City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement

By Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Sara Yael Hirschhorn approaches the subjects of her book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement, with some sympathy. She wants us to see American-Jewish settlers in the West Bank not as fanatics, but as individuals who share similar backgrounds to other American Jews of their generation. Malka Chaiken, a mother of eight from Springfield, Massachusets who lives in Hebron, reminds her a little of her own “Mom”: “[She] is a nice person engaged in a not-so-nice political program.” The American-Jewish settlers Hirschhorn interviewed for the book see themselves as progressive and even liberal; they have adapted the American values of their youth to their cause, with a blind belief in the righteousness of their actions.

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Hirschhorn focuses on three settlements: Efrat and Tekoa, both in the West Bank, and Yamit, in the Sinai, dismantled as part of the peace agreement with Egypt. Hirschhorn estimates that American Jews form 15% of the approximately 60,000 Israeli citizens living in the occupied territories. Many of the settlers she profiles were 1960s liberals, who seamlessly transferred their support for universal rights to settler ideology. A striking example is Era Rapaport, born in Brooklyn, who maimed the mayor of Nablus, Basaam Shakaa, in a car bomb in 1980. As a young man Rapaport was a dedicated civil rights activist in New York and a supporter of African–American equality. He tells Hirschhorn that he wondered how he, a former student of social work who loved kids, could “even come off thinking about attacking PLO mayors and putting yourself in prison”. He justifies his resort to terrorism as a way of “restoring calm in a ‘situation of no law and order’”, consciously abandoning his liberal values. Sentenced to just 30 months in prison for grievous bodily harm and membership of a terrorist group, he served less than half his sentence. He now works as an Israeli tour guide.

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