For the past couple of years a Goodreads friend, David, and I have had a running commentary on liberal and conservative views on issues at home and abroad. One of these issues concerned the rightness or fairness of Israeli settlements on disputed land, now called the Occupied Territories. The settlements have been pronounced illegal by the United Nations, but settlers continue to develop that seized land, claiming some religious right to it that legally they do not possess.
This title just published by Harvard University Press describes how a disproportionately large number the original settlers in these disputed areas were in fact American Jews, middle-class, educated, left-leaning Democrats. This was startling information to me. Although my perception of the liberality or conservatism of America Jews has been shifting with the times, I never expected that essentially left-leaning liberals from the 1960s U.S. would become the symbol of what appears to be now essentially oppressive, entrenched right-wing privilege.
Hirschhorn is clearly seeking answers to that very conundrum herself, and very carefully unpicks the origins of several settlements with an academic’s detailed forensics. What she finds is a kind of pioneering energy and fighting spirit, but also a kind of selective deafness and willful delusion. Each settlement came at a different time for a different reason, but those who chose to live on undeveloped “empty” land had their own impetus and intention, mixing up their defense of Judaism with a distinctly American notion of manifest destiny.
Citing a 1984 empirical study of American Israelis in Judea and Samaria by Chaim Waxman, Hirschhorn tells us that though many emigrating settlers in the 1960s considered themselves left liberals, the majority felt “Blacks in America have gone too far in their demands.” So maybe these individuals were not as liberal as they considered themselves, but under the surface were deeply conservative. The pioneering aspect of making settlements was so reminiscent of America’s founding that individuals felt some connection to debates about values that occurred at that time. It is worth noting that native Israelis felt American settlers were racist, even fascist.
Hirschhorn highlights Sandy Susan at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Miriam Levinger at Hebron to illustrate the intensity with which they struggled through the early days of deprivation and camaraderie. The Levingers were so sure they were entitled to the land “We see ourselves in a link in the chain of return…this site is biblical…we are sovereign…[in the Middle East] there’s no such thing as compromise.” Settlers often opposed the Oslo peace process which would return disputed territories to the Palestinians and as a result were often at the center of a cycle of violence.
The Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Brooklyn played an important role recruiting for a new camp at Efrat, which today is a high-middle class municipality composed of families whose adults often work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Riskin had trouble finding a job in Israel, despite great success in growing his synagogue in New York, and when approached about establishing a new settlement in Israel, he did not hesitate. He believed the whole land of Israel belongs to the Jews, but that “It’s very important, very, very important” that the land be unclaimed. While in later interviews Riskin says the land of Efrat was “completely empty,” contention and resentment dogs the gated settlement which has seen terrible violence.
The point is that thirty years ago there were dirt roads and pioneers who thought they were doing something difficult but worthwhile. Now the municipality is no longer temporary and is instead considered prosperous and even a little luxurious. It is normalized, and no longer something that one can be imagine giving up. Hirschhorn suggests Riskin paid lip service to “talking to everyone” and “every nation requires independence,” as he gradually crept rightward in his politics and religious teachings. In her conclusions, Hirschhorn suggests we can view American Jews in Israel within the larger category "Americans abroad:" liberal at home, illiberal abroad. The reality on the ground, they claim, changed them.
Efrat was a center of opposition to the Oslo peace accords because, in the words of native Israel settlers
“Efrat has a large number of Anglo-Saxons…who understand democracy. They understand civil disobedience. They understand that the citizen has certain rights that can’t be trampled on…[they had] the fury of moderates who feel that they are betrayed [and the land taken away].”So, here is that basic contradiction that Hirschhorn set out to unravel. “Rights” and “freedom” are two words that have different meanings depending on the context. Though Americans used to think those words applied to all within its borders, the camp settlers had narrowed that meaning to exclude Palestinians, just as today in America certain far-right groups believe their “rights” cannot be abridged but they are not so sure about the rights of brown-skinned citizens.
“Americans…we just ran life in Tekoa,” a settler said of the settlement in the West Bank. “Living here reminds me of what America was like two hundred years ago. Here you have the spirit of just starting, of being a pioneer.” Except that one isn’t just starting. There is history to contend with, land rights, and Palestinians, who are growing increasingly agitated.
“It was clear from the origins of Tekoa that its Jewish-American founders and Palestinians rights did not have coinciding interests when it came to the land. Tekoa’s leaders did not—and do not—recognize Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, nor do they honor local territorial claims to their settlement or its surroundings. However, evoking their U.S. heritage, many American-Israelis in the settlements do envision a hierarchy of citizenship rights [emphasis my own], especially if Israeli sovereignty is extended to the West Bank…[West Bank] Arabs must have personal rights—due process, even voting and representation if this comes with duties like some form of [nonmilitary] national service.”Hirschhorn shows us what led individuals and groups to cross the Atlantic and shows us how, despite their claims to democracy, freedom, and fairness, they have exhibited something less than those ideals, sometimes far less.
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