City on a Hilltop reviewed by Yehuda Magid & response from Sara Yael Hirschhorn

This is Yehuda Magid’s review of the important book by

Sara Yael Hirschhorn and below a response from Hirschhorn:

City on Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement

Harvard University Press, 2017, pp. 350

Yehuda Magid, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Political Science, Indiana University/Bloomington

Despite Israel’s attempt to erase the green line and normalize the Jewish-Israeli presence on the West Bank, the Israeli settlement enterprise continues to represent the single most intractable and sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American administrations from both major parties have long recognized this reality. Most recently, President Trump surprised both supporters and opponents of the Israeli settlement enterprise when he told the Israeli daily Israel Hayom that settlements “don’t help the [peace] process” and that he did not believe that “going forward with…settlement [expansion] is a good thing for peace.” While much attention has been paid to American support and opposition to Israeli settlements, little consideration has been given to the direct involvement of American-Jews in the Israeli settlement project.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s recent book study City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settlement Movement, is one of the first attempts to locate American Jews within the larger Israeli settlement movement. In her book Hirschhorn examines the contributions of Jewish-American settlers to the Israeli settler movement. Rather than focusing on the actions of the US government or American activists in the United States, something that has been done before, Hirschhorn focuses on the contributions of Americans who actually moved to Israel and helped settle the territories captured by Israel in 1967. Drawing on new archival data, periodical press, media, literature, film, music, Internet sources, and novel oral histories, Hirschhorn reconstructs the history and politics of the participation of the Jewish-American settlers and the discourses that surround their project.

Hirschhorn’s study is well researched, well written, and captivating. It clearly articulates the ways in which American Jews have worked to insert themselves into the settler movement and the ways in which they have worked to shape the movement in their own image. She argues that far from being passive actors, American Jews have attempted to fuse their own ideological and cultural orientations with the Jewish nationalist project in the territories. Of particular interest to Hirschhorn is the process by which Americans have attempted to introduce a “uniquely American rights based discourse combining religio-political imperatives with utopian suburban pioneering…” (16). She does not dismiss the role of Jewish-American settlers in violent activities targeting the Palestinian population (e.g. Rabbi Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein or Rabbi Yizhak Ginsburgh), but argues that Jewish-American contributions are not limited to violence and radicalization (chapter 5). The core of this book consists of three in-depth case studies of American-Israeli involvement in three settlements: Yamit, in the Sinai Peninsula (chapter 2); Efrat, a suburban style settlement south of Jerusalem (chapter 3); and Tekoa, east of Bethlehem (chapter 4).

One could disaggregate the Israeli settler movement into a myriad of actors. For example, one may distinguish between religious and secular, foreign and native, pro-state and anti-state, supporters of democracy and supporters of theocracy, those who support normalization and those that oppose normalization. In disaggregating the movement, however, one must be clear about how this disaggregation helps to better understand the movement and its outcomes. In order to isolate the unique contributions of Jewish American settlers to the larger settlement project, Hirschhorn disaggregates Israeli settlers into Americans and others. The “others” would be native Israelis and immigrants from other parts of the Diaspora (Russia, South America, Europe, Australia etc.). However, in my view, Hirschhorn does not adequately defend this choice. While she does eloquently detail the ways in which American settlers have participated in the establishment of new settlements, offering an alternative rights-based discourse in their defense of Jewish settlement, worked in international outreach and communication (hasbara), and participated in violent activities against the local Palestinian population, she does not explore in detail how this involvement has affected the larger settlement enterprise. That is, Hirschhorn does not detail what, if any, impact these various contributions to the movement have had on the success of the settlement enterprise or on the conflict more generally. I would argue that the primary insight of this book is that American Jewish settlers, as large a role as they have played in the settler movement, have actually done little to alter the overall trajectory of the movement.

American Jews have arguably had the greatest impact on the conflict through their legitimization and perpetration of violence against Palestinians. This would be true in Israel but also in Jewish support of the settler project in America. As Hirschhorn points out, the image of American-Jewish settlers as violent extremists took hold following the massacre of 29 Palestinians by Brooklyn born Kiryat Arba settler Baruch Goldstein on February 25, 1994. The massacre was largely viewed as the most extreme manifestation of Meir Kahane’s aggressive ethnocentric ideology. While the Goldstein massacre stands out due to its severity, settlers from Kahane strongholds such as Kiryat Arba in Hebron and Kfar Tapuach in the Shomron had been involved in frequent acts of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank – most notably within the Kahanist network known as Terror Neged Terror (TNT). However, Jewish-American settler violence was not limited to the Kahanist network. Hirschorn also details the role of Jewish-American settler Era Rapaport in the Jewish Underground and the violence perpetrated by the “lone wolf” Yaakov “Jack” Teital.

Whether the infusion of American extremism was the “cause” of this type of violence is an open question. In any case, one could argue that the emergence of the first and second intifadas as well as the Oslo peace process had a far greater impact on the phenomenon of Israeli settler violence than the unique ideological orientation of Meir Kahane, Yizhak Ginsburgh, and their followers. This helps to explain why native Israeli settlers from various ideological camps have participated in violent activities. For example, the Jewish Underground emerged from the Gush Emunim mainstream and was primarily composed of native born Israelis. In addition, the “Hilltop Youth,” known for their extremist ideological orientation and violent activities against Palestinian civilians and Israeli security forces, are primarily native born Israelis from both sides of the green line. While many of the early hilltop youth had at least one American parent (for example many of the hilltop youth operating in the Hebron area in the early 1990s were part of what is referred to the “American gang” because they were children of early Jewish-American settlers in the region), this has become less common as the hilltop youth movement has gained popularity in Israel. In sum, while Jewish-Americans have participated in violent activities in the territories, they are by no means unique in this respect.

While acknowledging Americans’ role in violent activities, Hirschhorn correctly maintains that a focus on violence works to skew the perception of American settlers. As Hirschhorn persuasively avers, many American settlers are not chauvinistic and the majority oppose violence against the Palestinian population. While this assertion is both accurate and important, it calls into question the logic of focusing on American Jewish settlers as a distinct sub-group within the settler movement. Ideological orientations that legitimate violence are neither American nor Israeli. In line with Hirschorns thesis, a distinction between radicals and moderates is far more useful than a distinction between American and non-American settlers when it comes to the question of violence. Therefore, an implication of this finding is that disaggregating settlers into Jewish-Americans and other settlers may not do the work she intends to do.

According to Hirschhorn, American settlers have introduced an alternative rights-based discourse in their defense of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. These settlers, mostly Americans who were active in progressive protest movements in the 1960s, use a rights-based discourse to explain and legitimize the settlement enterprise. For many of them, participation in the settlement enterprise is no different from their participation in the American Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s, albeit now they are in the majority justifying actions against a persecuted minority even as they increasingly view themselves, as settlers, to be victims of injustice. These settlers argue that as Jews they have a claim to the historic land of Israel and to refuse them their sovereignty over this land is to deprive them of their basic civil rights. According to one respondent, bans on Jewish settlement in the West Bank are “outrageous in terms of human rights…Could they really say [you can’t live here] because you are a Jew? It just seemed to us something that goes against everything we know about liberal values” (209). That is, some settlers think that it is they who are the victims of civil rights abuses. Another respondent, directly linking the Civil Rights struggle in the United States and the Israeli settlement movement, proclaims that the Civil Rights struggle in the United States “was an all-encompassing struggle for justice and morality which in its scope spanned race, color, and age. Similarly, our struggle to realize the full historic bond of the Jewish people with the land of Israel…When the federal courts and government in the United States decided to protect the rights of blacks in the south to live in white neighborhoods and attend integrated schools, no cost was too great to defend the moral cause” (210). According to this somewhat dissonant and counterintuitive view, Jews in the West Bank are akin to the underprivileged and heavily repressed black community in the Jim Crow south, while Palestinians play the role of the dominant white population!

Hirschhorn also details the ways in which American settlers have used their rights-based discourse to conduct international outreach and communication (hasbara). Building on their command of the English language and their understanding of the nuances of American culture, many of these settlers have assisted in framing the Israeli settler enterprise in a way that is more palatable to the west in general and the United States in particular. By introducing a “liberal rights-based discourse,” American settlers helped to reframe the settlement issue in a way that was more likely to resonate with the international community, particularly in America. While this has arguably had a significant impact on the communication strategy of the Israeli settlement enterprise, it is not clear that it has had any impact on the level of international support for the project. Public opinion in the United States and Europe – both among Jews and non-Jews – has continued to turn against the settlement enterprise. Western governments have remained critical of Israeli settlements and have largely maintained their position that settlement expansion is both a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. In other words, while the use of a liberal frame to defend the settlement project is interesting, it is not clear how, or if, this ideological innovation has benefited the settlement movement.

Rather than producing a significant impact on the movement or conflict, the American settler’s rights-based discourse illuminates the degree to which ideology is malleable. As one respondent puts it, “When you start to see [the] reality [in the West Bank], you can either adopt your ideology to the reality, or you can try to ignore the reality and go with the ideology…” (7). This, I believe, is an important point given the substantial scholarly emphasis that has been placed on the ideological orientation of Israeli settlers. I would argue that it is important here not to miss the forest for the trees. While it is fascinating that American settlers have merged their progressive orientation with their support for an ethnonationalist illiberal agenda, it is not clear that this has a significant effect on their overall political orientation or their role in the conflict with the local Palestinian population. While American settlers are ideologically heterogeneous in the sense that they have adopted a variety of ideologies ranging from pluralistic to aggressive ethnonationalist, they are homogenous in the sense that the vast majority support a system of perpetual Jewish political, economic, and cultural dominance in the West Bank. In fact, in this sense, the settler community as a whole is remarkably homogenous. Given this overwhelming homogeneity, it is not clear how disaggregating the community into Jewish-Americans and others helps us to better understand the conflict. In fact, doing so may actually divert attention from the core ideological orientation that underlies the entire settlement project.

Hirschhorn’s study is important precisely because it makes clear that Jewish-Americans do not represent a homogenous or even coherent sub-group within the settler movement. Just like their Israeli counterparts, Jewish-American settlers are a highly heterogeneous population in terms of their ideological orientations, level of radicalization, commitment to normalization, and geographical location. In addition, as a distinct group, Jewish-Americans have had little discernable impact on the overall trajectory of the settler movement, even as they constitute a sizeable minority. The fusion of their liberal rights based discourse with their deep commitment to illiberal Jewish dominance on the West Bank is a clear indication that rhetoric should not be confused with ideology. It is one thing to talk about human and civil rights, equality, democracy, and the rule of law and quite another to apply these concepts in a way consistent with liberalism. Just as elections are not on their own an indication of liberal democracy, a commitment to the civil rights of Jews, especially at the expensive of non-Jews residing in the same territory, is not an indication of a commitment to a liberal ideology. A commitment to a liberal ideology requires the extension of equal rights, protection under the law, and civic participation to all people within a given territory regardless of ethnicity or creed.

Rather than introducing a unique ideological orientation, Jewish-American settlers have simply appropriated liberal rhetoric for their illiberal cause. While they have attempted to use this rhetorical innovation to build international support for the settlement project, they have largely failed in this regard. This is not particularly surprising. It is not difficult to discern the palpable dissonance in their approach. Rather than reshape the movement in their own image, Jewish-Americans – like their Israeli counterparts – have largely been assimilated into the highly fractured Jewish-nationalist movement that currently occupies the West Bank. By focusing exclusively on Jewish-American settlers, Hirschhorn clearly demonstrates the ineffectualness of doing so. In this regard, aside from the scholarly importance of the subject, Hirschhorn’s study is an important contribution to the current literature on the Israeli settler movement.


Yehuda Magid is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Indiana University/Bloomington. The working title of his dissertation is “Dominant Group Violence in Ethnocratic States: Uncertainty, Threat, and Jewish Settler Violence in Israel/Palestine.”

Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s Response to Yehuda Magid’s Review of her book City on a Hilltop


I read with great interest the recent review of my book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Harvard University Press, 2017) by Yehuda Magid in the August issue of Tikkun magazine at  I have held my breath in anxious expectation since the publication of the book in May awaiting the reaction of my friends and colleagues on the progressive left — especially the Jewish left — and now feel I can exhale at long last.  Today, the scholarly and public conversation on settlements is so fraught that it often feels almost impossible to have an informed, objective, and rational conversation about them.  All too often, a historian’s attempt to understand the settlers is seen as humanizing them too much, or an analysis of their discourse beyond demonization is considered to demonstrate solidarity with the settlement project.   Sadly, in some quarters of the left, there are those who are willing to substitute propaganda for scholarship and would rather not have comfortable stereotypes challenged by rigorous academic inquiry.   While it’s impossible to write 300 pages about settlements without provoking some healthy debate and disagreement, I am most gratified that the book was seen as a serious and sober treatment of a topic that is likely never far from the minds of Tikkun readers.

Magid’s insights into the book are likely shaped by his own research as a young political scientist focusing on settler violence in the occupied territories.  This is a pressing and unfortunately all too prevalent issue (I eagerly await his dissertation) that I also explored, if only through the prism of American-Israeli involvement in  Jewish terrorism – indeed, I imagine if I asked Tikkun readers to name one Jewish-American settler off the top of their heads before reading the book, the household name would be Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre of 1994, a phenomenon which inspired me as a historian to look deeper into the broader participation of American-Israelis within the movement.  Of course, one book on settlements cannot “do it all” and what I dreamed of was that this work would inspire other colleagues both within and beyond academia to pursue new avenues of research.

However, I was motivated to write a response here because I fear that as a young scholar of international relations and non-institutional violence, the reviewer may not be immersed in the internecine warfare both between and amongst historians and the media over Americans in the settlements, and therefore did not illuminate why my book makes an original and innovative contribution to the scholarly literature and public debate on this subject.

While the nexus between the United States and the settlements may be a “truth we hold self-evident” today, especially given the Trump administration’s deep ties to the occupied territories via its new U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have both been financially and politically supportive of the settler project, the larger history of this relationship has not been explored by historians.  As Magid underscores, this book is the first work to move beyond the diplomatic, financial, and emotive ties to those who actually physically moved over the Green Line after the Six Day War.  Moreover, while most of the literature focuses on “aliya” (which I argue should be normalized within the framework of ethnic return migration) as two separate processes — the country of the origin and host country, the push motives and pull incentives of immigration, the process of dis-attachment and acculturation —- this book seeks to unite these strands to explain how and why Jewish-American immigrants chose to leave comfortable lives in the United States to move to the occupied territories after the 1967 war.  It stresses that their role within American social movements of their generation were deeply influential on his cohort and that their activism within the settlement project was a continuation, rather than a departure, from their lives prior to their immigration.  It also examines ideological and associational considerations together, emphasizing that lifestyle choices are political and that Jewish-Americans who move to the occupied territories do so out of complex motivations, which often are not guided by messianic imperatives.  (Correspondingly, the study develops a new conceptualization of settlers within the theoretical framework of ultra-nationalism rather than religious fundamentalism.)  Moreover, in its transnational approach to Diaspora Zionism, the work contributes to a larger global intellectual history, tracing the arc of American liberalism — and the specific brand of American-Jewish liberalism — across two continents and the often unintended consequences of applying these values in different contexts.  (Magid queries about distinctions between Americans and non-Americans, his concern with settler violence obscures the larger faultline over liberalism which leads to this extra-legal activity and distinguishes moderates from radicals.)  Moreover, as I argue in the conclusion, the story of Jewish-American settlers is part of a larger history of American foreign policy since the Second World War, preaching human rights but often practicing empire abroad and mobilizing tropes of pioneering, utopianism, and the frontier for illiberal aims.

However, the main scholarly objective of this project was not only to focus on a specific story of the over 60,000 Jewish-American settlers in the occupied territories today (if contributing both a quantitative assessment and demographic profile of this group to the literature for the first time), but to debunk larger stereotypes about the Israeli settler movement over the past 50 years.  Today, both the academic literature and media image of settlers is woefully outdated — stuck in a moment in the 1970s when the vanguard settler group Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) and its messianic ideology to live in the whole of the land of Israel dominated the settler movement in terms of both demographics and discourse.  Today, the face of the settler camp may look more like a Jewish-American, Russian, Ethiopian, or French immigrant, an ultra-Orthodox child, or an economic opportunist than the national-religious man with his bushy beard, knitted kippah, and M-16 on a windswept hilltop of the West Bank that appears in every news report and on most book jackets.  Today, it is a complex mosaic of constituencies that makes up the heterogeneous and diverse Israeli settler movement five decades on.  The book is not only about differentiating Americans from native Israelis (or other constituencies within the settlement project) as Magid critiques, but a puzzle with many more moving parts: a narrative about the dynamic and shifting relations between various actors – the State, Gush Emunim, fellow immigrants, and the Palestinians —with their U.S. born peers.  In this way, we can assess both the contributions and shortcomings of Jewish-American settlers relative to their colleagues over the past 50 years.  However, as I argue in the book, in addition to their role as settler leaders and cadres, their most important contribution to the movement is the introduction of a new rights-based public relations discourse, which is both an internal reflection of their own understanding of their project as well as rhetoric refracted to the international community to make the settlement project seem more palatable for consumption by sophisticated Western audiences.  Magid suggests that this is insufficient evidence of their re-shaping of the Israeli settler project, I would argue that their mark on the movement is part of a history that continues to unfold and may well be its biggest transformation in the past 50 years. Last but not least, Magid suggests that the book does not assess the success of the settlement project — while it wasn’t the focus on my argument (many other books have addressed this theme), conventional wisdom today is that the settlers won the land, but lost the hearts of the people both in Israel and internationally — the public relations rebranding pioneered by Jewish-American immigrants may play a significant role in the “war of narratives,” if admittedly is not likely to reverse opinion entirely in the future.

I set out to write City on a Hilltop not to “settle” the settlements issue, but to analyze the role of American-Israelis within the movement and advance a new research agenda about the subject on its fiftieth anniversary.  I hope the book is a timely and topical point of departure for Tikkun readers, as sadly, the settlements debate will surely be discussed into the future.


Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies and Sidney Brichto Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Judaism Studies. Her book City on a Hilltop: America Jews in the Israeli Settler Movement was published by Harvard


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