New York watch manufacturer Eugen Gluck had something to celebrate in November 2017. His granddaughter had just given birth to a child, Gluck’s 24th great-grandchild. A few weeks later, the Gluck family would preside over their 25th annual Bet El Dinner. Described as “one of the most highly attended and important events on the Jewish community social calendar,” the Bet El Dinner took place at the posh Marriott Marquis Ballroom in Manhattan every year until 2019, when Gluck passed away. Its purpose was to raise money for the Israeli settlement of Beit El (sometimes spelled Bet El or Bethel), which was built on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.
That same month, dread was spreading across Jalazone, a cramped Palestinian refugee camp in the shadow of Beit El. As part of a project to extend Beit El’s fortifications, the Israeli military closed the main road to Jalazone in November 2017. Ramadan Hmeidat, head of the local medical clinic, began witnessing hourlong traffic delays for patients and doctors. Hmeidat told the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem that the roadblock “leads to patient suffering and makes it very difficult for our team.” He noted that, “If there is a birth, a stroke, serious injury or fractures, time is critical.”
Six years later, the situation in Jalazone would grow more dire. After the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the Israeli retaliation campaign in Gaza, the war quickly spread to the West Bank. Israeli settler vigilantes attacked their Palestinian neighbors, driving several villages off the land entirely. The Israeli army raided Jalazone several times in search of alleged Hamas members. Two Palestinian locals were killed in the raids.
Baruch Gordon, head of external fundraising for Beit El, sent an unusual appeal on Oct. 10 to his email list of supporters. “We’re not spreading this message far and wide,” the subject line read. Beit El was raising money to protect “Yishuvim surrounded by Arab villages.” The Hebrew term “yishuv” (residential community) is often used by settlement supporters to erase the distinction between “hitnakhlut” (settlements) and towns in Israel proper. “The most sought-after, vital and literally life-saving item for defending the Yishuvim is a drone equipped with a thermal camera that detects approaching terrorists at night,” Gordon wrote. Supporters could donate online or write a check to Israel Empowered, a New York-based charity.
For years, the United States considered Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace in theory but was willing to tolerate them in practice. The Trump administration even proposed that Israel should annex the settlements. The latest escalations, however, have put settlers — and their connections to America — back on the agenda. In November 2023, the Biden administration announced a ban on unnamed Israeli “extremists attacking civilians in the West Bank” from entering the United States, and in February it imposed financial sanctions on four known settler figures. U.S. officials have also reportedly held up sales of rifles to Israel over concerns that they will be used in attacks by settlers.
Gordon told New Lines via voice note that the sanctions were a “huge miscarriage of justice.” He knows two of the sanctioned individuals, Yinon Levy and David Chai Chasdai. Gordon describes them as “farmers” and insists they were never convicted of a crime.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his sanctions announcement that Levy led a group that “assaulted Palestinian and Bedouin civilians, threatened them with additional violence if they did not leave their homes, burned their fields and destroyed their property.”
Blinken accused Chasdai of inciting the infamous February 2023 riot in Huwara that killed a Palestinian, in retaliation for the Palestinian shooting of two Israelis. Israeli authorities detained but did not charge Chasdai after the Huwara violence. In 2016, an Israeli court sentenced him to six months in jail after he was found outside a Palestinian village with gasoline and a club.
Gordon repeatedly insisted that Palestinian violence against Israelis is the real problem.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recorded 1,225 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in 2023 and 140 incidents of Palestinian violence against Israeli settlers.
Some Democrats have sought harsher sanctions against the settler movement than U.S. President Joe Biden is offering. In May 2023, five months before the current war started, New York State Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani proposed the “Not on Our Dime” bill. It would forbid tax-exempt charities in New York from supporting Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and allow Palestinians harmed by settlers to sue pro-settlement charities in New York courts.
A lot of money is at stake. An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that the settlements received $220 million in total from American charities from 2009 to 2013. Americans have donated millions more to settlements, settler militias and Israeli army units in the Palestinian territories since Oct. 7 through a platform called IsraelGives, according to The Guardian.
The donors to Israeli settlements include both Jewish and Christian Zionist organizations, with the latter subscribing to the belief that the State of Israel is fulfilling biblical prophecies about the Holy Land. Because these groups are considered nonprofit nongovernmental organizations under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code, Americans receive a tax break for the money they give to the settlement charities. (While many American diaspora groups have raised money for militant foreign causes, doing so through legal charities is rarer; several American nonprofits also provide Ukrainian fighters with drones, protective gear and training classes.) Mamdani’s bill seeks to take the subsidy away from donors to the settlements.
Much of the money moves through clearinghouses like the Israel Land Fund and Central Fund of Israel, making it harder to connect donors to the settlements they support. Critics of Mamdani’s bill have attacked it for exactly that reason. Because some pro-settlement organizations like the Central Fund of Israel also conduct work unrelated to settlements, several New York State Assembly members wrote in a May 2023 open letter that the bill was “a ploy to demonize Jewish charities with connection to Israel.”
Beit El and its American supporters are different. There is no question of where the money goes, as two charities are dedicated specifically to the settlement. The American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center funds a Beit El yeshiva, an academy where adult Jewish men study Talmud, the vast compendium of religious law and biblical commentary. Israel Empowered advertises its “special projects,” primarily a military preparatory academy, in the settlement. Gordon appears to oversee fundraising for both. Names of the donors are proudly inscribed on the sides of buildings.
The settlers indeed have a lot to thank their American benefactors for. The American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center took in from $1.8 million to $3.5 million every year from 2011 to 2021, according to tax records. Israel Empowered, which gained nonprofit status in 2015, has taken in from $56,000 to $151,000 each year since then.
Two of the most famous Beit El donors, David Friedman and Jared Kushner, later went on to take up prominent roles in the Trump administration. Friedman was appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, was put in charge of normalizing relations between Israel and various Arab states, mostly notably the Gulf monarchies. Media coverage of Beit El has often overlooked its less-famous American supporters. Many are respectable, pleasant, upper-middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs who live in the suburbs of New York City. Their social life and philanthropic work just happen to involve funding an ethnic conflict on the other side of the world.
For some attendees, the Bet El Dinner seems to have been an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses. An online forum for “frum” (pious) Jewish women includes a thread debating what to wear to the 2009 banquet. “Anyway, what should I wear to this huge dinner? They’re honoring our good friends. It’s at a very fancy hotel in NYC — shmorg[asbord] and dinner,” an anonymous poster asked. “I would wear a ritzy-looking suit with [a] diamond-looking necklace,” responded one reader, who recommended a store with “beautiful blazers downstairs.”
Others see Beit El as something like a hippie retreat. A pamphlet for the 2017 dinner quotes Laurie Moskowitz Hirsch, daughter of the late Irving Moskowitz, a prominent right-wing activist donor in both Israel and the U.S. She is described as a frequent visitor to the West Bank settlements “that her parents built.” Moskowitz Hirsch waxed poetic about the humble simplicity of the settlers, “who are living a life of sacrifice, yet always have a smile on their faces.” These visits were important for her own spiritual fulfillment as well.
“When I lived in Israel, I hiked all over the country. To every place that I came, there was a mind-body spiritual connection,” Moskowitz Hirsch said, according to the pamphlet. “It starts from the Tanach [Hebrew Bible] and extends to today. It’s a different connection than in Miami or Colorado. In Israel, I sense a deep belonging.”
There are, however, signals to donors that the project is about more than blazers and Bible study. The 2017 pamphlet also discusses Beit El’s “hotly-debated enterprise” to extend “Israeli sovereignty throughout our land, despite immense pressures to the contrary.” Videos played at the 2015 and 2016 dinners were filled with military imagery, showing off the military prep school that Israel Empowered now supports. It is named for the Gluck family.
Promotional materials claim that the school has allowed disadvantaged Mizrahim and Sephardim — Jews of Middle Eastern and North African heritage, long underprivileged in Israel — to “escape a bleak future of drugs, crime, and welfare.” One email list message bragged that 29% of alumni choose to stay in West Bank settlements after their army service.
The 2015 video showed off a “rest and refreshment stop for soldiers” built by youth in the settlement. “Our soldiers will have a nice place to come, have a seat, make something hot to drink and make good time with friends between activities in the army,” Beit El youth director Dasi Shtern said, as video of Israeli soldiers kicking down the door to a Palestinian home played in the background. The video was set to upbeat music.
Interactions between Israeli troops and the Palestinians near Beit El were not a “good time with friends,” to borrow Shtern’s phrase. During a protest by Jalazone residents in 2015, news crews filmed Israeli troops surrounding and beating an unarmed Palestinian man. The Israeli army promised to investigate. Speaking to Al Jazeera the following year, local psychiatrist Mohammad Absi said that he was treating about 100 victims of Israeli torture from Jalazone. In October 2022, the Israeli army shot dead two Palestinians in Jalazone who were allegedly trying to ram troops with their car, a charge the Palestinians’ relatives denied.
Gordon, the fundraiser, is a self-described vegan and yoga enthusiast. He often uses the American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center mailing list to promote articles about right-wing politics. In a February 2020 video lecture, he explained his worldview: “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.” The video featured a cartoon boot kicking cartoon Palestinians off a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Since the Oct. 7 massacres, his tone on the mailing list has grown more urgent. Gordon shared an article claiming that “Hamas and the general populace of Gaza are one and the same,” followed by a video calling for “a complete depopulation” of Gaza because “there are no innocents” there. Another article shared by Gordon calls for Israel to “spread the population of the Arab terror capital [Gaza] among various countries of the world” and resettle Gaza with Jewish Israelis.
The Geneva Conventions, the international treaties establishing the laws of war, state that a country “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Much of the international community, the United Nations and the Red Cross consider the West Bank settlements a violation of that rule. The United States held the same position until 2019, when the Trump administration declared that settlements are not “per se” illegal. Israel insists that the West Bank is merely “disputed territory,” which it calls by its biblical name, “Judea and Samaria,” rather than an occupied part of a foreign country.
The 2017 pamphlet includes a timeline of Beit El’s history in the settlers’ eyes. The prophet Abraham built an altar at Beit El (“house of God”) in 1737 BCE, as told in Genesis 13. Roman armies destroyed the altar in 170 CE. The timeline then jumps forward another couple of millennia to 1977 CE, when “15 Jewish families, primarily from the greater Jerusalem area, re-established the ancient Jewish city.” A lot of history had to happen first: the birth of the Zionist movement, which sought to create a Jewish state in the Levant; the partition of the Ottoman Empire into European colonial zones; and the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians.
But the single most relevant event for the creation of Beit El was the Six-Day War of 1967. From 1948 to 1967, the West Bank had been under the control of the Jordanian government. Jalazone was one of 19 camps set up by the U.N. to house Palestinian refugees in the territory. Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 war, and the Israeli army set up a military base on the hilltop overlooking Jalazone. Ten years later, the Israeli army veteran and future politician Yaakov “Katzele” Katz led a group of right-wing activists to squat on the base, which he declared to be the site of the biblical Beit El. Katz soon found a foreign guardian angel for his project, the American watchmaker Eugen Gluck.
Born in 1927 to a Romanian Jewish family, Gluck had survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II, then migrated to America after the war. He founded a watchmaking business and created the Armitron, one of the first successful digital timepieces, in 1975. Having risen from rags to riches, he put his wealth into a variety of nonprofit projects, from a volunteer ambulance corps in New York to holiday festivities in Jerusalem.
Gluck and his wife, Jean, were “a dynamic duo who transformed the bitter memories of the Holocaust into a lifetime commitment to the survival of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” according to a eulogy by Rachel Wolf, head of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center, which raises money for the Hebrew University teaching hospital in Israel.
It was Gluck’s support for the settler movement, the annual Bet El dinners he hosted, that really made him the talk of the town. The fundraisers became a way for Republicans, many of them Christian, to show their support for a maximalist vision of Israel. Three future Trump administration officials — Kushner, Friedman and future national security adviser John Bolton — showed up to the 2017 dinner, along with then-Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee (2008 and 2016) and Michele Bachmann (2012) appeared at previous dinners.
Other attendees were less famous than Bolton and DeSantis. The list of prominent Bet El Dinner supporters is filled with doctors, lawyers and small-business owners. Many hail from the Five Towns, a leafy patch of suburbia outside New York City on Long Island. Home prices in the Five Towns average around $1.1 million, putting residents in the ranks of New York’s upper middle class but below the city’s ultra-wealthy elite.
Alan Weichselbaum, Gluck’s son-in-law, now serves as treasurer of the American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center. In addition to running the Beit El center and a small-business accounting firm, Weichselbaum is on the board of his local synagogue. His address, listed on official charity documents, is a single-family house on a 6,480-square-foot property. In other words, he’s a picture-perfect suburban success story.
The village of Lawrence, one of the Five Towns, has a sister-city agreement with Maale Adumim, another Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Lawrence Mayor Ronald Goldman told +972 Magazine that his support for Israel was about “bonding with another democracy.” Asked whether the legal status of the settlements affected his choice of Israeli sister city, Goldman said that “politics is not our thing.”
Once a group of camper vans, Beit El has grown to look more like the Five Towns. The Forward, a liberal Jewish American newspaper, describes Beit El as a “radical settlement” with “the feel of a family-friendly Orthodox suburb, where children leave their bikes unlocked on the sidewalk and the main roundabout is decorated with three-foot tall sculptures of pomegranates, grapes and figs.” While many Israelis move to the West Bank in pursuit of cheap, government-subsidized housing, Beit El caters to a hard-line ideological constituency. Arutz Sheva, a right-wing media outlet founded by Katz, is also headquartered there.
The most famous American connected to the settlement may be Daniel Boim, a teenage yeshiva student who was shot dead by Hamas gunmen while waiting for a bus outside Beit El in May 1996. Boim’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Holy Land Foundation and the Islamic Association for Palestine, two Palestinian-American charities that they accused of supporting Hamas, and a U.S. court awarded the Boim family $156 million. Because the charities in question have since been shut down, the Boim family has spent two decades trying to collect the money from other, allegedly linked Palestinian-American organizations.
Palestinians are attempting a similar strategy to gain compensation for land lost to settlers. In 2017, dozens of Palestinian villagers and Palestinian-American activists filed a lawsuit against American charities that fund settlements, including the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, for trespassing and war crimes. The case continues to make its way slowly through the courts, which dismissed it and then reopened it on appeal. Lawyers for the pro-settler charities argue that the U.S. judicial system has no jurisdiction over “intractable political questions” in a foreign land.
But Israeli courts have ruled on those political questions. The Israeli government demolished two unfinished Beit El apartment buildings in 2015 after a court ruled on behalf of the Palestinian owners of the land, leading to riots by the settlers. According to an Israeli government document leaked to Haaretz, the settlement was built almost entirely on private Palestinian land, either confiscated by the Israeli government and turned over to the settlement or seized outright by Israeli squatters.
The contrast between the settlement and its neighbors is stark. Beit El has just under 7,000 people living on land that covers about six-tenths of a square mile. Jalazone, by contrast, hosts around 16,000 refugees — more than double the number of settlers — in a space about one-sixth the size of Beit El. “The houses here are so crowded, when you open a window, you find the window of another house. The streets are narrow, barely enough for a car,” Jalazone resident Fadl al-Rahami recently told Palestinian media.
That theme comes up over and over again in interviews with Jalazone residents.
“There was never an opportunity to leave the camp, due to the economic conditions that we live in,” an elderly resident told Palestinian journalist Murad Odeh in an Instagram video. “The worst part is the crowdedness. The crowdedness of homes, the crowdedness of living, the buildings on top of each other.”
The director of the Palestinian rock-climbing group Wadi Climbing, Momin (he declined to provide his surname), said in a text message that settlers from Beit El have been trying to encroach on the cliffs in the nearby Palestinian village of Ein Yabrud for several years now. He knew that the settlers were from Beit El “because it is the only settlement next to the cliff and every time we go there they come out.” He added that “Palestinian lands are prohibited for us, even for climbing use, just because there is [a] settlement nearby, so they want to make sure that settlers are comfortable to not see Palestinians around.”
Over the past year, he said, the settlers have begun bringing soldiers. Momin shared a video from February 2023 showing a group of Israelis atop a cliff near the village of Burqa. (The video is also posted to Wadi Climbing’s Instagram page.) Flanked by soldiers, one of the settlers shouts, “The Land of Israel is for Jews” in Hebrew at the climbers below. Another settler in the video appears to be Elisha Yered, who was banned from the West Bank by the Israeli government and placed under house arrest in August 2023 after allegedly shooting a Palestinian teenager in Burqa. Yered is from Yitzhar, a settlement an hour’s drive north from Beit El.
Another video, taken the day before last October’s Hamas attack near Gaza, shows soldiers hanging around a cliff near Ein Yabrud and questioning climbers.
“This is our property,” a soldier says in English, clutching his rifle. Told by a climber that the cliff is actually Palestinian property, the soldier arches his eyebrows. “We check if it is true,” he responds with an air of skepticism. Then he begins to search the climbers’ bags.
Gordon said in a text message that he is “not aware of this. If it’s at all true and I don’t know if it is, it’s probably lands owned by the state and not ‘a cliff that belongs to Ein Yabrud.’ 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.”
For all the fighting over land, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians in the region live as spaciously as the American suburbanites who fund the Israeli settlers. The 4-square-mile village of Lawrence has about 6,800 people, who thus have, per resident, about seven times the space of the Beit El settlers. Residents of the Five Towns mobilized in support of Israel after Oct. 7, setting up a warehouse in Lawrence to gather supplies for Israeli troops. Volunteers loaded pallets full of flashlights, first-aid kids and other army gear onto a forklift decorated with the Israeli flag. An ice cream truck offered free food to the volunteers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The appeal for drones, sent out to Gordon’s mailing list, has since grown into a “thermal drone matching campaign” run by the One Israel Fund, another charity based in the Five Towns that supports West Bank settlements. The group hosts tours of the West Bank and holds annual wine-tasting barbecues in the Five Towns to fund settlement security projects. Although it usually raises $3 million per year, the One Israel Fund took in $2.5 million in the month after Oct. 7, according to the Long Island Herald.
The One Israel Fund has been sending drones to settlements since at least 2020. The new drone campaign aims to provide Chinese-made EVO II quadcopters (small four-rotor drones that can be guided more precisely than conventional fixed-wing drones), which cost $6,500 apiece, Gordon said on the mailing list. The effort has so far raised over $162,000 with $180,000 in matching funds from a group of donors in Baltimore, according to the One Israel Fund website, which lists all of the donations. Some donors earmarked their drones for specific settlements. An ophthalmologist in Maryland donated $50,000 by himself. Another man gave $75, claiming in the comment section that it is “all I have right now. No cease fire until Hamas is gone.”
Palestinians have reported intimidation and harassment by drones. A photo of a metal object with the words “fuck all Arab” written in English on the side circulated on social media. It was allegedly dropped from a drone onto the Palestinian town of Qatana, an hour’s drive south of Beit El. A viral video, allegedly taken in Masafer Yatta at the southern end of the West Bank, shows a quadcopter broadcasting a threatening message from a loudspeaker. “We advise you to watch out for yourselves and your children,” the speaker says in Arabic, hovering a few feet from a Palestinian family’s balcony. “If anyone thinks of doing anything, we will reach him and kill him if necessary.”
Gordon said those reports were “utterly ridiculous to me. I have been eyewitness to events, after which the Arabs completely lie through their teeth as they are allowed to do according to their religion.”
The One Israel Fund did not respond to multiple emails asking for comment. Gordon insisted that the drones have already “detected movements which turned out to be Arabs on their way to attack Jewish civilians or property.”
On Nov. 7, a Palestinian man with a knife was caught on camera trying to breach the Israeli settlement of Ofra, one hilltop over from Beit El. That same day, dozens of settlers allegedly hurled rocks at Palestinian cars passing by Beit El, according to Palestinian media. On Jan. 14, the Israeli army shot dead two Palestinian teenagers driving by Beit El, who were, according to the army, trying to throw a Molotov cocktail at the settlement.
Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, head of Jalazone’s services committee, told Al Jazeera that Israeli troops have raided the camp “three to four times a week” since Oct. 7. The most intense raid came on Oct. 23, part of an Israeli sweep across the entire West Bank. The Israeli military claimed to have arrested 10 Hamas members and five other suspects in Jalazone that day, killing two people when locals allegedly threw rocks and firebombs at the troops. Three days later, Israeli forces demolished a Jalazone house, which they claimed belonged to a Hamas activist. On Nov. 29, the Israeli army launched a pre-dawn raid against a family home in Jalazone, blowing the door off its hinges. They arrested a 12-year-old Jalazone resident who still sleeps with his teddy bear, took him to prison without a parent or guardian and held him without charge.
Beit El, which grew out of a hilltop military base, hosts the nerve center of the Israeli occupation. The 887th Judea and Samaria Division, one of the military units responsible for the West Bank, is headquartered there. So is the Civil Administration, the office of the Israeli military governor. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visited the base on Jan. 14 and delivered a speech on the need for a pragmatic approach to Israel’s war effort.
“As for the settlers, I see them showing responsibility everywhere. The quantity of violent incidents is decreasing significantly,” the minister said in a speech. “The involvement of settlers in this issue is also limited. It is not about something that characterizes the settlements.”
Two days later, the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center mailing list advertised an online lecture by Rabbi David Samson, a Maryland-born cleric who used to deliver sermons at the yeshiva. In his American accent, Samson argued that Israel should not expect a supernatural miracle and needed to fight like the prophet Joshua had fought to conquer Canaan. But he also offered a vision quite different from Gallant’s practical nationalism. “Secular Zionism is far from understanding that the roots of the desire of the Jewish people to embrace a land and a country is because we are actually embracing God’s desire to have boots on the ground in the Middle East,” Samson said. “It’s God who’s in charge of international politics.”
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