|‘The Unmaking of Israel’|
|Friday, 02 March 2012 17:55|
|Despite shortcomings, Gorenberg’s book offers robust food for thought|
Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins, 2011) may be among the most difficult kinds of books to review for Gorenberg is a passionate, ardent Zionist who is also highly critical of Israel’s settlement policy. The problem in evaluating his thesis lies less with the author or his critique and more with the Jewish American audience that tends to view things in stark, dichotomous terms: You are either for or against the beleaguered state. Gorenberg’s book is especially prone to such a knee-jerk reaction from his readers, as the book is simultaneously highly critical of Israeli policy for very well-documented reasons, and problematically imbalanced.
Its thesis is straightforward: The settlement movement led by (but not exclusive to) the national-religious sector, in conjunction with other extremist trends in Israeli society such as the growing fundamentalism of the ultra-Orthodox, is seriously undercutting the original liberal-Zionist ethos upon which the State of Israel was founded. This indictment is all the more damning as Gorenberg offers incontrovertible proof that the massive settlement of the territories was aided and abetted by virtually all the government ministries and agencies, which have been keenly aware throughout the past 40 years or so that they were – and are – breaking Israel’s own laws (not to mention international law).
The effects, in Gorenberg’s opinion, are serious and lead to a wholesale “unmaking of Israel”: weakened ethos of obedience to the law, undermined traditional Jewish values of toleration, heightened fears of mass mutiny among an increasingly religious-Zionist army, and greater social stress within Israel itself as extremist settlers have “returned to Israel” to fight what they perceive as the “encroachment” of Arab-Israelis in the mixed cities of Acre, Lod, Ramle and Jaffa.
Gorenberg’s book is not an academic tome (although attributions are well cited in back-of-the-book notes) and is written in highly readable prose. His human interest passages are described without venom, and generally the book is far from being tendentious. If you belong to the left, it will arm you with additional facts and information; if you belong to the right, it will challenge you to respond rationally to the various allegations and incriminating evidence; and if you are somewhere in the center….
It’s here that the book is somewhat problematic. While Gorenberg’s introductory description of the events leading up to and during the War of Independence (ditto for the Six Day War) is as fair as one can be regarding such a highly charged period, there is almost no mention of why the settlement movement gained traction over the years: During the first few decades, Arabs/Palestinians (Arafat, etc.) refused to accept the existence of Israel; and over the past two decades, were unwilling or unable to compromise on several critical issues in pursuit of a final peace treaty. Gorenberg has some harsh things to say about one pugilist (Israel), but it’s as if we are dealing with someone shadow boxing – the political opponent in the ring is nowhere to be seen.
Gorenberg devotes his final chapter to what he recommends should be done to get out of the morass. In principle, his suggestions are all eminently reasonable, but there is no discussion whatsoever of the political obstacles: How do we get from here to there if the Israeli public continues to elect a coalition government that supports the settlements, and the electorate does so precisely because of perceived intransigence of the other side (who is invisible in the author’s treatment other than as occasional victim)? Indeed, my most basic criticism of this book is the language in which it is written: If Gorenberg’s stated intention is to change Israeli policy by showing Israeli society how badly it needs to reform itself, why isn’t the book written in or translated into Hebrew? Does he expect American Jewry to “pressure” Israel into change?
I recommend people read this book despite its shortcomings. It should make even strong supporters of Israeli settlement policy squirm somewhat, for it is a sad tale from the perspective of Jewish ethics, not to mention liberal-democratic values. Had it been published in Hebrew – and devoted some serious attention to the egregious, even evil, actions and mistakes of the Palestinians – this book might even have had a chance to change Israeli policy as well.
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In 2008-09 he was Schusterman Visiting Professor at Brown University. Visit www.profslw.com.