February 26, 2020

Israel’s ‘Unmaking’

No book review I’ve written for The Jewish Journal has prompted as much feedback as the one I wrote about “A New Voice for Israel” by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street. His argument that Israel must make uncomfortable compromises and take dire risks in order to secure peace with the Palestinian Arabs is clearly unsettling to a great many Jews, both in Israel and America.

But Ben-Ami will find a kindred spirit in Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli author (“The Accidental Empire”) and journalist who comes to some of the same conclusions in “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins: $25.99), which he describes as “a selective and personal journey through Israel’s past and present, for the purpose of presenting an argument: that Israel is unmaking itself, and must put itself back together.” Gorenberg provides a deft but penetrating and highly nuanced account of the recent history and current politics of Israel, and he offers a prescription for curing the ills that afflict the Jewish state.

“Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation movement of the Jews,” Gorenberg begins. But the land on which a Jewish homeland was to be built was also the homeland of an Arab community. “Seen from the shores of Palestine, Zionism was a movement of foreigners coming to settle the land, to colonize it.” The struggle between these contending points of view must be put aside, he writes, if we hope to find a path to peace.

What’s at stake, according to Gorenberg, is nothing less than the character and destiny of Israel itself. “[A]t the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself apart,” he writes, referring to the history-changing victories of the Six-Day War. “Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the ideal of democracy. … The settlement enterprise was a multi-pronged assault on the rule of law. … [T]he government’s support of settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism into a movement of the radical right.” Above all, Gorenberg insists, all of these trends “now threaten Israel’s democratic aspirations and its existence.”

The current crisis, as Gorenberg demonstrates, can be seen as an accident of history. He reminds us that the founders of Israel lived in a world where the exchange of populations was one of the tools of geopolitics, and “it should be no surprise that Zionist leaders thought about transfer.” Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled from Israel during the War of Independence, a kind of de facto population transfer. By 1967, however, an even greater number of Arabs were back under Israeli rule. Thus began the “unmaking” of Israel, as Gor-enberg puts it.

The dilemma, of course, is that Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic for very long if its population includes a substantial and growing number of Arabs. Then, too, Gorenberg points out that Jewish settlement in the West Bank was undertaken by what he calls a “radical religious culture” that was itself a danger to democracy.

“A new generation of settlers has come of age, as radical or more in its theologized politics, alienated from the institutions of the state that have so assiduously fostered its growth,” he writes. “The meaning of these changes is a democracy in greater danger, a state that is weaker and less capable of ending the occupation.” Indeed, he puts it even more bluntly: The radical fringe of the settler movement “barbarized Judaism” by encouraging the kind of violence that ultimately took the life of Yitzhak Rabin.

Gorenberg warns that the growing role of observant Jews in the Israeli army is itself an obstacle to peacemaking. Only 9,000 settlers were removed from Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces, but no fewer than 65,000 Jews — and possibly many more — would need to be removed from the West Bank under even the most grudging version of an Israeli withdrawal. “The army would have to confront a young generation of settlers determined not to repeat the ‘shame’ of Gaza,” he points out. “Yet since 2005, the army’s dependence on soldiers coming out of the Orthodox academies … and other yeshivot aligned with the theological right has increased.”

Gorenberg is quick to characterize himself as “a religious Jew” and “an Israeli by choice.” He issues a heartfelt and heart-rending plea for the repair of the Jewish democracy: “I write from an Israel with a divided soul,” he writes. “It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them.”

“For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes,” he concludes. “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. … Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

Gorenberg does not provide us with much reason for optimism that any of these things will happen soon, or at all. But he seems to embrace the old Zionist aphorism — If you will it, it is no dream — and he sees something uniquely Jewish in the argument that he hopes to provoke in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.

“This, perhaps, is the best definition of a Jewish state,” he concludes, “the place where Jews can argue with the least inhibition, in the most public way, about what it means to be Jews.”