Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg

I love Gershom Gorenberg. He is a magnificent storyteller, a bold whistleblower, a clear-minded historian, a sober analyst and a humble advocate. His books and writings, while almost exclusively devoted to Israeli history and politics, have a way of illuminating politics as a whole.

Gorenberg is an American-Israeli historian and journalist. I had the honor of hearing him speak in Jerusalem three years ago, and I have been a devoted fan ever since. I based one of my final papers in college on his book The Accidental Empire, which I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again ever since. And so, when I heard about his latest work, The Unmaking of Israel, I ordered it almost immediately.

The book does not disappoint. Instead of focusing on settlements or the conflict, Gorenberg examines the history of the Israeli political system as a whole, from the near-civil war between the Labor Party and hardline nationalists in 1948 to the division and paralysis of the present day.

Palestine-sympathizers are perpetually flabbergasted at the sheer ferocity and dogmatism of U.S. support for Israel. It seems completely disproportionate to America’s actual interest in the matter. What could possibly explain this?
they ask.

While some blame apocalypse-minded evangelicals, some cite the influence of the Israel lobby, and some see Israel as a projection of colonial power, I would argue that, while all of those explanations are true to some extent, the biggest factor in America’s unyielding support for Israel is our perceived cultural similarities. We look at Israel, and see ourselves – a first-world, secular-but-religious, democratic, filthy-rich, high-tech society with a shady (to say the least) founding story, under assault from Islamic terrorists.

A huge part of our getting over this most entangling of alliances will be to begin to see ourselves in the Palestinians as well. The Unmaking of Israel accomplishes the opposite. Gorenberg strips the mask of civilization off of Israeli politics, and shows us the tribalism and savagery at its core.

One priceless example from pg. 149: After listing some prominent Orthodox rabbis who have spoken out in favor of the rule of law in Israel, Gorenberg comments, “They provide a reminder – sadly necessary at the moment – that Orthodox Judaism and democracy are compatible.

Judaism and democracy are “compatible”? That’s the way Westerners talk about Islam. Surely speaking about the State of Israel in the same way is beyond the pale.

Well, no. It only seems that way because Israel shares so many of our cultural trappings.

In fact, Israel is a land where the military’s chief rabbi proclaims that an army medic should allow a wounded gentile to die rather than break the Sabbath, where state money is used to build homes for one ethnic group on land stolen from another, where the government can only rely on certain (and few) military and police units to enforce the law, or risk mutiny and perhaps civil war, where the foreign minister openly advocates redrawing the country’s borders to exclude its minority citizens.

Gorenberg’s sobering conclusion: Zionism and Israel have failed to “graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” If Israel does not succeed in implementing the rule of law on its territory (and defining the borders of that territory), it will collapse into “a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities.”

As I said before, Gorenberg’s writing about Israeli politics has a way of illuminating all of politics. Seeing Israeli politics for what it is can help us in the States to do the same with our own. Americans tend to think of our political system as different in kind, not just degree, from the totalitarian menaces of the 20th century and the dictatorships and failed states of the modern era. We have elections. We have separation of church and state. We don’t target civilians in our wars.

And yet.

And yet, our politics, our magnificent constitution and checks and balances and educated citizenry produced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the oppressive and one-sided politics of the IMF and World Bank, and scores of client dictatorships around the world.

To those on the outside, does the distinction in the manner in which these policies were arrived at matter so much? Are these disasters so easy to dismiss as aberrations in a system that otherwise delivers peace and justice? Is the destruction of Iraq merely a stumbling block on the road to the “least bad” political reality? Or is it a symptom of a political system that is just as rotten as those we vilify in our press and public rhetoric?

Anyway. It’s a great book, and I would recommend it to all students of politics and the Middle East.

Now that I’ve praised it to the firmament, let me enumerate its flaws.
Gorenberg is a forceful advocate of the two-state solution. One state for the Jews, one state for the Palestinians. Self-determination for all, everybody’s happy.

His argument against the “one-state solution” – one man, one vote, one government for all the Jews and Palestinians in the land – is that, “A single state would not be a solution – or even a workable arrangement… It would be a nightmare: another of the places marked on the globe as a country in which two or more communities do battle the most educated or well-connected members of each look for refuge elsewhere.” Gorenberg cites Lebanon as an example.

Yes, of course, it would be a disaster. And yet, The Unmaking of Israel does not seem to offer a way to avoid that outcome. Just because Lebanon is a perpetual mess does not make a “four-state solution” (Christian, Sunni, Shia, Druze) possible there. So too with the Jews and the Palestinians.

Gorenberg knows exactly what must be done save his country. The tragedy is that, in explaining what must be done, he demonstrates its impossibility.

One example: Gorenberg writes, “Ending the occupation is…the precondition for disestablishing religion and creating equality for the Arab minority.” This, he says, is because the occupation makes it politically impossible to include political parties representing Israel’s Arab minority in coalition governments, thus giving small Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties effective veto power on things like civil marriage and religious education.

This is akin to arguing that, in order to get into the car, we will need to drive to the locksmith.

A political party that has the power to block, say, civil marriage, most likely also has the power to block the surrender of the Holy Land, yes?

And once Israel somehow achieves a coalition government willing to end the occupation, how will it be accomplished? There are over 500,000 Jews living on occupied territory. As Gorenberg admits, even with the most creative redrawing of borders and land swaps, 65,000 settlers, at a minimum, will have to be evacuated to create a Palestinian state.

As Gorenberg details in the book, removing just 9,000 settlers from Gaza required a combined force of 25,000 soldiers and policemen, or almost three security officers per settler. The operation utilized 10,000 police, a third of Israel’s police force, which was called upon because Israel’s leaders were uncertain if the army could be counted on to carry out the evacuation without mutinying.

Will the Israel Defense Forces really carry out the biggest forced expulsion of Jews since 1948? Will Jewish soldiers deport Jews from Bethlehem and Hebron and Shechem and Jerusalem?

The uber-depressing reality of this conflict is that it has the potential to continue for decades, if not a century. While American presidential candidates grandstand about their unswerving support for Israel, Israel’s own policies have very likely already doomed it to dirty ethnic conflict for the foreseeable future. Two-state? One-state? Probably, none of the above.

For all the talking that gets done about Israel in this country, I rarely hear these realities acknowledged. If we’re going to continue butting in to this conflict, then it’s our responsibility to listen to voices like Gorenberg’s. There may yet be hope.