Everyone in Israel, on both right and left, agrees that the country is facing an unprecedented crisis, one that threatens its very existence. What they do not agree on is what that crisis is. Is it the potential nuclear threat from Iran, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it? Or is it a crisis of legitimacy prompted by the 44-year occupation of the West Bank, and the settlement movement, as the remaining shreds of the Israeli left see it? In a more forward-looking country, one less devoted to hounding its critics out of existence, legislators would roam the halls of the Knesset carrying well-thumbed copies of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel, breaking into smaller groups at lunch tables and in meeting rooms to discuss its prescriptions for healing a wounded land.
In the meantime, we have Gorenberg’s aching questions to ponder: “What will Israel be in five years, or 20? Will it be the Second Israeli Republic, a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities? The answers depend on what Israel does now.”
For better and for worse, Iran is hardly mentioned in its pages, but Gorenberg, a Jerusalem-based historian and journalist, is consumed by the self-inflicted wounds of a country perversely devoted to drastically misguided public policy. More compellingly, he is also committed to solving Israel’s problems, too.
In order to understand Gorenberg’s unique blend of despair and optimism, we must first consider the washing machine. In April 2008, the author read an article about a Palestinian in Hebron named Ghassan Burqan who had been stopped by Israeli border police while carrying a brand-new washing machine he had spent months saving up for. Burqan was arrested on trumped-up charges, and when he was released on bail, his washing machine had disappeared. Gorenberg, inspired by the example of a friend who had recently died of cancer, enlisted some fellow congregants from his synagogue in Jerusalem, purchased a washing machine, and brought it to Burqan. “Elliott explained that we had brought the machine in memory of our friend,” Gorenberg wrote, “and that we came because we were religious – not despite being religious – because this is what we believe Judaism requires. He looked a bit uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be necessary to explain this. But in Hebron madness is presumed, and sanity must be explained.”
The Unmaking of Israel is born of the same outrage at everyday injustice that prompted Gorenberg to strap a washing machine into the back of a pickup truck and deliver it to Hebron. Having been present for the voluntary dismantling of the Israeli left, undone as it was by fears of war and terrorism, decades of failed negotiations with the Palestinians, and a furiously resurgent right wing, Gorenberg calmly diagnoses the problems facing Israel before courageously taking a swing at offering solutions.
$430 million. That is the amount of money the Israeli government has spent specifically on maintaining the West Bank and Gaza settlements, more or less, making it “probably Israel’s single most costly civil – or rather, civil-military – project in the post-1967 era,” according to Gorenberg.
Following the money, he seeks a precise cost for Israel’s settlement movement, and its less well-known but nearly as damaging investment in extremist religious groups at odds with maintaining the country’s long-term future. As Gorenberg sees it, the country faces three difficult tasks to undo the erosion of Israeli democracy: “End the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It must divorce state and synagogue. Most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”