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Israel is at a crossroads, Gorenberg says

December 2011

Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg has called on North American Jews to add their voices to international pressure for the creation of an independent state alongside Israel to govern the estimated 4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

But the greatest responsibility for ending the occupation lies with Israelis themselves, Gorenberg says in his latest book, The Unmaking of Israel (HarperCollins, 325 pages, $28.99). He is touring Canada at the invitation of Canadian Friends of Peace Now.

Gorenberg, wearing a kippa and describing himself as an Orthodox Jew, mentioned two of his three children serve in the Israeli Defence Forces. He discussed the book in a talk last month at the Gelber Centre, also supported by the history circle of the Labour Zionist Alliance.

His religious beliefs, he noted, give him an entrée into the ultra religious zealots who are the most vocal supporters of maintaining the Israeli settlements—estimated population 300,000—who have been implanted in the West Bank since Israel took control of the territory in the 1967 war.

His discussions with some of them, and knowledge of their antecedents, beliefs and development as a powerful force in Israeli politics, add depth to his reportage and scope to his overview of today’s Israel.

Israel is at a crossroads, he says.

“Will it be … a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities?

“Will it be the hub of the Jewish world, or a place that most Jews abroad prefer not to think about?”

He sets three pre-conditions for Israel to re-establish itself as a liberal democracy:

 End the “settlement enterprise” and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean.

 Separate synagogue and state, including instituting civil control of marriages and divorce.

 Become a democratic state in which all citizens are equal.

The responsibility for ending the occupation lies with Israelis themselves, writer Gershom Gorenberg says in his book The Unmaking of Israel. Photo: Debbi Cooper

To limit the number of settlers compelled to move, Gorenberg endorses land-swap provisions, where Israel would exchange with the Palestinian Authority land to enable the estimated 200,000 Israelis who live in compact neighbourhoods that hug the Green Line and in annexed Jerusalem to stay.

Rather than trading land for peace, the traditional Israeli approach, the writer suggests a halt to building settlements and immediate transfer of residents who agree to be resettled on the Israeli side of the green line. Once a deal is signed, there can be a transition of several years to evacuate the other homes.

But even if talks do not result in a peace accord with a nascent Palestinian state, he advocates for abandoning the settlements because, apart from making Israeli rule over Palestinian non-citizens, “they destroy Israel’s credibility” and because the settlers’ large families are expected to grow.

“Efforts to maintain them corrodes the state and brings the one-state nightmare closer to reality. Removing them is a public statement that Israel is eager to give up military control the moment it can,” he writes.

To prevent attacks on Israel and maintain public order, an Israeli military presence would continue on the territory until full agreement is reached, he argues.

Yes, there is every likelihood of violent resistance, beyond what happened when Israeli settlements were abandoned in Gaza. This could be problematic if part of the officer corps decides to obey radical right-wing clergy rather than enforce government policy.

Because refusal to obey orders is no longer a theoretical possibility, Gorenberg advocates the phasing out of so-called Hesder Yeshivot—post-secondary academies that combine advanced Talmudic studies with military service. The government should start by ejecting those schools whose deans have taught soldiers to disobey orders on political grounds, he writes.

Once there is a fixed border, Israel can “complete its long-delayed transition from national liberation movement to liberal nation-state.”

Among the priorities would be massive investment in education, with a “disproportionate amount” to Arab-language schools to compensate for years of neglect.

“State land must be equally available to all citizens. … Housing discrimination against Arabs should be assigned to history books.”

Fluency in Arabic and Hebrew should be required of all students by the end of high school as a way of creating a shared civic identity. (Arabic is optional in schools where Hebrew is the language of instruction.)

He also advocates a core curriculum for the burgeoning Haredi, or ultra-religious, school network so that graduates have the tools to survive in a post-industrial society, including history, civics, mathematics and English as a second language.

His message to Israelis: Remake Israel so it becomes a “successful democracy,” rather than “a failed state.”



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