Commentary Magazine

The Unmaking of Gershom Gorenberg

The Unmaking of Israel
By Gershom Gorenberg
Harper, 336 pages

The central question in the debate over Israel’s future is this: Can it remain both Jewish and democratic? Israel’s defenders answer with an enthusiastic yes. They point to the influence minority groups and parties often hold in Israel’s governing coalitions and the equal rights available to all citizens. To them, Jewish identity and democracy have a natural synergy in Israel, and a modern nation-state in the historic Jewish homeland presents itself as a model of compatibility between religion and egalitarian self-rule.

But many on the left see expressions of Israel’s Jewish identity as impediments to the country’s progress on the path to a true liberal democracy. The country’s union of Judaism and politics is, to them, incongruous. Indeed, American-Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg argues, Israel is a country best defined by its contradictions. So is his newest book, The Unmaking of Israel.

Gorenberg, senior correspondent for the American Prospect and prolific writer about (and critic of) Israeli settlements, makes a passionate plea to save—or, in his view, reinstate—Israeli democracy. His central premise is that “the state is steadily dismantling itself” through the corrosive effects of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. To Gorenberg, Israel’s alleged shortcomings as a democratic society can all be traced back to that condition. While the security fence and checkpoints keep the boundary tightly monitored, the moral confusion that stems from keeping another population under Israeli control has begun to wash back into the state, as outspoken nationalism grows in the army and society. “The longer the occupation lasts, the more its ills enter Israel proper,” Gorenberg asserts. They cannot be sealed off behind the missing border.”

The Unmaking of Israel is a thoroughly modern jeremiad, an updated prophecy that begs the people of Israel to do some soul-searching before it is too late. Gorenberg contends that democratic Israel—“The First Israeli Republic”—was snuffed out after 1967 by the settlement project, or “the Accidental Empire” as he calls it (after the title of a previous book). Israel stumbled into its settlement policy, according to Gorenberg, and religious and secular nationalists took advantage of government acquiescence. They created a situation in which “the state unthinkingly attacks its own foundations” by letting settlers make a mockery of Israeli law, and often doing so itself. “In acquiring land for settlement, the state’s misuse of law was particularly blatant,” Gorenberg claims. “So was the basic dynamic of the settlement enterprise: treating occupied territory as if it were an arena where two ethnic movements struggled for supremacy, as if it were stateless land or still under the British Mandate—while one of those movements enjoyed the power of the state.”

The ideology of the settlement movement metastasized until it challenged the lifeblood of Israeli democracy, Gorenberg argues. The generation that grew up in the West Bank “has come of age, as radical or more in its theologized politics, alienated from the institutions of the state that have so assiduously fostered its growth.” This has led to an increasingly ideologically driven army—an IDF more reliant on religious soldiers and less amenable to removing settlers from their homes. “Policing occupied territory and protecting settlers are military burdens, increasing the need for combat soldiers and officers who have no qualms about the occupation,” he writes. “To meet that need, the army depends ever more on recruits from the religious right…. There are already whole units that the IDF fears using.” Of course, this same army removed every last settler from Gaza only six years ago, but Gorenberg discounts that in favor of this presumption.

To Gorenberg, saving Israel is simple: “It must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean. It must divorce state and synagogue—freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state…. It must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

The Unmaking of Israel is itself an unmaking of Israel—a polemic that gets Israel wrong, the settlement issue wrong, and the problems besetting Israeli democracy wrong. None of the book’s flaws is more persistent than Gorenberg’s obsessive view of the settlements as the root of Israel’s democratic challenges. “The precondition for disestablishing religion and creating equality for the Arab minority” is the destruction of the settlements, he writes; only then can Israel become a true liberal democracy.

In fact, tensions between Israel as the Jewish national liberation movement and Gorenberg’s ideal democracy have nothing to do with settlements. These pressures come from demographic reality and the effects of those demographics on the country’s political system. These are, precisely, democratic effects.

Israel’s system of proportional representation further complicates the situation. A very low threshold for representation in the Knesset encourages parties that cater to narrow constituencies. With coalitions dependent on minor parties, religious politicians can hold out for control of the education and interior ministries to protect their welfare and school systems. That is a difficulty with such parliamentary systems. But the difficulty doesn’t render them any less responsive to public opinion or to the desires of voters, which is the functioning definition of a democracy.

Mainstream Israelis, he says, foot the bill for the Haredi population to send their children to schools that teach no marketable skills, to avoid military service, and to raise large families while living off the secular state they largely eschew. “For the state to tolerate this abuse is abdication of duty,” Gorenberg writes. “For it to fund such education is unconscionable.” Indeed, the Haredi citizenship problem is very real. But what does this have to do with settlements?

Gorenberg argues that since many Haredim live beyond the Green Line, Haredi parties, necessary to form coalitions, have a vested interest in the territories. But most do not live in settlements. And by conflating the Haredi issue with the settlement issue, Gorenberg is committing a basic fallacy. If not a single Jew lived on the West Bank, the same structural factors would still shape Israeli politics.

Ultimately, Gorenberg’s central premise—that Israel’s “democratic ideas…are on the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th-century ideologies”—is belied, almost comically so, by actual events inside the country. In 2011, Israeli democracy is trending toward greater equity and robustness, not toward collapse.

Last year, the Netanyahu government approved an 800-million-shekel stimulus plan for economic development of Israel’s minority communities. This followed the approval of hundreds of millions of shekels for the Bedouin, Druze, and Circassian communities. Four thousand Haredim came to a job fair last month in Jerusalem. Twice as many Bedouin serve in the IDF today as in 2007. And Gorenberg wrote The Unmaking of Israel before hundreds of thousands of Israelis camped out in Tel Aviv to demand greater social justice. The vigor of Israeli democracy is even more apparent when comparing Israel’s protests with the violent rioting in London and Greece.

As profoundly frustrating as their democracy can be, Israelis continue to make great strides under extremely trying circumstances. We can rest assured that Israel will remain a vibrant if imperfect democracy, even if the state is just too distastefully black-hatted for the likes of Gershom Gorenberg. The only enthusiastic audience for The Unmaking of Israel will likely be found among those who are always eager for a book by a Jew they can use as a shield against a charge of anti-Semitism as they array themselves for ideological battle against the Jewish state.

About the Author

Lazar Berman is program manager of the foreign and defense policy studies department at the American Enterprise Institute. This is his first review for Commentary.

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