Drawing democratic – and geographical – lines

Gershom Gorenberg discusses what he sees as undemocratic trends and what can be done about them.

Gershom Gorenberg 521 (photo credit: Debbi Cooper)
Gershom Gorenberg 521
(photo credit: Debbi Cooper)
Gershom Gorenberg pulls no punches in the opening salvos of his latest book, The Unmaking of Israel, declaring that “the ongoing fostering of religious extremism, the undercutting of the law by the government itself, all threatens Israel’s future. In particular they place its aspiration to democracy deeply at risk.”
Gorenberg is not of the tired old school of Israeli intellectuals who argue that their state was hijacked by others. Instead he sees nuance, arguing that the settlements in the West Bank were generally established by secular politicians and that in some ways the country has become more democratic since the 1967 war. But like Jeremy Ben-Ami, Hirsh Goodman and many others who have published books recently, he fears for the country’s future if it continues down its current path.
The author grew up in California and came to Israel in 1977 at 22. After completing an MA at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he began working as a journalist. Now living in Jerusalem with his wife and three children, he coauthored Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, and authored The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (2000) and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (2005). He sat down with The Jerusalem Post recently to discuss his latest volume. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
The book is meant to be a warning of dangers to the future of Israel as a state and democracy. I saw a series of developments which I felt – even if they were being covered in the press locally and abroad, the nature of daily coverage is that people don’t see the wider picture.
I set out to create a picture, the most accurate one I could, of why these trends developed and what could be done about them. The book is aimed at people who are concerned about Israel [and] would like to see a thriving, democratic Israel. In particular, one of the developments... that was a spark for [writing the book] is the question of the army’s authority over its soldiers, and [the fact] that the elected government’s authority over the soldiers is being contested by the extreme religious Right.
This issue, and success in overcoming it, began with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, using force in the Altalena affair [in which 19 Jews were killed after the IDF shelled the ship carrying guns for the Irgun], ensuring only the government would control the military and not political factions. To see that being eroded is a serious issue.
There has been a recent wave of books about the future of Israel, such as Hirsh Goodman’s The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. Where does your book fit in? A large amount of what I found is material that was classified or unnoticed.
For The Accidental Empire, I used previously classified material. Some of the material... I received after petitioning for access to the IDF archives. I learned that some of the earliest settlements were set up on the pre-state Mapai model, which was to “speak not at all and carry a big hoe.”
For instance, Kfar Etzion [a religious kibbutz that existed prior to 1948, which the Jordanians destroyed that year; it was reestablished in 1967 by the children of the original members] was misrepresented as a Nahal outpost and not a civilian outpost. The government was told [by its own advisers] that establishing settlements violated international law. The public in 1967 was [also] unaware that a group of secular kibbutzniks had gone into the Golan just weeks after the war [and begun establishing settlements there].
I think there are strong indications to show that [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon was involved in encouraging people to set up these outposts, so what looks like challenges to the government by extreme groups is better described as a partnership between forces within the government and the radical settlers.
I argue that in contrast to the Pollyanna- ish hasbara-niks [pro-Israel commentators], or the people who say the state was anti-democratic from the beginning, I see a real, albeit quite flawed, democracy at the beginning [of the country’s existence]. In historical context, both the flaws and accomplishment need to be seen. Seeing the flaws, one can more clearly understand what has gone off track since then.
For instance, the form of ultra- Orthodoxy [that now exists in the country] was the creation, with unintended consequences, of the state itself. I also argue that what happened in the occupied territories after 1967 was an attempt to apply pre-state methods of the Zionist movement to the new lands, [but] instead of building a state, they are taking it apart – they ignore the critical watershed of the creation of the state. The result is that instead of moving forward, we are moving backward.
You focus a lot on the settlement movement and the settlements in the West Bank, particularly on the hilltop youth and the outposts. Why do the settlers concern you so much?
The effect of the ongoing settlement in the West Bank is the blurring of the borders of the state and of who belongs to the polity, as well as undermining the rule of law.… There is a narrative about the development of the settlements, which maps that conflict onto the religious- secular division. The standard story repeated in coverage of Israel is that the settlement began with relatively moderate secular governments that didn’t have willpower, being dragged into it by extreme religious movements. I found that didn’t line up with the facts. From the beginning, much, if not most, of the initiative came from the ruling Labor-Alignment party, which partnered with religious settlers and in doing so actually encouraged the growth of the settler-oriented religious Right.
You mention in this book that the new settlement enterprise after 1967 was an “unnatural” new lease on life for the pre-state style of settlement. How do we know so well where to draw the line? One day the state is confiscating the land of absentee Arabs inside the Green Line or building Nahal settlements, then it is doing it in the Golan and then the West Bank. So why should the settlers be seen as unnatural, but what happened just a few years before 1967 be considered fine?
 Even in terms of what happened after the state was established, it isn’t like 1948-1967 was one homogeneous period. There was a burst of creation of new settlements after the creation of the state. In terms of the kibbutz movement, it was much less successful than pre-state kibbutzim. By the 1960s, that was drying up. In fact, in 1967, there were major plans for downsizing the Settlement Division of the Jewish Agency.
In terms of land use, the state’s attitude toward the Arab minority in Israel was one in which the state had not made a transition from being a movement for the Jews toward one of responsibility for all the people in the state. But the fact that Arabs [inside the Green Line] had the vote is what created the political pressure to release them from the military government in 1966. After 1967, you have a large population of Arabs living under military government [in the West Bank and Gaza], but it doesn’t grant citizenship to [those] Arabs. The “solution” was that Jews who settled in the territories were treated as if they lived inside Israel, in terms of government statistics and voting [while the Arabs who lived in those areas were not].
You mention the Arabs who became “present absentees” in Israel after 1948. These are the ones who fled their villages and nevertheless ended up living in Israel as what some call “internal refugees.” You mention a figure for them of 75,000 in 1950; that would have been half the Arab population at that time, which means half of the country’s Arabs today are part of this category. That seems like a massive exaggeration.
I present this as an estimate. I think it is conceivable that one out of every two was displaced within Israel. More research is necessary. For instance, part of the people living in Acre after May 1948 were people who lived there before, but on the other hand, there had been people fleeing into the city. There are similar stories in Taiba and in Nazareth.
Another issue that concerns you inside the Green Line is the attacks on Israel’s democracy. You write that the acceptance committees that more than 1,000 communities here use should be “consigned to the history books.” What about the kibbutz acceptance committees? Every time I have asked whether they are similar, people say that the kibbutz is somehow special, and all the other communities’ acceptance committees are racist.
I have heard stories over the years of kibbutzim making questionable decisions on membership. The difference between a kibbutz and yishuv kehilati [communal settlement] is that in the classic kibbutz you accept new members as an economic [partner], and it is more intensively communal. That doesn’t mean there were not discriminatory kibbutzim. But the essential justification was about them being an economic partner.
In giving that answer, I am not commenting on the issue of discrimination. What happened was that a model that had some justification in one circumstance was applied to another one. To the extent that something is just a suburb [as is the case with privatized kibbutzim], it shouldn’t have an acceptance committee.
In your conclusion, with your discussion of “separation of synagogue and state” and in mentioning the US motto “All men are created equal,” you seem to support creating a mini- America in Israel, with some modifications. Is that the case? 
The one aspect of the American form of democracy that I am advocating is the separation of church and state. I am not one of those American immigrants who thinks that just because it was done there, it should be done here. I reject the idea of a constitution. I don’t know if a constitution adopted in 1949 or today would be good for democracy; in fact, it would institutionalize problems. I think a parliamentary system has many advantages. The idea of “all men created equal” is worth following, but should be different.
Given everything you have written and seen over the years, are you optimistic about the future?
I am making no predictions. That is one thing I have learned [after] being in Israel so long.