Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a Massachusetts native and Oxford University professor, joined israel360 for a discussion of her latest book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement.” In it, Sara challenges many stereotypes of the Israeli settler, forcing us to reassess the meaning and history of Israeli settlements.
israel360: The book was extremely fast-moving and a great read. In fact, I pretty much got through it in a week reading back and forth during commutes on the T.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn (SH): I’m thrilled to think that you were reading that while riding on the T. I wonder what the other customers of the public transportation in Boston were thinking about their own city on the hill, perhaps seeing the cover of the book while you were sitting on the subway. I think the book has been received pretty well so far. Apparently, the news is traveling very far from the original city on the hill; I just saw it was reviewed in India this week. So it’s amazing to see how much the settlements issue captivates publics in places that I might not have even expected.
i360: Anyone who follows the news recognizes that the West Bank seems to be—rightly or not—one of the most important pieces of real estate in the world. Settlements are discussed; settlers are sort of one-dimensional. And what was your inspiration for looking at the settlers and their motivations and their history?
SH: It’s funny, I had a conversation with a colleague of mine when I first came to Oxford. And this is someone who’s very concerned about the erosion of the West Bank, and said that the West Bank is being eaten up like a pizza. And I said to him, I said, “People aren’t pizzas, people are people,” and that reducing the settlements issue to just a question, the land, really misses the point. This is a project that’s being executed by human beings; it’s not just some issue of land being appropriated by one party or the other. And I think we really need to get to know the people involved in this project so we can understand what’s really happening on the ground. I think there’s some resistance to looking at things in that way.
i360: In the book, you talk about asking people to imagine what a settler looks like. And you write of a man with a large white kippah, probably a gun, with a wife and four children in tow, standing on a rocky hilltop. And I remember, in 1994, when I was working at the Washington Institute in D.C., we had CNN playing in our research room all day long, and news of the Hebron massacre came out. And I was so shocked to hear the people that they interviewed who knew Baruch Goldstein speaking in perfectly Brooklyn-accented English.
SH: That was a real wake-up call for me, saying, “Oh, my god, this isn’t foreign to me, this isn’t something that happened 6,000 miles away. These are Americans, and this is a group I don’t know anything about, and these are American Jews like me. But how could this happen?” It was quite a shock for me. When you buy a new car, it always comes with that sticker on the window that says, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear,” and I think that that’s really something of the theme of this book, that this is a generation of people that grew up in our communities, may have attended our synagogues and schools, or are relatives, are friends, are colleagues. Most American Jews probably know someone that has moved to the settlements, at least by six degrees of separation. And I think it is true that the image that we have in our mind of settlements is often of the native Israeli settler, and we can talk more about that specific image, about why I think that that’s quite outdated, but certainly, there’s a large constituency here that comes from our community.
i360: And you think people still have the same image of a settler, even though you use terms like “occupied Scarsdale,” to describe one American-settled West Bank town, which does not imply something that looks like a dusty hilltop?
SH: Well, I feel like if you flip on CNN or any other news channel in America or listen to the radio today, you’re probably going to have that same picture of the guy and his big bushy beard, and his AK-47 on some hilltop of the West Bank. … But that’s where a lot of the media and frankly, the scholarship is, and is rather comfortable in portraying the settler movement in that way, which is a really outdated image that represents the movement in its earliest days in the 1970s that was dominated by those with a kind of messianic vision to live in the whole of the land of Israel. The settler movement has changed dramatically over the past 40 years or so, and we’re using this image as a kind of shorthand for the entire settler movement, and it just doesn’t represent the complex mosaic of people and motivations that exist within that camp today.
i360: You interviewed quite a few members of this founding generation, the Americans who made aliyah after the ’67 war and settled in the West Bank. Were they cooperative? Were they wary about how the book was going to come out?
SH: As I wrote in one chapter of the book, Jewish American settlers have been very involved in revolutionizing the public relations of the settler movement. So these people have not only spoken to me, but they have had a lot of contacts with the media and other scholars. I don’t think that they were necessarily terribly shy or wary of those who want to hear more from them. I certainly have my own personal views on the settler movement, but as a scholar, I am determined to provide as objective and rigorous a view of the settler movement as I can. And I don’t think that I came with the kind of agenda that someone with a microphone from a media outlet might have. When I spoke to settlers, I told them that, in many ways, I share some parts of their background, both as American Jews and as Zionists. I grew up in a very Zionist, modern Orthodox family, and I understand and often appreciate the world in which they came from and some of the ideals that they aspired to defend. I believe strongly in the necessity of a State of Israel, I understand many of their Jewish commitments, and I wanted to hear their stories of how they came from communities like mine in the United States to settle at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So in that sense, I think we shared a certain reference point or a certain background, but certainly, they have gone in a very different direction with their own political project.
Hear the Podcast on SoundCloud. Read the full conversation on israel360. Sara’s book, “City on a Hilltop: Americans Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” is available on Amazon and from the publisher, Harvard University Press.