Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Science v. Stereotype

ImageSadly, the issues Carl Hart discusses in High Price, his memoir-cum-manifesto about drugs and drug policy in America, have been much in the news lately after the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hart is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia who studies the neuropsychology of drug addiction.  He also grew up in working-class and poor African-American neighborhoods in Miami and saw firsthand the social effects of both drugs and drug policies on his family and friends.  The book is an unusual but not unwelcome mix of personal reflection and scientific information about drugs and addiction drawn both from Hart’s own work and previous studies.  It’s an ambitious project, and I think he pulls it off adequately, but part of me wished that he had written a spectacular book rather than a good one, since the ideas it advances are so pertinent and necessary.

Let me explain: everything about this book is fascinating – Hart’s description of his youth and his scientific gloss on the psychological phenomena at work that he now understands; the empirical information about drug addiction that contradicts most of our dominant stereotypes about it; and his political prescriptions for correcting decades of failed drug policy in the United States.  The combination of this material makes for one of the most unique and interesting memoirs I’ve ever read.  The problem is that in his ambition to retain an authentic voice, Hart wrote the book largely by himself (as far as I can tell).  He mentions and thanks a writer with whom he worked to shape the narrative, but she is not listed as a co-author and, judging by the slightly stilted prose, probably did not significantly contribute to the actual writing.  I hate to make this criticism, because it’s a perfectly well-written book, and based on Hart’s own description of his education it was no small feat for him to get to the place where he was able to write it; it’s just not beautifully written, and there are awkward passages and descriptions here and there (including some weirdly graphic depictions of women’s bodies).  I wish it had been  more elegantly written so more people would read it and take it seriously, because it’s an amazing story and offers the most humane and logical solution to the problem of drugs that I’ve heard yet.

What is this solution?  Decriminalization of pretty much all drugs.  Not legalization, in which use, possession, and selling drugs would be unpoliced, but a policy under which the possession and use of drugs is punished by citation and not by criminal penalty.  This might sounds like a radical move, but it’s not unprecedented and it is largely supported by the scientific evidence produced in Hart’s own lab and in other studies.  Several U.S. states have begun to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, and the country of Portugal decriminalized all illegal drugs in 2001.  Combined with expanded treatment and counseling options, this has caused a decrease in drug-induced deaths and overall drug use in Portugal.  Of course, it costs a little bit up front (costs that are saved on the back end due to decreases in prosecution and imprisonment) and so, like so many public policy innovations in the U.S. that cost now but save later (universal pre-K, universal health insurance) it will never, ever be implemented.

Also, of course, I despair of the U.S. ever implementing this eminently logical, well-reasoned policy because DRUGS!  One of the things this book addresses is our dumb stereotypes about drugs, many of them fed to us by Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  Drug policy in the U.S. since the 1980s has resulted in the devastation of poor and African-American communities across America, creating a cycle of imprisonment, economic failure, and violence that has been cleverly blamed on the drugs themselves.  As Hart demonstrates both statistically and anecdotally in High Price, it is not drug use or addiction that has caused the community he grew up in to fray, but the unequal penalties and uneven enforcement of draconian drug laws that specifically target African-American and other marginal communities (the poor, the uneducated, the rural).  This book stands as a corrective to those stereotypes.

I hear Portugal is nice this time of year.

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New Year’s Resolution

ImageWow, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  The past semester nearly drowned me, and although I’ve been reading, I haven’t been writing anything that hasn’t been absolutely required of me in order not to make a terrible fool of myself (and then, I may have done that anyway).  As is somewhat usual by now, my world is a precariously balanced set of items – work, money, family, among others – that I have so far put together in such a way that they have not collapsed (yay, me!) but could, it seems, do so at any moment.  I’m in the middle of another uncertain (perhaps doomed) academic job cycle and the future looks fairly dim.  There’s a little pinprick of light out there, but it’s far away and I know I can’t count on it.  I wouldn’t in any way compare my current situation to the grieving, drug-addled Cheryl Strayed of her memoir Wild, but let’s just say the book resonated with me particularly well at the moment.  As I scroll constantly though a list of both sane and crazy options in the event that I don’t get a permanent position, I’ve added “Hike the Pacific Crest Trail” to my list, although I’ve thus far avoided thinking about the damning logistics of doing so with a young family.  Probably not going to happen.  Nonetheless, sometimes the idea gives me a little glimmer of hope, or just makes me smile.

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Cheryl Strayed

Strayed has a great story, but so many things about this book could have gone wrong: it could easily have veered into sentimentality, self-help platitudinousness (this has to be a word, right?), or hectoring.  But Strayed is a really good writer, and she keeps it simple, mostly allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions/life lessons/caveats from the situations she describes, avoiding many common pitfalls of a memoir of this type.  This is probably also why the book has been extremely popular, and why I found it resonated with me: although her situation is unique and her solution extreme, there is a certain universality of emotion and response described in the book.  I might be facing a different set of problems than she did, and I might not decide to solve them by dropping everything and unadvisedly hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with no preparation, but I’ve certainly felt whatever sense of grief and abandon that leads her down that path, and the idea (as noted above) certainly sounds tempting.  In other words, Strayed does a good job of allowing me (or you, or anyone) license to both feel the extremity of whatever it is that’s on our minds or in our hearts and follow that to its logical conclusion.  She doesn’t allegorize her story, but she offers it as an allegory to you.  Make of it what you will.  I appreciated the opportunity to escape into my own fantasies about living on houseboats or moving to a country whose language I don’t speak or disappearing onto the PCT.

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The Pacific Crest Trail

I won’t give away all the details of the story here, but Strayed, having lost her mother and gotten divorced within the space of a year and at an age when most people are thinking about graduate school, not marriage (much less divorce) or death, does a lot of stupid things and then decides, with the kind of clear thinking we expect from a grieving, possibly drug-addicted, immature person, to hike a good portion of the PCT, a wilderness trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian, through California, Oregon, and Washington.  Unfortunately, she’s never even really camped before, much less backpacked hundreds of miles on her own.  Despite her ill-considered decision (which she regrets within the first ten miles), she sticks with it, more or less, figuring out along the way how to do the things she doesn’t know how to do and making alterations to her route when it is proves impassable.  It’s not really a traditional tale of stick-to-itiveness or goal achievement, which is both the essence of the story and the source of its appeal.  If she executed her plan perfectly and emerged whole and healed from the experience everyone would smell a rat, despise her, and hate the book.  Instead, she mostly accomplishes what she set out to do, not quite in the way she set out to do it, and ends up in a better, but by no means perfect, place at the end.

Maybe the kind of messy reality the book winds up with is another source of my personal resonance with Strayed’s story.  Of course, I haven’t quite ended up where I thought I would, in senses large or small.  I’ll leave aside the bigger issues for now, but certainly as regards this blog I have no illusions that I will accomplish my goal by my birthday, which is now a few weeks away.  I really did think that it was an achievable mark, 40 books in a year, and maybe in another year it would have been.  I’m not giving up; I’ll try to post on as many books as I can before the 25th, but I’m not going to delude myself or chastise myself about my prospects.  I probably am not going to do what I set out to do, but I did what I could and at this point that has to be enough (I’ve been working on applying this principle to my professional life for years and I’ve been less successful; maybe this will help).  I do plan to keep the blog going, and I hope people will continue to read it.  I’m going to try not to beat myself up about it or call it a failure.  Rather, I’ll take what feels like a success – writing about what I want, sharing it with people, reading more books and thinking seriously about them – and leave everything else.  Part of Wild was about achieving tremendous goals, but an equally important part was about keeping those goals within the realm of the possible, or even the probable.  And that’s what I’ll take with me into the new year.

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Magic Undone

ImageIt seems uncharitable to admit that I was less than enthralled by Joan Didion’s memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.  I was expecting to love The Year of Magical Thinking, having been a Joan Didion fan since I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in high school.  And I didn’t exactly dislike the book, I just found it surprisingly flat for an account of such a difficult, turbulent time (Didion’s daughter was also mortally ill during the period about which she writes).  There were a number of wonderful moments in the book, and its circular chronology mimics the mourning process well, but on the whole it lacked some vital spark that seemed to leave it a little bit empty.

As I mentioned above, one of the innovative and interesting things about the book is its somewhat circular chronology, which moves slowly forward in time while always doubling back on itself and on memory.  Didion repeats events and memories, always from a slightly varied perspective, much the way the human mind does when preoccupied, anxious, or sad (at least this is true of my human mind, and I am narcissistically extrapolating).  She recounts the stages of grief not in a procedural way, but through a kind of formal mirroring in which the structure of the book elucidates the mourning process.

There were also many moments that seemed real in the way of shared secrets, things no one admits but everyone shares.  Didion recounts that the first night after Dunne’s death, she felt she absolutely had to be alone.  After considering it from several angles, she realizes, “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.  This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”  It is this very kind of magical thinking that we all naturally engage in, I think, when something unimaginable or tragic happens, and yet it is rarely disclosed.  We are so quick to pathologize any emotions, thoughts, or behaviors outside of our narrow norms that we often don’t share our “magical thinking,” although in some ways it is the very thing that makes us human.  This is the major strength of the book, and its value, despite its faults or lack of energy.

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Joan Didion

Here I must also admit that part of what turned me off of this book, despite the very real strengths I’ve described, was the kind of unthinking privilege Didion describes in her every memory.  She rarely acknowledges that her spontaneous family trips to Hawaii or celebrity life in Los Angeles are fantastic luxuries, available to few, or essentially none.  She jets back and forth from New York to L.A., spending weeks at the Beverly Wilshire hotel when her daughter falls ill unexpectedly in California.  I don’t begrudge Didion the time with her daughter for one minute, but the casual assumption implicitly contained here is one of normality, of universal experience, and I found it difficult to relate to the emotional truths contained in the shell of extreme and unacknowledged privilege.  Perhaps I am too sensitive because of my own straitened circumstances or my concern about privilege and its political and social consequences in the present moment more generally, but I found this consistently off-putting and it really affected my ability to sympathize, which, of course, a memoir about grief requires.

I wonder now if I reread Didion’s older work, writing I once loved and made me want to write, if I would have the same reaction.  I think I’ll let it live in my memory rather than reread it and risk losing it forever.

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A Defense of Difference (and Sentimentality)

ImageReading Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s epic tome on what he calls “horizontal identities” – conditions or situations that link people across familial, racial, and national categories – is a little bit like eating a gigantic ice-cream sundae: it’s delicious and you never want it to end at the same time that it’s overwhelming and at every moment you feel you might need to take a break.  What makes this book, which covers some very difficult topics in painstaking detail, both readable and enjoyable is Solomon’s gorgeous prose and his deeply empathetic sensitivity to his subjects.  Far From the Tree chronicles families contending with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple disabilities, prodigiousness, children born of rape, children who commit crimes, and transgender issues.  Solomon operates from the premise that, as he puts it, “Difference unites us….to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”  And as I read each of his chapters, none of which have any direct bearing on my own life, I nonetheless found myself relating to the people he profiled through this very premise.  It seems the ways in which people are different end up being very much the same.

Part of the success of the book is attributable to Solomon’s method.  He uses both statistical and historical exposition and personal anecdotes and stories to illustrate the complexity of each situation he covers, because, as he writes, “numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos.”  The book, while clearly written and perfectly organized, does not wrap its conclusions up in a neat little bow, but allows the kind of difference which is its very center to proliferate.  No one responds in exactly the same way to the same situation, or maybe its that no one’s situation is exactly the same, despite similarities, and Solomon includes as much variation as he can.  It’s not exactly chaos, since he controls it with an expert hand, but it’s definitely as close as one could get to experiencing human thought and emotion in its infinite variety.

This is another long book (over 700 pages, plus notes and bibliography), and it would be impossible here to chronicle all the myriad ways in which is succeeds (and the few in which it is less successful), but suffice it to say that as I read, in particular, the chapters on physical disabilities, it caused me to question some of my deeply held assumptions both about deaf people and dwarves, say, but also about myself.  This is a book that is as much about parenting and families as it is about medical and social outliers, and in that sense almost anybody will be affected by its conclusions and revelations.  And insofar as Solomon’s primary premise, about the ubiquity of difference, is true, we all can also see ourselves in the differences he describes, though ours may differ by shape or degree.

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Andrew Solomon

One of the greatest pleasures of this book, however, has nothing to do with its substance.  I’ve rarely read prose as rich or precise as Solomon’s; the only  other writer I can compare him to is Lorrie Moore, who is fearless in her prose in a similar way.  A tiny, tiny example, drawn from his chapter on prodigies, describing one of the musical prodigies he chronicles: “You may reach into his joy and pull out a surprising handful of sorrow, but when you examine that sorrow, you find it suffused with particles of joy.”  I mean, who writes like that?  It’s absolutely transcendent, and just the experience of reading the words on the page was often as great a delight as the things described therein.

It may sound strange to describe a book that chronicles such difficult subject matter, that I had to put down more than once out of emotion or frustration, as a delight.  But it transforms its difficulty into delight in a magical way that I can’t quite pinpoint.  This, of course, is the alchemy of truly great writing.  The magic is catalyzed by Solomon’s willingness to engage in (I won’t say indulge in, because it suggests a negative valence) sentimentality.  He writes, “I am unabashed by this book’s occasional whiff of rapture and reject the idea that beauty is the enemy of truth, or that pain can’t be the hare to joy’s tortoise.”  Insofar as he succeeds, yet another of the accomplishments of this book is that it repudiates myths of scientific and journalistic objectivity and a culture of irony at the same time.   The great strength of this book is its lack of embarrassment in the face of the rapturous, the sentimental, and the beautiful, all things we encounter far too rarely in literature or in life.

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Birding Your Way Through Life

ImageYears ago, when I was panicked about finishing my dissertation – I had also just had a second child and was trying to find a job, so there was really nothing much to worry about – I broke down while talking to my mother and she just said, “Bird by bird.  Bird by bird.”  She knew I would know what she was talking about because it was she, years before that, who had given me Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  Since then, the phrase has become a kind of replacement in my family for the empty, comforting clichés you offer to overwhelmed and anxious friends.  And I can’t count the number of times when, confronted with the chest-tightening panic of a deadline, or overdue bills and no money in the checking account, or a living-room floor covered in toys and a sink full of dishes an hour before ten people come over for dinner, I’ve whispered to myself, “Bird by bird.  Bird by bird.”

Unfortunately, although this is clearly a book with tremendous importance to me, I couldn’t remember any other lesson, even another idea, from its pages.  So I reread it, and discovered that (of course – I mean, this is Annie Lamott we’re talking about) it’s full of little gems of wisdom like “bird by bird.”  They aren’t all as pithy, but they’re all useful, and although the book is ostensibly about writing the advice contained within is probably as useful to a fork-lift operator or a pediatrician as it is to a writer.  I’m generally skeptical of advice and self-help books – in fact I hate them, because who are you to tell me how to live? – but there is something magical about Anne Lamott’s attitude, her funny self-deprecation, that makes her advice better, wiser, and worth listening to.

Re-reading this book also awakened me to the benefits of academia (yes, really!), which benefits I have really lost sight of lately in the fog of impending unemployment and a perpetually horrible job market.  So here it is: the one tremendous benefit of academia is that you must learn well and live by all of Anne Lamott’s best writing lessons or you’ll never make it, whether you know they’re her lessons or not.  No one finishes a dissertation without writing “shitty first drafts,” as she calls them, quieting the voices of perfectionism, or creating short assignments to complete.

Sadly, it also sounds like the world of professional creative writing is not so different from academia.  Lamott describes writing conferences where “students have come to me crying because the famous writer who critiqued their work that day had savaged it” and where colleagues’ harsh criticism made them feel like it was “the Lord of the Flies Writing Conference.”  I can’t count anymore the number of times I’ve seen a senior academic ridicule or embarrass a junior faculty member or a graduate student at conferences – it’s almost a rite of passage to be asked an unkind or tangential question by an older professor, especially for young female academics.  It doesn’t make it any better to know that this happens elsewhere, but it is always nice to know that assholes are everywhere, and not just in your own profession.  There is comfort in the crowd.  And one of the things that endears me to Anne Lamott and to Bird by Bird is her unrelenting compassion for us, writers and everyone else, who have been too harshly critiqued or embarrassed in front of colleagues or just left unsupported and unencouraged by those who should be our biggest cheerleaders.  It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded to be one of those cheerleaders when you can.

One of the reasons I started this blog was just to sit down and write without any of the professional pressure I feel when I write academically, to choose my topics whimsically and write spontaneously about them without fear of judgment and to no particular end.  I didn’t consciously remember it then, but it must have been Anne Lamott whispering in my ear.  Her core advice about writing in Bird by Bird is to do it for yourself, without expectation of accolades or even publication.  Like life, the act of writing itself is far more important than its outcome.

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Up Side of the Down Side

I really have to stop reading books by and about dead young people.  It’s too depressing.

ImageOr maybe not.  According to the premise of David Rakoff’s last book, a collection of essays titled Half Empty, the down side has its up side.  To be honest, this is a truism that I have carried in my bones, or perhaps my DNA, my whole life.  Yet only after reading the first essay in the book, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” could I put a name to this quirk of my personality: defensive pessimism.  The defensive pessimist assumes disaster in all instances, but unlike the dispositional pessimist – think of Eeyore – the defensive pessimist uses this assessment to take action, therefore generally avoiding disaster and ending up, if not happy, then satisfied.  I would add another neat side effect: if it is a disaster, the dispositional pessimist also tends to be satisfied, since his expectations were fulfilled.

My father is perhaps the most perfect case-study of the defensive pessimist on earth, and suffice it to say I have learned from the master.  A few years ago my husband had a hernia operation, and while sitting with him before he was taken to surgery, chatting and laughing, I suddenly realized that he was not worried about the fact that someone was about to sedate him and cut into his flesh with a sharp knife.  I asked him if he were nervous, and he said no.  Then I got mad.  To me, a lack of anxiety at a moment when it is obvious that something might go very, very wrong represents an insufferable naiveté.  The surgeon walked in.  Glancing at us, he asked, “What’s wrong?”  “I think he’s insufficiently anxious about his surgery,” I said.  “I’m not getting into this,” the surgeon said, and walked out.

So you see that I am constitutionally perfectly suited to love a book like Half Empty, and I did.  Aside from my identification with the topic, David Rakoff’s essays are wonderful, even when they are not being read by him in his slightly nasal Jewish-Canadian-New York voice.  The guy can turn a phrase like no other – to wit, his description of an older woman’s laugh as “the sound of rocks in a blender, a granite smoothie,” or a parenthetical observation about Brigham Young’s requirement that the streets of Salt Lake City be 132 feet wide: “Is this bit of hypertrophic urban planning just a standard issue paleo-Trumpism?  One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas?”  As always, Rakoff’s particularly incisive, slightly caustic brand of humor had me giggling and chuckling to myself, stopping to read the funniest bits aloud to my husband.

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David Rakoff

But the humor, though biting, is rarely at anyone else’s expense.  The thing I appreciate most about David Rakoff’s work, and this book is no exception, is its deep, almost reverent sincerity.  “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” which is largely an account of Rakoff’s own struggles to become a writer and take the risks necessary for creative production, is also a kind of extended confession and penance, it seemed to me, for saying something about another writer that he describes as “the only person in my entire life about whom I’ve said something purposely, gratuitously injurious and deeply unkind.”  The way we know what a mensch David Rakoff was (aside from the many, many eulogistic essays on his menschiness that appeared in print after his death) is that the thing he said, the thing it seems like he wrote this whole essay to atone for, isn’t even that bad.  I’m pretty sure I’ve said worse things in my sleep.

I like to think that this menschy quality is related to another of the aspects of Rakoff’s writing that I love: his unapologetic Jewishness, and his dedication to the most expansive and generous interpretation of Jewish identity.  Here, an essay-length meditation on the deliciousness of pork and its particular appeal to Jews becomes a sweet homage to the multiplicity of modern Jewish life (something I have written about on this very blog).  His ode to bacon becomes a kind of pride parade for Jews.  When he eats bacon, he writes, “It is this that I taste: the fact that I do not have to be ‘on the bus.’  I can, in fact, stand by the side of the road with a sign that says DOWN WITH BUSES! – or, more authentically phrased: BUSES? FEH! – and still be able to claim full and proud membership.  Which I do, emphatically.”  This is everything that is great about modern Jewish life in a nutshell – a funny, emotionally honest nutshell.  And that is David Rakoff’s genius.

Despite the charm and brilliance of these little literary gems, almost all of them were painful to read with the knowledge that the voice who spoke them is gone.  Especially painful is the moment in which, discussing his childhood, Rakoff writes, “I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between forty-seven and fifty-three years old,” because he barely made it to his ideal age.  Paradoxically, the last essay, about the cancer that would eventually kill him, ends on a hopeful note, the cancer excised, his left arm, which at one point he thought he would lose, intact.  But my knowledge of his death reminded me of another truism dear to all Jews, defensive pessimists, and crotchety old people (two of which I am, and one of which I am probably becoming): half empty is still better than the alternative.

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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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