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Suburbia in the West Bank

City on a hilltop. American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement
American immigrants make up far more Israeli settlers than their share of the population would indicate.


The large Efrat settlement, located immediately south of Bethlehem on the West Bank, is considered by many as a bit of a cuckoo kid. It stands out significantly from the rest of the settler movement with its well-to-do bourgeoisie, and it lacks the quaint pio
as found in many of the other settlements. Efrat is a spoiled Middle Eastern outpost for New Jersey, they say.

The meeting with Efrat can only confirm this. At least as much American as Hebrew is heard, and the lifestyle on the spot is eerily reminiscent of a small piece of the United States. Included in the picture are dynamic rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who left Manhattan in 1983 and helped put Efrat on the map. He stood close to the American civil rights movement and is still a hot proponent of women's equality in Orthodox Judaism, and yet he has associated himself with the settler project that seems to be anything but progressive.

Location Examples. This in many ways sky-high contradiction we find analyzed in a dazzling way by Sara Yael Hirschhorn. She is a researcher at Oxford University and has just commissioned a book with the saying title City on a hilltop, where she gives us an answer to why all 15 percent of Israeli settlers have American roots and why this is even more pronounced in the ideological part of the settler movement.

She does so by focusing sharply on three settlements, each of which are distinctive representatives of three eras. We begin in Yamit, the largest of the Israeli settlements on the Sinai Peninsula, until the area was returned to Egypt in 1982. The core group had just arrived from the United States, and they wanted to live a pioneering dream that needed to be combined with suburbia, the comfortable suburban life. However, the project was doomed to failure; partly, the settlement project took place while the Israeli government secretly conducted peace talks with Egypt, withholding appropriations; partly, the suburban dream fell to the ground because American academics had difficulty finding meaningful jobs in the middle of the Sinai desert.

Things were better in Efrat, which is a short distance from Jerusalem – but here too, the founders had reckoned without a host. Rabbis Riskin initially tried to transfer his pluralistic ideas to the Middle East, but fell short of the settler movement's ideologues and, not least, the Palestinian neighbors who saw no reason to accept American settlers in their midst.

happy endings you can't take for granted in the real world – especially not in the West Bank.

From left to right. Hirschhorn's story ends in Tekoa, which settlement is perhaps even more a contradiction. She focuses on a couple of the key characters, the married couple Bobby and Linda Brown. Back in the late 1960s, the two were part of the youth revolt, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam and solidifying with African Americans' demands for equality. But as parts of the black civil rights movement's anger up through the 1970s turned into physical assaults on whites that included Jews, they felt their time in the United States was over. Also in protest against American materialism, they moved to the West Bank, in search of a simpler existence. Together with a group of like-minded people, they placed Tekoa right on the edge of the barren Judean desert, where they did not think it would be a nuisance to anyone.

It should be their ideal society. Grassroots democracy, ecology and sustainable environment were key words, and so far they are. Like many other American settlers, they brought with them some life values, but with the onset of the first intifada in December 1987, they had to realize that the agenda in that part of the world is different from the US East Coast. Many on the ground today admit that they are guilty of the misery themselves, but the end result has been that this part of the population has been thoroughly moved to the right, while several have ended up as radicalized settlers.

Well intended, but naive. "I marched in Selma with Martin Luther King. Now we, the settlers, have become Martin Luther King's black, "Rabbi Riskin said, among other things when he led a demonstration in 1995 against the Oslo Accords and their inherent plans to remove settlements from the map.

There are no innocent lambs among the Israeli settlers, and neither does the author postulate. But there have been many intentions that may even be good, though bottomless naive.

It is this image that emerges when Hirschhorn draws his picture of this very significant part of the settler movement. Or maybe she would rather make a diagnosis. We get a fine description of a phenomenon that one may tend to regard as monolithic. The many internal contradictions come into play, and we get the impression of some human dynamics as they set out to "establish new facts in the landscape" as it is called in settlement jargon. Hirschhorn's book gives us an interesting insight into a human pioneering romance that today stands as one of the most important obstacles to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

As one of Efrat's voices says somewhere in the book, Americans are incredibly fixated on film, and the film should preferably have a happy ending. However, such endings cannot be taken for granted in the real world, the author points out – especially not when it takes place in the West Bank.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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