Gershom Gorenberg: The Unmaking of Israel

A prescription for treating the self-inflicted wounds of Israel, a country perversely devoted to misguided public policy.

Failed state or successful democracy? This is the question that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has to resolve. Yin Dongxun / Reuters
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??Everyone in Israel, on both right and left, agrees that the country is facing an unprecedented crisis, one that threatens its very existence. What they do not agree on is what that crisis is. Is it the potential nuclear threat from Iran, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it? Or is it a crisis of legitimacy prompted by the 44-year occupation of the West Bank, and the settlement movement, as the remaining shreds of the Israeli left see it? In a more forward-looking country, one less devoted to hounding its critics out of existence, legislators would roam the halls of the Knesset carrying well-thumbed copies of Gershom Gorenberg's The Unmaking of Israel, breaking into smaller groups at lunch tables and in meeting rooms to discuss its prescriptions for healing a wounded land.

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In the meantime, we have Gorenberg’s aching questions to ponder: “What will Israel be in five years, or 20? Will it be the Second Israeli Republic, a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities? The answers depend on what Israel does now.”

For better and for worse, Iran is hardly mentioned in its pages, but Gorenberg, a Jerusalem-based historian and journalist, is consumed by the self-inflicted wounds of a country perversely devoted to drastically misguided public policy. More compellingly, he is also committed to solving Israel’s problems, too.

In order to understand Gorenberg’s unique blend of despair and optimism, we must first consider the washing machine. In April 2008, the author read an article about a Palestinian in Hebron named Ghassan Burqan who had been stopped by Israeli border police while carrying a brand-new washing machine he had spent months saving up for. Burqan was arrested on trumped-up charges, and when he was released on bail, his washing machine had disappeared. Gorenberg, inspired by the example of a friend who had recently died of cancer, enlisted some fellow congregants from his synagogue in Jerusalem, purchased a washing machine, and brought it to Burqan. “Elliott explained that we had brought the machine in memory of our friend,” Gorenberg wrote, “and that we came because we were religious – not despite being religious – because this is what we believe Judaism requires. He looked a bit uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be necessary to explain this. But in Hebron madness is presumed, and sanity must be explained.”

The Unmaking of Israel is born of the same outrage at everyday injustice that prompted Gorenberg to strap a washing machine into the back of a pickup truck and deliver it to Hebron. Having been present for the voluntary dismantling of the Israeli left, undone as it was by fears of war and terrorism, decades of failed negotiations with the Palestinians, and a furiously resurgent right wing, Gorenberg calmly diagnoses the problems facing Israel before courageously taking a swing at offering solutions.

$430 million. That is the amount of money the Israeli government has spent specifically on maintaining the West Bank and Gaza settlements, more or less, making it “probably Israel’s single most costly civil – or rather, civil-military – project in the post-1967 era,” according to Gorenberg.

Following the money, he seeks a precise cost for Israel’s settlement movement, and its less well-known but nearly as damaging investment in extremist religious groups at odds with maintaining the country’s long-term future. As Gorenberg sees it, the country faces three difficult tasks to undo the erosion of Israeli democracy: “End the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It must divorce state and synagogue. Most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

Gorenberg is no anti-Zionist firebrand, rather his critique of Israeli policy stems from a long-standing belief, expressed most powerfully in his essential 2006 book The Accidental Empire, that the unexpected success of the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, seen unanimously by Israelis at the time as a near-miracle, has proved a mixed blessing. Ignoring the warnings of some, maps were redrawn, religious zealots were encouraged, and the land itself made an object of worship. The miracle masked a silent accommodation to injustice: “Gradually, without public debate, with no formal declaration, the ‘constructive solution’ was patched together: for practical purposes, settlers and settlements were annexed to Israel. Palestinians lived under military occupation.”

Orthodox himself, Gorenberg is particularly astute on the relationship between religion and politics, and much of Unmaking is devoted to the collusion between right-wing politicians and the ultra-Orthodox camps. The settlement movement created a new brand of ultra-rightist zealots toting a wildly distorted view of Judaism, but the rot did not stop there. The ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist and historically disinclined to engage with secular governments, were drafted to populate the settlements through subsidised housing and financial support for a separatist school system that purposefully left its students unable to compete in the secular world. "The moment a boy studies English," the principal of an ultra-Orthodox school in the West Bank tells Gorenberg, "he's more exposed to the wider world, and he naturally leaves religion and he can even engage in intermarriage, like in America." With 65 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men unemployed (and mostly unemployable) as of 2008, the ultra-Orthodox increasingly reside in "a land of posters denouncing television, internet and rival religious factions; of lifelong Torah study for men and countless pregnancies for women; of schools that provide scant preparation for earning a living and no preparation at all for participating in a democratic society". The longer a pyramid scheme continues, Gorenberg says of the ultra-Orthodox world, "the more people are caught up in it, the more difficult maintaining it becomes, and the more catastrophic is its looming collapse".

Successive Israeli governments, leftist and rightist alike, have quietly supported the settlers, allowing for such outrages as a pre-military academy, meant to recruit religious-nationalist students for military service, constructed in an illegal West Bank settlement. By infusing religious schools with government funds, and granting exclusive rights over marriage, divorce, conversion, and other rituals to an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, Israel has empowered a flagrantly anti-democratic, religiously discriminatory minority. The chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces pronounced in 2009 (the year of the incursion into Gaza) that a soldier who “keeps his sword from blood” is “cursed”. And the rabbi of a right-wing school financially supported by the government declared regarding students arrested for attacking Palestinians that “any trial based on the assumption that Jews and [non-Jews] are equal is a total travesty of justice”.

Gorenberg’s prescription for fixing Israel’s urgent problems will probably be even more controversial than his diagnosis. He proposes the immediate dismantling of all settlements, with the government encouraged to treat settlers as Israeli patriots who had served the country through the misguided policies that placed them there, and could now serve it once again by returning home to Israel. A Palestinian state is to be formed, while affirmative-action programmes and an end to housing discrimination will boost the fortunes of the Israeli Arab minority. The army is to remain fundamentally Jewish, but pro-settler activity and sentiment in its ranks is to immediately desist. A rigid separation is to be enforced between synagogue and state, with a core curriculum for schools extended to both Israeli Arab and ultra-Orthodox schools.

Immigration policy should be expanded to make room for not only Jews who want to move to Israel, but to migrants from places like Sudan and the Philippines – many of whom already work in Israel. And the “right of return” should become an equivalent right for both Jews and Palestinians to return to their respective countries, with a small return of Palestinians expelled from their homes in Israel as symbolic penance for the Nakba of 1948. Not every suggestion is equally valid, or feasible – how will West Bank settlers be prodded to leave without being allowed to pick up their communities and move in to the Galilee, or the Negev? – but the attempt to undo the Gordian knot of Israel’s existential crisis is heroic in endeavour alone.

"You are not expected to finish the task, and you are not free to refrain from it," Rabbi Tarfon says in Ethics of the Fathers, a foundational Jewish religious text, and the message, quoted by Gorenberg in the same story about the washing machine, has seeped deeply into his activist brand of journalism. Eschewing the despair that characterises so much liberal coverage of Israeli politics, Gorenberg demands of others what he favours in himself: the steady application of reason and a fanatical devotion to solutions. "Instead of pretending that Israel is the country they want it to be," he says of Zionist critics of the state, "or giving up on it because it is not, they can help make it that country." At the very least, Gorenberg's book should afford a great deal of intellectual and emotional sustenance to those desperate for Israel to find a way out of its self-inflicted imbroglio.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York. His work has been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe.