The Unmaking of Israel

The Unmaking of Israel

by Gershom Gorenberg
The Unmaking of Israel

The Unmaking of Israel

by Gershom Gorenberg


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Prominent Israeli journalist GershomGorenberg offers a penetrating and provocativelook at how the balance of power in Israel has shifted toward extremism,threatening the prospects for peace and democracy as the Israeli-Palestinianconflict intensifies. Informing his examination using interviews in Israel andthe West Bank and with access to previously classified Israeli documents, Gorenberg delivers an incisive discussion of the causes andtrends of extremism in Israel’s government and society. Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The AmazingAdventures of Kavalier and Clay, writes, "until I read The Unmaking of Israel, I didn't think it could bepossible to feel more despairing, and then more terribly hopeful, about Israel,a place that I began at last, under the spell of GershomGorenberg's lucid and dispassionate yet intenselypersonal writing, to understand."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061985096
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/04/2012
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Gershom Gorenberg has written for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and, in Hebrew, Ha'aretz. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and blogs at Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their three children.

Read an Excerpt

The Unmaking of Israel

By Gershom Gorenberg


Copyright © 2011 Gershom Gorenberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061985089

Chapter One

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 hall–cum–synagogue 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
ground—half 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 line—on 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
is invisible.
Yet Elisha represents a crossroads—not 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 conflict—of 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 itself—is 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 stark—and
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 Europe—an 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
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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 war—first 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
one—most 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
point—a 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 Zionists—and 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 public—that 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 Bank—outside annexed East Jerusalem—has 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I The Road to Elisha 1

II Remember the Altalena 15

III The Capital of Lawlessness 56

IV Children of the Hills 97

V Disorderly Conduct 135

VI The Labor of the Righteous Is Done by Others 163

VII Importing the Revolution 195

VIII The Reestablishment of Israel 221

Acknowledgments 249

Notes 253

Bibliography 299

Index 315

What People are Saying About This

Michael Chabon

“Until I read The Unmaking of Israel, I didn’t think it could be possible to feel more despairing, and then more terribly hopeful, about Israel, a place that I began at last, under the spell of Gershom Gorenberg’s lucid and dispassionate yet intensely personal writing, to understand.”

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