American Jewish settlers on the West Bank

Review of City on a Hilltop by Sara Yael Hirschhorn

‘HOW DOES a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a gifted social worker, marcher for civil rights, loving husband and father, end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?”

This question, asked of Era Rapaport, member of the Jewish underground, is at the heart of the thought-provoking City on a Hilltop by Oxford academic Sara Hirschhorn (Harvard, £31.95).

It is estimated that around 15 per cent of settlers on the West Bank were American-born. Many came from Democrat-voting families, supported Martin Luther King’s struggle for African-American equality and opposed the Vietnam war. Hirshhorn considers how such people balanced their American liberalism with Israeli ultra-nationalism.
She looks at American enclaves in Efrat, Tekoa and Shilo, many of whose inhabitants came from religious Zionist backgrounds. Others were inspired by Jabotinsky and Begin, while still others arrived searching for an identity. Baruch Goldstein, the killer of Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994 was brought up in the US to know about the murder of Jews in the city in 1929.

Hirschhorn examines the building of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion under the energetic guidance of Shlomo Riskin, the former charismatic rabbi of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.
Gush Etzion was evacuated in 1948, when its Jewish fighters were massacred during the war for independence. Riskin is a self-proclaimed “moderate” and a canny operator — and Hirschhorn does not shy away from such a characterisation.
Yet, in a fascinating exchange with Zvi Yehuda Kook, the mentor of the religious settlers, Riskin refused to align himself with the Greater Israel movement and raised the demographic argument. Kook responded that the Arabs would eventually convert to Judaism. “When that happens, I will be ready to join Gush Emunim” retorted Riskin.
Riskin feared for the fate of Efrat when Arik Sharon decided on a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Yamit, in Sinai, which had been settled by many Americans was evacuated and destroyed in 1982 as part of the Camp David peace accord with Egypt. While the American inhabitants kept themselves at a distance from the settler-led campaign to prevent Yamit’s evacuation, it took its toll — there were many suicides and divorces. Some settler children eventually moved back to the US. One who remained, commented: “In the sand of Yamit, I not only buried my home and family, but also my life dream.”

Sara Hirschhorn’s case studies indicate the complexity behind the American settlements on the West Bank and the ignorance of stereotyping them. Her well-researched book is accessible to the general reader as well as the academic specialist.

Jewish Chronicle 7 July 2017

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