“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.”
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg feels compelled to begin his review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section with this list of “the many things… Israel is not.” He does so, he writes, “in recognition of the fact that mere mention of Israel can send its critics into paroxysms of rhetorical excess seldom heard outside ESPN.”
One wonders why there’s no mention of the paroxysms of rhetorical excess voiced by Israel’s apologists when any criticism of Israel—especially criticism offered by Israeli Jews—appears in an American media outlet? And for an ESPN-style outcry try using the word Occupation (as in: “the occupation of the West Bank”).
Not content to protect Israel from its critics and their paroxysms, Goldberg’s opening paragraph also includes an encomium for the Jewish state:
It 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.
In other words, despite Israel’s critics and their rhetorical excesses, the dominant American Jewish (and Christian Zionist) mythology about the State of Israel—that it is inherently good—remains true. And like many “religious truths,” Israel’s essential goodness is axiomatic. That is, if Israel seems impure there must be an explanation; in this case, an explanation that blames Israeli insiders, rather than hostile outsiders. Israel may at times seem to be in the wrong, but that’s just because the situation is more “complicated” than the hasty critic might have realized.
Take the following, for example: “Gorenberg is at his most incensed, and most eloquent, on the issue of the Jewish settlements, which many Palestinians see as concrete proof of Israeli lack of interest in a two-state solution.” Goldberg is willing to concede this point, but can’t resist a counterclaim: “It is an understandable Palestinian view, but the truth is more complicated. The majority of Israelis say they support a two-state solution, and the majority of Israelis, if they ever loved the settlements, appear to love them no more.”
Thus if negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians break down, Israel is off the hook since “the truth is more complicated.” Its citizens’ intentions, in any case, are in the right place (they love the settlements no more!) and all is well with the world—in this particular worldview anyway.
Immediately following the list of what’s not wrong with (and what is right about) Israel, Goldberg writes: “If this can be so stipulated, we can move on to a more difficult conversation…” It’s a shameless rhetorical strategy: Just accept my assertions and then we can proceed with the conversation.
Or, to put it another way, now that the reviewer has claimed (and the reader has agreed) that Israel and its government are the greatest thing since sliced challah, and that any problems it does have must be understood as endemic to “its region in particular” (and we know who lives there), we can address a big problem facing Israelis and their government.
And what is the “more difficult conversation” that we can proceed to? Gorenberg’s claim that Israel may have “won” the 1967 War, but that that victory, followed by the settlement project of the Israeli Right, now threatens the very future of the state since the settlers and the settlements “have sanctified the acquisition of land to the detriments of all other Jewish values.”
The problem, it seems, does not lie with the policies and action of the Israeli government, but rather with an “ominous fundamentalism,” according to Goldberg (and it seems, to the author*), that led innocent Israel down the wrong path:
The settlements were not part of an insidious plan. But after the Six-Day War—a war Israel did not seek—euphoria gripped the country, and a previously marginal religious movement within Orthodoxy saw the conquest of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, as a sign not only of God’s favor but also of the imminence of the redemption.
To exonerate Israel, Goldberg and Gorenberg, both well-known as American Jewish “liberals” on Israel, are willing to pin the blame on right wingers who are holding the well-meaning liberals hostage. The Israeli majority, Goldberg writes, “is powerless in the face of the relentless settler minority.” Thus, in the spirit of the list proffered at the review’s beginning, we can retain a view of an Israel that is “a model of Western values.”
*My assumption that Gorenberg agreed with Goldberg was mistaken. Indeed, in his book, he writes: “Before describing how that [settlement started], I should dispose of several myths. The standard Israeli telling is that settlement in the occupied territories began with religious extremists imposing their will on pragmatic Labor leaders. That story is mistaken. Nor did the secular right, led by Menachem Begin, play any measurable role in starting the settlement process – though Begin escalated it once he took power in 1977.”