Dr Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichtow Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research, teaching and public engagement focus on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Jewish Diaspora-Israel relations. Her first book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Harvard University Press) was published in May 20017.
In Conversation with Sara Yael Hirschhorn
The question really went from Jews having no power or having little power and feeling themselves suffering from the worst cases of Jewish victimization to having a lot of power. So the dilemma of 1967 is how to deal with Jewish power for the first time in recent Jewish history. That is still a dilemma that we are reckoning with today both within and outside of Israel.
How does that dilemma play out in Jewish history and Israeli history since 1967 as well as in contemporary politics?
We are now in the fiftieth year of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. I think we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions, to take a moment of reflection to ask: “Are we going to be here fifty years from now? What are the prospects for peace? How are we not going to be in the same situation fifty years from now?”
You write about the American Jewish involvement in the settlement enterprise. How did the war awaken American interest in Israel generally speaking, and specifically what did that awakening look like in terms of the American participation in the settlement project? Where did it come from, what were its bases?
For the American Jewish community this was a watershed moment. It transformed their relationship with Israeli in every way—politically, economically, theologically, emotionally, intellectually. Prior to the 1967 War, American Jews didn’t have a particularly profound or deep engagement with Israel. That’s not to say they weren’t interested in the events of the pre-state period or get involved in the 1948 war or 1956 or other moments in Zionist history, but the 1967 War was a sea change. As Norman Podhoretz said, “Suddenly American Jews became Zionists.” I think for the most part that it was universally true in the 1967 moment. Israel and the Holocaust become the twin pillars of American Jewish identity in a certain way for the last fifty years, and that continues until today. AThough there have been pretty profound shifts in American Jewish attitudes towards Israel over that period and concerns over Israel’s future, especially from the first intifada and beyond.
How does that lead to American Jewish participation in the Occupied Territories? Well, for a certain cohort of American Jews, after 1967 this “1967 moment” is what propelled them to make their lives and their destiny in the Occupied Territory. Since then, over then 60,000 American Jews have left the United States to live in the West Bank. 60,000 – that is 15% of the movement who have contributed not only to being settler leaders and cadres, but have also revolutionized its public relations and been involved in shocking acts of settler terrorism. They had a pretty profound impact on the direction of the Israeli settler enterprise for the past five decades, and that certainly shows no sign of waning. Today, the Trump administration has deep ties to this community and to the Occupied Territories more generally. The emerging nexus between the President and “his men” (and some of his women) and the settler camp is a trend to watch. His visit to Israel next week will tell a lot us more about what the next chapter in the book of this relationship will be about.
Who are the Jews who picked up and left for the West Bank and what was compelling them to do so?
Demographic profiles show they were the elite of American Jewry. They were young, upwardly mobile, highly educated. These were not people who left the United States because they didn’t have opportunity or the potential to live a good, comfortable and likely reasonably fulfilling life in America. They left because they felt they could only fulfill their Jewish and Zionist destinies in Israel and, further, in the Occupied Territories, it wasn’t that they didn’t have any future in the United States. It was that they were looking for a different future of self-realization for themselves.
The most interesting finding in my research though was about the politics of this group. Contrary to the popular conception, these people were not neoconservatives or right-wing in their politics in the United States. These were “tree-hugging hippies” who were involved in and certainly aware of the leftist social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam campaign—who moved to the Occupied Territories as a way of continuing their activism--but in the sense that this time they wanted to pursue Jewish civil and human rights and turn inward in their rights campaign.
Did you find there was a tension among that community between the liberal, universalistic instincts and the politics that have emerged in the West Bank? Did anyone leave the community disaffected with the utopian vision?
Obviously there is a tension between liberal ideals and settler realities. People deal with them in different ways. For some it means abandoning some of the liberal values that they brought with them from the US and the liberal experience that they might have had. For example, someone like Era Rapoport, who became a member of the Jewish underground in the 1980s, involved in settler terrorism, wrote a whole autobiography about how he loses his liberalism in the Middle East, and considers these two ideas incompatible. Others double down on their liberalism. The kind of people who are involved in the public relations of the Israeli settler movement to the international community, English speakers who trade on the liberal discourses we are familiar with, that are a selling point to Western societies. They talk about human rights all the time. They have doubled down on that type of discourse to promote the settler project.
Are the settlements an Israeli phenomenon -- and an Israeli problem -- by and large?
The Israeli settler camp is a complex mosaic of various constituencies. Israel is a nation of immigrants, and the settlement movement is also reflective of that tradition. Yes it was primarily founded by native Israelis and still the largest constituencies within the movement are what we would call ‘sabras’ even though they may be only a generation or two removed by those who immigrated. But there are all kinds of different groups that coexist in what is often considered this homogenous idea that we have in our minds of the Israeli settler movement. There is no one settler movement. There are national religious settlers; there are economic settlers; there are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), who are the largest constituency in the Israeli settler movement today, Over 100,000 of them live in the West Banks, that is a quarter of the West Bank settler population. There are Russian immigrants; there are Ethiopian immigrants; there are American immigrants and French immigrants and Jewish immigrants from the United Kingdom and all over the world. To suggest that this only a place where native Israelis have settled is a little bit naïve. It is part of this larger stereotype that we have of the settlements as being entirely populated by National Religious settlers--that guy with an AK 47 on a windswept hilltop in the West Bank, which doesn’t’ really reflect the state of this heterogeneous movement today.
Is it a problem for the world? Yes it is. What happens in Israel-Palestine is a matter of foreign affairs for most nations around the world. SO the international community does need to be engaged and take responsibility for what is happening in this conflict zone and many other conflict zones around the world.
Fifty years since the conclusion of the war, what is the Six Day War’s implications for the Zionist enterprise, including the ramifications you uncover in your book?
The Six Day War was a watershed moment for questions of Jewish responsibility and Zionist responsibility. That’s important. What does peace looks like when you have fifty years of history that can’t be rolled back so easily? The legacy of the war for the Zionist enterprise, the 1967 War turned Zionism as Jewish nationalism from a project of self-determination and national liberation into a project that is largely associated in the eyes of the international community with a colonialist project. This is what is agonizing for the young generation of American Zionists: how do they relate to a project that doesn’t speak to the liberal values that they have and to the kind of values that the Zionist project originally was all about. How do you reclaim a space in this debate for liberal Zionists who feel alienated by the aftermath of the 1967 War and way in which the Zionist project is being reinterpreted by the international community? That is something I am really concerned about and really passionate about—that is, how to get young Zionist engaged in what is happening in Israel today.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and Israel’s subsequent control of territories captured in that war, what is the legacy of for Israel?
Well, I have mostly been thinking about it in the way American Jews have reacted to the war and what the legacy has been here—in the United States and surely also here in the UK and in the Jewish diaspora more broadly. The question for the Jewish diaspora and for Jewish Israelis is really the same. 1967 was a real turning point from a history of Jewish victimization with the Holocaust being so on the minds of Jews, with the threat of the 1967 war.