October 9, 2011


If asked, many people would probably tell you that settlers in the West Bank are part of a messianic right wing movement committed to establish power in biblical Israel.  Americans who move to the settlements are often portrayed as gun-toting extremists.  This is the stereotype generally transmitted and reinforced by media.  But is it so black and white as we are informed?

According to an article that appeared in Ha'aretz on October 7, 2011, "The American settler you don't know" by Raphael Ahren, we may need to alter our perceptions.  The article concerns the findings of a University of Chicago history researcher, Sara Hirschhorn, in her doctoral dissertation, "American-born Immigrants and The Israeli Ultra-Nationalist Movement Since 1967."

Hirschhorn says that American Jews in the West Bank represent a very heterogeneous and dynamic movement.
"It doesn't necessarily fit into any preexisting categories. In addition to that, I believe that my findings bring the discussion out of this typical left/right discourse that we have developed when we talk about the settler movement. There is a very wide spectrum, which certainly runs the gamut of everything you can imagine."
Based on access to confidential records from the American consulate in Jerusalem, 45,000 settlers have American citizenship, or about 15 percent of the Israeli West Bank population, compared to 8.5 percent of all Israeli Jews, based on estimates of 500,000 Americans among Israel's 5.8 million Jews.
"Jewish-American immigrants [to the territories] were primarily young, single, and highly identified as Jewish or traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious orientation," [...] They were primarily political liberals in the United States, voted for the Democratic Party and have been active in 1960s radicalism in the United States, participating in the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War. This perhaps does not necessarily correspond to the idea we might have in mind about who these people were before they came to Israel."
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is one example cited in the article, a native New Yorker who marched with Martin Luther King and considers himself a liberal. Hirschhorn said that many of these Americans see what they're doing in Israel as an extension of their radicalism in the United States, "in part as an expression of their own Jewish civil rights."

Hirschhorn's findings confirm the earlier research of sociologist Chaim Waxman, that an overwhelming majority of Americans viewed the role of the Messiah as "totally unrelated" to their immigration to Israel and their settling in the territories.  Rabbi Riskin confirmed this."I don't want to control people who don't want to be controlled by me," he once told a Gush Emunim leader, referring to the Arabs living in West Bank.

So the next time someone pursues the stereotype and demean settlers as a monolithic crowd, particularly with regard to Americans, a reminder is in order, that there is also a prominent and proud liberal tradition in the hearts and minds of the demeaned.  Of course, these demeaners might know this if they ventured from the echo chamber that allows a much wider, more nuanced story than a single narrative to explain the universe.


  1. Hey, thanks for this.

    I've been wondering about this question for quite some time, particularly since I saw Yishai Fleisher in an interview.

  2. I don't know who he is. What did he say?

  3. Haters need objects to hate. They can not allow settlers to be seen as human. It's why we called Vietnamese, gooks back in the day.

  4. I think they see them as persons, but cannot see who these persons are. According to the research, they are are from a radical tradition that pursues justice, in this case the right for Jewish people in their indigenous homeland.

    I may believe that the right should be waived for peace, but I cannot fault these people for standing up to the tyranny and oppression Jews have faced for centuries.

    This is key. These settlers are more left and revolutionary, past and present, than the self-proclaimed.

  5. He's a radio guy in Israel who also happens to be a "settler."

    He's originally an American and he is a rabbi and he breaks the stereotypes.

    From what I know of his politics he is to my right, but he's a reasonable fellow and a spokesperson for those much maligned people.