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  • City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn
  • Motti Inbari (bio)
City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement. By Sara Yael Hirschhorn. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 368 pp.

There are about 350,000 Jews living in Israel’s West Bank settlements, and about 60,000 of them were born in the United States. Their American-born settlers’ influence, however, exceeds their actual proportion of the population there. They explain their activism in the language of “human rights” or “worship rights,” and they describe their settlements to others as places where one can find “quality of life” similar to the American suburbs. How do people who move to contested and violent locations next to occupied Palestinians can still refer to themselves as liberals? This paradox is in the heart of Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s new book.

In the introduction, Hirschhorn offers some interesting data: most of the new arrivals of the 1960s and 1970s were young, single, highly educated, upwardly mobile, and traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious practice. They tended to vote for Democratic Party candidates and were politically supportive of and active in liberal and leftist politics, including the civil rights movement and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, prior to their immigration to Israel.

In the late 1960s, some Jews turned sour toward the New Left due to its anti-Semitic elements. The fear that Jews might face a new Holocaust, as it seemed prior to the Six Days War, combined with great amazement [End Page 312] at Israel’s victory, turned Israel into the center pillar of American Jewish identity. After the 1967 war, many American Jews came to visit Israel as tourists, volunteers and foreign exchange students. All these visits built the stepping stones toward Jewish American settlements in the occupied territories.

The first American-dominated settlement was Yamit in the Sinai desert. The garin (seed) of this settlement gathered around Chaim and Sarah Feifel from Cincinnati, Ohio, joining a group of supporters who wished to immigrate to Israel as a community. The author details the many hurdles they had to go through until the Israeli government allowed them to move to the location in 1975. Yamit was built by the Mediterranean Sea, not too far from Gaza. The city was populated by American and Russian immigrants, together with families of military men. Eventually the city was evacuated in 1982 as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and all the inhabitants received generous compensations. The American group did not join the demonstrations to stop the retreat from Sinai, but the evacuation and the demolition of the city left a psychological mark on many of its members.

The following chapter deals with the most notable American-dominated settlement: Efrat. Home to a population of 8000 American-Israelis today, Efrat is an upscale suburban settlement where some of the houses can reach the price of one million dollars. This was an enterprise of two men: Moshe Moskowitz and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Moskovitz dreamed of establishing a community of Jews in the Gush Etzion region of Judea, an area of settlement of Jews who were evacuated during 1948 war. After Israel regained this territory in 1967, the vision of reestablishing the community became a reality. Moskowitz communicated with government officials, who gave him their blessing, and he traveled the United States in order to find candidates to make his dream come true. Riskin was the spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. He aspired to make aliyah, and after he came across Moskovitz, he found the encouragement he needed. They initiated Garin Reshit Geula (seed colony for the beginning of redemption), and the community was established in 1983. Efrat was built on the concept of a commuter community that would provide a high quality of life. Later this concept defined many of the new West Bank settlements built in the 1990s.

The settlement Tekoa is the subject of the fourth chapter. Bobby and Linda Brown, residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood, hoped to make aliyah and live in a settlement. They established a group and founded Tekoa in 1979...