Gershom Gorenberg begins his powerful and persuasive new book, The Unmaking of Israel, with a long-forgotten tale from the period immediately following Israel’s independence: In June 1948, Menachem Begin, the leader of the radical Irgun militia—which had carried out terrorist attacks on the British in Palestine and advocated seizure of “the entire Jewish homeland” on both sides of the Jordan River—resisted demands to hand over the group’s weapons to the new Israeli army. Begin and his Irgun fighters wanted to maintain their autonomy in the new country, a state of affairs that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion believed would almost certainly lead to anarchy and civil war. “The Irgun saw itself as representing the purest Zionism, unwilling to concede any part of the Land of Israel,” Gorenberg writes. “The mainstream saw the Irgun as separatists and terrorists.” It was a battle over the future of the inchoate state, and it ended with violence: the Israel Defense Forces shelled the Altalena, a converted warship bringing guns and ammo to the separatists, killing a dozen men and forcing the rebels to surrender.

The Unmaking of Israel
by Gershom Gorenberg
Harper, 336 pp.

Ben-Gurion’s notion of the Israeli state has been wrestling with Begin’s more uncompromising vision ever since. And as Gorenberg argues, it has been losing ground. An American Orthodox Jew who made aliyah to Israel some thirty years ago, Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire, an account of Israel’s reluctant colonization of the West Bank and Gaza in first two decades after the Six-Day War in 1967. In his latest book, he takes the narrative one step further, examining how the relentless expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements in recent years has not only warped the values of Ben-Gurion’s secular, inclusive, and democratic state, but also altered Israel’s approach to Arabs within its pre-1967 borders. Gorenberg’s book is partly a polemic, filled with righteous anger. But it’s also a finely documented piece of reporting in which he shows how the collusion of three powerful forces—the civilian government, the military, and the growing ultra-Orthodox movement—has solidified the hold on the occupied territories and made the prospect of withdrawal fraught with danger. Israel is moving backward, he writes, “returning to the moment of a fragile state facing an armed faction dedicated to fantasies of power and expansion.”

Gorenberg begins with an account of the obfuscations and self-justifications that allowed Israeli to expand its settlement project in defiance of international laws and the objections of many of its own citizens. Through the creative use of Ottoman-era land records, and the careful burying of huge subsidies in the budgets of various ministries, Likud and Labor governments alike confiscated land, constructed housing, and built bypass roads linking them. Young families were lured with the promise of cheap, subsidized housing, and the population grew from about 50,000 after the Six-Day War to 300,000 today. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disengaged from Gaza and a handful of remote West Bank settlements, and stopped issuing new housing permits, but his emotional attachment to the land remained unabated, and under his administration illegal outposts thrived. These outposts—often no more than a handful of mobile homes thrown up on a hilltop—typically were created by young radicals inspired by a divine vision of Israel’s destiny. As Gorenberg points out, true believers inside the government have quietly provided them with running water, electricity, and access roads, and routinely derailed attempts to close them down. “Cabinet ministers, officials and settlers have joined in pervasive disregard for the law and responsibility to democratic decisions,” Gorenberg charges.

Along with the illegal outposts has come the emergence of young extremists who reject the quasi-suburban comfort of previous generations of settlers and manifest disdain for the Israeli government, even while benefiting from its wink-and-a-nod support. “A new generation of settlers has come of age,” he writes, “as radical or more in its theologized politics, alienated from the institutions of the state that have so assiduously fostered its growth.”

The ideological fervor is often mirrored by the settlers’ chief protector, the Israel Defense Forces. Gorenberg writes of the hesder yeshivas—an IDF-sanctioned program for the ultra-Orthodox men who alternate Talmudic study with active duty. A spreading phenomenon in religious settlements, the hesders have helped forge a new generation of Orthodox Zionist soldiers. A 1990 IDF study revealed that just 2.5 percent of Israeli officers were graduates of Orthodox schools; in 2007, close to one-third of the new officers were. Many have inculcated their troops with the message that the West Bank is part of a Greater Israel, to be defended at all costs. Meanwhile, powerful ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset have ramped up subsidies for haredi scholars, creating a growing supply of religious ideologues. As Gorenberg writes,

[A] vicious circle is at work. Policing occupied territory and protecting protecting soldiers are military burdens, increasing the need for combat soldiers and officers who have no qualms about the occupation. To meet that need, the army depends on ever more recruits from the religious right. Yet this increases the danger of fragmenting the military when an Israeli government finally does decide to pull out of the West Bank.

Perhaps the most controversial part of Gorenberg’s book is his contention that Israel’s West Bank occupation has radically corrupted its relationship to the Arabs in Israel proper. Led by hard-line nationalists such as former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu and his son, Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, ultra-Orthodox Zionists have “imported the settlement model,” he writes, to Jaffa, Lod, Akko, East Jerusalem, and other cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations. These new “urban settlers,” as Gorenberg describes them, “were bringing a way of seeing the world back home, reimporting the message of ethnic struggle to each acre of land.” The methods include the hurling of stones at Arab cars, and even establishing radical Jewish academies inside Arab neighborhoods and using them as a toehold to drive out their Arab neighbors. There’s no question that attitudes have hardened in recent years, but Gorenberg doesn’t take into account other factors—economic pressures, jumpiness about the possibility of the declaration of a Palestinian state—that might be responsible for the tensions. And while the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, surely reflects a changing Israeli polity, Lieberman’s call for loyalty oaths and plan to swap Arab corners of Israel for West Bank territory—thus depriving Arab Israelis of their Israeli citizenship—have not gained traction in either the Knesset or Israeli society as a whole.

Gorenberg trots out the usual prescriptions for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He views the one-state solution as untenable, certain to result in a “nightmare” in which Arabs and Jews “do battle while the most educated or well-connected members of each group look for refuge elsewhere.” And he sees no other recourse for Israel but a two-state solution, with a handful of Palestinian refugees returning to their pre-1948 homes, and a full withdrawal to pre-1967 borders with the exception of East Jerusalem and a handful of settlements, such as Maale Adumim, that were built on land contiguous with Israel. Gorenberg insists, however, that domestic groundwork needs to be laid—the dismantling of the hesder yeshivas; the ending of state subsidies for pre-army Orthodox academies; the dissolving of Netzah Yehuda, an ultra-Orthodox IDF battalion—before the settlements can vanish and “[t]he hallucinatory expectations that have warped Orthodox Zionism may begin to fade.” Given the intransigence of the current Israeli government, and the rightward drift of Israeli’s citizenry, the transition process is not likely to begin any time in the near future. But Gorenberg argues convincingly that the longer Israel waits, the more it risks the civil war that David Ben-Gurion feared might happen sixty-three years ago.

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Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.