Book Review

The Unmaking of Israel

Gershom Gorenberg

Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

On April 24, 2012, the Israeli government retroactively legalized three Jewish settlement outposts housing 188 ultra-Orthodox families in the West Bank. Critics of Israel's settlement policy condemned the legalization as a dangerous, heretofore unprecedented, move that seriously undermines the already slim prospects for a two-state solution. Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to the Israeli human-rights group Yesh Din, noted that two of the government's own reports on unauthorized, and hence illegal, outposts had described all three settlements as "problematic" (New York Times, April 25, 2012, p. A8). Defending the move of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, spokesperson Mark Regev denied that the three settlements were illegal outposts and claimed that this decision "was simply a matter of resolving technical problems such as improper permits and mistakenly building on the wrong hill."

This latest controversy provides additional evidence for the main thesis in Gershom Gorenberg's provocative and aptly titled The Unmaking of Israel. It is this: the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank spawns an illegal settlement policy and undermines Israeli democracy by fostering religious extremism, strengthening ties between synagogue and state, and poisoning relations between Jews and Arabs in the territories as well as inside Israel proper. According to Gorenberg, a prolific Israeli journalist and historian, these ominous trends did not result from any single carefully deliberated policy. They also reflect values that were much more appropriate for the period preceding Israel's independence and have no justification in a state claiming to be a liberal democracy.

For Gorenberg, Israel's settlement enterprise from its very beginning in September 1967 represents an assault on the rule of law. He notes that in response to his inquiry, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was informed by Theodor Meron, then legal counsel in the Foreign Ministry, that "Civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention." Eshkol, however, decided to evade Meron's opinion by misrepresenting the initial settlements in the West Bank as temporary military bases that were very quickly transformed into permanent civilian communities. In acquiring land for settlement, subsequent Labor and Likud governments treated the occupied West Bank as if it were stateless territory over which two ethnic movements, one Jewish and the other Arab, struggled for control, with only one of these being backed the power of the state. Lands expropriated by Israel included public areas previously controlled by the Jordanian government and private properties belonging to Palestinians. Such expropriation violated the 1907 Hague Regulations, which forbid the confiscation of private property by the occupier, and disregarded Jordanian law, which limits expropriation for public use only.

The complicity of various Israeli governments in the illegal settlement enterprise is most vividly exemplified by Ofrah, an orthodox community north of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. It was established on privately owned Palestinian land in 1975 by followers of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), without government permission but with the assistance of Defense Minister Shimon Peres. Since then, its residents have enjoyed the protection of Israeli laws — which are not applicable to their Palestinian neighbors — and reaped the many economic benefits bestowed by the Israeli government on all settlers: subsidized mortgages, discounted land prices, lower taxes than inside Israel proper, generous school subsidies, and ample publicly financed infrastructure facilities. Gorenberg laments that "Ofrah, the quintessential Israeli settlement in occupied territory, is where the state of Israel unthinkingly attacks its own foundations."

Following a modest beginning in the early 1970s, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, excluding those residing in East Jerusalem, reached 116,000 by the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. While the government stopped approving new settlements thereafter, the number of settlers nevertheless increased dramatically to 200,000 by the Camp David summit of 2000, reaching approximately 300,000 by 2010. Some of the increase was due to continued public subsidization policies , and a good portion of the expansion resulted from newly built bypass roads in the early 1990s. Originally intended to enhance the safety of settlers commuting to Israeli cities, the roads had the unintended consequence of shortening the drive, making it easier for more Israelis to move to communities deep inside the West Bank.

Despite the government's declared policy that prohibits new settlements, some 100 unauthorized hilltop outposts were established in the West Bank between the mid-1990s and 2005. Attracting some 4,000 ultra-Orthodox, second-generation settlers, the outposts start as sheds, mobile homes and tiny wooden houses on privately owned Palestinian land. Intended to establish a Jewish presence on high ground so as to make it more difficult to cede the land in future peace negotiations, the outposts have benefited from funding by the Housing and Interior Ministries, which have "fictitiously designated outposts as expansions of older, existing settlements so that they could allocate money without government approval of new settlements." The construction of new outposts was stopped in 2005, and the Israeli government agreed to evacuate outposts established after March 2001. Movement on this pledge has been incredibly slow. In March 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the dismantling by August 1 of Migron, a hilltop community of 50 families erected on private Palestinian land. The status of seven such outposts is currently being challenged in court by Israeli human-rights organizations (New York Times, April 25, 2012, p. 8A).

According to Gorenberg, the occupation psychology has infiltrated into Israel proper, perpetuating a mindset that treats the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean as unitary territory over which Jews and Palestinian Arabs struggle for control. In this mindset, reminiscent of the pre-state mandatory era, present-day Israeli Arabs "are not second-class citizens; they are at best denizens of the first circle of occupation, at worst a fifth column." Gorenberg laments that in recent years, religious nationalists have set out to "save" several mixed Jewish-Arab cities, including Akko (Acre), Lod, Jaffa and Ramleh, by importing the settlement model from the West Bank. These efforts have been accompanied by campaigns from the political right that depict and treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens. Such an ominous trend is most vividly exemplified by the ideological stance of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's recent foreign minister and the party leader of Israel Beytenu (Israel is Our Home). While proposing the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Lieberman has advocated ceding to the Palestinian entity those areas now heavily populated by Israeli Arabs near the Green Line and expelling all remaining Arab citizens to the new Palestinian state.

Israeli democracy has been further undermined by the revival and growth of the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community and its dependence on and alliance with the state and the pro-settlement movement. By 2004, there were approximately 470,000 haredim, constituting 9 percent of the country's Jewish population. The community is heavily dependent on the state for its survival. By 2008, 65 percent of haredi men aged 35 to 55 were outside the labor force, and about two-thirds of all haredi families lived below the poverty line. The rabbinate and rabbinic courts provide the major source of employment for haredi men. The religious bureaucracy exercises exclusive control over various aspects of one's personal life, including marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.

Approximately 20 percent of Israeli Jewish school children are currently enrolled in government-subsidized ultra-Orthodox schools. Heavily devoted to religious study, the curriculum of haredi schools is almost entirely devoid of the humanities, arts and science. Gorenberg is especially critical of these deficiencies: such education "denies young people the chance to articulate and question opinions, to see issues from many sides, to look at the world through other people's eyes, to understand human complexity. It evades exploring the mechanics and the moral basis of democracy." About 40,000 haredi students receive military-service deferments.

The political clout of the haredi community has grown dramatically in recent years. Its representation in the 120-member Knesset increased from four seats in 1981 to 11 in 1988 and to 22 in 1999. Not surprisingly, Likud governments began to recruit haredim into the settlement enterprise toward the late 1980s. Between 1990 and 1994, ultra-Orthodox settlers moved to Betar Illit (southwest of Jerusalem) and Modiin Illit (east of Tel Aviv) with generous government subsidies and interest-free mortgage provisions. Today they comprise the largest two settlements in the West Bank, with a combined total of more than 80,000 residents.

Not coincidentally, during the past two decades, the Israeli military has drawn an increasing number of its recruits and commanders from two overlapping groups: the religious right and the settlements. In 2007, approximately one-third of new infantry officers came from the ranks of the Orthodox. In 2010, 12.5 percent of all company commanders in the ground forces were settlement residents, although settlers accounted for a mere 5 percent of Israel's Jewish population. Gorenberg points out that these trends have steadily eroded the authority of elected government officials over the military. In October 2004, 60 rabbis issued a proclamation forbidding any Jew to participate or assist in dismantling settlements. As it turned out, 63 soldiers were tried for refusing orders to help evacuate some 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The actual number of soldiers who disobeyed orders but were not disciplined is believed to be considerably higher.

Gorenberg concludes that, if Israel is to restore itself as a liberal democracy, it must immediately stop constructing settlements, end the occupation and find a peaceful way to arrive at a negotiated two-state solution. It also needs to separate religion from the state and ensure full equality to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity. Ending the occupation first, he argues, is a precondition for divorcing the state from the synagogue and creating equality for Israel's one-million Arab citizens. Gorenberg concedes that in order to end the occupation and the ethnic warfare generated by it, Israel must not only stop the settlement enterprise but also begin evacuating Jewish settlers immediately, even in the absence of a peace agreement. He recommends that the government offer incentives to those settlers who are willing to move, including assistance to purchase homes inside Israel and vocational training and counseling to facilitate the adjustment.

To enhance separation between religion and politics, Gorenberg favors transforming marriage and divorce into purely civil procedures and ending government funding of Orthodox schools with exclusive religious curricula. In addition, military commanders opposed to evacuating settlers should be required to resign their commission, military units exclusively composed of Orthodox recruits ought to be disbanded, and the government-funding of pre-army academies that are exclusively Orthodox needs to be ended. Gorenberg maintains that ensuring equality to all citizens is perfectly compatible with Israel's remaining a Jewish state. Since Jews constitute a majority, Hebrew would remain an official language, government offices would remain closed on Jewish holidays and military kitchens would continue to serve kosher food. What would be unacceptable is to deny Israel's Arab citizens access to government jobs, public lands and schools, or to mosques in mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods.

To his credit, Gorenberg recognizes the limited feasibility of one of his proposals. He acknowledges that it will be difficult to evacuate those settlers who are most adamantly opposed to leaving, especially those residing deep inside the West Bank and far removed from the Green Line (the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank). He estimates that at least 65,000 Israelis living in exclusively Orthodox settlements will need to be forcibly removed by the military. This estimate is substantiated by a recent survey conducted by the Israeli pollster Rafi Smith, which found that nearly 30 percent of the 100,000 settlers who live east of the barrier would accept compensation and quickly relocate within Israel (New York Times, April 24, 2012, p. A21).

Serious questions remain regarding the feasibility of almost all of Gorenberg's proposed solutions. For example, how would it be possible to reduce the influence of the rabbinate over Orthodox military recruits or legitimize civil marriage and divorce procedures, when the current birth rate for the average Haredi woman is seven children? How feasible is it to expect less animosity between Jews and Israeli Arabs and ensure equal treatment under the law for all citizens in the absence of a formal peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors?

These questions notwithstanding, Gorenberg has identified a number of daunting challenges that Israeli leaders will need to confront if the Jewish state is to live up to its claim of being a liberal democracy. It remains to be seen whether they will be up to the task.