Israeli Settlers Weren't Always So Religious—They Were Once Secular Hippies

The American Jews who moved to the West Bank thought they were living out the civil-rights dream, a new book argues.

Jewish settlers near Bet El, the community supported by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

In the vast and complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one issue is particularly contentious: Jewish Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, territory Israel has held since the Six-Day War in 1967. As the 50th anniversary of that conflict approaches in June, it continues to complicate the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Donald Trump visits Israel this week, but ahead of his visit, an American diplomatic aide reportedly challenged Israel’s claim to the Western Wall, a holy site that has been contested since the 1967 conflict. Trump touted his support for Israel during the campaign, but has cooled on the settlements, telling an Israeli newspaper in February that they “don’t help the [peace] process.” On the other hand, Trump’s newly arrived U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has strongly supported the settlement movement, and members of his family helped found Bet El, one of the West Bank communities.

Friedman’s story is not an anomaly. According to new research by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a lecturer at Oxford University, about 60,000 out of the 400,000 settlers currently living in the West Bank are American—roughly 15 percent. In a new book about this group, City on a Hilltop, Hirschhorn writes that the Americans who came to Israel in the 1960s and ’70s defy today’s common stereotypes about settlers. Instead of being ultra-religious and conservative, “these new arrivals were usually young, single, highly educated, upwardly mobile, and traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious practice, voted for Democratic Party candidates, and were politically supportive of and active in … the civil-rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War struggle.”

Hirschhorn’s mission is to complicate the story of the Americans who settled across the Green Line, the demarcation of the pre-1967 Israeli borders named for the colorful ink used to draw it on maps. She tells many settlers’ stories, but opens with Malka Chaiken, born as Marilyn to a traditional Jewish family in Philadelphia in 1954. “Surely it is easier to frame Malka as a messianic fanatic than as a fully realized person,” Hirschhorn writes. “It is more comfortable to regard her as a political heretic and psychologically unhinged propagandist than as a peer who actually shares a similar background to many American Jews of her generation.”

I spoke with Hirschhorn about her research and its implications for the next generation of Jews in America. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Emma Green: If you’re an American Jew who wants to move to Israel, why would you choose the West Bank? Why not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Haifa?

Sara Hirschhorn: This group of Americans were the highest Jewish and Zionist identifiers of their generation. For various reasons, they felt after the 1967 war that they weren’t going to be able to fulfill these ideals living in the United States.

Some had religious beliefs that living in the whole of the land of Israel meant the occupied territories—the West Bank, or what is referred to by those who subscribe to that ideology as Judea and Samaria. There are those who also saw political imperatives: If there was not a Jewish presence in these areas, they would be liable to be swapped in a future peace agreement.

And some people believed they wanted to live in the land of Israel, but conveniently, their sister also lived in a settlement, and their best friend from high school lived there, too, and wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place with family and friends. Lifestyle factors also play a role, although obviously these are politicized lifestyle factors: You may get a good school with a nice house and a private garden and an easy commute, but you know where you’re living—over the Green Line.

Green: What are some of the stereotypes about American settlers in Israel?

Hirschhorn: The picture we have in our heads is that these are all people with bushy beards carrying an AK-47 with seven children following behind them, who are really firebrand ideologues who have come to fulfill a messianic vision and bring about some kind of apocalyptic moment.

Today, settlers are more likely to be Orthodox Jews, but the people who came in the 1960s were not neo-conservative right-wingers who had a messianic vision. In fact, they had been people who were tree-hugging hippies in their previous life in the United States, who saw their move to Israel in continuity with a liberal project.

“These are people who still today have Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals, on their bookshelf.”

Green: How did the American settlers of the 1960s and ’70s connect Zionism with the civil-rights movement in the U.S.?

Hirschhorn: The first chapter of the story takes place in the United States during what I call the 1967 moment. This constituency felt that [moment] very strongly, and they realized that there was a sort of change in the winds. In order to fully realize their Jewish Zionist affiliations, there were a couple of alternatives. Some people retreated into Jewish activism in the United States.

[Those who emigrated to Israel] didn’t feel America was going to be the right place for them. But just because they leave the United States doesn’t mean they leave their entire American background behind. These are people who still today have Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals, on their bookshelf.

Green: The people you write about often cite parallels between their movement and the Black Power movement. One rabbi even compares the settlers’ conflict with the Israeli government to the civil-rights struggle in Selma, Alabama.

What’s behind that comparison?

Hirschhorn: The 1967 war was really a moment of Jewish pride, especially for American Jews. There was a threat of a second Holocaust, and all of a sudden Israel emerges victorious from the war, and Jews in America really internalize that. There’s this sense [similar to] black pride: Jewish is beautiful, Jewish is proud. They looked to black power as a model for how they, too, could envision their post-1967 life as Jews in the diaspora and Israel. All kinds of ethnic groups were reclaiming the pride in their hyphenated identity, and Jews, too, wanted to get in on that action in America.

But there’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance involved in seeing your sit-in on a hilltop in the West Bank as being the same as a sit-in in Selma to struggle for African American civil rights.

People embraced “the idea that the only way to protect ourselves is not through dialogue, but down the barrel of a gun.”

Green: How does David Friedman’s family fit into this?

Hirschhorn: David Friedman is the embodiment of this connection between American Jewry and the Israeli-settler movement, and particularly the slice of American Jewry called the modern Orthodox.

They’re a small percentage of American Jewry. And they have deep ties to the occupied territories. David Friedman himself has been a huge supporter of the settlement at Bet El, which was one of the original settlements in the 1970s founded by Gush Emunim, “the bloc of the faithful,” which was a group with messianic ideology. He has made serious financial and other contributions to the settlements, and has ties there.

Green: How were the American settlers in Israel specifically influenced by their Americanness? What traditions and myths were they drawing from?

Hirschhorn: The Frederick Jackson Turner understanding of the frontier is that this is the place where people self-realize. There was a feeling that the frontier had closed in America, and the frontier was closing in Israel as well. For those who hadn’t gotten in on the action in 1948, there were few opportunities to do that. The Israeli settler movement was one of those last chances.

Green: But that opportunity also came with brutality. Describe how some of these American Jews got involved in violence and terrorism.

Hirschhorn: In the first decade or so of the Israeli settler movement, there was relatively little friction between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian neighbors. That’s because there were not that many settlers living in the occupied territories, and the implication of their project was still quite unclear.

In the 1980s, there’s a mass influx of settlers, and that’s a game changer. And the First Intifada [a wave of violence in the late 1980s and early ’90s], was a major turning point for them. It goes from what they considered peace, love, and happiness and coexistence with their Palestinian neighbors—if often in a very paternalistic relationship, and definitely dispossessing their neighbors of their land in many cases—to a daily ritual of stoning and reprisals and gun fire and murders.

I don’t know that all of the people who came in the 1960s and 1970s fully appreciated what was going to happen until the First Intifada. That changes people, and their political and moral calculus. After the First Intifada and the Second Intifada, you really see this emergence of the zero-sum game, and a turn in general to the idea that the only way to protect ourselves is not through dialogue, but down the barrel of a gun.

“The daily news cycle of Israel determines its future. The settler movement is well aware of that.”

Green: How have the optics of the settler movement changed? And what are some of the challenges for the movement?

Hirschhorn: Twenty years ago, you didn’t have settlers going on CNN. They weren’t on Twitter. They didn’t have English-language blogs. They weren’t on YouTube or Instagram.

Israel was born into a 24-hour news cycle. If the 1948 war had happened in 1150, we wouldn’t know a lot about what took place. The daily news cycle of Israel determines its future. The settler movement is well aware of that. They spend a lot of time and energy and, frankly, money to produce slick PR on a variety of platforms to respond to that need.

Green: Among Jewish Millennials in America, the settler movement is not popular. (In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, only 11 percent of Jews under 30 said the continued construction of settlements helps Israel’s security.) You describe a generation of civil-rights activists and idealists who came to settle Israel in the ’60s and ’70s, but today’s generation of socially engaged Jews likely would not support what they did. What does this mean for the future of the American settler movement in Israel?

Hirschhorn: I have a little bit of a beef with [people] who locate all of Millennial or Generation X angst about Israel in the settler movement, or more broadly in Israel’s bad behavior.

While I think this is part of the story, a larger part of the story is that Zionist attachment, or identification with the state of Israel, really comes from your Jewish identification. The young generation doesn’t have the same level of Jewish attachment that previous generations did.

Clearly the settlements bring the contradictions between Zionism and liberalism into stark relief. But there would be more engagement around these issues if there was higher Jewish and Zionist identification broadly. People could feel really aggrieved about what’s going on in Israel. But I think they would be less turned off if they were turned on already. There’s no reason to be turned on to the issue of settlements if you really don’t care about Israel at all because it’s just not part of the way you identify as a Jew or as a person.

There’s been an effort to shift the burden of the Palestinian conflict onto the 1967 war. It was, no doubt, a huge turning point—I’m not an apologist for what went on. But the root of the conflict remains in 1948. If I snapped my fingers, and suddenly every settlement disappeared tomorrow, it would all be Kumbaya and we would have peace in the Middle East—I think that’s a fantasy of a certain set of liberals and leftists that doesn’t accord with reality.