Israel Affairs / A State at War With Itself

To Gershom Gorenberg’s thinking, the settlements are where democratic Israel ‘unthinkingly attacks its own foundations,’ and the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community constitutes a pyramid scheme whose collapse will spell disaster

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The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg. Harper, 325 pages, $26

Israel’s settler community or at least part of it makes things easy on a book reviewer. It’s easy when, on the day you receive a copy of a work assailing the country’s religious extremists, right-wing militants run rampage on an army base the same army that for decades has served as the settlements’ private security firm. It’s easy when nearly every day your newspaper this one publishes stories supporting the author’s thesis that the state is falling victim to the social groups it helped create and has no one to blame but itself.

The work in question is “The Unmaking of Israel” by Gershom Gorenberg the U.S.-born Israeli journalist who in 2006 documented the birth of the settlement enterprise in his book “The Accidental Empire,” detailing the Labor Party’s launch of an endeavor that flourished under Likud. In his latest effort, he calls the settlement project a “massive rogue operation, making a mockery of the rule of law.”

Evacuation of the Gush Katif settlement Kerem Atzmona, August 2005.Credit: Nir Kafri

Gorenberg “a left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew,” as he describes himself on his blog, called South Jerusalem has a healthy obsession with the law. He has expressed this obsession ever since, early in “The Accidental Empire,” he recounted how Foreign Ministry legal counsel Theodor Meron reported in 1967 that settling civilians in the occupied territories contravened the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In Gorenberg’s new book, the settlements are where democratic Israel “unthinkingly attacks its own foundations.” The settlers, by obstructing a potential West Bank pullout that could pave the way to peace, constitute half the religion-based threat that could do the state in. The other half is the ultra-Orthodox, who through their low workforce participation are hobbling Israel’s otherwise strong economy.

Again, these are not new issues for Haaretz readers, but Gorenberg presents the definitive case for viewing the occupation as more of a threat to Israel than an asset, and for increasing the separation between religion and state in Israel. In arguing the latter, he assails the country’s other accidental empire: the ultra-Orthodox community, whose state funding has helped it balloon to around one-tenth of the country’s Jewish population.

If in an earlier review in Books (of Jonathan Spyer’s “The Transforming Fire,” May 2011) I chided “gloom-and-doom Israeli commentators offering analyses about the ‘Zionist project’ not having a chance,” I encounter in “The Unmaking of Israel” the basis those pessimists use to reach that conclusion. If I called Spyer’s chapter on the country’s new social order “required reading for anyone about to embark on a trip to Israel,” I can say the same thing about Gorenberg’s whole book. These two works could serve as companion pieces right of center versus left of center, security threats versus societal threats.

Seems like 1948

As in “The Accidental Empire,” Gorenberg argues that the settlers have embraced an anti-authority mentality suitable to the period under British rule before Israel’s founding. This new settler vanguard, taking over from the socialist pioneers who after 1948 were content with the size of their new country, has been “turning a state into a movement,” as the author puts it in “The Unmaking of Israel.” The settlement enterprise has been “treating occupied territory as if it were an arena where two ethnic movements struggled for supremacy.”

Gorenberg sees state funding of the 100 or so outposts that went up after the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s the “illegal” outposts as the epitome of the lawbreaking. Of course, he’s unhappy with all the West Bank’s 300,000 settlers a number that has grown by more than 2.5 times “during seventeen years in which Israel was officially committed to reaching a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.” This figure doesn’t include the 185,000 Israelis in annexed East Jerusalem.

Gershom Gorenberg. By his own description, a “left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew.”

Gorenberg also laments the state’s fuzzy accounting; he cites a 2002 study by former Finance Ministry official Dror Tzaban, hired by Peace Now, that discovered $430 million in state spending for settlers in 2001 on top of what they would have received had they lived in Israel proper. Gorenberg bemoans the hesder yeshivas, which mix religious studies with abbreviated military service, and the religious pre-military academies that stress loyalty to the Land of Israel over that to the state or army.

For further reading:

Angry young men in black
Soldiers' testimonies on the occupied territories
A critical look at Israeli militarism

Overall, it’s a “fragile state facing an armed faction dedicated to fantasies of power and expansion.” To me, that sounds a lot like Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon or Weimar Germany. Gorenberg notes that, of course, Israel hasn’t deteriorated to that point yet, but he does mention the P-word Pakistan to warn Israelis about the model to avoid. He slams secular politicians who “underwrote the indoctrination of a new generation in radical religious culture.” And he is talking about Israel, not Pakistan.

He likens state benefits for the Haredi community including draft and work deferments to study Torah to a pyramid scheme. And of course, “The longer a pyramid scheme continues ... the more catastrophic is its looming collapse.”
Still, Gorenberg is no post-Zionist: He supports the Law of Return and discerns moderate elements in the religious Zionist community; for example, the rabbis who urged Orthodox soldiers during the 2005 Gaza pullout to obey the authorities. “They provided a reminder sadly necessary at that moment that Orthodox Judaism and democracy are compatible,” he writes.

Kook vs. Leibowitz

Gorenberg allots a share of the blame to the teachings of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982; the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi during the British Mandate).

It was the younger Kook who, referring to Israel’s military power on the eve of the Six-Day War, proclaimed that “we must carry out the divine obligation created by that power conquering the Land.” Gorenberg is much more comfortable with left-wing Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), who warned about the occupation’s ills that “the corruption characteristic of every colonial regime will also prevail in the State of Israel.”

To end this decay, as he sees it, Gorenberg wants Israel to thank the settlers for believing they were serving their country and ask them to serve it again by returning from the West Bank. Meanwhile, the authorities would dissolve the hesder yeshivas, halt funding to religious pre-military academies, and end special funding for the Haredim.

Gorenberg offers a modest compromise; though he hopes to “get government out of the religion business,” he doesn’t want religion entirely out of the schools. Under his proposal, there would be a single core curriculum to make sure everyone including ultra-Orthodox children received the toolbox of skills necessary for modern life, but the government would allow parents to fund additional hours for religious studies.

Still, one wonders whether “getting government out of the religion business” is entirely desirable. Wasn’t novelist Assaf Inbari onto something when, in the February 3 issue of Haaretz Magazine, he quoted 20th-century social-Zionist theorist Meir Yaari, who wrote in 1923: “One thing only is clear to me: that a whole nation cannot continue to exist for long without a metaphysical principle and a religious symbol. Otherwise, it will decline. And no economic and social conception will help here.” One might also ask whether the country’s religious Zionists are likely to morph from Kook followers to Leibowitz adherents.

If they don’t, another withdrawal of settlers would be hindered by a second pyramid scheme Gorenberg discusses, even if he doesn’t call it by that name.
As he notes, the authorities heavily staffed the Gaza withdrawal with the largely secular Israel Police (about 40 percent of the pullout contingent).

At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces used units with a low representation of Orthodox soldiers. Gorenberg cites an article in IDF magazine Bamahane stating that by 2010, 12.5 percent of the ground forces’ company commanders were settlement residents, even though settlers comprised only 5 percent of Israel’s Jewish population.

This picture might one day look similar elsewhere in the security forces. The director general of the National Union political alliance, Nahi Eyal, seeks to encourage graduates of pre-military academies and hesder yeshivas to join the police, Haaretz reported late last year. Eyal “expressed the hope that in another decade or two, the police commander for the West Bank district of the Israel Police would be a religious Jewish West Bank resident, who would have a number of other Orthodox Jewish colleagues among senior police ranks.”

And in any withdrawal, Israel would have to evacuate several times more people than the 9,000 removed from Gaza. As the number of hard-core nationalists in the IDF and police increases, Israel’s ability to evacuate settlements appears to decrease.

But maybe the demography won’t turn out to be so unsustainable. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter predicted on February 3 that “the main result of last summer’s [social] protests will be that the ultra-Orthodox will start being drafted to army service or at least required to do national service.” A few days later, Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On unveiled a plan to compensate young people seeking to fill the gaps in their ultra-Orthodox education, which is weak in conventional subjects. And as The Economist in January paraphrased Glenn Yago, the head of the Israel Center at the U.S.-based economic think tank the Milken Institute, “trends that can’t continue, won’t. ... The haredim are highly literate and perfectly capable of working. Some day, they will have to.”

Still, the bleak picture Gorenberg paints makes one wonder whether Israeli society can ever topple the accidental empires he describes so convincingly.

Steven Silber, a frequent contributor to Books, is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.