City on a Hilltop

American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement

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Sara Yael Hirschhorn
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , May
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholars in Middle Eastern Studies and Israel Studies, as well as students of American Jewish life, will be indebted to Sarah Hirschhorn for her groundbreaking work on the participation of American Jewish emigrants to Israel in the settler movement.

The most important contribution of City on a Hilltop is in the realm of solid data regarding American participation in Israeli settlement establishment, growth, and perpetuation. Both within the body of the book, and in an Appendix, Hirschhorn concludes that “fifteen percent of settlers in the occupied territories (60,000 individuals) are American-Israeli citizens, and there may be many more unregistered Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories today” (233).

Wisely, the author does not attempt to document and describe all American settler activity, but focuses on case studies of three settlements in which Americans played a role as founders: Yamit, Efrat, and Tekoa. Each of these three case studies is richly descriptive and informative. However, Hirschhorn’s study is less successful in the realm of ideology. Many settlers are quoted and their lives are described, but no overarching reason for their actions emerges from the book’s narratives.

In her introduction, Hirschorn writes that “the central theme of this book is the clash between Jewish–American settlers’ liberal personas and their illiberal project” (20). Though Hirschhorn struggles mightily to make the case the American settlers emerged from social and political “liberalism” of the American 1960s, the effort fails. Her suggestion that activism is by its nature a “liberal” endeavor (19-20) is not convincing, especially in this year of right wing activism in the US.

City on a Hilltop, while a valuable contribution to a number of scholarly fields, would have benefitted greatly from a chapter grounding the reader in the revisionist and religious Zionist roots of the settler movement, and of the assertively illiberal claims of those ideologies. This grounding informs much of the scholarship on the settlers in Hebrew and other languages, and it is unfortunately missing from this otherwise very informative study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shalom L. Goldman is professor of religion at Middlebury College.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sara Yael Hirschhorn is university research lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies, Faculty of Oriental Studies and Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford.


Sara Yael Hirschhorn

            Professor Goldman’s thoughtful review of my book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Harvard University Press, 2017) in the September issue of “Reading Religion” offers insight into how my book “unsettles” some on-going debates between first and second generation researchers on settlement that I would like to briefly respond to here.

            Goldman questions “the overarching reasons” for the participation of Jewish-American immigrants within the Israeli settler movement, which I address in Chapter One.  I describe what I call the “1967 moment” in American Jewish life, where the Six Day War foregrounded other concurrent processes of socio-political change, including the salience of Holocaust discourse, new ethnic identification, and the changing attitude of the New Left toward Israel which raised new dilemmas of universalism and particularism for self-identified Jewish-Zionist activists — for the cohort of future American-Israeli settlers, answering the question of “Given who I am, where do I belong?” led a generation over the Green Line.  While their immigration to Israel/Palestine was primarily ideological, I argue that for many American-Israeli settlers their political philosophy “mapped” (literally!) onto their associational concerns of acculturation, making the Israeli settler movement, which offered change-making political activism and an enclave culture outside the mainstream Israeli military-bureaucratic complex, an appealing choice for new migrants.  While trying to establish a dominant narrative about Jewish-American immigration to the occupied territories, the book also leaves room for the very individual decision-making of the over 60,000 settlers, preserving their voices, stories, and agency in their participation in the Israeli settler enterprise.

            In essence, a cohort of Jewish-American immigrants managed to square a circle: to leave the United States, but — in their minds — not their identities as Americans and liberals behind in the occupied territories.  In contrast to Goldman’s assertion, this book does not assert that there is anything liberal about “activism,” rather that American-Israeli settlers serve as a case study of how easily and sanguinely the discourses and tactics of liberalism can also be applied to illiberal projects as well.  Their quest for territorial maximalism reveals the very limitations of liberalism, an ideology and rhetoric that is rife for manipulation — including in the public relations of the Israeli settler movement pioneered by its American-Israeli constituency.

            Yet, what sets this book apart from previous generation of literature on the Israeli settler movement (including Hebrew-language scholarship cited extensively in the footnotes and bibliography), and challenges conventional wisdoms about why this group left comfortable lives in the United States to dwell in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that American Jews had different rationales than their native Israeli peers for settlement, which did not come primarily from religious or revisionist Zionism.  (In fact, today, the largest constituencies within the settlement camp — economic settlers and the ultra-Orthodox — are generally not swayed by these ideologies either.) This book aspires to join a larger second-generation research agenda that explores the heterogeneity of ideologies, discourses, and constituencies within the Israeli settler enterprise as it has evolved over the past five decades.


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