There are some 60,000 American citizens living as settlers in the West Bank. In a new book, City on a Hilltop, historian Sara Yael Hirschhorn tries to understand what brought those Americans to the most contentious real estate on earth—and how their presence there shapes the tangled landscape of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Much of the international community, including the United Nations, considers the settlers to be illegal intruders on Palestinian territory. Many of the first settlers were deeply religious Israelis who began squatting on land that Israel had captured during the Six-Day War of 1967. But the story of Americans in the settlements does not hew easily to stereotypes of settlers as conservative religious zealots. Often, these Americans moved to Israel as proud progressives. Veterans of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, they understood the settlements in terms of civil disobedience, utopian community building, and advocacy for embattled peoples—in this case, Jews.
That kind of pioneering work has a deep place in the American psyche. The title of City on a Hilltop refers both to dry hills of the West Bank and to Puritan leader John Winthrop’s famous “City upon a Hill” sermon, delivered in 1630 on a ship bound for the New World. For American settlers, Hirschhorn writes, these territories could seem like “their own terra incognita” for people “who missed out on the original pioneering experience on two continents.”
Waves of violence have hit the West Bank since the 1980s. Some of the most aggressive figures in the settlement movement have been American-born. The settlements seem to be a major obstacle to peace. Most conceivable deals to create an independent Palestinian state would now require uprooting hundreds of thousands of settlers.
Hirschhorn is a University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies at Oxford. Over the phone, she spoke with Religion & Politics about Americans abroad, the Disneyfication of Jerusalem, and how to buy a house when you think the Messianic Age is imminent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: Americans in the settlement movement often come from backgrounds that we would call progressive on the American political spectrum. That can be disconcerting for progressive American Jews, I think. It feels very close to home.
SH: Right—how come I ended up here, and these people ended up there?
SH: If you try to caricature them as Bible thumpers who don’t have anything in common with you or your background in the United States, that’s not a full picture of who these people are.
You can’t just say these people are so different from us, we have nothing in common with them, they’re crazy people inspired by an ideology that I have no relationship to. I just don’t think that’s what motivates them.
R&P: So where does the split happen between American Jews who stay in the suburbs in the United States, and the handful who don’t just move to Israel, but dive deep into the settlement project?
SH: I look at the demographic profile of Jewish-American settlers, and try to compare them both to their peers in the United States and those in Israel. And it’s very clear that those that immigrants to Israel anywhere—territorial Israel or the Occupied Territories—are the highest Jewish Zionist identifiers. At some point—especially the 1967 war generation—it becomes clear to them that they can’t fulfill their ideal lives in the United States.
Then the question is, okay, you’ve made it to Israel, why isn’t it enough to live in Modi’in? Why do you need to move to the Occupied Territories?
Some of it is ideology, and this is where the religion bit does come in, this idea of living in the whole of the land of Israel. Some of it is political. Then there are more mundane concerns, too. The settler movement, at least in the beginning, when it was a very small affair, was the kind of place where you could make your individual mark. You were released from some of the shackles of your day-to-day existence in a big city in territorial Israel.
Also, over time, it also became a social thing, or what we call associational reasons. If your best friend from Teaneck, New Jersey, moved to Efrat [an affluent, heavily American settlement near Jerusalem], and they had a really nice house, and their kid went to a really good school, maybe you thought to yourself, “You know, I could live in Jerusalem, but I could also live in Efrat, because my friends live in Efrat. So why shouldn’t I move there? It’s the same price or cheaper than Jerusalem. What’s so bad about that?”
I remember speaking to this woman from Efrat who said to me, “You know, my husband is a kohein [a member of the Jewish priestly lineage]. We really think that there’s going to be a rebuilt Third Holy Temple someday, and he may have service in the Holy Temple. So if I live in Efrat, I can be a twenty-minute commute to the rebuilt Third Holy Temple.”
R&P: So this couple starts shopping for a suburb, except that the workplace they have in mind involves the arrival of the Messiah.
SH: She told me. “We sat down with a map, and we looked at where the Beit HaMikdash Shlishi, the Third Temple, would be built, and then we drew a radius of twenty or thirty miles from there, and said to ourselves, these are the places that we could live, that would be practical for our existence in the Messianic Age.”
R&P: I have to admit, hearing stories like that, it sometimes feels that Jerusalem is like Disneyland. There’s a little bit of this fantasy-made-real element to it.
SH: There’s Jerusalem Syndrome, where people go crazy…
SH: It’s a Disneyland because that’s the way American Jews constructed Jerusalem after the 1967 war—by airbrushing out the elements of what to do about the Palestinians and the major changes that happened in the municipality after the war.
When Americans who are there long-term suddenly realize, you know, I have to make a living, and deal with the bank and the crazy things that are happening in my neighborhood—and by the way, look what’s happening to Palestinians just a few miles down the road from West Jerusalem—a sort of disillusionment sets in. I think it’s because there’s such a fantasy to begin with that it becomes hard to reconcile those two versions.
R&P: What do you have to ignore in order to hold on to a liberal vision while living as a settler in the West Bank?
SH: The First Intifada [starting in the late 1980s] is that moment when people have to come face to face with the reality of what the settler project is about, or the potential pitfalls of the settler project. When you could live in the Occupied Territories without a lot of friction with your neighbors, maybe you didn’t really have to think about some of the illiberal elements of this—disenfranchising either local Palestinians, or, more broadly, the goals of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank.
When you have to come face-to-face with serious violence, it becomes a little bit harder.
If you try to stay in spite of all those things, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly becomes a zero-sum game. I think that the average person has to give up on that idea and see themselves as the vanguard of protecting the state of Israel as a whole. And there’s a certain truth to that: Settlers often do bear the brunt of Palestinian violence.
The whole book is really about the cognitive dissonance of people who say that they can still be a liberal and live in the Occupied Territories. Most people are not going so far as to say, “Oh, I’m going to give up on liberalism.” In fact they double down on it and say that I absolutely am still a liberal, and it’s the situation around me here that is the problem.
R&P: You see this with people like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, an American-born leader in the settlement movement. Riskin marched in Selma and still actively invokes Martin Luther King.
What kind of role do invocations of things like the Civil Rights Movement serve for settlers?
SH: They’re huge! I mean, these are the formative moments for that generation of American immigrants. A whole chapter of the book is drawn from [American settlers’] understanding of how to mobilize human rights discourses for their project. A lot of what they learned about organizing and public relations is in some ways a holdover from the Civil Rights Movement.
These are people that I would go to their house, and they would still have a copy of Saul Alinsky on their bookshelf. They don’t share that political ideology anymore, but they learned the tactics.
R&P: What would the settlement movement look like without its American contingent?
SH: Look, some of these things, like about the Civil Rights Movement—some of that is global. There are a lot of trends that Israel has imported from the United States without there being any Americans there. The Black Panther movement in Israel among Mizrahi Jews is an explicit import from the United States that doesn’t have any Americans involved in it.
But I do see the footprint of Americans in the settler movement being quite distinct. They’ve founded settlements that wouldn’t be there without their contribution. They developed new models for settlements that didn’t necessarily exist before.
I don’t think that you would see the Israeli settler movement being able to reach a global audience or persuade a global audience in the same way without the contribution of English-speaking, savvy Americans that know the global discourse. And there’s been a huge influx of manpower and capital that maybe the Israeli settler movement could have survived without, but that has certainly made a difference in the future of the movement.
R&P: How important is it to distinguish between Americans who move to settlements versus Americans who are providing support for settlements without actually living in them?
It’s not as if the settlements would not exist without their American benefactors. The Israeli government’s economic role in promoting the settlements is paramount. But I think it has changed the character and the development of some of these settlements to have this influx of American cash.
The idea, initially, was that these were going be warehouse housing that the Israeli government was going to build, just to put people up. When Americans come in and say, “Oh no, I’m not living in some crappy three room apartment, I want to live in a mansion, or I want to have the highest end kitchen you can possibly imagine,” it changes the character of what these settlements are going to be.
R&P: How much do the actions of Americans in the settlements reflect broader American approaches to engagement overseas?
SH: Especially since the 1960s, America has really adopted this human rights agenda, where we come along saying that we’re doing things in service of human rights, but often it turns out that the ideals of American foreign policy are not substantiated on the ground. So I think it’s part of this larger story of what it means to be Americans abroad.
Foreign policy isn’t just about diplomats sitting in drawing rooms, sipping tea. It’s not just Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. We’re trying to write different kinds of foreign policy that have to do more with real people, especially the work of NGOs and immigrant groups and other diasporas.
This is part of the new American history canon. And these people belong to that. They’re yet another manifestation of what that story looks like in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
R&P: Before reading your book, I never appreciated the degree to which the settlement movement felt like an American frontier story.
SH: There’s this idea of the frontier and American ideas about rugged individualism. The only thing is, obviously, Americans have settled the frontier in Israel to make it a less democratic place.
But that’s a story that we could tell about America also, that the frontier was not a place where America really developed democracy, it was a place where Americans slaughtered the natives and engaged in some pretty anti-democratic behavior. This is a story of frontiers that a lot of historians are telling.
The difference in applying these things to Israel is that nobody says, “Okay, Americans did these things on the frontier, America doesn’t have the right to exist.” In Israel, when you strip away some of the mythology, it has a very different political resonance.