beings with a variety of aspects to their lives, that they are fathers and brothers and husbands and children, but also hold these views that many people find to be truly repugnant. But, you know, that is true—people cannot be reduced solely to their ideological fixations. And in many cases, their understanding of community has also informed their ideological choices.
JL: That’s exactly what I was thinking about, the uproar that took place, at least on Twitter anyway, or within more liberal circles, when the New York Times for instance profiled certain figures within the alt-right in the U.S. There is this fine line that needs to be walked. And perhaps part of the story here is that it’s easier to have empathy for people within the realm of history as opposed to within the present, when people and movements have the potential to do a lot of damage in one way or the other.
SYH: Sure. I mean, I think a lot of people said to me when I first started my dissertation, why don’t you find some, you know, really really dead people, people that for whatever reason are no longer considered to be controversial. And, you know, you could gaze upon people in the twelfe century with the kind of ease that you can’t with people who are living. But I also think that the fact that this is unfolding history—to me, it makes contemporary history particularly exciting. You also have an invaluable opportunity which we don’t have with people who lived in, say, the Renaissance, to interview them and to hear how they see the world in their own voices.
Now, I’m not saying that we suspend all critical inquiry because you can sit in front of them with the tape recorder. But at the same time, I think that contemporary history is exciting. It’s dangerous and problematic and can be instrumentalized. It has many pitfalls. But at the same time, I don’t think that we should shy away from studying controversial groups, or looking at contemporary questions through a historical lens just because it’s possible that we could run into some difficulties in historian. It’s a challenge, but I think it’s a good challenge.
JL: I mean, I’m somebody who also deals with contemporary topics—not as contemporary as what you’re dealing with—but there are, I think, a lot of challenges when we’re talking about the recent past, whether we’re talking about access to archives or talking to individuals who are still alive. But it also offers a lot of opportunities. I think that may be one of the ways in which you’re able to really give life to these people. It’s just that you’ve actually had a chance to get to know them. You talk about how you visited Kiryat Arba, right, or some of these other settlements, and actually spent time with these people who you’re writing about. And that, I think, is really important, in terms of your ability to write about and talk about them.
SYH: Yeah, I think the question is, how, if you’re writing on contemporary history, how do you maintain that kind of historical and critical perspective? Because this isn’t journalism. And we, as historians, use a different toolkit and have a different understanding of audience, and the nature of writing, than someone who is, say, a reporter for the Associated Press. So part of this project is also to think through some of those distinctions to allow historians to have currency in contemporary debates but also maintain the kind of discipline that the historical profession requires and use the kind of tools that the historical profession uses, which are also somewhat different than what is currently in the public sphere.
American Settlers in Israel
JL: I want to shift gears a little bit and I want to talk about this group of people, these settlers. And then I want to maybe, as we move forward, talk about what this tells us about the Israeli society in which they live and the American society from which they came. But I think that it’s important to try to get a sense of who they are and what their story is. So for instance, you suggest in the book that about 15% of the settlers and the occupied territories are of American origin, and that this is kind of a disproportionate number—this is higher than it should be, so to speak. I’m curious, why do you think this happens to be the case? And what are the implications of this, to begin with?
SYH: So first of all, I should say that’s 15% within the West Bank, proper. If we were going to extrapolate this study, which for various reasons I chose not to do—to include areas over the Green Line that have been formally annexed, (including) the municipality of Jerusalem—we could be talking about tens of thousands of more Americans that live in suburban neighborhoods of Jerusalem, like Gilo or Ramot, and today even in East Jerusalem. So it’s a very significant percentage of the total American immigration to Israel/Palestine, which I think comes about for a variety of reasons.
As I mentioned before, American immigration to Israel is probably the most highly ideological immigration of the most recent waves of immigration to Israel and, correspondingly, those immigrants make choices that follow upon ideological lines. I think the real question of this book, though, was why is it enough for, you know, Bob from Teaneck, New Jersey, to settle in Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh or Ra’anana or any number of other Anglo enclaves within today’s borders of the state of Israel, but for Sharon that does not seem sufficient and does not fully correspond with her understanding of what a self-realization project is. And I think that’s really one of the dilemmas of the book: why do people who come from the same generation make very different choices when they land on Israeli shores?
As I said before, I think that’s because Jewish American immigrants to the occupied territories made their decisions out of a constellation of ideological association and lifestyle factors. Each one of those is political in its own way, but these were individual choices that were arrived at by over 60,000 individuals. And for many the feeling was. Jerusalem or Ra’anan or otherwise was not enough.
I recounted a story on that in my book, again about the settlement of Tekoa, of a conversation between two friends, Bobby Brown and Ellie Birnbaum. Ellie Birnbaum was a psychologist. He’s now retired. And at the time, he really wanted to make his Zionist self-realization project in Yerucham, a development town in the south of Israel that suffers from many kinds of problems associated with poverty and disenfranchisement. And he thought he was going to spend the rest of his life working with disadvantaged youth. And his friend Bobby Brown came around to him and said, “look Ellie, I think this is a very valuable project and I understand what attracts you to making your life in Yerucham for both personal and professional reasons, but if you don’t come with me to Tekoa, Tekoa isn’t going to exist, there is going to be no settlement of Tekoa in this eastern corner of the Gush Etsion or tree of Zion region of the West Bank if you and I and a few of our friends from Manhattan don’t make this happen.” And Ellie thought about it for a while and said to himself, “you know, Yerucham is probably still going to be here in sixty or seventy years, but Bobby’s right. If I don’t go with him to Tekoa, Tekoa frankly will not exist.”
And for many those were the kind of choices that they confronted: that had opportunities to bring something that they believed in into being through the dint of their own effort and through their own ideological conviction and sacrifice. And for them the conventional choices and existing possibilities perhaps were not enough in their Zionist imagination.
JL: So you’re saying, I think, that these moves are ideological, right?
SYH: Certainly, I mean these moves are ideological. And I should stress that when there were corresponding associational and lifestyle factors—somebody says, my brother-in-law lives in Efrat or I like Tekoa because I could have a nice house with a garden—that’s not saying that associational lifestyle factors are not in and of themselves political. Because, certainly, you can have a home with a garden in the Galilee or the Negev as well. But these decisions were made and they have ideological and political resonances and consequences.
Immigration and Ideology
JL: You mentioned Tekoa. I want to talk about some of these settlements in detail. But before we do that, I want to push you a bit on this question of the ideological nature, as you’ve described it, of American Jewish Aliyah, or immigration to Israel. Because something that you mentioned earlier in our conversation is this idea that the immigration of American Jews to the state of Israel was in some ways distinctive or exceptional because it was so ideologically motivated. And, you know, I think that there is some truth, as we compare for instance people who had greater push factors for their own immigration, whether it has to do with the Holocaust or persecution or anything else, that there certainly were not these kind of factors when you’re talking about American Jewish life, by any means. So there is a distinction, I think, that can be made. But I’m not so sure that we can necessarily call it unique. And I’m curious if you maybe want to talk a little bit more about why you think that American Jewish emigration is so “exceptional” in some ways.
SYH: Yeah, so I think that—and there will be disagreements about some of the ideas that I advanced in this book in regards to the exceptionalism of American Aliyah. But one of the ideas that I tried to underscore in this book was, I think that the push and pull factors are often linked. Traditional typologies of immigration generally see American immigration to Israel is solely a “pull”-based immigration. These aren’t people who are fleeing from poverty or war or famine or any of the parade of horribles that motivate typical forms of immigration. The preeminent scholars of previous generations of Aliyah or American immigration to Israel—again, I don’t like using the terminology of “Aliyah” which in and of itself connotes a kind of exceptionalism—they typically have seen Jewish American immigration to Israel as being solely motivated by desires that were made of free choice.
I think the situation is really a bit more complicated. Yes, certainly, Jewish American immigrants Israel are not suffering by any stretch of the imagination. These are people who typically have left comfortable lives in the United States to move to Israel and often to the occupied territories. But I think that there was also a kind of subtle push factor, which is not necessarily been acknowledged by scholars, which is that this generation of Jewish American immigrants clearly felt that they could not realize their Zionist and Jewish aspirations living in the United States. To quote from the book, there was a question of, given who I am, where do I belong? And this cohort certainly felt that they do not belong in the United States. And that in and of itself kind of constituted a push to Israel and the occupied territories. So, you know, push and pull factors are not always quite as obvious that they may seem. And I think that this is something that is exceptional about Jewish American Immigration to the occupied territories.
Settlers of the 60s Generation
JL: It’s important to note that you’re really focusing on a certain generation of people who migrated to Israel and who settled in the occupied territories in the aftermath of the ‘67 war . You’re not talking about all American Jewish immigrants. I think that this is a really important aspect of the book, that you are talking about a moment when, as you said, a certain group of Jews in the U.S. perhaps felt that they could not live out their aspirations in America.
SYH: Yeah, I think the book though does you know does take into account that there’s been a change in the demographic profile Jewish American immigration to Israel or Israel/Palestine more broadly over the past fifty years, that the people who came in 1967 are not exactly the same kind of people who came in 2017. But they’re still mostly motivated by similar factors. We can talk a lot about how Jewish American liberalism has evolved over this period of time and the profile of the kind of Jewish-American that might immigrate to Israel has perhaps correspondingly evolved. I think that these questions and push and pull factors hold true across the past fifty years more broadly.
JL: I want to focus a little bit more on 1967. Because I think one of the things you argue in the book is that the ‘67 war was the turning point or catalyst, not just in terms of the history of the state of Israel itself, which is obvious, but in addition also for the development of this kind of movement of American Jewish settlers. I’m curious if you might want to talk a little bit more about the aftermath of ‘67 and the changing relationship of American Jews in Israel and what this has to do with your thesis that many of the American Jews who made their way to the occupied territories had this idea of implementing their kind of American dream in the West Bank or in the Sinai Peninsula or elsewhere.
SYH: Right. So, I guess I would start with a quote from Norman Podhoretz who once said, once upon a time before the 1967 war, there were Jews in America that were non-Zionist or were anti-Zionist or were entirely indifferent to the affairs of the state of Israel or entirely concerned with you know their own domestic agenda. It’s hard, I think, today, especially given millennial divisions over Israel, to reckon with the idea that in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, 99.99% of American Jewry were unequivocally and unanimously in support of the state of Israel, and that the 1967 war itself—which was experienced as teenagers and young adults by many of the subjects of my study—but more generally was a profound moment in the kind of news Zionist awakening in the United States and abroad and really brought about a revolution in the American. Jewish relationship with Israel, politically, spiritually, philanthropically, emotionally, and otherwise. And this certainly had a significant impact on the generation of American Jews that I profile in this book.
More broadly, I’ve tried to contextualize the actual events and aftermath of the 1967 war in a broader constellation of trends that I’ve called the “1967 moment,” which were not only Israel’s unexpected and perhaps euphoric victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but part of a larger rethinking of the American Jewish experience in its relationship to Israel that came across against the backdrop of a new awakening of Holocaust memory, in the sense that many American Jews once again didn’t know what the outcome of the war was going to be, as the potential for a second Holocaust in their own lifetime. American Jews around the 1967 war were also taking part in a larger kind of ethnic awakening in the United States that was affecting Italian Americans and Greek Americans and African Americans. In many ways, creating this idea the hyphenated American ethnic identity and the 1967 war and sort of the pride and joy that many Jewish Americans took in Israel’s victory also strengthened this kind of ethnic awareness and ethnic appreciation that had been taking place in and around the same time period.
Last but not least, the shift in the new left against Israel almost immediately in the aftermath of the 1967 war really transformed or perhaps disrupted Diaspora Zionist life, shattering or at least bringing about the shattering of the participation of American Jews in progressive circles or on the American left and sort of reformulating a kind of new Judeo-Christian establishment on the right. This is really going to be the subject of my next book project.
For this generation of American Jews who had just witnessed the 1967 war and were starting to ask themselves the questions, do I really belong in these progressive movements where I’d spent my life up until now, they were they were sort of confronted with a dilemma. These were people, again, who had been active in the liberal social movements of their day but suddenly found that their space within those movements was contracting. And (they) were looking for new outlets for their activism. Some, of course, turned inward towards movements of primarily Jewish concern like the student struggle for Soviet Jewry or even Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League. But others began to look abroad. And that’s, I think, how this generation of Jewish American immigrants saw their futures no longer in America but in Israel, and for some over the Green Line,
JL: Do you see the major difference then between the Jews who were part of this experience or this moment and who made their way to Israel, between those of that group that settled in the occupied territories and those that did not, or are you describing more broadly speaking this entire phenomenon, and this is just one subset of this group?
SYH: So I think that they are one particular subset of this broader experience, but you know, the choice that they have made, which we spoke about earlier, about why living in a place like Jerusalem was not sufficient, comes from an additional ideological overlay, beyond simply the 1967 American Jewish experience.
Settlement Case Studies
JL: So let’s focus a bit on some of these case studies that you talked about in the book. The core of the book really focuses on three settlements, Yamit, which was in the Sinai Peninsula, Efrat, which is in the south of Jerusalem, and also the settlement of Tekoa, which you’ve already mentioned, which is essentially in the heart of the West Bank geographically speaking. Do you maybe want to briefly summarize what is the story here with these three case studies, and what they tell us when we put them all together?
SYH: As you mentioned, the heart of the book was the three case studies that profiled three different settlements that were established by and for Jewish American immigrants in the occupied territories between the 1970s and the present-day. The idea was to try and illustrate the dynamic and shifting relationship between Jewish American immigrants, the Israeli government, the native Israeli settler movement, and the Palestinians, in these very diverse cases that certainly have different historical contingencies and experiences, and really try and illustrate what the variety of roles and contributions that Jewish American immigrants have made to the broader Israeli settler enterprise as both settler leaders and cadres over the past five decades.
You’re not really allowed to have a favorite child, but I will admit that my favorite case study of the book was the settlement of Yamit which was founded by a garin or seed colony founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, by a cantor and his wife, who was a nutritionist, Chaim and Sarah Feifel, who gathered a group of Jewish Americans from across the United States to settle in the Sinai Peninsula and the new city settlement of Yamit. The book illustrates the various struggles they had in joining this Israeli settler project. It was not obvious to Israeli officials nor the Israeli settler movement that these idealistic Americans were truly wanted in this new seaside pioneering opportunity. But through dogged determination and frankly a great deal of whinging, Jewish American immigrants did establish a significant presence in this Sinai settlement between the 1973 War and the disengagement from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. The last part of the story is really about one potential model the Jewish American settlers offer in thinking about the peace process. These Jewish American settlers saw their dreams and their idealistic project and a decade of effort destroyed, literally, often on national television, with the disengagement from the Sinai in 1982. But they chose to leave their homes peacefully, some returning to the United States, and others continuing to live in Be’er Sheva and other parts of Israel and do not join the protest movement that emerged around the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. So we might think of Jewish American settlers here as being peacemakers instead of protesters, and I think this is something to consider in with a possible future disengagement from the West Bank.
In contrast, a settlement like Efrat, which as you mentioned is really mere miles from Jerusalem by bypass roads today, has always billed itself within a national consensus of settlements that were part of both Israel’s historical tradition—the site of pre-existing settlements in the West Bank prior to the 1948 War—as well as the political consensus about the outlines of a future peace accord. Efrat was a partnership between a dynamic Jewish-American Rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, who has come to, I think, great prestige and fame for his activism within Jewish-American Orthodoxy as well as the Israeli rabbinical scene, and a native Israeli settler activist named Moshe Moskowitz, who had grown up in one of the kibbutzim that existed in the Gush Etsion or tree of Zion region of the West Bank prior to the 1948 War. They brought into being an entirely new model for settlement, one that as I mentioned earlier kind of combined messianic redemption with million-dollar mansions and offered American immigrants a kind of yuppie suburb over the Green Line. Yet Efrat has also experienced various political maelstroms, and the evolution of this settlement and of it’s impassioned spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has really been at the heart of this story, and trying to understand where this settlement has stood and how its views on the Israel-Palestine conflict have hardened over time.
The last settlement that I profiled in this book, Tekoa, in the remote eastern corner of the Gush Etsion region of West Bank, which is now connected to the neighborhood of Jerusalem by bypass road, to Talpiot, in about ten minutes’ time—which has brought a dramatic change to the settlement that used to be really quite distant, just a corner of the West Bank—has been one that has been very much unlike Efrat. While Efrat has hardened its attitudes, over time is relative experience with Palestinian neighbors has been quiescent. But Tekoa has been a settlement that has been under siege from the very start. As I mentioned earlier, not only is Toccoa—you know, as its founder Bobby Brown characterized it, “turn left at the end of the world”—it was initially in a very remote corner of the West Bank; I think that phrase also helps illustrate the ideological roots of the settlement, founded by a group of Jewish American immigrants, primarily from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who decided to settle in what they called Garin Lev Tsion, or the seed colony of the heart of Zion. For them, it was an effort to establish what they considered to be Jewish civil rights in the midst of the Oslo Accords, and to literally stake a claim into a territory of the West Bank at a time of potential disengagements and dual-track diplomacy regarding the future of the occupied territories in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Tekoa has experienced a very violent relationship with its Palestinian neighbors, which continues until today almost unabated, and certainly could be on the chopping block in the case of a future final-status agreement. Nevertheless, the founders of Tekoa have also engaged in their own kind of grassroots or bottom-up peacemaking through the efforts of Rabbi Menachem Truman who was a Israeli native rabbi who settled in this community, this Anglo community, and led a very controversial and often polarizing effort in religious peacemaking with his counterparts amongst Palestinian and Islamic leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip until his recent death a few years ago. So Tekoa been a kind of interesting model of a settlement that has been under siege from the start but has also pioneered new strategies for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Each one of these case studies is its own unique story. And I want to stress that this very much reflects the participation of Jewish American immigrants within the Israeli settler movement more broadly, that there’s not a single unified story but one with many historical contingencies, and complex experiences.
JL: What I sort of want to press you on here, where you talk about how the history of these. communities, each of them is distinctive. Each of the individuals sort of has their own path to these settlements. But if we had to synthesize them together, what do they tell us about this group of, what is it, 60,000 people that you’re describing who have settled in the occupied territories, and about these communities and about this vision to create, as you as you put it in the book, a kind of a “city on the on a hilltop.”
SYH: I think that that is what unifies these very distinct stories: that they share an understanding from their American experience that this was a pioneering utopian project, and one that was a self-realization effort in the interest of what they called Jewish human and civil rights within the Israeli settler enterprise. So this is a story, or many, many stories that mobilized an American Jewish experience within the framework of the Israelis settler enterprise.
Placing it in a Global Political Context
JL: I think this leads us towards a major issue that I had hoped we could talk about. You talk about this book as being both about Israel and about America. You described it as half about Jewishness in America, and half about Americanness in Israel. I’m curious how looking at these case studies and at this group of people helps us to reassess the history of American Zionism and about American Jewish history, and helps us perhaps to rethink the history and culture of the state of Israel.
SYH: Yes, I certainly hope so. The intent behind this book is also to look at the experience of immigrants and why they might choose to participate within ultranationalist politics. And I think that davka because they were immigrants and had difficulties assimilating into what I call the Israeli military-bureaucratic complex, that they chose activities where they felt that they could make their contribution—and in many ways the kind of pioneering utopian contribution that they had brought from their backgrounds in the United States to Israel. So, the nature of their immigrant experience is really part and parcel of this story. And I don’t know if we would see the same kind of contribution from those who come from a different background, and that’s why I think the story of Jewish American immigrants—who are obviously not the only immigrant population within the Israeli settler movement, if an overrepresented one—is truly unique.
Maybe also to say a few words that, I mean, the story of American Jewish liberalism is also very much part and parcel of the decisions that these individual and collective Jewish American settlers made. Since the 1990s, I think the story is really about their relationship to their liberal background in the wake of the first Intifada and the kind of decisions that they have made in regards to liberal discourse, through public relations of the Israeli settler movement, a kind of product that Jewish American immigrants have very much pioneered, were kind of losing their liberalism by choosing the route of settler terror and for going or forgetting many of the values that they had once taken for granted.
JL: Do you see this process of a continuing erosion of these liberal values over the course of the decades you’re studying here, is that kind of what you’re describing?
SYH: Yes, I don’t know if “erosion” is exactly the term that I would use, but you know liberalism both in the American Jewish and Israeli context have changed over the past fifty years. And it’s perhaps only natural that American Jews, both in the United States and Israel, have been along for the ride. We see a dramatic shift within the American Jewish population, both in terms of their voting patterns, both for people who are really Israel-Firsters in a way, in the sense that they’ve migrated to the Republican party which they consider to at least share that aspect of their agenda, if not many other social and economic issues. And a distinctive change in the nature of what Israeli liberalism looks like as well. I think there’s no doubt that is really opinion is hardening. The entire political spectrum has shifted to the right over, certainly the past few decades, but more broadly over the past fifty years. And American Jews who have immigrated to Israel/Palestine are part of these processes as well, and very much these processes are lived out through them in their participation in the Israeli settler enterprise.
JL: I think when you put this in the context of the shifting politics of America, as well, it raises an important question, because you’re looking at a very small subset of people here that I think are illustrating a broader social and political shift, the rise of neoconservativism for instance is also part of the story that you were talking about earlier in our conversation: American Jews who associated with the left in one way or the other who came to feel that the left was rejecting them or that that these ideals just wouldn’t work. And so you see multiple pathways, some people who decide to leave America altogether, others who change their political perspectives within the context of the U.S. I think that there’s something really interesting here to think about, that this one group of people that you’re describing is just one potential scenario coming out of this milieu that you’ve been thinking about.
SYH: Yes, which I hope will give me my food for thought for the next five or so years of my life. It’s really the subject of my second book project, as you said, one way of reconciling this dilemma between universalism and particularism was by decamping to Israel, and for some over the Green Line to Israel/Palestine. But really what happened to all the Zionists that stayed home after the 1967 war and how to reckon with how Israel disrupted Diaspora Jewish life. This, I think, is one of the broader questions raised by the book. And I’m looking forward to the opportunity to revisit that and look not only at a much, much larger case—of what happens to everyone that stays home in the United States—but looking comparatively, because the 1967 war did not only affect American Jews. It affected Diaspora Jews across the globe. And how can we see the American case within comparative context? And that’s what I really hope the new project will be about.
A Still-Unfolding History
JL: I think that what’s so interesting about this whole line of research, is that as we’ve talked about earlier, this is very relevant, this is something that is still ongoing. There are still Jewish settlements in the West Bank, their future is questionable because we don’t know what any kind future will bring. But the story that you’re telling, whether in the Israeli context or any other kind of context, it’s ongoing. You’re talking about the past, but this is not a book that has been closed yet, so to speak.
SYH: Absolutely. I mean, this is history that is still unfolding. And I certainly wouldn’t claim to know what the end of the story will bring. I think all we can try and offer is perspective, and try to look at how the Israeli settler project has changed over time. I mean, so much of frankly the media perspective and even some of the scholarly literature and other polemics really presents both the academic and the average television watcher with an image of the Israeli settler movement that’s frozen in time in the 1970s, of the highly ideological messianic religious Jewish Israeli on a windswept hilltop of the West Bank firing an automatic machine gun and spouting the Bible. And I think, today, the Israeli settler movement is much more dynamic and heterogeneous. And, in fact, some of these religious messianic forces have very much been eclipsed ideologically as well as surely demographically over the past fifty years. And for those of us who are interested in the future and, frankly, in peace in Israel/Palestine in the future, I think all we can try and offer is that kind of perspective of how this movement has evolved and present a picture that corresponds with reality in 2018, and perhaps not with an iteration that we are all so comfortable and familiar with but doesn’t really represent what the Israeli settler movement is today or maybe in the future.
JL: I think there’s the potential here to inform the kind of political and social discourse surrounding all these issues in a way that is unfortunately lacking nuanced more or less across the board.
SYH: I mean, my hope for the book is that certainly I want to urge fellow scholars to continue to examine the multiple facets of the Israeli settler movement that have (been) really lacking scholarly and often public attention, that there are so many other constituencies, discourses, ideologies that coexist within this very complicated mosaic of the Israeli settler enterprise today. And I would just like this book on Jewish American immigrants, which is only one part of this movement, and one part certainly more largely of the Diaspora Israel story, or of Diaspora Israel immigration, but to urge others to really help me round out this picture and update our understanding of these very complex and dynamic discussions for 2018.
Why This Population Matters
JL: So if I might ask one final concluding question, I think that what’s so interesting here, among all the other things, is that you are writing about a group which is relatively small. It’s 15% of the overall settler population, but it’s less than 1% of the Israeli population as a whole, or even the Israeli Jewish population. Why is it, in your view, that this group of people matters? In a certain way, it obviously does matter to you—there’s a reason why you wrote a whole book about them, right? But I’m hoping that maybe you could tell us a little bit more about why you think that it’s so important to examine and engage with this group of people. What does it tell us, broadly speaking, about social and political issues in Israel, or within the American Jewish community, or otherwise, that looking at other groups of people might not tell us?
SYH: I think this this is a story that not only matters to me, but matters to a lot of my readers. These are people that they know, people who are formerly members their synagogue, who lived on their streets, who they grew up with in Zionist youth movements, that they play baseball with in a corner park, and may have sat next to it the next desk in school. And suddenly, they understand that this group of people has taken part in a very significant historical movement. And so I think my readers have said, you know, these are people that I know and I want to know about them. So I guess I would say that it wasn’t just a group that has fascinated me, but maybe one that had brought appeal. And I was fortunate to be the one who really got to delve into that in depth.
But I think that the reason that they certainly punched above their weight, both democratically and otherwise, in their contribution to the Israeli settler enterprise—historically founding significant settlements by and for Jewish American immigrants and later in their role, unfortunately, overrepresented within the ranks of settler terrorism. But today’s certainly their most profound impact might be found in the popularization and the public relations of the Israeli settler movement. But because their activity also means something to, I think, broader trends in Israel and in the United States: Their role within the Israeli settler movement helps illustrate the diversity of the Israeli settler enterprise today and its evolution over time, the way the Israeli political trajectory has moved over the past fifty years and what role Americans have played, frankly, on both sides of the political aisle, within Israeli extraparliamentary politics. And more broadly, this again is a transnational story that returns to its American roots and comments, I think, or I hope, both upon the nature of American Jewish liberalism and more broadly American or U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Vietnam War. So I think it’s a story that crosses the ocean and hopefully also crosses some conventional boundaries in trying to rethink what left and right really mean today, what (is) the connection is between the U.S. and Israel, and how ideas and people have moved across an ocean over the past five decades, and I guess what this means on both continents.
JL: You’re talking about how this project, and how looking at these people, helps us to get a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of the settler movement, or of the complexity of the relationship of Israel and the United States, and of the Jewish communities in these two countries. Why is it that that it happens to be the American Jewish immigrants that open up this door? And why is it important for us to get a sort of a more complicated understanding of this situation? Because there is this interesting issue of how it’s different from other immigrant groups, but I just want to push you more on why it matters to get a more full understanding, this more complex understanding, of this group of people. How does it help us to get a better grasp on the conflict or on the potentials in the future, in addition to understanding the historical developments over the past fifty years?
SYH: Right. Well, I hope that this study really helps us rethink categories like “left” and “right,” Diaspor and Israel, universal and particular, etc. It’s trying to challenge the conventional wisdom, not only about who these people are, but how their ideas have evolved ,and to try and trace a story from one shore to the other, and really try and rethink our understanding of what it means for people who came from liberal backgrounds to be engaged in what much of the international community considers to be an illiberal appropriate. And that despite the fact that many of my readers may feel that this is a story really of cognitive dissonance, it’s also one of trying to unite or find cognitive harmony between a story of the United States and that of Israel, and to suggest that a heritage of one country has been translated into another context and to really try and follow how that story has evolved.
This is really a story of unintended consequences, when the heritage of one tradition is perhaps lost in translation on another shore, and to really try and trace what happens when liberal ideas are brought to new contexts and to try and understand I think not only the story of American Jews and Israeli Jews, but also larger story of liberalism in the twenty-first century and what happens when American liberal ideas find a new home across the ocean.