Monday, August 27, 2012

The Unmaking of Israel

The Unmaking of Israel

by Gershom Gorenberg
New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 336 pp. $25.99 ($14.99, paper)

These two books offer well-written examples of a deep schism in Israeli thought, especially among its intellectual, academic, and literary elites, who view Israel's survival as dependent upon a Palestinian state, the "two-state solution," and diminishing the power and influence of religious Zionism and the Orthodox, or the "ultra-Orthodox" (haredim). The main threat to Israel, these authors believe, is not the Arabs, but Jews, "settlers," and the "ultra-Orthodox." This perspective reflects a breakdown of the old secular, cultural social order that defined the State of Israel during its first three decades. Following a fault line that divides Israeli society and perhaps much of recent Jewish history, it is the context for all debate about the future of Israel.

For Israelis, this change began in the wake of two watershed events: the peace treaty with Egypt (1979) and the war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon (1982)—which grew into the first intifada (1987-92)—and the Oslo accords (1993). Under constant attack by Arab terrorists, Israeli consciousness developed a bi-polarism, an inner turmoil that was the product of the need for self-defense and guilt for winning; constantly at war, or under threat of attack, Israelis craved peace, or anything that promised that illusion. Like the authors, many became true believers of the hype about "land for peace." Although few may remain convinced that such a solution is possible, the struggle over the nature of Israeli society between the secular and religious is ongoing and contentious.

Highly intelligent and articulate Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, these authors represent a stratum of influential media people and public opinion and discourse shapers who oppose what they call "the occupation," those Jewish communities built beyond the 1949 armistice lines, and the growing attraction—which translates into social and political power—of religious Jews, especially.

Gorenberg and Goodman share a sense of ├╝ber-morality based on two principles: (1) thou shalt not rule over the other and (2) the primacy of egalitarianism, secularism, and pluralism. Opposing the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria and ending "the occupation" assumes a form of sanctity. Goodman proposes total withdrawal "unilaterally with all the lessons of the painful pullout of the Jewish settlements from Gaza learned" or by a peace agreement that would leave Jews "in Palestine as Israeli citizens, voting in Israeli elections but paying their local taxes to the Palestinian Authority, which would in turn guarantee [their] safety and security." Gorenberg covers much the same ground, advocating unilateral withdrawal, leaving Jews where they are or "evacuating them immediately [from the territories] without waiting for a signature on a peace agreement." Both seem utterly oblivious of the risks and probable consequences.

Gorenberg's recurring theme is the radical, post-Zionist vision that "the state is merely a state, a political means of achieving practical results and not a sacred institution," adding that the "best definition of a Jewish state [is] the place where Jews can argue with the least inhibition, in the most public way, about what it means to be Jews." Like New York City? The notion that Israel's identity as a Jewish state is embedded in a unique historical and spiritual connection with the Land of Israel, the national homeland of the Jewish people, seems to elude him.

Turning to the religious divide, there are certainly deep disagreements in Israel over the role of the ultra-Orthodox in a modern society. But these are by no means the only societal fissures. Both authors neglect even a superficial discussion of the economic system in which a few families control financial and business empires, monopolies, and cartels. Neither do they deal with any of the socioeconomic issues that were the focus of mass demonstrations throughout the country during the summer of 2011.

With an almost exclusive focus on settlements, occupation, and haredim, the two authors have created a tunnel vision that demonizes half the population and dumbs-down most of the rest. Denying reality as well as demonstrable failures—the Oslo accords, the Wye agreements, the withdrawal and expulsion of Jews from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria—the authors instead offer facile arguments that have become unrealistic and irrelevant.

Both books make a fundamental error in not understanding the purpose and place of Zionism as the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland and that the State of Israel is the expression of Jewish sovereignty in that homeland. Although both authors are concerned about the future of the Israel, neither deals with the Jewish nature of the state and its central role in shaping the future of the Jewish people and the third Jewish commonwealth.