The Unmaking of Israel, Gershom Gorenberg, Harper, 336 pages

Gershom Gorenberg is an exception to the rule—more than one rule. He’s an Orthodox Jewish Israeli of American origin, a group that generally tilts sharply to the right in an Israeli context. But he’s decidedly on the political left, an advocate of not only freezing settlement construction but of initiating evacuations “without waiting for a signature on a peace agreement,” of negotiating a two-state solution based on the Green Line (the armistice lines of 1949, the de facto borders prior to the 1967 war), of the separation of synagogue and state, and of true civic equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. More than this, he has a realistic understanding of how the Zionist project must have been perceived by the Arab population of the Levant from the beginning: when he talks about the Palestinian Nakba—“catastrophe,” which is how the Palestinian Arabs refer to the events Israeli Jews call the War of Independence—he doesn’t put the word in scare quotes. But though Gorenberg is a man of the left, he also describes himself as a Zionist, rather than a non-, anti-, or post-Zionist. That is to say, he describes himself as a Jewish nationalist.

The State of Israel is also an exception to the rule—more than one rule. Like Greece and Algeria, India and Vietnam, Kenya and Lithuania, and numerous other states today, it is the fruit of a movement for national liberation, of a struggle, in the words of the Israeli national anthem, to be “a free people in our own land.” Unlike any other movement for national liberation, however, Zionism did not seek an independent state for an already existing nation living in a territory but rather to create a nation and a state out of a people scattered across the globe that had lived nearly two millennia in diaspora from its ancestral home. Like the United States and Canada, Brazil and Argentina, Australia and South Africa, Israel is also a settler state, created by a European population that came not merely to rule but to occupy and to substantially displace the indigenous people. Unlike any other settler state, however, the settlers of Israel understood themselves not to be venturing forth but to be coming home—and though individually any Israeli could make a home in any number of places, as could anyone from anywhere, in aggregate there is no other place on earth that they could call home.

This exceptional man has written a book, The Unmaking of Israel, about that exceptional state and its protracted and deepening crisis. And it is, appropriately enough, an exceptional contribution to the genre.

What is exceptional about the book is the frame within which Gorenberg chooses to tell a mostly familiar story—familiar, anyway, to anyone conversant with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gorenberg is not the first person to write a book decrying the human consequences of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank, and indeed, though he does decry them forcefully it is not the purpose of his book either to document them or to persuade anyone who does not already agree that the occupation has had frightful ramifications for the Palestinians. Nor is he the first person to make the “demographic argument” for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the argument that Israel cannot remain both a democratic state and a Jewish state if it does not retain a substantial and stable Jewish majority, which would not be the case if the West Bank were incorporated into Israel proper. Indeed, this latter point is now part of the Israeli conventional wisdom—every party to the left of Likud formally endorses it, Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nominally accepts it as well, and even the platform of Avigdor Liberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party depends on the same premise (which is why that platform proposes trading the heavily Arab areas within the Green Line for the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a hypothetical agreement). But this is also not the primary thrust of Gorenberg’s book; he takes it for granted that everyone understands the basic arithmetic.

Rather, the thrust of the book, as the title states, is to demonstrate that the series of decisions made during and after the 1967 War that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set in motion a process that has progressively “unmade” the State of Israel. Indeed, the progressive expansion of the settlement enterprise has so eroded the foundations of the signature achievement of political Zionism—Israel as we now know it—that not merely a “Jewish democratic state” but the state as such is now imperiled.

To make that case, Gorenberg begins by taking the reader back to the pre-state period and the early days of the Israeli state. Before independence, the Jewish community in Israel was subject to colonial rule but substantially governed itself through the various institutions of the yishuv and through manifold Zionist political movements and militias. Once national liberation was achieved, with the United Nations vote for partition and victory in the war of independence, Israel needed to get on with the process of state-building.

Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, pursued this aim in, again, a manner very familiar from other post-colonial states. The party of liberation established organs of the state—or took them over from the colonial power—but did so in such a manner that these organs were bound up, at least initially, with that same party, with the “losing” parties required to dissolve their pre-state institutions, particularly militias. The only “battle” Israel fought to achieve this goal was to sink the Altalena, a ship carrying arms for the Irgun, Menachem Begin’s right-wing militia, when the Irgun refused to hand those arms over to the Israel Defense Forces.

This decision by Ben-Gurion is Gorenberg’s object lesson in what it means to have a state: by using force early and decisively, Ben-Gurion assured that the state would have a monopoly of force, and would therefore be a state. It’s also a decision to which the losing party has never reconciled itself, and Gorenberg recounts how the Israeli right has made a rallying cry of the Altalena over the years. But for all the hand-wringing about Jews firing on other Jews, it’s worth pointing out that Israel made the transition from a revolutionary national movement to a functioning state more successfully than many other decolonizing countries, particularly given the nature of the challenges it faced. (Most notably the need to integrate an enormous wave of mostly poor immigrants that, while sharing a sense of common peoplehood, was divided into wildly different cultural and linguistic groups.)

But with the dramatic victory of 1967, Israel was tempted by the conquered territory to reverse this historical progression and revert to the pre-state condition of being a national movement. Israel captured two different categories of land in 1967. The Sinai and the Golan Heights were recognized by the world generally as the sovereign territory of Egypt and Syria. While Israel planted settlements in both areas—and actually annexed the Golan Heights—the nature of the conflict over these territories is an inter-state manner and will be resolved in the usual way between states. (As indeed it was with Egypt after the Camp David accords.)

The West Bank and Gaza, however, were neither annexed nor administered according to the Geneva Conventions for occupied territory. They were settled without regard to the law, rather in the manner of Jewish settlement in the pre-state period, except with a combination of active and passive state backing: active when the settlements were planned by the Israeli government, passive when they were established by “wildcat” settlers and then retroactively approved, a process that has accelerated during the years since the Oslo accords. The Israeli state broke its own and international law, but more alarmingly from the perspective of the integrity of the state, it encouraged private parties to believe that they were acting patriotically when they broke the law and forced the state’s hand, all in an effort to establish “facts on the ground” that would (those responsible presumably thought) redound to Israel’s benefit—or, more properly, to the benefit of the “Jewish national movement,” since Gorenberg’s contention is that this activity in fact damaged Israel as a state and since it wouldn’t be correct to talk about this or that activity benefiting an entire ethnic or religious group like “the Jews.”

Since 1967, Gorenberg relates, the settlement enterprise has undermined the Israeli state top to bottom. It has fostered secrecy and corruption in government. (There is no proper accounting anywhere of spending on settlements; the figures simply aren’t kept.) It has inspired messianic religious groups that do not recognize the state as the final authority over questions of territory or war and peace and then encouraged these groups to greater and greater influence within the armed forces—because they could be relied upon to serve in the territories without loss of morale—raising the specter of a split in the army should the government ever decide to withdraw from the West Bank. And as relations between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank took on the character of an armed ethnic contest, this dynamic has been imported back into Israel proper, where private groups—frequently with some degree of state support—have engaged in campaigns to “Judaize” predominantly Arab parts of the state.

Again the story is familiar. Less so is the framing. Gorenberg, though he is outraged by the plight of the Palestinians, is not really writing about that plight. Nor is he writing from an anti-Zionist perspective. Rather, he is writing from a deeply Zionist point of view. Zionism, we tend to forget, was not a self-defense movement. It was a nationalist movement. Nationalism tells a people a story about what it means to be free—that being free means being part of a self-conscious, self-governing, sovereign, and independent collective. Losing consciousness of one’s national group, being governed by other groups, failing to achieve independence and sovereignty on par with other nations—these are signs of unfreedom. Of immaturity. The Jews before Zionism were, from the perspective of this narrative, either an exceptionally immature nation or not a nation at all. The goal of Zionism was not simply—or even primarily—to provide for a “safe haven” for Jews fleeing persecution by the Czar or the Nazis. The goal was the spiritual rejuvenation of the Jewish people by molding them into a nation like other nations and achieving independent statehood.

This is a narrative frame that, in broad strokes, Gorenberg accepts, which is why he is properly seen as a Zionist. Indeed, the whole argument of the book is that by holding onto and settling the territories captured in 1967, Israel has reverted to a mode of existence that Zionism was supposed to help the Jews grow out of. By undermining the authority of the state, the settlement enterprise has revived modes of being and of argument that, from Gorenberg’s perspective, the Jewish people should have grown out of when they acquired the power and responsibility of a state. Indeed, that was the whole point, from a moral perspective, of acquiring state power in the first place. The settlement enterprise doesn’t just undermine the moral case for Israel because it’s an injustice (plenty of states have perpetrated injustices—indeed, far worse injustices—without undermining the case for statehood as such) but because it is evidence that Zionism failed in what was arguably its primary objective.

Gorenberg wrote his book primarily for a Jewish audience. Based on what he has said about the reception when he has gone to synagogues and other venues to talk about his book, much of the opposition from within the Jewish community refuses to be confronted with painful facts, determined to shout down and shut out the messenger with the unwelcome message. But I can imagine a more forthright approach for the opposition. Gorenberg is making the case that Israel has encouraged the reversion to a pre-state mode of being; it has revived a situation where Jews are locked in ethnic conflict with their neighbors rather than dominating an independent state with relations (whether conflicted or harmonious) with neighboring states. But why blame Israel for this? How do we know that the pre-state situation ever really ended? Did the Arab states make peace in 1949? No. Have the Palestinians reconciled themselves to the idea of a Jewish state? No. Have the Palestinian citizens of Israel at least reconciled themselves to it? No. So why should Israel effectively disarm themselves and say: we’ve got enough; we’re not going to fight for more—even though you will continue to fight so that we have less. Why should Israel be the sucker?

I don’t think the proper answer to this is to get back into a debate about the facts, or about who is more and who less justified in their specific actions. I think the proper answer is in that famous line of Ben-Gurion’s: “What matters is not what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.” The line is usually quoted as a rejoinder to concerns about “what will the world think” if Israel does such and such. But it is equally a proper rejoinder to justifying Israel’s conduct by reference to the hostility of the Palestinians, or anyone else, to Zionism. Zionism’s goal was a sovereign, independent Jewish state in the historic land of Israel, as a means to the moral and spiritual rebirth of the Jewish nation. If the occupation is destroying Israel’s fundamental character, dismantling the state, and corrupting the people, as Gorenberg contends, then Zionists above all should want to end it, as swiftly and comprehensively as possible, and not try to hold out for the most favorable terms—to say nothing of holding out for the approval and acceptance of those for whom the Jewish state can at best be seen as an unfortunate fact of life.

After all, it was always absurd to think that anyone but the Jewish people would ever truly endorse the aims of Zionism, because Zionism was a specifically Jewish national project. That project is properly judged a success or failure by what kind of nation it built, and how. Which is how Gorenberg judges it. And, to his dismay but not despair, he finds it wanting.

Noah Millman blogs for The American Conservative at TheAmericanConservative.com/Millman.