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

  • Review
By – June 22, 2017

Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s City on a Hill­top: Amer­i­can Jews and the Israeli Set­tler Move­ment tells the sto­ries of the young Amer­i­can Jews – often self-iden­ti­fied lib­er­al pro­gres­sives, prod­ucts of the Amer­i­cans 1960s – who became the ear­li­est founders and res­i­dents of key Israeli set­tle­ments out­side the infa­mous green line.” Avoid­ing the stereo­types into which set­tlers are often cast, Hirschhorn astute­ly assess­es set­tlers as utopi­an ide­al­ists, embody­ing both lib­er­al val­ues and an illib­er­al project.” While they may have approached their cause with pas­sion­ate zeal­ous­ness they were not, in their minds, Zealots for Zion,” but rather the next gen­er­a­tion of Israeli cha­lutz­im (“pio­neers”), car­ry­ing on the lega­cy of gen­er­a­tions of Jews who yearned to rebuild vibrant Jew­ish life in bib­li­cal Israel.

The sto­ry of these ear­ly Amer­i­can Jew­ish set­tlers could not be more time­ly. It has now been fifty years since the 1967 Six-Day War, a turn­ing point in the his­to­ry of the mod­ern State of Israel. For some, this has been fifty years of a reuni­fied Jerusalem and oppor­tu­ni­ties to set­tle and secure the land and vision of a Greater Israel;” for oth­ers, as Hirschhorn her­self acknowl­edges, it has been fifty years of occu­pa­tion,” of Pales­tin­ian peo­ple and of Pales­tin­ian land. The set­tle­ments that were born in the years after the Six-Day War are now ful­ly real­ized cities with gen­er­a­tions of inhab­i­tants. The chal­lenges they post are nei­ther sim­ple nor easy.

Hirschhorn large­ly opts out of these more con­tentious con­ver­sa­tions about the future of the region. Instead she pri­mar­i­ly focus­es on the devel­op­ment and res­i­dents of a few select set­tle­ments — pri­mar­i­ly those in the West Bank, but also one notable short-lived set­tle­ment in the Sinai Penin­su­la. She also del­i­cate­ly explores the real­i­ties of the set­tler-turned-ter­ror­ist, and the dichoto­my between the iso­lat­ed but impor­tant sto­ries of set­tler-ter­ror­ists such as Baruch Gold­stein and the dai­ly life and atti­tudes of the major­i­ty of set­tle­ment residents.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that none of the high­light­ed set­tle­ments are (or were) locat­ed in Gaza; it would seem that the sto­ries of Gaza-based set­tle­ments, from their con­struc­tion through the after­math of with­draw­al, must be explored in a sem­i­nal work on this sub­ject. It is cer­tain­ly plau­si­ble, albeit unlike­ly, that many of the set­tle­ments in the Gush Katif bloc in Gaza were not found­ed by Amer­i­can Jews, and thus large­ly out­side the scope of Hirschhorn’s research. But even in that unlike­ly sce­nario, the anom­aly would war­rant dis­cus­sion. Why did Amer­i­can Jews set­tle in cer­tain areas that came under Israeli con­trol post-June 1967, and not others?

With an impres­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ed biog­ra­phy and detailed notes, all befit­ting an author with Hirschhorn’s aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing, City on a Hill­top is a wel­come addi­tion to the body of lit­er­a­ture on Zion­ism, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish and Amer­i­can-Israeli Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, the future of the State of Israel, and more. Hirschhorn’s work unpacks set­tle­ment and set­tler stereo­types, per­son­al­iz­ing the real­i­ties of these com­mu­ni­ties and their inhab­i­tants in crit­i­cal ways. Hirschhorn pro­vides a high­ly nuanced under­stand­ing of how set­tlers view them­selves and their life work as con­trib­u­tors to the greater Zion­ist dream, help­ing her read­ers to become bet­ter pre­pared to respond to con­flict­ing ideas about them with grace and dignity.

Joy Get­nick, PhD, is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Hil­lel at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jew­ish Learn­ing Beyond Bor­ders: The His­to­ry of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict, has taught his­to­ry at area col­leges, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked in the JCC world and as the direc­tor of a teen Israel trav­el sum­mer program.

Discussion Questions