'Land of Hope and Fear': A landmark book on Israel's societal schisms - review

Veteran Israeli journalist Isabel Kershner's book has deftly painted a colorful portrait of all of us – warts, quarrels, achievements and failings.

 Isabel Kershner holding her new book. (photo credit: HIRSH GOODMAN)
Isabel Kershner holding her new book.
(photo credit: HIRSH GOODMAN)

During the last few months of dizzying political and social change, everything around us has seemed to melt and re-form weekly.

Some six months ago, Israel was preparing for the advent of a stable right-wing government. Not everyone was looking forward to it, but after a series of inconclusive elections, unstable coalitions and near-paralysis in the Knesset stretching over two years, at least comparative calm on the home front was a prospect.

Plans could be made, courses charted, long-term trends weighed, the future gauged. The barometers all set for calm, a known quantity at the helm. That was then.

Within weeks, all was in an uproar. A sudden onslaught on the constitutional balance, justified or not, summoned forth an outpouring of opposition that nobody, not even experienced observers of the Israeli scene, saw coming.

What shocked them was not that an assault on the “elites” had been challenged by the elites. Judges, bankers, the hi-tech world, the Left: the ferocity of their opposition was predictable. But the sudden mobilization of the great public, people who loathe demonstrations, don’t have much fondness for lawyers or the finer points of constitutional law, yet suddenly felt threatened to their core, happened beyond expectation or prophecy.

 An aerial view shows protesters attending a demonstration against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023 (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
An aerial view shows protesters attending a demonstration against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023 (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

Demonstrators flooded the Jerusalem streets the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant apparently for reporting that the army was being riven by the political upheaval.

The scene was beyond belief.

Israelis of all ages, mostly but not only the young, those who serve in the army and live low-profile but satisfying lives, had risen in fury and suddenly discovered they had teeth and claws, and that their country’s flag was the best possible symbol of their innermost and warmest affections.

Patriots with purpose, they flooded the streets in a coming together of most, not all, Israel’s tribes.

Where had they come from?

Though written well before the events of this year, your go-to guide to the breeding-grounds of modern Israel is Isabel Kershner’s book The Land of Hope and Fear. Kershner, an experienced Israeli journalist formerly for The Jerusalem Report and now for The New York Times, has deftly painted a colorful portrait of all of us – warts, quarrels, achievements and failings.

Her opening chapters pick up astutely on the underlying political tensions, lately burst into the open, through the lens of a warm and perceptive portrait of the late poet Haim Gouri. Bewildered and troubled in his later years by rising antagonism toward the Israel of the Mapai founders, its writers and thinkers, he was soothed by his wife: “You are not the problem,” she said gently. “It is the Israeli psyche that has become more complicated.”

Kershner devotes the rest of the book to the complications. The Ethiopian and Russian immigrations, the burgeoning haredi communities and their fraught relations with mainstream Israel, the long-running Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, the dizzyingly inventive hi-tech scene, the growing rethinking of the army’s traditional melting pot role, the struggle of the kibbutzim to adapt to a non-socialist country: everything is there.

A major strength of the book, though, lies in her ability to sympathetically and skillfully draw the important and telling stories from the people she interviews. The resulting considerable interpretive and emotional weight enriches her account. She sets their comments and thoughts against a detailed and rich factual and historical background.

For the most part, she eschews portraits of politicians: the great and the good are mostly absent from these pages. Instead, we get coral farmers, teachers, pioneering West Bank settlers, drop-outs from the haredi world, Bedouin women blazing trails in education and hi-tech and more.

Many are people on the margins of their worlds, crossing from religious to secular, confrontation to coexistence. They testify at the same time to the boundaries between social groups, their permeability, and their mutual fertilization. The children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union move into the mainstream and add to their new milieu the celebration of the winter festival of Novy God (New Year). Secular filmmakers project the inner lives of the multi-faceted haredi population onto the streaming television screens of the world.

There is no such thing as one Israeli society

By the time that this account reaches its close, one thing is clear: There is no such thing as one Israeli society; maybe there never was. Gouri’s 1948 Mapai-dominated farmer- republic and the young country’s growing pains as portrayed in Amos Elon’s 1971 observations of the sons of Israel’s founders has become an unpredictable collection of talented and occasionally warring tribes. Immigration and generational change continue to work their magic: What will we have become in another twenty years?

Even native and long-time residents will find much of value and not a few surprises in this book: Kershner has the classic journalistic virtue of conveying information in ways that engage and fascinate readers, and she does not put them through a dreary airless course of Sociology 101.

The only groups I found underrepresented in this book were people who are well embedded in their respective groups and contented with their lot. Dyed-in-the-wool Likudniks, the unwavering ranks of the ultra-Orthodox, even members of Israel’s professional classes and the country’s burgeoning artistic and creative scene –  these all have something to say, too.

Kershner fairly and rightly gives the Israeli tribal fault lines full and excellent coverage. Understandably, the reader gets less of a sense of national purpose as a result: The point of the book is to show difference and variation. Friction, enmity, hostility – all this is on frequent and noisy display.

But unity does surface too. COVID and Iran between them bonds the most disparate of groups. And the Israeli flag borne proudly in our recent disorders suggests a yearning for unity that has likely changed little over the years.

And there are other currents here as well. Not tribal but universal, cutting across all nations. Kershner quotes the view of an Arab educator, Shirin Natour-Hafi: “The main division in contemporary Israel was less between Jews and Arabs, and more between the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated.”

She is right. In meritocratic societies, the educated get the wealth and the prizes, and the uneducated often end up feeling cheated. The resulting resentments roil politics as surely and as powerfully as cultural or racial identity, each intensifying the other.

Look at the ultra-Orthodox. The “society of learners” prizes Torah scholarship, an exacting discipline. What happens to those young men who cannot master it? Many end up roaming the streets, without even a limited secular knowledge that can help them find jobs. They may indeed have a future, but only as a bullying religious militia, should events take a dark turn.

Two other groups, neither of which fit into convenient societal categories, escape notice: the police and the civil service. Neither gets the attention it deserves, yet both shape Israeli society to a considerable degree.

The police get only a walk-on part here, and it’s not a flattering portrayal. Racist and violent and ineffective – that more or less sums it up. But how a society polices, is policed, and is willing to be policed tells you a great deal about how it sees its boundaries and the relations between the groups it polices.

Further, not all the news here is bad. The policing of the recent demonstrations so far has been generally competent and restrained; further, demonstrators have gone out of their way to thank the police for their presence. This is striking. It suggests public views of the force are more positive than you would think.

The civil service is overshadowed by the politicians, and much news coverage of their activities is of the “Minister ignores expert advice” variety. This is likely justified, yet ministers are constrained by the options their advisers put forward. And for every public spat that makes the headlines, there are lots of quiet agreements between politicians and civil servants which almost unnoticed cast light and shade into our future.

Who are the top administrators? Where do they come from? Do they share a common temperament and worldview? Their choices shape our future to an extent we do not generally acknowledge. Are they shaped by the tribalism observed by Kershner, or by an ethos of public service equally on display in Washington, Paris and London?

This opens up a deeper question. Are we, and should we be, a nation whose tribal identities make us apart from the other nations or does what we have in common with other nations make us more like them than different from them? It’s an old conundrum that goes back to the origins of Zionism and before, and it will likely never be resolved.

George Orwell once wrote of England that it was “an everlasting animal, stretching into the future and the past and like all living things having the power to change out of all recognition and yet remain the same.”

And our own everlasting animal will continue to change, shocking and surprising even those who contend for mastery inside its skin.

As for our inner soul, it will have to take care of itself. I wish it well. ■

The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner SoulIsabel KershnerKnopf: 384 pages, $30