The New York Times Book Review
The Unmaking of Israelby Gershom Gorenberg
In this penetrating and provocative look at the state of contemporary Israel, acclaimed Israeli historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg reveals how the nation’s policies are undermining its democracy and existence as a Jewish state, and explains what must be done to bring it back from the brink. Refuting shrilldefenses of Israel and equally strident… See more details below
In this penetrating and provocative look at the state of contemporary Israel, acclaimed Israeli historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg reveals how the nation’s policies are undermining its democracy and existence as a Jewish state, and explains what must be done to bring it back from the brink. Refuting shrilldefenses of Israel and equally strident attacks, Gorenberg shows that the Jewish state is, in fact, unique among countries born in the postcolonial era: It began as a parliamentary democracy and has remained one. An activist judiciary has established civil rights. Despite discrimination against its Arab minority, Israel has given a political voice to everyone within its borders.
Yet shortsighted policies, unintended consequences, and the refusal to heed warnings now threaten thoseaccomplishments. By keeping the territories it occupied in the Six-Day War, Israel has crippled its democracy and the rule of law. The unholy ties between state, settlement, and synagogue have promoted a new brand of extremism, transforming Judaism from a humanistic to a militant faith. And the religious right is rapidly gaining power within the Israeli army, with possibly catastrophic consequences.
In order to save itself, Gorenberg argues, Israel must end the occupation, separate state from religion, and create a new civil Israeli identity that can be shared by Jews and Arabs. Based on groundbreaking historical research—including documents released through the author’s Israeli Supreme Court challenge to military secrecy—and on a quarter century of experience reporting in the region, The Unmaking of Israel is a brilliant, deeply personal critique by a progressive Israeli, and a plea for realizing the nation’s potential.
The New York Times Book Review
A Jerusalem-based journalist presents his exegesis on how Israel came together and how he sees it coming apart.
American Prospect senior correspondent Gorenberg (The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, 2006, etc.) recounts the history of the lone democracy in the Middle East, as well as the faults peculiar to democracies and their guarantee of free speech. He presents an earnest survey of the resentful discourse, internecine political battles and other endemic problems besieging the small nation. In cities across Israel, the religious right has moved into Palestinian conclaves. Settlements outside the contested Green Line were established without permits, and West Bank homesteaders erected residences without seeking permission. Against biblical injunction, ancient and productive Arab olive trees were destroyed. Religious fundamentalists claim "The Whole Israel" as their legacy. Can or will the army or the police disengage the increasing cadre of settlers from the occupied territories? Parties are divided. Jewish civil-rights groups sue, but some Supreme Court victories simply languish and are not enforced. Israel's split personality engages zealots of all stripes, but the rule of law, ignored at times, still exists as nowhere else in the region. Employing considerable and powerful selective history, the author is, for the most part, passionately persuasive. His concluding remedy comprises three parts: first, end the occupation in Judea and Samaria; next, divorce state and synagogue; finally, be less Jewish in favor of equality. As readers and his countrymen will remind the author, Israel's reason for being—from its birth, parented in 1948 by the international community through its battles for survival—is that it is the Jewish State, a state like no other. Gorenberg offers no significant guarantee of that birthright.
Sure to raise contention, a strong dissenting voice from a burdened land where dissent is not simply tolerated, but a way of life.
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The Unmaking of Israel
By Gershom Gorenberg
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Gershom Gorenberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHE ROAD TO ELISHA
The Elisha academy doesn't look like the embodiment of
three social revolutions. The dining hall facing the brick
quad is prefab; the administration building is a mobile
home. Only the stone-faced study hallcumsynagogue is a
permanent structure. The dorms that house several dozen
students are also weather stained mobile homes, arranged
in two concentric semicircles lower on the West Bank hillside.
At the compound's entrance a bored Israel Defense
Forces sergeant sits in a guard booth. He glances at me
through the open car window, sees that I'm Israeli, half
listens to me say I have an appointment with the dean, and
waves me in.
There are no colonnades, no statues of heroes in the quad.
Nothing here looks monumental. Rather, the changes in
Israeli society that Elisha represents are like shifts in the
groundhalf visible, powerful, and ongoing. They create
fissures in the foundations of the state. But they are the result
of human choices, not forces of nature.
I've come to Elisha because I am concerned that the state
of Israel is steadily dismantling itself, and because Elisha is in
several ways a marker of its undoing.
To start, Elisha is an illegal outpost, one of about a hundred
small settlements established across the West Bank since
the 1993 Oslo Accord committed Israel to a negotiated peace
agreement with the Palestinians. Since that agreement, the
Israeli government has not approved new settlements in the
West Bank. Ostensibly, the settler activists who established
the outposts defied the government and the laws in force in
Israeli-occupied territory. In reality, multiple state agencies
lent a hand, while elected officials ignored or helped the
effort. The Housing Ministry spent over $300,000 on
infrastructure and buildings at Elisha alone. The army provides
soldiers to guard the spot. The purpose of the outpost enterprise
is to fill in the gaps between larger existing settlements,
to extend Jewish control over West Bank land, to fragment
the territory left to Palestinians. It is actually a massive rogue
operation, making a mockery of the rule of law.
At the same time, Elisha is an institution of Orthodox
Jewish religious study. The students are young men at the
end of their teens. The dean is a charismatic rabbi with a
quiet, warm voice. By coincidence, he was born in 1967, the
year of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. Because of that
perceived miracle, a new theology swept much of Israeli
Judaism. It described the battlefield triumph as part of God's
plan for redeeming the world, for bringing humankind into
the perfected age of the messiah. The theology assigned
sanctity to the state of Israel and its military. It made settling Jews
in the newly conquered territory a divine commandment "as
important as all the others combined." The new doctrine
constricted Judaism's universal moral concerns, and made
militant nationalism a pillar of faith. In his office, explaining
his educational message, the dean uses the code words of that
theology: his students "must understand," he says, that they
are "part of the redemption of Israel." At the exclamation
point of an idea, his eyes widen and a catlike quiver of pleasure
runs through his shoulders. He undoubtedly assumes
that the skullcap wearing Orthodox interviewer facing him
agrees with him; he has grown up in a community where his
views are mainstream, taught in countless state run religious
Elisha, however, is a very particular kind of school: a pre-military
academy. In principle, Israel has a universal draft at
age eighteen. But the army grants deferments to high school
graduates to spend a year or more at preparatory academies
that combine physical training and studies that boost motivation
to serve and to rise through the ranks. At Orthodox
academies, one goal is to strengthen students' faith, so they
can resist pressure to give up religious practice during their
service. Another goal is to create a cadre of ideologically
committed Orthodox officers. Despite being an illegal outpost,
Elisha appears on the Defense Ministry's Internet page of
pre-military academies. The Education Ministry has provided a
third or more of its budget.
During the two decades since the academies began operating,
religious men have taken a growing role in the Israeli
army's combat units and in its officer corps. Yet the windfall
of new manpower comes with a troubling question: How
much influence does a politicized clergy have in the military?
This question could loom immense if Israel decides to withdraw
from the West Bank"Judea and Samaria," the biblical
name for the territory used in Israeli officialese and most
public discourse. In the courtyard at Elisha, I ask a young
man with a dark shadow of a beard what he would do if he
received orders to evacuate a settlement. "I'm not going to
break religious law if all the rabbis say not to," he answers.
On the road to Elisha, no sign marked the line between
Israel and occupied territory. I did not expect one. Since 1967,
the government has worked to erase that lineon maps, and
on the landscape. The road led eastward into the West Bank
mountains, past the Palestinian village of Deir Nidham and
the suburban homes at the Israeli settlement of Neveh Tzuf,
until I reached the chain-link gate. For most Israelis, who
rarely venture beyond the edges of occupied territory, Elisha
Yet Elisha represents a crossroadsnot on the map, but
in Israeli history. The ongoing occupation, the fostering of
religious extremism, the undercutting of the law by the
government itself all threaten Israel's future. In particular, they
place its aspiration to democracy deeply at risk. As an Israeli,
I believe that the country must change direction. My questions-
the questions I seek to answer in this book - are how
Israel reached this point, and what path it must take from
here in order to repair and rebuild itself.
There are two common ways of portraying Israel. The first
stresses its successes. It has given Jews refuge and sovereignty
in their own country. Six decades after its establishment,
Israel is a rarity among countries that gained their independence
in the era of decolonialization. It is a parliamentary
democracy. Economically, Israel has climbed from the Third
World to the First, from exporting fruit to exporting software.
The second portrait is of conflictof terror attacks
against Israelis, but also of roadblocks, walls, settlements, and
Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon. In the media and
academic analysis, that picture increasingly focuses on Israel's
occupation of the territory it conquered in 1967 and the plight
of Palestinians living there. The regime in the West Bank
or even within Israel itselfis sometimes equated to apartheid.
Zionism is cast as a colonial movement, and the
displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 is seen as an inevitable
consequence of Zionism's nature. The most concise
criticism is that Israel is an "ethnocracy," as Israeli political
geographer Oren Yiftachel argues in his 2006 book of that
name. An ethnocracy, he explains, is a regime promoting
"the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory
while maintaining a democratic façade."
The dichotomy between these two pictures is starkand
misleading. Nations don't necessarily fit into clean categories;
they are not chemical elements. Like a figure in great fiction,
Israel is better portrayed through its contradictions, through
its tragic flaws and heroic aspirations.
Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation
movement of the Jews. The movement began in Eastern and
Central European expanse of overlapping, entangled ethnic
groups who by the late nineteenth century were all seeking
political self-determination. Jewish life in that region had been
precarious and fruitful, but now precariousness was winning
out. Zionism defined the Jews primarily as an ethnic group,
rather than a religious community. It saw the creation of a
Jewish society in the Land of Israel, also known as Palestine, as the
rightful repatriation of a stateless, persecuted people to its long
lost homeland. Return, Zionism posited, was the only workable
solution of the world's longest-running refugee problem.
But that homeland was also home to another people
Arabs who gradually defined themselves more distinctly as
Palestinians. In 1881, on the eve of European Zionist immigration,
Arabs outnumbered Jews eighteen to one in Palestine.
Seen from the shores of Palestine, Zionism was a
movement of foreigners coming to settle the land, to colonize
it. The argument between these accounts is like a debate over
whether water is really oxygen or really hydrogen. That both
are partly true is the starting point of the tragedy of the
Israel, founded in 1948, was the product of this contradictory
history. More immediately, it was the child of the United
Nations' November 29, 1947, decision to partition Palestine
into Jewish and Arab states. For the mainstream Zionist
leadership, partition meant international recognition of the
Jews' right to statehood. For Palestinian Arabs, the same
decision meant that foreign powers were imposing a "Jewish
State in Arab territory" in "an act of aggression." So Israel
was born in warfirst with Palestinian Arabs, then with
neighboring Arab states. For Palestinians, that war was the
Nakba, the Catastrophe, in which most Arabs fled or were
expelled from what became Israel; for Israeli Jews, it was a
traumatic war of survival. Again, both descriptions are true.
At birth, Israel was heir to Zionism's own divisions
between political factions that covered the spectrum from the
pro-Soviet left to the radical right, and between a secular
majority and a religious minority. The new country's declaration
of independence said that it expressed the "natural
right of the Jewish people" to sovereignty, and also promised
"complete equality of social and political rights to all its
inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."
These were the starting conditions. They limited the
political choices that shaped the state of Israel, but they did not
predetermine the outcome. From the same beginnings, Israel
could have become a pro-Soviet or right-wing dictatorship, or
could have collapsed in internecine fighting. Instead, as I'll
describe in the next chapter, Israel's founders managed to
create a stable state. It was a democracy, albeit a deeply flawed
onemost obviously, in its treatment of the Palestinian Arab
minority that remained in Israel after the Nakba. Other
flaws were far more subtle, such as early decisions that over
decades would reshape ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel,
making it economically dependent on the democratic society
it rejects. Nonetheless, during the period I'll call the First
Israeli Republic, the country made uneven and sometimes
remarkable progress toward a more liberal democracy.
Ironically, the Six-Day War of June 1967 was a turning
pointa military victory that led to political folly. It marked
the beginning of what I like to call the Accidental Empire.
The war took Israel by surprise; the conquests of the West
Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula were
unexpected. But afterward, an Israeli government suffering
from paralysis and hubris was unable to make hard political
choices, especially about the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, it
kept the Palestinians who lived in those territories disenfranchised,
under military occupation, while settling Israeli citizens in the occupied land.
So at the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself
apart. Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the
ideal of democracy, a retreat that governments denied by
describing the occupation as temporary. The settlement
enterprise was a multipronged assault on the rule of law. Contrary
to a common portrayal, secular politicians initiated settlement
in the occupied territories and have continued to back it
ever since. But the most ideologically committed settlers have
been religious Zionistsand the government's support for
settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism
into a movement of the radical right.
A country, as I said, can be best understood through its
contradictions. In some ways, Israel has continued to become
more democratic. The 1977 election proved that power could
change hands peacefully in Israel, even as it gave the right-
wing Likud the keys to government and the opportunity to
escalate settlement. The Supreme Court has taken a larger
role in protecting civil rights. The elected leadership of Israel's
Palestinian citizens has become more assertive, more
independent. The 1993 Oslo Accord signaled recognition
at least by half of the Israeli publicthat Israel would have to
give up the West Bank and Gaza to remain democratic.
Yet with the Oslo Accord, Israel became the Ambivalent
Empire. It turned over the Gaza Strip and fragments of the
West Bank to limited Palestinian self-rule, in a seeming
down payment on the end of occupation. Advocating a Palestinian
state alongside Israel became a centrist political position,
instead of a subversive one. Even rightist prime ministers
Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu eventually paid lip
service to a two-state solution. Culturally, the debate in
academia and the media about the country's present and past
policies became more open than ever.
At the same time, Israel's entanglement in the West Bank
has only deepened. Since 1993, the number of settlers in the
West Bankoutside annexed East Jerusalemhas risen
from 116,000 to 300,000. The lawbreaking that was always
intrinsic to the settlement enterprise is more open in the post-
Oslo outposts; the religious radicalism has become more
extreme. Leaving the West Bank is all the more difficult
because the military cannot be certain its officers and soldiers
would carry out orders to do so.
In parallel, the government continues to subsidize the ultra-
Orthodox community, fostering another form of religious
extremism. Over 20 percent of Israeli Jewish schoolchildren are
now in ultra-Orthodox schools. Ultra-Orthodox parties, with
their theocratic agenda, have grown more powerful. They not
only prevent separation of religion and state but pose a threat to
Israel's economic future. They are also essential members of
the political alliance backing West Bank settlement.
Excerpted from The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg Copyright © 2011 by Gershom Gorenberg. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A concise, informed and highly perceptive analysis of the most worrying ailments of current Israeli society. A must read for all those looking at Israeli society and wondering what went wrong. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the book the last chapter is unrealistic and utopian, but this does not detract from the frighteningly realistic and well worth reading analysis of the previous chapters.
I burned out on the Israeli-Arab conflict decades ago, but a retired preacher in my Sunday School class had read it and wanted my opinion on it so I complied. What was news to me was the transformation of the Orthodox bloc into utilizers of the IDF for military training and positions of power to further their goal of holding on to the occupied territories. But what is one more impediment to peace among so many?