Coming Apart At The Seams?
Tue, 11/22/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Veteran Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg.
Veteran Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg.

‘The other Arab-Israeli conflict,” a locution famously visited upon us by Middle East analyst Steven Spiegel, is well applied to “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins), Gershom Gorenberg’s cogent and incisive new book. Indeed, Gorenberg’s very first chapter — on the well-remembered but little-understood Altalena Affair — tells us all we need to know about the internal conflicts in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and in the new state.

In June 1948 Menachem Begin’s Zionist Revisionist Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi militia resisted demands of the new government to hand over to the newly-constituted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the weapons, desperately needed, which were delivered on the Irgun ship Altalena. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion would not countenance a state of affairs in which Begin’s Irgun would maintain its autonomy; to Ben-Gurion this would lead to anarchy and civil war (at the very least an autonomous Irgun did not sit well with B-G’s statist and collectivist political ideology) and the IDF shelled the ship and forced its surrender.

Everyone knows the Altalena affair, but Gorenberg’s detailed retelling of the story makes for a fresh and fascinating read. Indeed, the Altalena is more than a historical curiosity; Gorenberg cleverly positions the story, one of a battle for nothing less than the very nature of the new state, at the beginning of his book. He makes the claim that Israel has been wrestling with an uncompromising vision of a “pure” Zionism and with internal extremism since 1948 — and Israel is losing the battle.

His book uses the twin questions of religion and state in Israel and of the expansion of settlements across the Green Line as the main vehicles for an exploration of the deterioration of Israel’s body politic and of its institutions in recent years — in a word, of Israel’s “unmaking.” Gorenberg is especially smart about the history and present reality of the relationship between religion and state, especially the cozy relationship between politicians of the right and a gaggle of Orthodox camps in Israel.

Serial chapters tell the story: the analysis of the past and present of the “settlement movement” is superb (the chapter is a distillation of Gorenberg’s earlier remarkable book, “The Accidental Empire”); a discussion of the Israeli Right, Far Right, and Even Further Right contextualizes much of the current political reality for the reader; a splendid history of the well-known but little-understood hesder yeshiva movement — the hesder is the “arrangement” under which Orthodox soldiers alternate active army duty with yeshiva study — which has experienced dramatic growth, and whose results are mixed. (Much of hesder is a welcome throwback to the moderate, responsible, centrist Mizrachi/National Religious Party. In many instances, however, the hesder system has promoted religious radicalism.)

The strongest chapter in “The Unmaking of Israel” — “The Labor of the Righteous is Done by Others”— truly describes Israel’s eponymous “unmaking.” The revolutionary changes in Israel’s haredi (sectarian religious) society, in which 65 percent of the men have opted out of the work-force (the percentage was 21 percent in 1979, and miniscule in 1949), have led to profound changes — none good — both internally in the haredi community and in the relationship of the larger Israeli society with its religious citizenry. Revelatory in the chapter are the interviews Gorenberg managed to cadge from haredim, an impressive feat indeed. 

Here, as in the rest of his book, Gorenberg focuses on the related phenomenon of settlements and new neighborhoods across the Green Line, to which many haredi families have flocked. It’s a seamless web, he argues; any one of a cluster of issues — settlements, right-wing politics, the haredi community, hesder — is intimately related with all others.

These relationships often come through in “The Unmaking of Israel,” and the individual chapters do their job very well indeed, but the editor’s blue pencil might have been a bit more evident in the contouring of the book. The book reads as a series of discrete essays, with little connective tissue; the varied essays that compose the book, fascinating though they are, do not always cohere in a whole. Even so, Gorenberg’s agenda comes through clearly in his book: Israel, argues the author, needs to “complete its long-delayed transition from national liberation movement to liberal nation-state.” It will not do so absent radical solutions to the problems Gorenberg powerfully and effectively lays out.

The solutions? While Gorenberg’s “whereas” is a cogent analysis of the many plagues afflicting contemporary Israel, his “therefore” raises some questions. The gravamen of the final, prescriptive, chapter of the book, “The Reestablishment of Israel,” is simple: get rid of the settlements, and move all the settlers back, across the Green Line, to Israel, and our problems will be solved.  Perhaps, perhaps not — but population movement on the scale envisioned by the author — hundreds of thousands of people — just ain’t gonna happen the way Gorenberg suggests it will.

Additionally, the settlements issue is more nuanced than Gorenberg’s broad-brush prescription has it. The southern half of the West Bank — the Judea of Hebron and Gush Etzion — is a history-and-blood-soaked region that even the most leftish unreconstructed Mapam/Meretz adherents would be reluctant to include in any “land-for-peace” agreement. Yet there is no indication in his book of this kind of nuanced analysis.  “Settlements” to Gorenberg is monolithic.

The core question raised by “The Unmaking of Israel” is whether the troubles afflicting Israel, the tensions that inhere in the conflict between Israel as a “Jewish” state and Israel as a democratic state, derive mainly from the “settlements” question. My sense is that the answer has to do with much more than “settlements.” Political realities, exacerbated by the complete disappearance of what we used to know as a party system, and the continuation of proportional representation — a holdover from the earliest days of the state, when the word “ideology” still had resonance; the relationship between demographics and politics; social pressures — the growing gap between the very rich in a high-tech society and the very poor, the gap between an Ashkenazi elite and a Sephardi community that, after many decades, continues to feel neglected; a Chief Rabbinate that in recent years has been (to put it charitably) morally and religiously bankrupt. These and other issues that have been around for lo these many years are as much an “unmaking” as are the settlements and the haredim.

Be this as it may. Gorenberg’s thorough analysis of the varied issues he explores in “The Unmaking of Israel” book will serve as a useful backgrounder for the larger question of Israel as a Jewish and or a democracy. Right or left, Orthodox dati or secular — many will find Gorenberg’s sharp reporting and analysis, to say nothing of his prodigious research, invaluable in understanding Israel as it moves, Deo volente, from ethnic movement to democratic state.