Noah Millman reviews The Unmaking of Israel:Gershom Gorenberg is an exception to the rule — more than one rule. He’s an Orthodox Jewish Israeli of American origin, a group that generally tilts sharply to the right in an Israeli context. But he’s decidedly on the political left, an advocate of not only freezing settlement construction but of initiating evacuations “without waiting for a signature on a peace agreement,” of negotiating a two-state solution based on the Green Line (the armistice lines of 1949, the de facto borders prior to the 1967 war), of the separation of synagogue and state, and of true civic equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. More than this, he has a realistic understanding of how the Zionist project must have been perceived by the Arab population of the Levant from the beginning: when he talks about the Palestinian Nakba — “catastrophe,” which is how the Palestinian Arabs refer to the events Israeli Jews call the War of Independence — he doesn’t put the word in scare quotes. But though Gorenberg is a man of the left, he also describes himself as a Zionist, rather than a non-, anti-, or post-Zionist. That is to say, he describes himself as a Jewish nationalist.
The State of Israel is also an exception to the rule — more than one rule. Like Greece and Algeria, India and Vietnam, Kenya and Lithuania, and numerous other states today, it is the fruit of a movement for national liberation, of a struggle, in the words of the Israeli national anthem, to be “a free people in our own land.” Unlike any other movement for national liberation, however, Zionism did not seek an independent state for an already existing nation living in a territory but rather to create a nation and a state out of a people scattered across the globe that had lived nearly two millennia in diaspora from its ancestral home. Like the United States and Canada, Brazil and Argentina, Australia and South Africa, Israel is also a settler state, created by a European population that came not merely to rule but to occupy and to substantially displace the indigenous people. Unlike any other settler state, however, the settlers of Israel understood themselves not to be venturing forth but to be coming home — and though individually any Israeli could make a home in any number of places, as could anyone from anywhere, in aggregate there is no other place on earth that they could call home.
This exceptional man has written a book, The Unmaking of Israel, about that exceptional state and its protracted and deepening crisis. And it is, appropriately enough, an exceptional contribution to the genre.
What is exceptional about the book is the frame within which Gorenberg chooses to tell a mostly familiar story — familiar, anyway, to anyone conversant with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gorenberg is not the first person to write a book decrying the human consequences of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank, and indeed, though he does decry them forcefully it is not the purpose of his book either to document them or to persuade anyone who does not already agree that the occupation has had frightful ramifications for the Palestinians. Nor is he the first person to make the “demographic argument” for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the argument that Israel cannot remain both a democratic state and a Jewish state if it does not retain a substantial and stable Jewish majority, which would not be the case if the West Bank were incorporated into Israel proper. Indeed, this latter point is now part of the Israeli conventional wisdom—every party to the left of Likud formally endorses it, Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nominally accepts it as well, and even the platform of Avigdor Liberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party depends on the same premise (which is why that platform proposes trading the heavily Arab areas within the Green Line for the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a hypothetical agreement). But this is also not the primary thrust of Gorenberg’s book; he takes it for granted that everyone understands the basic arithmetic.
Rather, the thrust of the book, as the title states, is to demonstrate that the series of decisions made during and after the 1967 War that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set in motion a process that has progressively “unmade” the State of Israel. Indeed, the progressive expansion of the settlement enterprise has so eroded the foundations of the signature achievement of political Zionism—Israel as we now know it—that not merely a “Jewish democratic state” but the state as such is now imperiled.