It was a warm family get-together this past weekend, on the occasion of Alec Fantle’s Bar Mitzva at Bet Shalom Congregation. Alec made his parents, Phillip (my first cousin) and Susan Fantle, proud. And there was a topical moment during the Saturday morning service, which suits the purposes of this editorial.
The Torah portion last weekend was Chaye Sara, which deals with the death of our matriarch Sara, at the age of 127. Abraham negotiates with Efron the Hittite for a burial plot for his wife. As the Torah states, Abraham insists on paying for the burial place in the Cave of the Machpela, near Hebron.
Rabbi David Locketz, in his talk to the Bar Mitzva, discussed how this Torah portion relates to the current mess in Israel. He pointed out that one of the worst places in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Hebron, where Jews, since 1967, again worship at the Cave of the Machpela. A small Jewish community has moved into the center of Hebron; and tensions between Jews and Arabs occasionally erupt in acts of bloodshed.
My ears perked up at this point, because I had just read Israeli journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg’s new book, The Unmaking of Israel (Harper), which analyzes how the post-1967 “settlement enterprise” has undermined the rule of law in Israel and fueled the rise of religious extremism.
When Israel conquered the West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai in the Six-Day War of 1967, it was a stunning military victory — and Jews in the Diaspora celebrated, too. However, “at the moment of its triumph [in 1967], Israel began to take itself apart,” writes Gorenberg. “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.”
Of course, since the 1993 Oslo Accords — when President Bill Clinton pushed Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat together for a handshake on the White House lawn — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was supposed to be resolved by a negotiated two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living peacefully side by side. Eighteen years on, it hasn’t happened.
I suggest that AJW readers buy a copy of Gorenberg’s book and read it, in order to advance their understanding of how Israel has come to this dismal pass. For example, I was interested to read the section about Israeli lawyer Talia Sasson, whom then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commissioned to report on the illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank.
“Sharon’s decision to have her investigate the outposts was one of the most surprising acts of his career,” Gorenberg writes.
Although Sasson’s 2005 report was endorsed by the Israeli Cabinet, and the High Court of Israel has ruled that the West Banks outposts violate the law, these Jewish settlements thrive through the collusion of various Israeli government agencies: they benefit from the construction and maintenance of roads, the provision of water and electricity, educational funding and IDF security. This gets to Gorenberg’s point about the occupation undermining the rule of law.
In the event that peace breaks out and Israel decides to dismantle outlying West Bank outposts and settlements, there is the question of whether IDF soldiers could be relied on to remove settlers, as occurred during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It is not at all certain whether a large cohort of soldiers will listen to their military superiors or to those fundamentalist rabbis who counsel against any government policy that would give up any territory in the “Whole Land of Israel,” which they see as part of the Jewish people’s biblical birthright.
“They’ll only say it softly, as a secret: it might break the back of the army,” Sasson tells Gorenberg, regarding the consequences of a decision to uproot West Bank settlers. “A large portion of the combat troops are settlement supporters. They’re the backbone of the army.”
The comment by Sasson, who visited the Jewish World offices several years ago, sets up the chapter “Disorderly Conduct,” which delves into the question of dissension in the IDF ranks
The book also profiles the growth of the haredi sector in Israel — in the chapter titled “The Labor of the Righteous Is Done by Others.” There is considerable dissension in Israel about government stipends to enable ultra-Orthodox, haredi, men to study, rather than be gainfully employed. The haredi revival “has been disastrous,” in economic terms, according to Gorenberg, who writes: “Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is ever more dependent on the state, and, through it, on other people’s labor.”
And this trend likely will worsen with the next generation coming of age: “Over a fifth of the Israeli haredi population is aged four or less. One-quarter of all kindergarten and preschool children in Israel were in ultra-Orthodox institutions in 2009. Unless those children receive a different kind of education than the one their parents and educators plan for them, they too will be lifetime dependents of the shrinking number of working Israelis. The pyramid scheme will bankrupt Israel and leave the haredim hungry.”
Gorenberg diagnoses the ills of Israel today and prescribes three changes: end to the settlement enterprise, which entails partitioning the land; separate state and synagogue; and, “most basically, [Israel] must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” On this last point, Gorenberg emphasizes that Israel will remain a Jewish state, but with a “very different balance of rights.”
Getting back to the corrupting influence of the 41-year military occupation of Palestinian communities, Gorenberg writes that “settlers, and especially religious settlers, assert that they are the most dedicated Zionists, and their claim resonates with much of the Jewish public. In reality, the methods of their Zionism are taken from the pre-state era. The authentic Zionist task of the moment is dismantling the settlement enterprise so that Israel can deal with all the issues it has postponed.”
I talked with Gorenberg on the phone last week. He was in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he did his undergraduate studies, prior to making aliya some 30 years ago. He was on the West Coast leg of a book tour for The Unmaking of Israel. We discussed some of the issues in the book; and, at conclusion of our chat, he wanted to make a distinction about how the peace issue is presented in Israel, and “even more so here [in the U.S.].”
“Getting out of the West Bank, ending the settlement enterprise, is essential for Israel’s survival as a state and as a democracy,” said Gorenberg. “And when we talk about peace negotiations, what we’re talking about is that the safe way for Israel to leave the West Bank is through a peace agreement. In that sense, peace is a means to the goal of giving up the territory; rather than only looking at it as giving up the territory as a means to the goal of peace.
“Giving up the territory is something positive in of itself, because it frees Israel from this quagmire, which has blurred its borders, undermined the rule of law, and in so many other ways damaged the state and the democracy. So, people should see peace, and efforts to make peace, as a means of preserving Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy.”
As I told Gorenberg, it’s hard to see how Israel can go about extricating itself from its present “quagmire.” The prospects for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians seem very dim in the near term. But Gorenberg commented that Israeli politics has had “very wide swings of the pendulum,” over the past 20 years, between entrenchment in the settlements and a “wider public understanding that a two-state solution is needed.”
We have seen great sea changes in history in a short period of time; so, perhaps, a beneficial change is stirring in Israel. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”
And Gorenberg responded that the great sage Yogi might have had a deeper point: “When you’re studying Israeli history it even becomes difficult to make predictions about what you’re going to find out about the past.”
— Mordecai Specktor / firstname.lastname@example.org
(American Jewish World, 11.25.11)