How Cultural Anthropology Illuminates West Bank Settlements

In a new volume co-edited by Assistant Professor of Religion Rachel Feldman, scholars investigate the politics of "indigeneity" in the West Bank.

Cultural anthropologist Rachel Feldman says that she didn't understand the Palestinian perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict until she traveled to the West Bank after college to study Arabic.

"Growing up in the American-Jewish community, Palestinian narratives were omitted from my education," says Feldman, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion. "My experiences in the West Bank during those years were transformative."

As her colloquial Arabic improved, Feldman bore witness to oral histories and accounts of loss and displacement. "Palestinians were no longer an abstract and dehumanized category," she says. "I was exposed to the incredible complexity of Palestinian society, rich musical and literary traditions, thriving university life and artist scenes, and families who had been farming their ancestral lands for hundreds of years. As a Jewish-American woman eager to just sit and listen and learn, I was welcomed warmly and hosted with unforgettable generosity. " 

While spending time in refugee camps in Ramallah and Bethlehem, Feldman listened to Palestinian grandparents recall their experiences during the 1948 War (what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe), when they were expelled from their villages by Jewish militias or fled out of fear and then were prevented from returning by Israeli forces after the war. 

Feldman says that she was also exposed to the realities of life under military occupation that Palestinians in the West Bank face as they live under Israeli martial law without the legal protections that Israeli settlers enjoy as full citizens of Israel. "While participating in non-violent joint Palestinian and Israeli demonstrations against these injustices, I witnessed house demolitions and the theft and destruction of agricultural lands that Palestinians endure as Israeli settlements continue to expand."

"As educational as this experience was, it was also deeply challenging and traumatizing for me as a Jew to witness violence carried out by other Jews in the name of Jewish safety and sovereignty," Feldman says. "It was painful and confusing to see Jews, my people, victims of centuries of persecution and genocide, now playing the role of victimizers vis-a-vis Palestinian civilians."

Ultimately, Feldman's experience in the West Bank left her with a burning desire to document and illuminate the identity and history of West Bank settlers. The topic became an objective of her doctoral fieldwork and led to a new co-edited volume, Settler Indigeneity in the West Bank

In a Q&A, Feldman discusses the genesis of the book, her own chapter on how young Jewish women are socialized into the settler movement, and how a chapter by the late scholar Hayim Katsman, who was murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7, honors his work as a creative and deeply engaged researcher and activist. 

What prompted you to continue your research on Jewish settlers in the West Bank?

It would have been easy to leave my experiences in the West Bank and think about Jewish settlers as an abstract and dehumanized category that I could project anger at for all that I had witnessed. But my recent master's studies in anthropology had already taught me differently. I could humanize them, study their life histories, and understand their various socioeconomic and ethnic identities. I could examine the structural conditions and ideologies that had brought them to the West Bank. And I could do this with empathy and sensitivity towards settlers as complex human beings without normalizing, obscuring, or condoning the larger system of structural violence in which they are nested. 

If Israel's military occupation of the West Bank was going to end one day, and a just and peaceful solution achieved, understanding the nearly half a million Jewish settlers living in the West Bank would have to be a key part of this process.

During the summer of 2014, you enrolled for a one-month course in a women's seminary primarily serving international Jewish women in the process of becoming religious or completing a conversion to Orthodox Judaism through the Israeli rabbinate. How did this experience influence your research on Israel's religious right wing?

When I first began my doctoral studies, most of the research on the settler demographic in the West Bank came from the disciplines of history, political science, or Jewish thought. I wanted to use anthropological tools of immersive participatory fieldwork to enter the daily lives of West Bank settlers. I was particularly interested in the socialization experiences of young Jewish women, coming from abroad, who enrolled in West Bank seminaries and became exposed to religious-Zionist ideologies that consider Jewish settlement in the West Bank to be a divinely sanctioned project with messianic implications. 

I was genuinely curious to understand: How did young Jewish women become convinced that settlement in the West Bank was a sacred mission and a return to an "indigenous" Jewish heritage? (In my interviews, the word "indigenous" came up frequently, alerting me that this was an important concept that I would have to document and later unpack its meaning and co-optation in this context). 

But the real significance of this experience in 2014, with regards to my broader, decade-long research on Israel's religious right-wing, was that it gave me a crash course on religious-nationalist society in Israel. This is a particular demographic with its own history, ideologies, cultural references, dress codes, and social norms within Israeli society. I needed this kind of immersive experience to learn firsthand about this particular religious culture before continuing on to what would become my doctoral fieldwork on the Third Temple Movement, a biblical revival movement based in Jerusalem and the subject of my forthcoming book, Messianic Zionism in the Digital Age.

This edited volume explores what Israeli settlers mean when they say they are Indigenous. How does this support the legitimization of their presence in the West Bank?
In short, over the past decade "Jewish indigeneity" discourses have proliferated amongst pro-Israel advocates, and they have become an important political resource for Israel settlers who counter claims that their presence in the West Bank is illegal according to international law. Indigeneity discourses allow settlers to either obscure or morally justify the displacement, dispossession, segregation, and military control of their West Bank Palestinian neighbors. Claiming indigeneity allows settlers to reframe Palestinians as the foreign "occupiers" or as relative newcomers to the land and to frame Jews as the "true natives" of the land with a historical lineage that dates to biblical times. 

Using ethnographic fieldwork, we reveal in the volume that the mobilization of Jewish "indigeneity" for political legitimation is not just a discursive phenomenon but an embodied practice that is enacted by settlers themselves. Each chapter examines different modalities through which settlers attempt to cultivate and live a form of "Jewish indigeneity" in the West Bank through various case studies focusing on religion, agricultural practices, tourism, and mimicry of Palestinians, etc. 

I want to be clear that this book is not a debate about the relative "nativeness" of Israelis or Palestinians and "who is more native to the land." Rather, the book illuminates the ways in which such a debate is fundamentally flawed. For example, both Jews and Palestinians have deep historical connections to this land, and to try to argue whose is more valid today demonizes and dehumanizes either Israelis or Palestinians—and this is counterproductive to advancing a vision of equal rights and belonging.

The idea that there is one objective measure of "nativeness" has been deconstructed extensively by scholars working in the field of indigeneity studies. Building on this important literature, we begin our volume with the premise that concepts like "native" are not natural categories but products of colonial encounters and power relations. In other words, the native does not become indigenous, primitive, or uncivilized until they stand vis-a-vis the colonizer. 

In the case of the West Bank, Jews are claiming indigeneity to validate territorial annexation even though they, as settlers, are clearly positioned on the side of the powerful, as protected citizens under the shelter of an expanding Israeli state. 

Some scholars argue that any attempts to compare Zionism to European colonial projects amounts to a form of antisemitism. How do you respond to those who object to settler-colonial theory informing the academic study of Israel?

Those who have objected to settler-colonial theory informing the academic study of Israel often claim that the Israel-Palestine conflict is beyond historical comparison, and moreover, that any attempts to compare Zionism to European colonial projects amounts to a form of antisemitism and a denial of the Jewish right to self-determination. It is true that accusations of settler-colonialism are sometimes mobilized politically in such a way that can cross a line into antisemitism (specifically when they are used to imply that Israelis are simply European colonists who can be removed from the land or have a home to return). But that is not true in all cases or contexts in which this term is used as an analytic tool to better understand certain Zionist ideologies and the historic displacement and dispossession of Palestinian populations.

It is possible to examine settler-colonial dynamics on the ground, and settler-colonial state policies, without dehumanizing or delegitimizing the rights of Israeli individuals to live in their homeland. Just because Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jews does not mean that Jews who have immigrated there over the last 100 years have not done so in settler-colonial ways, with regards to their structural position vis-a-vis Palestinians and Zionist modes of political thought. For example, early Zionist leaders like Theodore Herzl and Ze'ev Jabotinsky framed Zionism explicitly as a colonizing and "civilizing" project and, as products of their late 19th century European cultural milieu, did not see this as problematic.

Speaking honestly about settler-colonial dynamics helps refute the Zionist myth that Palestine was an "empty land" waiting for the Jews to return. The creation of a Jewish homeland was enabled by the mass dispossession and displacement of the native Palestinian population living there in the 20th century—dynamics that continue to this day.

On Oct. 7, eight days before the book was published, contributor Hayim Katsman was murdered by Hamas terrorists in his home on Kibbutz Holit in southern Israel. In his chapter, he focuses on a religious settlement in the Halutza Sands—the only chapter in the book that does not focus on the West Bank. Why did you choose to include this chapter, and how do you hope Katsman's legacy will inform how Jews and Palestinians might move closer to lasting peace

We chose to include Hayim's chapter precisely because it provided an interesting counterpoint to the others, highlighting the processes of settler identity construction in a region with no prior record of Jewish settlement.

His case study also highlights the fact that we cannot simply look at settlement expansion in the West Bank and cordon it off neatly as "the problem" while pointing to the moral superiority of "Israel proper." Rather, in his chapter on the Halutza Sands he reminds us that an ethos of exclusive Jewish domination over the land has never been confined to the West Bank, and if such an ethos continues to exist it may not be possible to break the cycles of reciprocal violence. 
Hayim was determined to understand the political rise to power of Israel's religious right wing, which he viewed as a serious obstacle to the establishment of a just and lasting peace. Even though he disagreed with the ideologies of his interlocutors, he does not blame or demonize individuals in his writing. Rather, he presents religious settlers in a complex and deeply humanizing manner, he sees them as part of a much bigger matrix of power, inequality, reciprocal violence that must be dismantled for the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians.

But Hayim was not just an armchair academic. He was also actively trying to create a world in which, I quote Hayim, "Israelis and Palestinians both are able to live full lives as equals under the law." Hayim embodied the engaged scholar-activist. He worked in solidarity with Palestinians to oppose the injustices of life under military occupation. Hayim belonged to a small but tremendously courageous cohort of Israelis who dare to cross over a segregated landscape to extend a human hand to Palestinians and to affirm multiple narratives of belonging to the land.

Hayim's publications demonstrate the intellectual and methodological rigor he brought to his work, and his deeply sensitive and compassionate nature as a researcher bearing witness to the stories of others, even those he did not agree with. His work serves as a reminder that we can strive for creative political imagination even as we sit in our pain, mourn, and condemn. By engaging in creative intellectual and political thought, we honor Hayim's life.