Murray Polner, Review of Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins 2011)


This is angry book about the current state of a troubled and increasingly isolated Israel is by Gershom Gorenberg, [Disclosure: he once wrote for a magazine I edited] a prolific American-born journalist who went to live in Israel more than three decades ago and whose children have served in the Israeli military. 

His absorbing, realistic and yes, disillusioned account of what is happening in contemporary Israel reminded me of May 15, 1948, the day Israel was officially born. That evening a group of young people gathered spontaneously on a Staten Island, N.Y., ferry boat to celebrate the historic event by singing and dancing the Hora. Only a few years after the unprecedented mass slaughter of European Jews had finally ended, this informal group —I was one of them—believed a miracle had taken place and a new and democratic nation had emerged in the Middle East to serve as a light unto the world. Many of us felt the same way in 1967 when David defeated Goliath in the Six Day War.

That Israel is no longer, if in fact it ever existed. Instead, had we innocents known of him we might also have honored the Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am, an ethical and cultural rather than political Zionist, who visited Palestine in the late 19th Century and presciently warned that a revival of the Jewish state was advisable and worthwhile only if the Jewish people did not emulate xenophobic nationalists who had founded other states. He specifically cautioned the early Jewish settlers in Palestine to consider the rights of the Arabs they had displaced. “We think,” he wrote in “The Truth from Palestine” in 1891 “that the Arabs are all savages who live like animals and do not understand what is happening around. This is, however, a great error.”

The Israel to which Goldenberg immigrated is now quite different from what he hoped to find even though many Israelis still believe in peaceful coexistence with Palestinians and an end to the occupation. But now it is also the home of a militarized state with an immense nuclear stockpile neither inspected nor seriously questioned by any international body. It is also heavily dependent on American domestic support –from the powerful Israel Lobby, inflexible Christian Zionists, bellicose neoconservatives, fawning politicians in Congress and Presidents afraid to tangle with them not to mention the enormous financial aid it receives annually from the U.S. Within Israel, Gorenberg details the mounting influence of Orthodox and secular extremists in and out of the Knesset, both of whom are spreading their influence into military and civilian life. Meanwhile, the occupation of the West Bank continues and more settlements are opening with little hope of peaceful compromise in sight.

Gorenberg recalls the prophetic declaration by the Foreign Ministry’s Theodor Meron, its legal counsel and leading expert on international law, after Israel had conquered the West Bank:  “Civilian settlement in the administered territories [the West Bank] contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”  Today about 600,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, subsidized by the Israeli government and U.S. financial support. Settler sites such as Ofrah, Beit El, Ma'aleh Mikhmash and others are often on land, Gorenberg asserts, was stolen from Palestinians.

This is only one of the many offenses committed against Palestinians (who are hardly innocent themselves given their attacks against Israeli civilians), who are regularly jailed for offenses ranging from the trivial to the very serious. In contrast, repeated acts of settler violence against Palestinians go relatively unpunished. In 1988, for example, a prominent settler rabbi murdered a Palestinian store owner and received a five months sentence, reduced to three months. “The Jewish terror underground of the early 1980s serves as the most extreme example of schizophrenic justice,” writes an outraged Gorenberg, citing other instances in the dual system of justice that has developed such as rightwing extremists who have sought to outlaw criticism by Peace Now, New Profile, the New Israel Fund, and Btselem, the Israeli human rights group, which amounts to nothing more nor less than an unequivocal penalization of nonviolent differences.

Then, too, some hardliners have even dared mention “voluntary transfer,” that is, in effect forcing out West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians as well as perhaps even more than one million Palestinians –Israeli citizens-- living inside Israel proper. The loathsome term “transfer,” should remind Jews everywhere of Germans shipping their Jewish victims in cattle cars to abattoirs. Gorenberg rightfully fumes at what he describes as the “racist interpretation of Judaism” preached by many fanatic Orthodox rabbis and their followers. The chief rabbi of the Galilee city of Safed in 2010, for example, publicly stated that under Judaism’s religious laws—as he and like-minded Orthodox rabbis have defined it-- no-one is allowed to sell or rent to non-Jews anywhere in Israel.

Last summer’s massive protests by young Israelis, ostensibly about economic and social inequality between classes, was an important episode. Its principal catchphrase was “The people demand social justice” but without mention of the toxic effects of the occupation. If the demonstrators really wish to institute change they will have to develop economic and political alternatives to the status quo, including the need to sharply reduce the exorbitant amounts spent on the settlements and the military, both of which contribute to the economic and social grievances they voiced, and most significantly, help create a movement leading to a peace agreement with their Palestinian neighbors.

This is an important book which demands serious attention.

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