Gershom Gorenberg, the left leaning American-born Israeli journalist/historian, spoke at Adas Israel last night, where his topic was the Second Israeli Republic. Gorenberg explains that the first Israeli Republic ended with the victory over the neighboring Arab armies in 1967, and was followed by the Accidental Israeli Empire, which developed as a result of the occupation of East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. His hope is that reaching a peace treaty with the Palestinians will enable the Israelis to create the Second Israeli Republic.
While I have never heard Gorenberg speak before, I have occasionally read his articles, and a few years ago read his book “The Accidental Empire”, the story of how Israel got so entangled in Gaza and the West Bank, an extraordinary book. His basis thesis is that there were vocal and well placed people in Israel who believed it was a mistake to occupy the conquered lands, and there were some who believed that occupation should be limited to certain strategic sites, but that everyone’s opinion as to what Israel should do was different, so Israel did nothing, and the occupation continued and time passed. This gave certain security thinkers and then religious groups the ability to set up settlements, even though the Israel Supreme Court had said that any settlements, other than for temporary military purposes, would be a violation of international law, and gave the settlers the ability to make their settlements appear crucial to Israeli security, or to provide necessary land for expansion due to population growth, or to settle the land with God himself had given to the Jewish people. His very detailed book describes the attitudes and activities of Israeli leaders and settlement leaders from 1967 on, and it is a fascinating story.
Last night, his subject matter was a bit broader. He spoke not only about the land, but about the history of the Jewish state itself, how the boundaries were set (and internationally recognized) after the end of the 1948 Independence War, how the government ordered its printing establishing to stop using the 1948 boundaries after the 1967 war, throwing into disarray the question of where Israel stopped – a country, he said, needs boundaries for its own self-definition and Israel lost its boundaries in 1967.
He talked about the importance of a nation treating its citizens equally, and how Israel has failed in this regard because its Arab citizens are not treated the same, largely because of the political structure of the state, where Arabs can vote for Knesset representation, but how Arab parties are, by law, not permitted to be part of coalitions, so that they have no leverage with the various governments, in being able to press their educational or other demands. So different from the “religious” parties, which have been able to force governments to support not only their schools, but also their followers, so that as of today, the vast majority of their adult supporters only study, and do not work, but are supported by society. He talked about the development of the Israeli Defense Forces, and how even they are somewhat unraveling as a result of disagreement over the occupied territory.
This part of his presentation was thoughtful, well presented, and clear.
Then, things began to fall apart.
First, Gorenberg then described his version of the Second Republic. First, there would be a separation of church and state. Second, the Arabs would become full citizens, and third there would be an end to the occupation and a peace agreement. He explained why he felt each of these conditions were important. That’s fine, and I generally agreed with what he said. But how do you get from here to there? He gave no clues – and I think it is because he has no clue.
So, this fine journalist/historian is not so great as a prognosticator, making his vision of the Second Republic no more than his vision. I can outline my perfect Israel as well – and my perfect America. But so what?
If this was all, I would have left the JCC saying: well, he was, as expected, very interesting analyzing Israel’s history, and no one else can tell you how Israel can get from where it is today to wherever they would like it to be, so I shouldn’t be too critical of his failure. I should just listen to his conditions, and see if I agree with them in the abstract. In other words, do I believe that, even in Israel, church and state should be separate? (answer: yes). Do I think that all citizens should be treated equally? (answer: yes) Do I think Israel would be better of with an end of occupation? (again, answer: yes). But how do you get there? And how to you define these three conditions? (answer: that’s a bit harder)
After he ended his 45 minutes presentation (which he admittedly rushed through to keep within the time limits), he took questions, first advising the audience (good natured, I assumed) that he wanted short questions and no speeches, and would cut people off if they were giving a speech. (Whether the JCC folks knew this would happen, I am not sure; I suspect not). The first person he called on challenged a “fact”, saying, in a challenging way, “you say that facts have to be affected, but one of you facts were wrong”, having to do with acceptance of 1948 borders, I think (I say I think, because Gorenberg cut him off and said that he was not asking a question). Then there was a verbal tiff with Gorenberg talking over the questioner in a way not to allow him to get his point out, much less his question. It was an awful performance, and I am sure led some perspective questioners to keep their hands down.
As a friend with whom I talked after the lecture said: “I really liked his speech, but on the first question, he lost me completely and I didn’t care at all what he said anymore”. My sentiments exactly. If Gershom Gorenberg speaks here again……I do not think I will be in the audience.