Remaking Israel

ImageIn many ways, the state of Israel is a relatively unique postcolonial experiment. Brought into being as a philosophical and ideologically utopian solution to the “Jewish problem” of nineteenth-century Europe; granted sovereignty by the United Nations as an emergency solution to the problem of what to do with all the Jews displaced by the Second World War and the Holocaust; and ultimately forged in the crucible of war with both a dispossessed indigenous populace and surrounding Arab states; the state of Israel has been largely stable, mostly democratic, and economically prosperous in a region defined by instability, authoritarianism, and low standards of living. However, as Gershom Gorenberg’s 2011 book The Unmaking of Israel points out, the conditions that have made Israel generally exceptional are increasingly threatened by the undemocratic nature of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, and the dangerous entanglement of religion with both state and military.

ImageGorenberg, an Israeli journalist who has written frequently on Israeli domestic politics and the occupation for The Jerusalem Post, The American Prospect, and on his own blog, southjerusalem.com, is well known for his left-wing political stance both inside Israel and in the United States. And in many ways he is the ideal messenger for the bleak picture of Israeli democracy he paints in The Unmaking of Israel: an American-born Israeli, Gorenberg intimately understands the diaspora relationship to Israel and the history of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel; as a religious Jew, he also speaks with authority on questions of religion, and particularly the corruptions of Judaism created by religious entanglement with the state.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in Israel (I lived there for a year and have visited many times), is fluent in Hebrew, and does some work in the field of Israel Studies, I sometimes feel that I’ve heard all the arguments, on both sides, a million times. The positions are entrenched, and the primary actors never seem to budge much from their fixed stances. One of the brilliant things about this book is that it shakes up these traditional arguments and positions, presenting a novel and compelling perspective. Full disclosure: I am generally sympathetic to Gorenberg’s political positions and have been a fan of his work and his blog for a long time; a few years ago I helped bring him to speak at a synagogue of which I was a member. Many people might dismiss my positive feelings about this book as a product of my sympathies with Gorenberg’s views generally. But I think that would be doing this book a great disservice, because it reframes the question of “peace” as a domestic question about the character of Israel itself and the future of Israeli democracy, a shift in perspective that confronts the grave dangers Israel faces not from outside threats, but from within.

These threats, generally speaking, are divided into three broad categories that are, in turn, enmeshed with each other: the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the settlement enterprise, and state and military entanglement with and support of religion. There are, of course, many cross-categorized sub-issues here: unofficial and off-the-books state support of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, the political radicalization of ultra-religious settler groups, state support for a growing Orthodox officer class in the military that is more loyal to its rabbinic leadership than its army commanders, a growing population of ultra-Orthodox youth and adults who have little or no secular education and live off of handouts paid for by the tax dollars of the rest of the population, and many more. Gorenberg expertly and concisely explicates the complex historical circumstances and political decisions that led to the current state of affairs.

Although The Unmaking of Israel is a meticulously researched, historically grounded argument, one of its strengths is the presence of Gorenberg’s voice of outrage. He is outraged about both the corruption of Israeli democracy and the corruption of Judaism, and writes eloquently and passionately about the way the occupation has given rise to specious arguments about the rule of law and about religion. For example, Gorenberg writes about a book written in 2009 by two rabbis from a politically radicalized Orthodox yeshiva (religious academy) in the West Bank that justified the killing of “enemy” civilians by the military, even children, in direct contravention to the Israel Defense Forces’ own rules of engagement. Gorenberg concludes, “Without mentioning the Israel Defense Forces, the book is a broadside against the army’s rules on avoiding harm to enemy civilians….this is a full volume justifying war crimes, desecrating the faith in whose name it is supposedly written.” This is only one of numerous examples detailing the complicated web of interactions between settlements and settlers, radicalized rabbis and religious leaders, the state, and the military that point to what Gorenberg calls the “split in Israel’s personality” between an ostensibly secular, democratic state and a supporter of both occupation and religion.

Gorenberg’s account is strengthened by the deep historical context he gives to this split personality, which he claims, plausibly, stems from the pre-state ideological commitment of Zionism to settle the land of Israel. Before the establishment of the state, various arms of the Zionist movement sought to create Jewish settlements in various parts of Ottoman and, later, mandate Palestine in order to lay claim to land that might eventually be declared a Jewish state. Gorenberg places the misguided settlement enterprise in the context of the drive for settlement, contending that the Israeli leadership never truly made the transition from thinking like national movement to thinking like a state actor, and therefore continued with the nationalist drive for settlement of the land even in contravention of its own laws (not to mention international laws) against settlement in the occupied territories. Although this makes the settlement enterprise understandable within the context of Jewish, and particularly territorial Zionist, history, it only makes both the settlements themselves and the very ideology that produced them seem more inseparable than ever from the mechanisms of the state.

Unlike many commentators and historians who have written about Israel and the occupation, in The Unmaking of Israel Gorenberg offers a clear prescription for what ails the country. The last chapter, titled “The Reestablishment of Israel,” consists of a series of programmatic solutions, many of them eminently fair and practical, designed to set Israel back on course toward democracy and the rule of law. Generally speaking, these fall into three categories that roughly correspond to his major criticisms of the current state of affairs: “For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue – freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” Sounds beautiful, right? But as I read the specific steps Gorenberg outlines in order to move toward these goals, I became increasingly despondent. While they are all within the realm of possibility, especially since the last Israeli election, at this moment they seem more like a shimmering mirage on the desert horizon. Nonetheless, this thirsty traveler will continue to walk toward them, hoping that when I arrive they will turn out to be real after all.

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