Jacob Abolafia on the existential and political character of 20th-century American Jewish life
O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with the foremost, Pioneers! O pioneers!
At the very center of his mid-career masterpiece The Counterlife, Philip Roth depicts an argument between the novel’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, and its protagonist, his brother Henry, who has ended up living on a hillside in the West Bank, the follower of a Kahane-like radical named Lippman. Henry, furious at his brother over the portrayal of his family in a revealing Portnoy-like novel, exits the novel with the assertion that “What matters isn’t Momma and Poppa and the kitchen table, it isn’t any of that crap you write about—it’s who runs Judea!”
What Roth recognized, and pursued even further in the opera buffa of Operation Shylock, is that parallel to the existence of desire, repression, lust, and fulfillment (painted and repainted in different textures and under different lighting in each his novels) runs a second track of American Jewish experience. Certain solutions to the problems his characters faced, certain urges they might have been asked (and failed) to master, would have led them not to a bedroom in New Jersey, but to a hilltop in Samaria.
Roth’s great breakthrough was to suggest that the Americans in the “moonscape” of an Israeli settlement were not an alien species (as Israelis in American fiction from Bellow to Joshua Cohen can tend to be) – they were the actualization of a potential that every member of their generation shared. By studying the American Jew in Israel, Roth is really studying the nature of the American Jew in America. This is an important point, and one missed by Roth’s lesser epigones. The move to Israel is not an existential escape – it is an existential response to the fundamental forces at work in American Jewish life.
It comes as a small revelation, then, that the characters (interviewees, strictly speaking) in Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s indispensable new book City on a Hilltop do in fact often sound as if they have stepped right out of a Roth novel. Hirschhorn’s study of American Jews and the Israeli settlement movement follows dozens of Henry Zuckermans as they leave the suburban homes of their dentist and salesman fathers for a land that God, and sometimes a Jewish Agency brochure, has shown them. Hirschhorn rightly insists that the subject of her research is not merely an Israeli subculture, but the inner nature and development of an entire cohort of American Jews. This makes City on a Hilltop required reading not only for those interested in how American Jews could end up there and why they would do those things, but for anyone seeking to understand the existential and political character of twentieth-century Jewish life.
Those picking up Hirschhorn’s book expecting to find exotic costumes, fringed garments, and long beards may be surprised to find themselves encountering the same confused, intelligent, and conflicted sorts of Americans sketched so memorably by Roth. Her subjects are the fully Americanized children of not-yet-assimilated parents. They are touched by the social upheavals of 1960’s youth culture – and more than anything by the struggle for African-American civil rights. They see (and perhaps even flirt with) the identity-language of the New Left, and it is only after mixing thoroughly with the mainstream of American society that these liberally-educated citizens put down roots in the illiberal (indeed anti-liberal) soil of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Hirschhorn takes this Rothian material and uses it to study what we might call the limits and the liminality of liberal identity. The limits of liberalism, as they emerge through the testimony of American settlers, are demarcated by the irrelevance of rule of law, equality, democratic representation, and moral universalism to a life lived in the Israeli settlements. The illiberalism of the settlement enterprise has been well-documented, by David Shulman, among others, but the reality of Americans raised in the bosom of midcentury American prosperity taking part in the settlement project is a new sort of dystopian non-fiction. We do not need the counterfactuals of The Plot Against America to understand how quickly the liberal habituations of American life fade away; we have living examples from which to learn.
Hirschhorn’s method is broadly ethnographic. Although City on a Hilltop begins with the flashpoint of the old city of Hebron and ends with a (regrettably brief) treatment of the more violent elements of the American settlement milieu, the heart of the book focuses on three very different examples of the Israeli settlement enterprise, the suburban Efrat, the doomed beach-town of Yamit in the Sinai, and the ideologically complex mixed community of Tekoa on the edge of the Judean desert. Relying on extensive interviews, archival material, and news reports to reconstruct the role of Americans in the political and social history of these communities, Hirschhorn gives a sense of American participation on the ground during the early years of settlement expansion.
Hirschhorn wisely focuses on three cases where the American influence is not a question of numbers. She is emphatically qualitative, uncovering the role of Americans in the formation of both the material infrastructure and cultural character of settler communities. Some of this story will be familiar to American Jews – as Hirschhorn notes, her readers may have friends or family involved in some way in the story of Israeli settlements. Efrat, a “Scarsdale on the West Bank” has always been a favored destination for Modern Orthodox Americans moving to Israel, as are its neighboring settlements in the bloc south of Jerusalem. Less well known is the American role in settling the Sinai, and even the most well-informed Israeli reader might be surprised to know that Yamit – a model town on the Mediterranean whose fate after the Camp David accords foreshadowed that of the settlements in Gaza – was initially one third American.
As the title of City on a Hilltop hints, the impulse to settle on the arid cliffs of the Judean desert is one that reflects a deeply American cultural lexicon. At points, Hirschhorn gestures not only at the exemplary Calvinism echoed in the title, but also at Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis as possible elements in the collective unconscious of the settlement project. The work’s most persuasive arguments hew more closely to the more limited mythology of the baby boom. It is a rare interview that does not include some mention of the domestic political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. As Shaul Magid’s recent work on Kahane suggests, even in its reactionary form, American Zionism of this era existed in a mutual dialogue with African-American thought, particularly the rhetoric and tactics of Black Power.
Perhaps tellingly, more than once in City on a Hilltop one of the apparently well-adjusted middle-class settlers lets slip that a “push factor” in his emigration was the “lawless cities” emerging in the U.S. during the late Sixties. Hirschhorn finds evidence that another referred to her Arab neighbors as “worse than the niggers.” Such racially tinged comments occur too often not to attract the reader’s notice, and the question seeps in – how are Black Americans present in the minds of Jewish settlers?
In American Pastoral, Roth presented at once dispassionately and intimately, the story of an American family caught up in the riots of 1968, and the destruction of the urban environment that had given them wealth, shelter, and a sense of belonging. Hirschhorn excavates a deep-seated antipathy and resentment towards “identity politics” among those who would not have described themselves as conservative at the time (and perhaps would not now), but who felt excluded from a story of political liberation, which was not relevant to their central identity – their Judaism. If the energy of the New Left was devoted to expression of the self and the reclaiming of public space for groups who had felt excluded, the dilemma for Jews was real. In many cases, they did not yet feel themselves to be white, but they were, in their Ivy League graduate programs and prestigious medical schools, certainly no longer among the excluded. This is just one of the areas where the personal and political dilemmas of the Baby Boom have their echoes in contemporary anxieties about whiteness and voice among young American Jews. It is a testament to the richness of Hirschhorn’s study that here she leaves room for more work on the triangulation of postwar American-Jewish culture, racial politics, and Israel.
This is not to say that all American settlers are or were racist, or even to suggest that the particularly American aspects of particularly American settlements have any relation to the original sin of American society. It is to suggest, however, that something must distinguish these American Jews, willing to endure such sacrifice and dedicate so much blood and sweat to a life in alien conditions, from their contemporaries, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Do these moments of racial animus speak to some latent tendency? The reader must ask just how this group of Baby-Boomers, already less assimilated, more religious, more clannish than their average peers, came to be constituted. In the self-understanding of the settlers Hirschhorn interviews, their conservative, not to say anti-Arab views emerged as a consequence of the violent character of life in their “new neighborhood.” They claim to have been “mugged by reality,” as it were. Of course, conservative Jewish voices reacting to social change in American cities articulated much the same thing, and perhaps the more plausible (and troubling) interpretation is that these interviewees say what their peers in American only think.
No set of categories is more important to the self-definition of American Jews, at home and in the Settlements, than the one surrounding religion and religious identity. Crucial to Hirschhorn’s thesis is the proposition that American settlers absorbed the activist ethos of the 1960s, but were unsure how to act it out as Jews. This presumes, however, that they already thought of themselves foremost as Jews. Here, the evidence of Jewish novelists like Roth and Bellow is helpful – surely the desire to act out one’s political identity as a Jew rather than an “American” or “human being” is the exception in the twentieth-century American Jewish experience rather than the rule. In Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Hillel Halkin argues that if the titular friend wishes to be merely American, the doors of the movie theaters and malls are open; if he wishes to be Jewish, logic will lead him to Israel.
Some of the subjects of Hirschhorn’s research are religious. Some are not. The book does not take an interest, either quantitatively or qualitatively, in the difference between religious and non-religious motivation. There are good reasons for the eclipse of religion in the argument. It allows Hirschhorn to focus on defusing the unhelpful and inaccurate stereotypes of American settlers as religious and messianic fanatics, or mediocre rejects from a dynamic American society, whether they don skullcaps and fringes or not. However, to leave out the diverse and textured ways American Jewish religious communities and practices influenced Americans who moved to settlements and their influence in the settlement enterprise itself is to leave out one of the most decisive facets of the relationship between diaspora Judaism and Israeli life.
As Noah Feldman has noted, it is not only that religious American Jews have “made Aliyah” to the Palestinian territories. They have, in many cases, dictated the religious and political agenda of the settlement movement. Meir Kahane’s name is everywhere in City on a Hilltop, but the precise theological chauvinism of his religious teaching goes unexplained. Utterly absent is the name of Yosef Ginzburg, spiritual leader of the most radical and violent contemporary settlements from his pulpit in the “Od Yosef Chai” (Joseph Still Lives) Yeshiva. These Americans not only came to the hills of Samaria, they changed the very discourse of Israeli religious life. The same, it must be said, is true on the more liberal end of Orthodoxy. The American rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein and his disciples, along with his neighbor Shlomo Riskin (extensively profiled in the book) can be credited with a number of influential religious innovations and reforms within Israeli Orthodox Judaism, and it is not a coincidence that many of the coexistence initiatives within the religious settlement community have emerged from the heavily Anglophone Gush Etzion.
With City on a Hilltop, Hirschhorn opens a broad range of questions for future research. Beyond puncturing myths, both about the character of American settlers, and about the tidy narrative of where the young American Jews of the activist 1960s must have ended up, the book provides a sobering analysis of the relationship between the liberal ethos of a democratic state and the behavior of citizens raised in that ethos. Five years ago, readers might have been inclined to see those who left America to participate in a fundamentally illiberal project as exceptions. Now, Hirschhorn’s insistence that these American settlers are coherent members of the generation that included the civil rights marchers and second-wave feminists is plausible and lucid.
One of the benefits of Hirschhorn’s carefully observed ethnography is that, over the course of the book, the reader is not overpowered by a barrage of numbers or statistics. Instead, the reader becomes familiar with the rhetorical patterns of these settlers. Certain locutions, arguments, and examples occur across the cases, across genders, across ages. One claim that is repeated by two different speakers (and in an incomplete form by a third) is that the settlers did not come to take Palestinian land “like a thief in the night.” The phrase, ironically enough, was coined by another Jew. St. Paul uses the image in I Thessalonians to describe the silent, swift coming of “the day of the Lord.” These settlers, so familiar in mien, and, for the most part, so un-messianic, have allowed a stark vision of the end of days to slip back into their language. And it is not only Judaism that gives them the words, and the conceptual frame, to understand their life-project in the settlements. It is America.
Jacob Abolafia is a PhD Candidate in Political Theory at Harvard and a Graduate Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, where he works on the history of political thought.