Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gershom Gorenberg's "The Unmaking of Israel"

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His previous books are The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Unmaking of Israel, and reported the following:
On an autumn day in 2009, at the height of the West Bank olive harvest, I drove into the Israeli settlement outpost known as Gilad's Farm, southwest of Nablus. Twenty-five families lived at the settlement, and another thirty young men were studying there at a religious seminary called Sing Unto the Lord Yeshivah. On the study-hall notice board at the yeshivah, I found a handbill. In the diction of Jewish religious law, it called on young settlers to raid Palestinian olive groves, seizing the ripe fruit for themselves if possible, destroying the groves if not.

I was in the midst of my research for The Unmaking of Israel, which describes the forces undermining Israel's democracy and Israel's existence as a state. Gilad's Farm is very tangible product of some of those forces: It's one of about a hundred outposts established by young Israeli settlers in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accord. Ostensibly, the outposts settlers have defied the Israeli government and the law in force in the West Bank; in reality, government agencies have ignored or actively assisted in the outpost effort. As with previous stages of the settlement enterprise, the outposts undermine the rule of law, blur the borders of the state, and undercut basic principles of democracy.

Through supporting the settlements, the state has also helped transform religious Zionism - once a moderate political movement - into a nationalist sect centered on Jewish control of the Whole Land of Israel. As I explain on page 99, the leaflet I found at Gilad's Farm is an example of how Judaism is transmogrified in the West Bank hills:
...The handbill tacked to the notice board demonstrated an old principle: with enough determination, an interpreter of sacred texts can turn them inside out, making a sin into an obligation. On the simplest level, the writer had to explain away the explicit commandment in Deuteronomy 20:19 against chopping down fruit trees as a means of waging war. He rationalized an obvious act of theft as reclaiming one’s own property. He also ignored an ancient and well-known rabbinic gloss on the disagreement between the shepherds of Abraham and his nephew Lot in the book of Genesis: Lot’s men, the tradition says, grazed his herds in fields owned by Canaanites, rationalizing that God had promised the land to Abraham’s descendants. But Abraham rejected that excuse. The story teaches that a divine promise for the undefined future cannot justify theft from the land’s here-and-now inhabitants. This is a tradition that schoolchildren learn.

Historically, religious groups that believe God’s kingdom on earth is near are particularly vulnerable to this kind of photo-negative morality. There’s no better way to demonstrate that a new age has dawned than to say that new rules have replaced the old. In Judaism, the classic example is the seventeenth-century false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, whose followers turned adultery into a ritual. In our time, theologies that absorb extreme political doctrines suffer similar vulnerability to sanctifying sins—as shown by Islamic radicals who have turned the forbidden act of suicide into heroism.

The religious settlement movement is doubly vulnerable: it springs from the faith expressed by Tzvi Yehudah Kook that “we are already in the middle of redemption,” and from recasting nationalism, at its most tribal, as religious doctrine....
Learn more about The Unmaking of Israel and the author at the HarperCollins website and the South Jerusalem blog.

--Marshal Zeringue