Two articles, 1) extract from City on a Hilltop, 2) Larry Derfner reviews Sara Hirschhorn’s book
The Israeli settlement of Shilo in the West Bank. Photo by Emil Salman
How does a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?
By Sara Hirschhorn, Haaretz premium
June 03, 2017
This is an edited extract from City on a Hilltop:
Era Rapaport and the Jewish Underground (1980–1987)
The decade of the 1980s was a turning point in the occupied territories. Friction between Israeli settlers and Palestinians quickly intensified and a cycle of violence traumatized both communities. In response, a loose coalition of vigilantes – later dubbed the Mahteret (Jewish Underground) by the media – carried out a series of terrorist attacks against Palestinian leaders and institutions between 1980 and 1983.
Era Rapaport, a Brooklyn-born Jewish-American settler living in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, played a prominent role in the Jewish Underground as one of the perpetrators of the June 2, 1980, car-bombing of Nablus mayor Bassam Shaaka, which maimed him for life.
Bassam Shakaa being carried out of hospital after both his legs were amputated. His car, and those of two other mayors, were destroyed by car bombs planted by the Jewish Underground. Photo 2005 by Electronic Intifada
Rapaport’s turn toward terrorism was part of a prolonged internal ideological dialogue over liberal values and tactics in Israel/Palestine. This journey was self-documented in his 1996 quasi-autobiography “Letters from Tel Mond Prison” (modelled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), structured as a series of actual and reconstructed correspondence illuminating his transition from liberal to terrorist. In the words of his editor, Rapaport’s story attempts to unravel the complex puzzle of “How does a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a gifted social worker, a marcher for civil rights, a loving husband and father, end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?”
Era Rapaport was born in 1945 in Brooklyn, one of three children raised in a religiously observant household. Early in life, Rapaport became immersed in local Jewish and Zionist activism. As a teenager, he travelled in Jewish militant circles, joining a violent gang called the Hashmonaim, which combatted antisemitism in his neighbourhood. While an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in the 1960s, Rapaport became a passionate civil rights advocate and a visible proponent of African-American equality in New York City.
Rapaport’s first sustained contact with his roots in Jerusalem came as a foreign-exchange student at Yeshivat Mercaz Ha-Rav in 1966–1967. He credited the course as a formative experience that “changed my entire life” and inspired his decision to move to Israel.
In the winter of 1976, Rapaport, his wife, and his brother-in-law turned their attention to a new settlement project: the founding of Ofra, the first permanent community in the West Bank outside the Etzion Bloc. Shifra Blass, the first American-Israeli woman to live on site, recalled meeting Rapaport in the early days of Ofra – as she later attested, “He didn’t seem to me American enough to my taste, because all the wacky Israeli ideas everyone had, he thought were pretty good!” Rapaport too acknowledged the rift with native Israeli settlers, recognizing, “ I am a Westerner. I wasn’t part of the army that most of them had gone through, I wasn’t part of the culture, I was in a separate line.”
As skirmishes between the settlement and surrounding villages escalated, his constituents engaged in increasingly open debates about the use of vigilante violence, though they framed the use of force as reactive self-defence against terrorism. Rapaport became convinced that “my Western ways expressed weakness” and that survival in the settlements “forces people into doing what I did.”
After many discussions about possible activities, Rapaport either agreed to take part in, or, as he alternatively insinuates in his narrative, actually instigated a campaign to car-bomb three Arab mayors affiliated with the PLO. He would later characterize these acts as a “preventative action,” especially as they blamed these leaders for previous attacks against Israeli settlers. In an unsent letter to Rabbi Avi Weiss in May 1980, he agonized, “Era, where do you, Brooklyn born and bred, who studied social work because you love working with kids – where do you even come off thinking about attacking PLO mayors and putting yourself in prison?” Ultimately Rapaport conceded that he had reached an ideological and emotional threshold and saw the attack as a way of restoring calm in a “situation of no law and order.”
Ofra, one of the seemingly dormant, identikit settler towns which cause more anger and violence than almost any other manifestation of grabbing Palestinian land. Ofra was the first permanent community in the West Bank outside the Etzion Bloc. Photographed October 20, 2016 by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
In the early morning hours of June 2, 1980, a three-person terrorist squad surreptitiously entered the parking garage adjoining the home of Nablus mayor Bassam Shakaa and Rapaport planted a bomb beneath the chassis of his car.
Meanwhile, two other vigilante teams were dispatched to Ramallah and Al-Bireh to target city leaders there. When the mayors turned the ignition switches in their cars the following morning, the devices detonated, grievously injuring Shakaa, who lost both of his legs, and maiming the mayor of Ramallah, amputating his foot. The IDF discovered the third bomb in Al-Bireh in time, but it blinded the Druze soldier who attempted to disarm it. Rapaport’s cell remained undetected for months, even as other loosely affiliated groups within the Jewish Underground carried out further attacks against Arab targets.
In 1983 the Shin Bet finally began identifying perpetrators within the Jewish Underground. Rapaport promptly fled to the United States, living as a fugitive in New York City.
In spite of his shocking crimes, some friends reached out to assist Rapaport when his role in the Mahteret was revealed. Yet most of his American acquaintances were appalled, as Rapaport acknowledged in correspondence with his friend Aaron: “You wrote that you were surprised I was arrested for attacking Arabs. You would not have been surprised, you said, to learn that I had been arrested for demonstrating for their rights…. Era, what did Israel do to you?…. Are Arabs not people? My Judaism teaches ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Is the West Bank more important than that?”
Perhaps as a way of responding to this charge, Rapaport repatriated himself to Israel in 1986, avowing “that for a Jew it is better to be in jail in the land of the Israel than to be free in America.” He was sentenced to thirty months in prison, although he only served less than half his mandated sentence before returning to Shilo. He continues to live in the settlement and works as an Israeli tour guide.
Today, Rapaport is unrepentant. “Knowing that you’re going to maim a person is not an easy action to take,” he says, “but under the circumstances, non-action would have been harder.”
This is an edited extract from City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, published by Harvard University Press, $36.
Israeli settlers react as Israeli police mobilize on the second day of an operation to evict the hardline occupants and their supporters from the West Bank settler outpost of Amona, February 2, 2017. Thomas Coex/AFP
In her new book ‘City on a Hilltop,’ Sara Yael Hirschhorn explains how 1960s idealism and activism deeply informed the American Jews who began settling in the occupied territories in the ’70s.
“City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,”
By Sara Yael Hirschhorn,
Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $36
By Larry Derfner, Haaretz premium
June 03, 2017
At one point in the right wing’s civil (actually uncivil) disobedience campaign to stop the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the settler leadership invoked the name of Martin Luther King and compared their ranks to the ’60s civil rights protesters in the South – and I thought, Where do they get the chutzpah? If they’re the civil rights protesters, who are the Southern whites in this equation – the Palestinians? Do they really believe their press releases, or is this just an incredibly cynical con job?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s fine new book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” traces the origins of that PR exercise back, indeed, to the 1960s, whose idealism and activism, she writes, deeply informed the American Jews who began settling in the occupied territories in the ’70s. These ideological pioneers led a community that now numbers upwards of 60,000, comprising about 15 percent of all 400,000 West Bank settlers. Hirschhorn writes
“[M]ost of these new arrivals voted for Democratic Party candidates, and were politically supportive of and active in the liberal and leftist politics of the 1960s and 1970s, including the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War struggle prior to their immigration to Israel. Thus, the portrait that emerges is one of a group of youthful, idealistic, intelligent, and seasoned liberal American Jewish Zionist political activists who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler enterprise.”
American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement by Sara Yael Hirschhorn, published by Harvard University Press, $36.
They’ve come a very long way, and not just geographically. So what happened to these people? The change, writes Hirschhorn, a lecturer in Israel studies and Jewish studies at Oxford and a contributor to Haaretz, began years before they reached Israel – with the big bang of the 1967 Six-Day War, which of course electrified American Jewry as a whole. Soon they found themselves alienated from the antiwar and minority movements they’d supported before. “American Jews of the New Left, who had cheered Israel’s victory in the 1967 war,” the author writes, “suddenly realized that Zionism was no longer seen as the national liberation movement of the Jews, rather as a colonial and oppressive anathema.”
Then came the movement for Soviet Jewry, which combined ’60s-style activism with Jewish nationalism and anti-Communism, and the young idealists, who as a rule grew up with a strong Zionist background, were now fired-up Jewish right-wingers, whether they knew it or not, and the adventure of settler pioneering in the land of the Bible, the chance to make Jewish history, called to them.
Yet years and decades after they came to live in the occupied territories – the book, which follows them in the West Bank and, briefly, in Sinai – they went on promoting their cause as a new Zionist version of Selma. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the pied piper of Manhattan modern Orthodoxy who went on to found Efrat (nicknamed with a mixture of self-deprecation and defiance as “occupied Scarsdale”), never tired of repeating that he marched in Selma with King. As Hirschhorn tells it, “Riskin was arrested at a sit-in protesting the evacuation of Efrat’s illegal outpost while cloaked in a tallit (ritual prayer shawl), holding a Torah scroll, and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with a circle of American Jewish activists as they locked arms in civil disobedience.”
US-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Arrested at Selma protesting against racism with Martin Luther King; arrested in Israel for protesting against the evacuation of Efrat’s racist settlement. Photo by Emil Salman
Then there was Era Rapaport, a member of the 1980s Jewish Underground and author of “Letters from Tel Mond Prison,” which, Hirschhorn notes, was “consciously modelled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’” In it, he asks,
“How does a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a gifted social worker, a marcher for civil rights, a loving husband and father, end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?”
Then there was Yehiel Leiter of Scranton, Pennsylvania, an erudite spokesman for the Yesha Council of settlements and one-time Kahanist, whose writings, in Hirschhorn’s description, “seamlessly combine U.S. history and Israeli hawkishness, liberal rhetoric with resistance to the peace process, civil disobedience with religious doctrine, and American political philosophy with settlement promotion.”
And there was Shmuel Sackett of Queens, a member of Kahane Chai until it was outlawed in Israel, and the devoted strategist and sidekick of former Likud MK and still-prime ministerial hopeful Moshe Feiglin, a sabra Arab-hater and author of the 2009 essay, “I Am a Proud Homophobe.” During Sackett and Feiglin’s attempts to bring Israel to a standstill in protest against the Oslo Accord, for which they were convicted of sedition, they inspired protesters to hold signs reading, “Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Moshe Feiglin.” Hirschhorn writes: “With his new consciousness as a liberal, Feiglin formulated a vision of ‘Walden in the West Bank,’ citing everything from the Talmud to Thoreau to justify his theories of nonviolent civil disobedience.”
‘Turn the other cheek’ is not a Jewish ideal
Naturally, the book has a section on the most infamous American settler of all, Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron on Purim 1994. Hirschhorn writes that most of the activists were appalled by the massacre, but also felt unfairly stigmatized by it. “We’re all tagged as ‘settlers,’ and with that word alone we’re already put two pegs below everyone else,” says Bob Lang of Nanuit, New York, who would become religious affairs director of Efrat. “After the massacre, those of us who are Americans dropped down another peg. Now we’re all seen as Baruch Goldstein.”
Yet Hirschhorn notes that a “radical fringe of Jewish-American settlers was deeply inspired by Goldstein’s heinous massacre of innocents.” Mattiyahu Alansky, a New York native in Kiryat Arba, told her, “We are proud of what he did. He has given us pride as Jews. He is a hero. People may have died, but he has given life to the country.”
The American settlers, like so many non-American settlers, speak nostalgically about their friendly, neighbourly relations with the Palestinians before the first intifada came in the late ’80s and ruined everything. “For many the price they paid was the reappraisal of their own liberal American identities and their position toward their Palestinian neighbors,” Hirschhorn writes.
“‘It was peace, love, and happiness when I first moved here,’ maintained Murray Allon, formerly from Brooklyn, in 1991, invoking the hippie slogan of the 1960s, ‘I thought we’re making peace with the Arabs by living with them. They work with me, I visit, they visit. I thought we were moving in the right direction, but the intifada threw me for a loop.’”
One of the good things about Hirschhorn’s approach to her subject is that on the one hand, she makes it clear she disapproves of the settlements and the occupation, and is very dubious of the high-minded claims her subjects make in defence of their cause. She speaks of the “cognitive dissonance” generated by “the clash between Jewish-American settlers’ liberal personas and their illiberal project.” Yet Hirschhorn doesn’t keep pounding away at that point – she tells the big story, but gives her protagonists room to tell their personal stories.
In this Sept. 5, 2011 photo, Jewish settlers stand on the rubble of a house demolished by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank settlement of Migron. Photo by Sebastian Scheiner/AP
The book is the product of a decade of research, including interviews with several settler activists. Except for a few lapses into “academese” in the introduction and conclusion, it’s written in strong and graceful narrative prose and reads like a good non-fiction book.
Hirschhorn writes that it is not her aim to psychoanalyze these settlers, to explain how they can think of themselves as the descendants of black civil rights marchers, of Lincoln, of the Founding Fathers, when they can hardly fail to notice that in the West Bank they are the lords of the land, and that the millions of Palestinians around them live without the most basic civil rights and under the control of an enemy state and its army.
After leading Efrat’s victory over its Palestinian neighbours to keep the illegal outpost Givat Hadagan, Riskin can still say,
“We’ve worked hard to develop a reputation for fairness toward our Arab neighbours,” while adding,
“[T]his land is too small for a separate Palestinian state. It’s a prescription for war, and I don’t want to commit suicide – that’s also an ethical value. ‘Turn the other cheek’ is not a Jewish ideal.”
Yet while the author leaves the psychological issue aside, it’s an inevitable question for the reader to ask: How can these people think of themselves as activists for equality, for democracy? If those are their ideals, how can they not see the abject hypocrisy of what they’re doing? It would have been interesting to see Hirschhorn press her interviewees for their answers and see what they come up with, but that doesn’t happen.
Israeli settlers carry the body of Nathaniel Ozeri, who was killed in a Hamas attack, in January 2003. Ozeri cowrote a book praising Baruch Goldstein.AP
For this reader, the answer is that theirs is the psychology of all ultra-nationalists (including the inverse nationalists of the ultra-left): Their cause is everything good and pure. Because these are Americans who came of age when they did, their formative symbols of goodness and purity are Martin Luther King, civil rights, etc. How much of this is honest belief and how much is spin? For ultra-nationalists, the line gets erased: Whatever serves the cause becomes true.
“Borrowing from anthropologist Kevin Avruch’s description of his own work, this book too is ‘half about “Jewishness” in contemporary America, and half about “Americanness” in contemporary Israel,’” Hirschhorn writes. I don’t know how important the story of American Jewish settler pioneers is to the story of American Jewry, nor how important these people’s story is to the Americanization of Israel. But theirs is a unique story in both contexts, one from the extremes of American Judaism and of Israeli “Americanness,” and a compelling story, too, as told in “City on a Hilltop.”
Larry Derfner is the author of the memoir “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (Just World Books), which was published in April.