Meet the suburbanites who fundraise for Israeli settlements
Bet El advertises itself to American philanthropists as something between a hippie commune and a frontier fortress.
Almost everyone knows that a lot of Israel’s settlers in the West Bank are Americans. Perhaps even more importantly, American donors pump a lot of money into the settlements. I just did a deep dive for New Lines Magazine on one pro-settlement charity in the New York suburbs; the research and reporting had started in September, but the publication timing worked out well, because the Biden administration has just announced financial sanctions on four settler extremists.
You should read the full article at the New Lines website. This Substack post is a place for me to put audio-visual supplements, since I can’t embed videos in a magazine. Some of the moments I wrote about are also very striking to see and hear.
This specific settlement, Bet El, has gotten a lot of media coverage because Trump administration officials Jared Kushner and David Friedman were donors. It’s easy to imagine the American Friends of Bet El charity as a faceless institution buoyed by a few rich ideologues. The reality, however, is a lot more complex. Many of the Bet El donors are normal middle-class suburbanites, for whom the Bet El project is one of many charities serving underprivileged Israeli communities.
Until 2020, the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center held an annual charity gala, where Bet El presented itself as a mix between a hippie commune and a frontier fortress. Here’s a video from 2015 (incorrectly labeled in the title) that captures the settlement’s pitch to donors: underprivileged Israeli kids, cheery music, military imagery. The video shows soldiers kicking in the door to a home, while a local matron talks about youths having a good time with friends, all set to saccharine music.
Baruch Gordon, the head fundraiser for the settlement, embodies both sides of the movement. He describes himself as a vegan yoga enthusiast, calls for the annihilation of Gaza, and claims that Arabs are untrustworthy because deceit is embedded their religion. Here is a 2020 sermon, called “the Morality of Conquest,” in which Gordon lays out his vision for “the Land of Israel.”
By “Land of Israel,” he means both Israel proper and the Palestinian territories, as the map shows. In other words, from the river to the sea, only Israel will be.
In many ways, Bet El’s combination of utopian dreams and revolutionary violence resembles the early Israeli leftists. There are some differences, though. To the Left, the Land of Milk and Honey was a Soviet-style collective farm. To the new settler Right, it looks more like a suburban subdivision. And Gordon is clearly drawing a line between himself and the secular Zionists, who often presented their project as another Enlightenment-era nationalism.
“The Hebrew nation's sovereignty over the Land of Israel is above all human rationality and reason, and it's for the benefit of mankind. If the inhabitants of the land accept our sovereignty on our terms, they can stay and prosper. If not, God is commanding us to destroy or expel them,” Gordon says. “The ultimate argument for the justness of our rights to live as a nation with freedom and dignity in our land is the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. Let’s not shy away from that.”
What does that sovereignty look like for the “inhabitants of the land”? A lot has already been written about settler violence against Palestinians. The Biden administration’s sanctions are a testament to that. Still, it’s worth reporting on the specific interactions between Bet El and its neighbors. I found a group of Palestinians who said that Bet El settlers were encroaching on neighboring villages’ property, with the help of soldiers. Here is a video of an interaction just outside of Bet El, taken on October 6:
Here’s another interaction the same group of climbers had with a different group of settlers, that more clearly highlights the interactions between settlers, soldiers, and locals:
In his response to me, Gordon insisted that “we respect purchased property rights. More often than not, when Arabs or anarchists claim land was stolen, it is NOT theirs, never purchased by them, and is state lands.” It’s not just “Arabs and anarchists,” though. An Israeli government report, leaked to Haaretz, stated that Bet El was built almost entirely on Palestinian land seized by the army or taken by Israeli squatters.
I recommend reading the full article on the New Lines website. There’s a lot more in there, and the editors put a lot of work into making sure the story was solid. I hope these images, though, help you visualize the whole story a bit better.
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