Settlements and settlers in the West Bank are seen as by many in Europe and the West as a key obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. A surge in acts of violence and terrorism by some settlers against Palestinians has reached international media headlines. To gain a deeper understanding of the ideology in which this violence is incubated, and to discuss how it is being tackled in Israel, Fathom Editor Alan Johnson spoke to Dr Sara Hirschhorn of the University of Oxford, an expert on the subject.
Alan Johnson: You are an American in Oxford working on Israel. Can you tell us a little about that journey? What were the most important intellectual influences along the way for you? You have said your work was ‘not only a career but a calling’; it would be fascinating to hear about that too, so tell us a little about yourself.
Sara Hirschhorn: I grew up in a very Zionist modern-Orthodox family that considered emigrating to Israel when I was a teenager. I was definitely a part of that teenage generation profoundly shaped by the Oslo process; I remember sitting in my Jewish state school watching the ceremony on the White House lawn and the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement on television.
‘Where were you when Prime Minister Rabin was shot?’ was like the Kennedy assassination for my generation growing up in the United States. I spent a considerable amount of time living with my family in Israel in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination, watching the unravelling of the Oslo process which put me on the personal and professional path that I’m on today.
I pursued that at university and in graduate school and started to discover other scholars and journalists who had been interested in the culture which gave birth to Yigal Amir and the end of the peace process; so I started to study the radical right and the settler movement.
I came to the UK in 2013 and was hired by the University of Oxford to join in building a new programme in Israel Studies here and have been working with other colleagues to try and make Oxford a leading centre for rigorous, objective, innovative research, and analysis in Israel Studies.
As much as I pride myself on my objective research as a historian, it’s true that I do see this as a calling as much as it is a career. So many young people are alienated from Israel because they find the conversation too polarising or too difficult and feel that the liberal Zionism they were raised with dashed; I really want to be a part of changing that conversation for my generation.
AJ: Your notion of ‘ultra-nationalism’ is actually a really helpful term. Let’s start broadly with the Israeli right: you’ve argued that there’s a desperate need for a re-evaluation of the ways in which academics and pundits construct ‘the right’. What do you think we’re getting wrong when we talk about the Israeli right?
SH: Without undermining the past four decades of scholarship since the 1967 War on the rise of the settler movement and the Israeli right, I think the scholarly literature and the media haven’t really provided a lot of helpful terminology in thinking about this phenomenon at all.
We’re no longer talking about ‘the right’ as synonymous with fascism and the kind of terms that are deployed to discuss this today like ‘the right’ or the ‘radical right’ don’t really tell us anything about what this describes: what’s ‘radical’ about it? What’s ‘right’ about it? What are we describing here?
Similarly, we have this problem with other terms like ‘zealotry’ and ‘extremism’. I just don’t think we’re really getting at any concrete way to describe the phenomenon in clear analytical terms. The world has become a lot more complex and the left-right paradigm that has characterised most of the scholarly research – as well as the media perception – really doesn’t hold.
My research on Jewish-American immigrants within the Israeli settler movement in particular is focused on this problem of how liberal ideas and rhetoric have been applied to an illiberal project. I think the vocabulary of ultra-nationalism is much richer and offers a far more precise definition and comparative angles to investigate the Israeli right as it exists today.
AJ: You’ve developed this notion of ultra-nationalism and talked about it being an imagined community of adherents, not necessarily all religious. Could you give us a picture of this group that you call the ultra-nationalist? Who are you including under that head? I take it it’s not just a synonym for the political right more generally?
SH: I borrowed very heavily from the work of the late scholar Charles S. Liebman who imagined Israeli ultra-nationalism graphed on three axes: territorial maximalism, exclusionary ethno-nationalism and cultural hegemony. In that way he distinguished ultra-nationalists from just plain old regular nationalists, and from right-wing conservatism in the economic and social spheres.
In some ways I’m just recapping Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), ‘God, Land and People’ but in a slightly more academic way. Speaking of Gush Emunim, this is really not only the worldview of a Millenarian religious movement who sees biblical imperative to live in the whole of the Land of Israel.
It is also a phenomenon of secular people sitting in the cafés of Tel Aviv as well as people living in settlements in the occupied territories. Both of these people vote for political parties and subscribe to social movements that support these ultra-nationalist ideas. What I’m trying to argue is that Israeli ultra-nationalism is a broad based phenomenon which isn’t exclusive to religious people or even to those living over the Green Line.
As the late scholar Ehud Sprinzak once described it: we talk about the iceberg model of Israeli ultra-nationalism. You might see the quintessential knitted kippah of the Israeli settler above the surface, but there’s a much larger population supporting these ideas across Israel both within and over the Green Line.
Seeing the settlers beyond the headlines
AJ: I think Europe has a cartoon-like view of the settlers. Can you map the settler movement today and the thinking of that movement?
SH: I absolutely agree that we have a very cartoon-like or stereotypical image of the settler movement; our vision promulgated by both scholarship and the media is really frozen in time in the 1970s.
This is an enterprise by and for religious-nationalist Israelis who had this biblical vision to live in the whole of the Land of Israel, which was primarily associated at the time with Gush Emunim. This premier Israeli settler group really mobilised the first round of ideological settlements in the occupied territories in the 1970s and the media – especially here in Europe – has really filled our minds with this image of the bushy haired, bearded settler with his knitted kippah and his assault rifle posing on some windswept hill-top of the West Bank.
The image today of the Israeli settler today is far more complex, he is just as likely to be a secular yuppie within miles of the Green Line or an ultra-orthodox settler (who are currently the largest constituency within the settler movement). He could be an Ethiopian Jew, a Russian Jew, and a Mizrahi Jew or, as my book has discovered, over 15 per cent of settlers are American Jews who have immigrated to Israel.
Since the 1980s the settler movement has undergone a tremendous movement of suburbanisation and to a lesser degree secularisation, which has completely changed the face of the enterprise.
In terms of their different ideologies: the joke is that if you have two Jews you have three synagogues; and certainly you have two settlers and at least three opinions about how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This isn’t a group that thinks alike, looks alike or speaks alike anymore and after four decades you also have inter-generational differences on both ideological and tactical issues.
I suppose we’ll talk more about hilltop issues – that’s one representation of this inter-generational conflict – so the demographic picture and the discourses in the movement today are really very different than they were 30 or 40 years ago. You might not have actually known that from watching television or picking up a popular book on the subject.
AJ: You wrote a very interesting piece recently for the New York Times titled ‘Israeli Terrorists: Born in the USA’ in which you noted that several of the alleged instigators of recent settler violence were American immigrants and that this is not the first time American settlers have been involved in extremist violence. Can you tell us more about the role of English speaking, mostly Jewish-American settler activists in transforming the settler movement?
SH: Some of the most high profile settler terrorist attacks in Israel were carried out by Jewish-American immigrants or Jewish-American settlers. I’m thinking particularly of the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Baruch Goldstein, involvement by some American figures within the Jewish Underground and other attacks.
Today the Shin Bet suspects that some of the alleged perpetrators of the arson at the Church of Loaves and Fishes and the very tragic arson murder of the Dawabsheh family in Duma were probably Jewish-American immigrants or the children of Americans living in Israel. So they’ve had a role to play in the very violent aspects of a mostly fringe element within the settler movement, but it is certainly a prominent and very distressful phenomenon that exists within the settler community.
AJ: What explains it? I remember it was Rabin who talked about the ‘errant weed’ that had to be pulled out, that these were people who were alien to the population. What explains this connection between American settlers and violence? Is there something about where they’re coming from or where they’re coming to?
SH: This was not something that was exclusive to the American immigrant community. Most of them are law-abiding citizens who are not engaged in violence. But there are some, at least from what we know – and we’ve been able to study some historical figures like Baruch Goldstein who have been engaged in very violent settler terrorist attacks in the past.
They’ve really spoken about trying to reconcile their American liberal values with a Middle-Eastern environment and their turn away from liberalism – and in some cases the rule of law – in reckoning with what they saw as the bleak realities of living in the Middle East.
It’s certainly not just an issue of psychology, it’s also an issue of ideology and trying to understand how they see themselves in their environment and where the values they brought from the United States fit or don’t fit into their current context.
‘Liberalese’ – liberal values to explain an illiberal project
AJ: In Europe we don’t really hear the voice of the settler. Even though we often see photographs of them on the news, very rarely do you actually get to hear what they’re thinking or saying. You’ve brought to us the understanding that some actually are using a new ‘liberal’ argument to try and justify the settlement enterprise to the international community, which is fascinating. You say some even quote Martin Luther King and Civil Rights movement thinkers. It would amaze most Europeans to hear that that’s the case.
SH: This is not to downplay the role that Americans have played in serious acts of settler terrorism but there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes than what is ripped from the headlines news stories. That was very much a part of my research on Jewish-American settlers who come from very liberal, even left-wing backgrounds, in the United States. Many participated in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam struggle only then to move to Israel and the occupied territories and participate in a very illiberal project. This is a group which applies liberal values and rhetoric to an illiberal project.
They cast their activities in the language of the struggles in which they grew up, they see themselves as true radicals within the settler project, and they speak in the language of human and civil rights to live in the whole of the Land of Israel.
They also speak what you might call liberalese. They played a very important role in transforming the public relations of the Israeli settler movement today and they’re often media spokespeople on behalf of the settler camp. I think that’s had a very important impact, at least on the media perceptions of the settler movement – perhaps more in the United States than in Europe: in America they’re a recognisable figure on American television, of some guy with a Brooklyn accent and American slang from a hilltop in the West Bank representing the point of view of the settler community.
AJ: How do they hold their liberalism together? Do they simply exclude the Palestinians from their world view? Because you’d imagine that Palestinians, without citizenship, without a state, without a vote, would be a standing challenge to the notion that they were themselves liberal democrats in good standing. How do they cope with the contradiction?
SH: There is a huge amount of cognitive dissonance involved in this, but I think that it’s often prioritising what they would see as Jewish civil rights or Jewish human rights in the face of Palestinian sovereignty. They will think about these issues in terms of some kind of hierarchy but they also have different hierarchies of rights for Palestinians. They find Americans, perhaps more so than other movements within the settler constituency, are very involved in advocating for Palestinian economic rights.
They don’t want to see what they might call a ‘race problem’ that they grew up with in the United States: to some extent they’re interested in coexistence projects and in promoting a sense of living together. The question is where do they draw the line? They’re all for Palestinians having jobs and being able to have access to some civil institutions and other forms of social care, but where they draw the line is that they’re not interested in Palestinian sovereignty – whether in their own state or citizenship in the State of Israel – which they see as a demographic threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state. At the end of the day, they would prioritise the rights of Jews and Israelis over the rights of Palestinians.
AJ: In Europe there’s a view among some that the current government is essentially a pro-settler government. How do you read the relation between the settler movement and the current government?
SH: No doubt the settlers have a very strong representation in the government, both in the Likud or the Jewish Home party – a religious-nationalist party to the right of the Likud. Netanyahu seems largely supportive of the goals of the settler movement and leaders like Naftali Bennett have continued to vigorously promote this agenda within the Knesset. Even President Reuven Rivlin who is beloved for his seemingly progressive views on Jewish-Arab rapprochement is really advocating for these ideas in service of what he hopes will be a one-state solution.
It’s not just restricted to support for the settler movement itself, as we spoke about before it’s not just about settlers, ultra-nationalism occupies a political space both within and beyond the Green Line. So you’ll find people in Herzliya Pituach expressing the same views as those people who are living in Hebron. And they would like government policy to reflect these ideas – it’s a very broad based phenomenon and the constituency of support goes beyond those who are living in the West Bank itself.
Impunity for terrorism?
AJ: Let’s talk about some of the reactions within Israeli society to ultra-nationalism. What do you think of the Israeli legal response to the challenges to the rule of law and to the rights of Palestinians from the so called price tag operations and acts of settler terrorism?
SH: Well certainly, quite insufficient. Clearly the government has let these activities increase with impunity; Haaretz produced a graph around the time of the arson murder in Duma showing something like 90 per cent of the activities – which ranged from small scale vandalism to serious acts of deadly intent – have gone completely unprosecuted.
The question really is why? Some of this seems to be – for lack of a better term – plain incompetence on the part of the Shin Bet. They do not seem to have the ability to disrupt some of these terrorist networks; it seems to me that in the case of the Dawabsheh family that – at least initially – they didn’t know who did this. It’s quite alarming that these hilltop networks are really unknown to the Israeli security services.
Some of this has to also be turning a blind eye. There has been a serious escalation in price tag attacks over the last decade and most of these have been targeted against Palestinian property and Palestinian individuals – most of these have gone without any degree of investigation or prosecution. What is getting the Israeli establishment worried is that they’ve begun to increasingly target Israeli military and civilian targets. A couple of summers ago they attacked an Israeli military base in the occupied territories.
This culture of impunity has grave consequences and it really can’t be ignored. It’s eroding the trust between Israelis and Palestinians and more generally the rule of law in Israel-Palestine.
Settlements and the Diaspora
AJ: Many in the Diaspora perhaps look at these developments and turn away. This alienation has been written about by Peter Beinart, among others. You’re an American, you’ve lived in Israel, and you’ve lived in the Diaspora, how do you read that debate? Do you think Peter Beinart is more or less on the right track? Is there a crisis in Diaspora-Israel relations connected to the seeming drift of parts of Israeli society to a more ‘ultra-nationalist’ track?
SH: I think it puts the choice between Zionism and Liberalism into stark relief and it’s the kind of contentious topic – especially on college campuses – that makes young people uncomfortable and not want to talk about Israel at all.
Beinart is wrong in that he exaggerates the role of Israel in the general alienation of Diaspora Jews from both Jewish culture and Zionism and he puts too much stock in what’s happening beyond the Green Line and the settlements as the problem. I would still maintain that settlements are not the most important problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: you could remove all the settlements tomorrow and that wouldn’t resolve all the tensions in the Diaspora-Israel relationship, nor would it fully address all of the outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians.
I think Beinart sets up a false dichotomy between territorial Israel and the Green Line. He’s trying to say that it’s all about 1967 and the occupied territories, but a lot of people in both the Israeli and Palestinian camp think this is really more about 1948. It’s not about the occupation; it’s about the so-called ‘original sin’ of the birth of Zionism that Ari Shavit has written about in his book My Promised Land.
One thing that interestingly both the radical right and the radical left can agree on is that there’s really no difference between the settlement of Tekoa in the West Bank and Tel Aviv – they just have different views on what the one-state outcome should be. The real underlying conflict is more about the existence of a State of Israel and a ‘Zionist entity’ in the Arab world. However, Beinart has been an important voice in mobilising a young generation and is trying to find ways to make liberal Zionism something that people can talk about, and I really admire that. He’s been a really essential voice especially in America in breaking through barriers and breaking some taboos in helping this conversation along.
Narrative and conflict resolution
AJ: You mentioned the agreement around the notion of a single state between the far left and the far right. Where do you think we’re at in terms of the peace process that many people are now very sceptical about; it’s quite hard to talk to people about the peace process and not encounter a rolling of the eyes, so where do you think we need to go?
SH: Let’s talk about the two-state solution first and then we can talk about what other options there are. There are policy solutions to address the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whether that’s settlements, or refugees, or Jerusalem, or any of the other major issues, it’s not really a conflict about these things anymore. At the heart, it’s an ideological conflict about narrative – there are a lot of practical solutions, but there’s no real ideological solution.
Any two-state solution or final status agreement that only offers a political programme which doesn’t resolve underlying ideological tensions, historical justice or memory, really can’t be a durable agreement – it won’t go to the heart of the issue.
From a practical perspective, Oslo didn’t do that. Also, it didn’t succeed because it didn’t have any of the enforcement or punishment mechanisms to prevent each side from routinely violating any interim agreement without consequence, and that’s a major problem. Oslo was built upon interim agreements that were supposed to lead to a final status agreement but as we know it never did – it really became a question of process and not peace; conflict management without any real conflict resolution.
I don’t know that any kind of practical solution that doesn’t take into consideration ideological concerns will ever be able to succeed. I also wonder how the two-state paradigm ever reached the heights of popularity and policy making consensus that it ever did. As a historian, the idea of partition has never been fundamentally accepted by the Palestinian community, including the early plans going back to the 1930s and 1940s.
I’m not saying that as a moral judgment of Palestinians and Palestinian leadership, I’m stating that as a historical fact – that the Palestinian community did not accept partition until this rare moment in the 1990s which may no longer be repeated. I don’t think partition was ever a concept they accepted fully as a part of their narrative.
Within the Israeli camp there has been a lot of debate about partition, the historical record shows that Israel accepted partition plans but then fought to increase the borders that they were allotted through warfare and other activities. So, I’m just not sure that a two-state paradigm was something that the historical record would have suggested would have been the best move forward.
About the other options: well that’s a big problem. We need to start hearing about a one-state solution, but not the one-state solution that we hear about in the news where x pushes y into the sea but a one-state solution that honours both Palestinian and Zionist national aspirations. But let’s be honest – Israel-Palestine isn’t Belgium, we’re not going to have a solution or some kind of federal or confederal model where everybody gets two seats on a municipal rubbish council and have people believe that this has the emotional satisfaction of both parties believing that this is really truly living out their national aspirations.
You’re certainly going to need some kind of creativity but the reality is that less than a one-state solution and any kind of federal solution, I think we’re really looking at a three-state solution given the issues of territorial continuity and the total political fragmentation between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah.
AJ: Could you give us a picture of maybe a couple of ways you think that’s possible or help us understand how that could take place. What would it actually look like?
SH: As much as a peace process, what Israel-Palestine needs is a kind of truth and reconciliation process – either before or during a negotiation of some kind of solution – because what is really happening here is that it’s not just about about how many settlers end up living in the Palestinian state or how they divide the water or what bit of land gets added here or subtracted there. It’s really what do these things mean in a larger context.
Both sides need to recognise each other’s history and the validity of their national aspirations. The actual understanding of ‘the other’ and addressing each other’s humanity and the resumption of peer-to-peer programmes would allow these people to really see each other and value each other. That in and of itself can’t make peace. It needs to happen on a national level; without some kind of coinciding framework that addresses the ideological issues, there’s really no way forward.
AJ: And a final question, when will your new book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 be published and once it is what’s next for you what’s on top of your research agenda once that’s on the shelves?
SH: The book will hopefully be out fall 2016 and I hope all of your readers and listeners will buy a copy. I really think there’s something there for everyone and it will give you a very different perspective on the Israeli settler movement than you may be accustomed to in the media or even in some of the scholarly literature which has preceded it. I’ve barely begun to think about my next project but I’ve been considering writing another book about Israel in American academia but from an historical perspective that takes into account some of the polemics that are happening today.