Israel's 'Divided Soul'?

At the end of the Six-Day War, a tearfully triumphant Israeli soldier, standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, realized that he was "facing two thousand years of exile, the whole history of the Jewish people[.]"  Suddenly and unexpectedly, the biblical homeland -- east and west from Jericho to Jerusalem and north and south from Nablus to Hebron -- was restored to Jewish sovereignty.

After 1967, handfuls -- then hundreds and eventually thousands -- of Israelis accepted the challenge that had always defined Zionism: to build new settlements in the ancient homeland.  For their persistent -- and astonishingly successful -- efforts, they have been relentlessly excoriated ever since as colonial occupiers stealing land that belongs to another people, known to the world ever since the war as Palestinians.

By now, for many Israelis, the miracle of return has become the calamity of conquest.  Many Israeli journalists, scholars, and their political allies on the left, yearning for international approval, have become avid collaborators in the increasingly hostile delegitimization of the Jewish state.

Their primary targets, whose growing presence and power in Israel challenge their own self-proclaimed right to rule, are -- predictably -- religious Jews.  Confronting 300,000 Jewish settlers living in biblical Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the rising birthrates of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the increasing presence of religious soldiers and officers in the Israel Defense Forces, the secular left feels under siege.

No Israeli journalist writing for an American audience more vividly expresses this acute discomfort than Gershom Gorenberg.  Born in the American heartland (Missouri), raised and university-educated in California, for many years now a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, he is an accomplished journalist (and an Orthodox Jew) who loathes ultra-Orthodox "fundamentalists" and Jewish settlers for destroying the Israel of his dreams.

Gorenberg's decade-long diatribe against settlers began with The End of Days (2000), a critique of religious fundamentalism.  It continued with The Accidental Empire (2006), exploring the formative decade of Jewish settlement after the Six-Day War.  His trilogy has now culminated with The Unmaking of Israel, in which his animosity toward religious Zionist settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews is palpable.

The "defining contradiction of Israel's history," he writes, is "the inner clash between chauvinism and liberalism, between ethnocracy and democracy."  Yearning for Israel to become a "liberal democracy," perhaps even a Middle Eastern California, Gorenberg displays the intolerant zeal toward his political enemies that he attributes to his ideological opponents.

The "divided soul" of the Jewish state, in his lament, is largely the post-1967 consequence of Jewish settlements.  Gorenberg's liberal solution is apartheid in reverse.  With "ending the occupation" as his mantra, he sees no problem in transferring three hundred thousand Jews from their homes, by force if necessary, to create a Judenrein Palestine.

Only if Israel relinquishes the biblical homeland of the Jewish people and expels its Jewish residents, Gorenberg believes, can it be "saved."  The dismal alternative is "ethnocracy," a derogatory label borrowed from Oren Yiftachel, an Israeli academic who has built his career by claiming that Israel is guilty of "creeping apartheid."

To create the "liberal nation-state" of Gorenberg's dreams, draconian changes are necessary.  Israel must dismantle settlements, divorce state and synagogue by disestablishing religion, and become a state in which "all citizens" (excluding, of course, settlers) become equal as the result of affirmative action programs for Israeli Arabs.

Along the way, the new "liberal" state must purge the IDF of its "ideological [i.e., religious] profiles," while ending "the creeping development of an officer corps that could obey a radical clergy instead of the government."  Rabbis must no longer be permitted to teach soldiers about "the sacred value of land."  To be sure, little sacred land will be left under Gorenberg's plan, except for Tel Aviv.

In the land of Gorenberg, the "hallucinatory expectations" of religious Zionists, the Israelis who creatively fused Zionism with Judaism after the Six-Day War, will finally be stifled and Israel will be "saved."  It is, to say the least, a curious form of salvation that requires Judaism to be all but expunged from the Jewish state.

Gorenberg's preferred model, revealingly, is the devastating Altalena episode of 1948.  Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, hallucinating a right-wing putsch to overthrow his government, ordered the IDF to shoot his Irgun enemies (led by the despised Menachem Begin) and destroy the ship that brought desperately needed weapons and fighters for the war for national independence.  In a two-day battle, nineteen Jews were killed.

The Altalena "lessons" that Israel must now apply seem to require the forcible eradication of religious Zionists, "dedicated to fantasies of power and expansion," whom Gorenberg deems to be enemies of the state.  That unconscionable solution is likely to return Israel to the 1st century CE, when Jews fought each other in the streets of Jerusalem, destroying Jewish national sovereignty for nineteen hundred years.

The Altalena tragedy left a legacy of fratricidal bitterness between left and right that has morphed in recent years into a hostile struggle between secular Israelis and religious Jews over legitimacy and power.  Ironically and sadly, Gorenberg's vision of an exemplary state of liberal Jewish democrats (presumably like himself) reveals itself to be a Zionist nightmare in which perpetually bitter internecine conflict is virtually assured.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011).  His blog is

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