By Judy Maltz
Roughly 60,000 American Jews live in West Bank settlements, where they account for 15 percent of the settler population, according to figures revealed Thursday by an Oxford University scholar and expert on this population. “This provides hard evidence that this constituency is strikingly over-represented, both within the settler population itself and within the total population of Jewish American immigrants in Israel,” said Sara Yael Hirschhorn, the author of the upcoming book “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories Since 1967,” scheduled for release by Harvard University Press in 2016.
The number of American immigrants living in Israel, including their children, has been estimated at about 170,000.
Speaking at the first of a two-day Limmud event in Jerusalem, Hirschhorn noted that the main focus of her research has been American Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s and became active in the settlement movement. She said her findings disputed many of the widely held presumptions about this group, namely that these immigrants had been unsuccessful back home and came to Israel for lack of any other alternative, that they were very Orthodox and supported right-wing causes in America.
“In fact, these assumptions are patently false,” said Hirschhorn, who serves as the University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. “What my studies reveal is that they were young, single, highly-educated – something like 10 percent of American settlers in the occupied territories hold PhDs, they’re upwardly mobile, they’re traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious practice, and most importantly, they were politically active in the leftist social movements in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s and voted for the Democratic Party prior to their immigration to Israel.”
Based on 10 years of studying this group, she said, the portrait that emerges “is one of young, idealistic, intelligent and seasoned liberal Americans who were Zionist activists, and who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler movement.”
As case studies in her upcoming book, Hirschhorn focuses on three settlements that had American immigrants among their founders: Yamit (which was evacuated in 1982 following the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord), Efrat (one of the biggest today, with about 10,000 residents) and Tekoa.
She noted two common, yet contradictory caricatures of American immigrants in West Bank settlements. “One prevalent image is of the zealot for Zion, the most fanatical ideologues within the movement,” she said. “On the other hand, there is the prevalent image of the immigrant suburbanite of occupied Scarsdale, a settler stripped of ideological significance who’s just some kind of new-age yuppie living the American dream over the Green Line.” Neither, she said, provides a “satisfying portrait” of this group.
In her quest to make sense of the inherent contradiction between liberal American values and the “illiberal” settlement project, Hirschhorn said she reached the following conclusion about this group of immigrants: “They’re not only compelled by some biblical imperative to live in the Holy Land of Israel and hasten the coming of the messiah, but also deeply inspired by an American vision of pioneering and building new suburbanized utopian communities in the occupied territories. They draw on their American background and mobilize the language they were comfortable with, discourses about human rights and civil liberties that justify the kind of work that they’re doing.”
As an example, she noted that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi who founded the settlement of Efrat, was known to talk in the same breath about “squatting on a hilltop in Givat Dagan near Efrat and squatting with African-Americans in Selma.” It demonstrates, she said, the way many American settlers “use the values and language of the left to justify projects on the right.”
This is the second time Limmud, the global Jewish learning movement, is holding an event in Jerusalem. Its previous one in the capital, which drew 500 participants, was held in May 2012. The organizers estimated that roughly 600 would be attending the current Limmud JLM, as it is called.
“Limmud JLM expresses the true face of Jerusalem, the worldwide capital of Jewish diversity and creativity,” said presenter Aaron Leibowitz, a Jerusalem City Council member from the pluralist Yerushalmim Party who is also an Orthodox rabbi. “I cannot express how valuable this gathering is to the future of the city.”