Authors: Gershom Gorenberg
The Unmaking of Israel
For my children
Yehonatan, Yasmin, and Shir-Raz
The Elisha academy doesn’t look like the embodiment of three social revolutions. The dining hall facing the brick quad is prefab; the administration building is a mobile home. Only the stone-faced study hall–cum–synagogue is a permanent structure. The dorms that house several dozen students are also weather-stained mobile homes, arranged in two concentric semicircles lower on the West Bank hillside. At the compound’s entrance a bored Israel Defense Forces sergeant sits in a guard booth. He glances at me through the open car window, sees that I’m Israeli, half listens to me say I have an appointment with the dean, and waves me in.
There are no colonnades, no statues of heroes in the quad. Nothing here looks monumental. Rather, the changes in Israeli society that Elisha represents are like shifts in the ground—half visible, powerful, and ongoing. They create fissures in the foundations of the state. But they are the result of human choices, not forces of nature.
I’ve come to Elisha because I am concerned that the state of Israel is steadily dismantling itself, and because Elisha is in several ways a marker of its undoing.
To start, Elisha is an illegal outpost, one of about a hundred small settlements established across the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accord committed Israel to a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians. Since that agreement, the Israeli government has not approved new settlements in the West Bank. Ostensibly, the settler activists who established the outposts defied the government and the laws in force in Israeli-occupied territory. In reality, multiple state agencies lent a hand, while elected officials ignored or helped the effort. The Housing Ministry spent over $300,000 on infrastructure and buildings at Elisha alone. The army provides soldiers to guard the spot. The purpose of the outpost enterprise is to fill in the gaps between larger existing settlements, to extend Jewish control over West Bank land, to fragment the territory left to Palestinians. It is actually a massive rogue operation, making a mockery of the rule of law.
At the same time, Elisha is an institution of Orthodox Jewish religious study. The students are young men at the end of their teens. The dean is a charismatic rabbi with a quiet, warm voice. By coincidence, he was born in 1967, the year of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Because of that perceived miracle, a new theology swept much of Israeli Judaism. It described the battlefield triumph as part of God’s plan for redeeming the world, for bringing humankind into the perfected age of the messiah. The theology assigned sanctity to the state of Israel and its military. It made settling Jews in the newly conquered territory a divine commandment “as important as all the others combined.” The new doctrine constricted Judaism’s universal moral concerns, and made militant nationalism a pillar of faith. In his office, explaining his educational message, the dean uses the code words of that theology: his students “must understand,” he says, that they are “part of the redemption of Israel.” At the exclamation point of an idea, his eyes widen and a catlike quiver of pleasure runs through his shoulders. He undoubtedly assumes that the skullcap-wearing Orthodox interviewer facing him agrees with him; he has grown up in a community where his views are mainstream, taught in countless state-run religious schools.
Elisha, however, is a very particular kind of school: a pre-military academy. In principle, Israel has a universal draft at age eighteen. But the army grants deferments to high school graduates to spend a year or more at preparatory academies that combine physical training and studies that boost motivation to serve and to rise through the ranks. At Orthodox academies, one goal is to strengthen students’ faith, so they can resist pressure to give up religious practice during their service. Another goal is to create a cadre of ideologically committed Orthodox officers. Despite being an illegal outpost, Elisha appears on the Defense Ministry’s Internet page of pre-military academies. The Education Ministry has provided a third or more of its budget.
During the two decades since the academies began operating, religious men have taken a growing role in the Israeli army’s combat units and in its officer corps. Yet the windfall of new manpower comes with a troubling question: How much influence does a politicized clergy have in the military? This question could loom immense if Israel decides to withdraw from the West Bank—“Judea and Samaria,” the biblical name for the territory used in Israeli officialese and most public discourse. In the courtyard at Elisha, I ask a young man with a dark shadow of a beard what he would do if he received orders to evacuate a settlement. “I’m not going to break religious law if all the rabbis say not to,” he answers.
On the road to Elisha, no sign marked the line between Israel and occupied territory. I did not expect one. Since 1967, the government has worked to erase that line—on maps, and on the landscape. The road led eastward into the West Bank mountains, past the Palestinian village of Deir Nidham and the suburban homes at the Israeli settlement of Neveh Tzuf, until I reached the chain-link gate. For most Israelis, who rarely venture beyond the edges of occupied territory, Elisha is invisible.
Yet Elisha represents a crossroads—not on the map, but in Israeli history. The ongoing occupation, the fostering of religious extremism, the undercutting of the law by the government itself all threaten Israel’s future. In particular, they place its aspiration to democracy deeply at risk. As an Israeli, I believe that the country must change direction. My questions—the questions I seek to answer in this book—are how Israel reached this point, and what path it must take from here in order to repair and rebuild itself.
There are two common ways of portraying Israel. The first stresses its successes. It has given Jews refuge and sovereignty in their own country. Six decades after its establishment, Israel is a rarity among countries that gained their independence in the era of decolonialization. It is a parliamentary democracy. Economically, Israel has climbed from the Third World to the First, from exporting fruit to exporting software.
The second portrait is of conflict—of terror attacks against Israelis, but also of roadblocks, walls, settlements, and Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon. In the media and academic analysis, that picture increasingly focuses on Israel’s occupation of the territory it conquered in 1967 and the plight of Palestinians living there. The regime in the West Bank—or even within Israel itself—is sometimes equated to apartheid. Zionism is cast as a colonial movement, and the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 is seen as an inevitable consequence of Zionism’s nature. The most concise criticism is that Israel is an “ethnocracy,” as Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel argues in his 2006 book of that name. An ethnocracy, he explains, is a regime promoting “the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory while maintaining a democratic façade.”
The dichotomy between these two pictures is stark—and misleading. Nations don’t necessarily fit into clean categories; they are not chemical elements. Like a figure in great fiction, Israel is better portrayed through its contradictions, through its tragic flaws and heroic aspirations.
Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation movement of the Jews. The movement began in Eastern and Central Europe—an expanse of overlapping, entangled ethnic groups who by the late nineteenth century were all seeking political self-determination. Jewish life in that region had been precarious and fruitful, but now precariousness was winning out. Zionism defined the Jews primarily as an ethnic group, rather than a religious community. It saw the creation of a Jewish society in the Land of Israel, also known as Palestine, as the rightful repatriation of a stateless, persecuted people to its long-lost homeland. Return, Zionism posited, was the only workable solution of the world’s longest-running refugee problem.
But that homeland was also home to another people—Arabs who gradually defined themselves more distinctly as Palestinians. In 1881, on the eve of European Zionist immigration, Arabs outnumbered Jews eighteen to one in Palestine. Seen from the shores of Palestine, Zionism was a movement of foreigners coming to settle the land, to colonize it. The argument between these accounts is like a debate over whether water is really oxygen or really hydrogen. That both are partly true is the starting point of the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel, founded in 1948, was the product of this contradictory history. More immediately, it was the child of the United Nations’ November 29, 1947, decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. For the mainstream Zionist leadership, partition meant international recognition of the Jews’ right to statehood. For Palestinian Arabs, the same decision meant that foreign powers were imposing a “Jewish State in Arab territory” in “an act of aggression.” So Israel was born in war—first with Palestinian Arabs, then with neighboring Arab states. For Palestinians, that war was the Nakba, the Catastrophe, in which most Arabs fled or were expelled from what became Israel; for Israeli Jews, it was a traumatic war of survival. Again, both descriptions are true.
At birth, Israel was heir to Zionism’s own divisions—between political factions that covered the spectrum from the pro-Soviet left to the radical right, and between a secular majority and a religious minority. The new country’s declaration of independence said that it expressed the “natural right of the Jewish people” to sovereignty, and also promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
These were the starting conditions. They limited the political choices that shaped the state of Israel, but they did not predetermine the outcome. From the same beginnings, Israel could have become a pro-Soviet or right-wing dictatorship, or could have collapsed in internecine fighting. Instead, as I’ll describe in the next chapter, Israel’s founders managed to create a stable state. It was a democracy, albeit a deeply flawed one—most obviously, in its treatment of the Palestinian Arab minority that remained in Israel after the Nakba. Other flaws were far more subtle, such as early decisions that over decades would reshape ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, making it economically dependent on the democratic society it rejects. Nonetheless, during the period I’ll call the First Israeli Republic, the country made uneven and sometimes remarkable progress toward a more liberal democracy.
Ironically, the Six-Day War of June 1967 was a turning point—a military victory that led to political folly. It marked the beginning of what I like to call the Accidental Empire. The war took Israel by surprise; the conquests of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula were unexpected. But afterward, an Israeli government suffering from paralysis and hubris was unable to make hard political choices, especially about the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, it kept the Palestinians who lived in those territories disenfranchised, under military occupation, while settling Israeli citizens in the occupied land.
So at the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself apart. Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the ideal of democracy, a retreat that governments denied by describing the occupation as temporary. The settlement enterprise was a multipronged assault on the rule of law. Contrary to a common portrayal, secular politicians initiated settlement in the occupied territories and have continued to back it ever since. But the most ideologically committed settlers have been religious Zionists—and the government’s support for settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism into a movement of the radical right.