The NY Times made the odd choice of selecting liberal Zionist hawk Jeffrey Goldberg to review Gershom Gorenberg’s new paean to lib Zionism, The Unmaking of Israel. I’m only surprised that they didn’t assign the review to “Eytan” Bronner, that other Times paragon of lib Zionism, . Assigning the review to Goldberg is something akin to commissioning Joe Biden to review Barack Obama’s next book. Though Gorenberg isn’t Goldberg’s boss, they come from the same fairly narrow ideological slice of the Zionist ideological spectrum, with the only difference being that Gorenberg is slightly more critical of Israeli policy and Occupation than Goldberg. It was to be expected that Goldberg would offer an encomium to someone who’s likely an old pal. Israel is a very small place. Gorenberg lives there. Goldberg lived there for years. Surely there are webs and networks interconnecting them in this cozy little community of pro-Israel journalists from which they emerged professionally.
There is something slightly off kilter or incestuous about assigning the book to Goldberg, as if one hand washes the other. We certainly may expect a fullsome blurb from Gorenberg on the cover of Goldberg’s next book or assistance getting Gorenberg’s next article placed in The Atlantic. I note that Gorenberg’s infamous Why- is-There-No-Palestinian-Gandhi fantasy was supposed to be published by The Atlantic, which passed on it when he submitted it to them. It was then published in the far more ideologically suitable and pro-Israel Weekly Standard.
Of course, it would’ve been a lot more illuminating, and many more sparks would’ve flown, had they assigned the review to Stephen Walt, Tom Segev (who incisively reviewed Benny Morris’ last book for the Times) or Rashid Khalidi, someone who would’ve truly grappled both with Gorenberg’s ideas, giving credit where it was due and noting their insufficiencies when they arose. Alas, that didn’t happen. So we’re left with the ideological clichés that pass for analysis coming from Goldberg’s pen.
So let’s review the review for the little white lies, distortions and intellectual dishonesty for which Goldberg is notorious, starting with this:
Israel is not a fascist state, nor is it a theocracy nor, for that matter, is it a fascist theocracy. It is not an apartheid state, a totalitarian state or, God forbid, a Nazi state.
There is a convenient admixture of the outrageous with the apt, which allows Goldberg to associate off-the-wall descriptors like “fascist,” “totalitarian” or “Nazi” with ones that are quite apt like “theocracy” or ‘apartheid state.” Israel isn’t a fascist state, but it certainly is rapidly becoming an authoritarian one, as anyone reading the list of Knesset bills up for consideration knows. Though I wouldn’t have said this till recently, Israel has become a theocracy in everything but name only. It’s not that rabbi-ayatollahs sweep through the streets stoning immodest women to death as they did and do in Afghanistan. No, it’s more subtle than that (though there is overt violence against such women) but no less insidious. Even Gorenberg, an Orthdox Jew, notes the stranglehold the Haredi have over the Israeli political and social system. No less a figure than former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy said the Haredi threat to Israeli secular democracy was more severe than that from Iran.
Though Israel is not a fascist or totalitarian state, it is a state which honors democracy in the breach, if at all. Turning to the phrase “apartheid,” since Israel clings insistently to the Occupation, which is a blatant and brutal violation of international law, we have to acknowledge that Israel IS an apartheid state. If it did not rule West Bank Palestinians and indirectly Gaza as well, then we might argue that the Israeli domestic political system was merely an ethnocracy, but not outright apartheid. However, the Occupation and the savagery with which it oppresses millions of Palestinians, turns Israel into a state with citizens enjoying full rights (Jews), truncated rights (Israeli Palestinians), and few if any rights (Palestinians in the Territories). That is, an apartheid state.
Goldberg’s hasbara continues:
It [Israel] is, for its region in particular, a model of Western values, a country in possession of a robustly independent judiciary; a boisterous, appropriately unkempt press; a mature and activist civil society; and an assortment of fearless and effective human rights organizations.
Note he says that Israel is for its region a model of Western values. Which implies that if Israel was not in this region it wouldn’t be such a sterling example of these values. But returning to the passage, Goldberg either doesn’t know much about what’s really happening in Israel, or he’s willfully blind to the Israeli reality. The Israeli judiciary, far from being robust, is catatonic when it comes to national security cases. It’s taken five years for the IDF to honor several Supreme Court rulings to move the Separation Wall. When the same Court prohibited targeted killings of unarmed Palestinians and an IDF general carried out one, the Court did nothing to enforce its ruling, even allowing the promotion of said general to become deputy chief of staff. If that’s robust, then my grandpa was an Olympic decathlete.
As for the press being “boisterous, appropriately unkempt,” the terms are curiously besides the point in portraying the current Israeli media reality in which a TV station is being destroyed because it aired an exposé embarrassing to the prime minister; and that, following the same TV station’s abject on-air apology to Sheldon Adelson for airing an exposé embarrassing to him. Hundreds of gag orders and military censorship hem in the best of Israeli investigative journalists, preventing them from doing their jobs properly. Not to mention the silencing of an Israeli-Palestinian radio station, All for Peace, because it held such “subversive” views like embracing a two-state solution and women’s rights.
Goldberg’s descriptions of “activist civil society” and “fearless, effective human rights organizations” also seriously distorts the Israeli reality in which the prime minister has only just now withdrawn laws which would effectively defund all Israeli NGOs receiving foreign funding (which is virtually all). To any Israeli apologists who claim that the withdrawal of the bill is a victory for democracy, look again. Haaretz acknowledges the only reason for the withdrawal was the outcry from foreign governments like the EU and U.S., who warned of the opprobrium Israel would suffer on the world stage for such punitive measures against the human rights community.
This is the same Israel which summons human rights activists to Shin Bet interrogations and warns them if they continue with their activism, and the Knesset enacts new laws which the spooks expect, that what he is now doing will become criminal and that they will pursue him vigorously. It’s the same society which routinely assaults human rights activists at places like Sheikh Jarrah, Jalud and Anatot, breaking bones, assaulting women sexually, etc.
Make no mistake, I am a champion of the Israeli human rights community. But I do not delude myself into believing that it will or can save Israel from itself. At best, these NGOs are impeding Israel’s gradual decline into moral and political chaos. They are a stopgap, but not a solution. They can’t single-handedly prevent the inexorable descent.
Though one should credit both Gorenberg and especially Goldberg for embracing some severe and justified criticism of Israel, neither goes far enough, especially not Goldberg. Take this statement:
The majority of Israelis say they support a two-state solution…But the majority is powerless in the face of the relentless settler minority.
What does this mean? How can a majority be “powerless” in the face of a minority? Has that minority fed the majority a disabling drug that renders them unable to effectively oppose the bad deeds of the minority? Has the majority lost its will through some catastrophe? Of course, none of this is true and Goldberg is talking utter nonsense. The Israeli majority may not have much sympathy for the settlers, but they are not willing to confront them. The Israeli majority elects Knessets which form governments which actually support the settler movement. So saying the majority is powerless against settlements is patently false. The majority tacitly and even directly supports the disaster unfolding in the Territories. We can argue and psychologize this phenomenon till the cows come home. But we’ve got to tell it like it is. This is not Svengali stuff. Israelis are to blame for the mess into which the settlers have gotten them.
As an example, take this odd locution chosen by Goldberg to describe Israeli conquest of the West Bank during the 1967 War: he calls it “a sudden acquisition of new land.” That’s one way of putting it. What Israel did was far from “acquisition” and such language masks the nature of the ongoing crime in the same way that Israelis mask awareness of the Albatross that the Occupation is around their collective necks.
Gorenberg and Goldberg both target the settlements as the poison fruit that has embittered Israeli discourse. And of course they are both right. But they don’t go far enough. Take this passage from the review which portrays the ways in which Israel allowed a patently illegal settlement process to become de jure legal, at least in Israeli terms:
How did it happen that a country of laws — Israel’s Supreme Court justices are renowned around the globe — came to be so lawless in one corner of the territory it ruled?
We can argue later about whether or even when last, Israel’s justices were “renowned” around the globe–but the notion that the lawlessness of settlements is a phenomenon of only “one corner” of Israel is again wishful thinking. Israel is a country basically without rule of law, especially regarding national security. There is no accountability for crimes and violations of laws and guidelines either by the police, IDF or intelligence agencies. Take this hot off the presses from Maariv. One of only two IDF officers facing charges for murdering civilians during Operation Cast Lead will face no criminal charges according to the military prosecutor. Corruption is endemic. Ethnic discrimination, even against Jews and certainly against non-Jews, is rampant. Israel enjoys the fifth largest gap between rich and poor among OECD countries. It is one of the most stratified nations in the world with a tiny number of oligarch-like families controlling immense portions of the national commercial and industrial infrastructure. There is one law for the 99% and another for the 1%. Lawlessness does not afflict only one corner of the nation. It afflicts the entirety of it.
Thus Occupation, though it may’ve been the root of the evil that came to bedevil Israel, is now just another symptom among many of the country’s ills. But unlike both Gorenberg and Goldberg, I believe that Israel’s Original Sin, just as it America’s, is racism. In Israel, that Sin began with the 1948 Nakba and continues to this day with the oppression and neglect suffered by Israel’s indigenous non-Jewish citizens. Just as Martin Luther King argued so powerfully about American sin, tying it to racism and slavery, so Israel’s is the primal injustice of expulsion of nearly 1-million residents of the country. This, as much as or even more than Occupation, is the “unmaking of Israel.”
You won’t find Goldberg touching this with a ten-foot pole and likely Gorenberg would feel the same way. Nakba is the third-rail of Israeli politics. You simply can’t go there. From Nakba flows an analysis of the fundamental, systemic inequities of Israeli life. The suppression of the rights of Palestinian citizens, tolerance of the virtual abandonment of whole segments of the Israeli population to poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and crime.
If there is one thing among many that separates my views from those of the liberal Zionist pair it is this:
…It is Jews who created many of the problems the Jewish state faces today, and it is Jews who must fix them.
I used to believe this, even fervently. But I no longer believe it. Israel is not capable of fixing the mess into which it has gotten itself. Like Serbia-Kosovo or Rwanda or any number of horror-show situations, Israel is paralyzed. It cannot expiate its sins or whatever one wishes to call them. The benefits Israelis derive from Occupation are too attractive for them to give them up willingly. There may be those who know what has to be done to resolve its conflict with the Arab states, but there aren’t enough of these citizens and they aren’t powerful enough to impose their vision on the rest of society.
Finally, Goldberg and Gorenberg, despite the partial clarity of vision they have concerning the mess in which Israel finds itself, are little better than temporizers. They want to ameliorate the situation rather than engage in the fundamental transformation of Israeli society that is necessary for it to become truly democratic and accepted into the mainstream of nations. For them Israel can only be a Jewish state. And by that I mean a state rewarding the majority ethnic group superior rights over the minority. You call such a state an exclusivist and supremacist Jewish state. But it is one in which some citizens, by virtue of the religion into which they were born, gain better jobs, education, health care, housing, and social treatment. That is simply not acceptable. It wasn’t acceptable to the authors of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, nor is it acceptable today.
As I’ve written many times, there is nothing wrong with Israel being a state in which Jews are a majority. There is nothing wrong with Israel being a state in which Jews practice their religion, speak their language, learn their heritage, and engage with their Diaspora brethren. In other words, Israel must be a place in which religious traditions are respected. But it may not be a place that rewards one religion over another. That is where I fundamentally part company with Goldberg and Gorenberg. And it’s why Gorenberg finds me such a dangerous opponent that he was willing to lie about my views and call me an anti-Zionist. He doesn’t know what to do with those who support Israel, but find his vision imperfect. To him, he’s a perfect liberal and a conscience of humanity. Doesn’t he criticize his own nation for the sins it’s committed against Palestinians? What more, he thinks, do they expect of me?
We expect someone who is a serious intellectual and observer of his nation to plumb the depths of the evil that afflicts it. Something Gorenberg hasn’t yet done. He has gotten part way there, but not all the way.