The unmaking of Israel: Interview with Gershom Gorenberg

“As the New Left unleashed upheaval across the industrialized world in those heady years of the late 1960’s, an Israeli variety did emerge, but instead of Weathermen and student revolutionaries, in Israel arose the settler movement.”

By Ellis Weintraub

The unmaking of Israel: Interview with Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg (Photo by Debbi Cooper)

JERUSALEM — With a thick grey beard and a wild bushy head of hair, pinned to which rests a yarmulke slightly askew, Gershom Gorenberg looks like he might have just descended from a West Bank hilltop, or perhaps emerged from the depths of Hebron’s militant settler community. But Gershom, an Israeli-American historian and journalist and himself an Orthodox Jew, has written extensively on the moral failure at the heart of Israel’s settlement enterprise and the threat that it poses not only to Palestinians, but also to Israelis. He sees the settlements as not only a direct assault upon Israeli democracy, but also a threat to the existence of the Israeli state itself.

“The policy of remaining in the territories and settling them is undoing the basic elements of statehood for Israel,” explains Gershom over a long breakfast of croissants and coffee at Masaryk, a trendy café in Jerusalem’s German Colony. “Remaining in the territories has removed the principle of government by the governed, because you have a whole territory in which only part of the people participates in the government. It has removed the borders which are part of the definition of a modern state. Since so much of what has gone on in the territories has been in violation of Israel’s own laws, the policy undermines the rule of law. In short, it is taking Israel backwards.”

The folly and the danger of the settlement enterprise will be a topic discussed at length in Gershom’s forthcoming book, entitled The Unmaking of Israel and to be published in November by HarperCollins. The book will explore and attempt solutions for what Gershom sees as an existential crisis that could overwhelm the Israeli polity.

“I should explain that the book title is a warning and not a desire,” he says. “The book is written as a historical argument from within, from the point of view of Israeli society, and my argument is that a number of decisions or failures to make decisions by Israeli leaders at various times in Israel’s history are undermining the existence of the state and of Israeli democracy. The settlement enterprise is a central but not the sole factor there.”

Much of Gershom’s career has been devoted to covering and chronicling the settlement enterprise from its very inception to the present. His journalistic work, which has appeared in both Israeli and top American publications, including The American Prospect, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Haaretz among them, has led him deep down the settler rabbit hole. While he has examined with a bird’s eye view Israeli government policy towards the settlements, he has also peered upwards from the grassroots by extensively interviewing settlers themselves and researching their communities. Perhaps his religious Zionist exterior has allowed him to crack a few settler nuts here and there along the way.

One such pursuit for an American Prospect piece that appeared in May brought him into the home of settler and activist Daniella Weiss in the settlement of Kedumim, located west of Nablus. Weiss, one of the early organizers of the messianic settler movement Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful, told Gershom that, due to increasing political threats to their communities, settlers should consider branching out and establishing settlements even on the Sabbath. Such a comment perked Gershom’s Orthodox ears, as building settlements would clearly violate Judaism’s prohibition of working on the Sabbath, a restriction which can be broken only to save a life. The settlers would seemingly be willing to breach traditional Judaism’s most basic tenets.

“You know, when you go and do an interview and somebody says something completely outside of what you came for, you should make sure to get that down,” says Gershom. “That’s the important detail that starts giving you an insight into the person you are listening to. My motto for an interview is to be a listener, to hear, and to be a complex listener. I feel that if I listen sincerely, people respond to the fact that I’m taking them seriously as a person. I think that, with a certain lack of humility, one of the things that I’ve managed to achieve in my writing is to listen, for instance, to settlers on their own grounds and in their own terms honestly – or at least I’ve aspired to do that.”

With a cool, calm, intellectual, and kindly demeanor, Gershom has the vibe of a hippie rabbi who spent a few too many years of his youth organizing minyanim while on some long strange Grateful Dead tours. An aura of Jewish wisdom surrounds him, as if there sits in that 21st century café an 18th century Talmudic sage, one plucked right out of the shtetl of a Shalom Aleichem story and then updated a bit with some 1960’s California bohemian counterculture. Gershom speaks not in sentences or even in paragraphs, but rather in whole essays. When answering questions, he first stares off into space to ponder, to comb through the vastness of the Jewish and Israeli history in order to retrieve an answer and bring it back to earth.

Born in St. Louis, he grew up in California and attended the University of California at Santa Cruz. He moved to Israel in 1977 with plans to stay for a year or so.

“That was 34 years ago,” laughs Gershom. “Why did I stay? That would probably take a book to explain. Well among other reasons, I enjoyed being in a place where I no longer had a conflict between political involvement in Jewish issues and in general issues, because the public space was majority Jewish and because as somebody who aspired to be a writer I figured it was best to be in the place where the things were happening rather than be far away from them.”

After a couple of years in intensive religious study followed by earning an MA in education at the Hebrew University, Gershom began working as a journalist first at The Jerusalem Post and he then served as one of the founding editors of the magazine The Jerusalem Report. “A lot of my energy has been devoted to covering the occupied territories,” says Gershom, “the settlements on one hand and on the other hand the interaction of religion and politics.”

In his book published in 2000, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, Gershom explores the complex web of theology, politics, and eschatology that surrounds the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, a place he calls the most contested piece of real estate on earth. The book focuses on the apocalyptic politics of millions of people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – who expect the Temple Mount to somehow play a role in history’s conclusion, the end of days, and the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth. He warns in the book about the possibility for catastrophe should a small band of zealots seek to damage or blow up the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa mosque, or any of the area’s other ancient buildings or walls.

“I guess the underlying theme of that book is that the distinction between a religious and a political conflict simply does not apply here and it never has,” says Gershom. “I always get a sad laugh out of getting notices or when reading proposals or articles that say, ‘if this goes on the way it does this is going to turn from a political to a religious conflict,’ as if somehow or another religion was not involved in nationalism and nationalism was not involved in religion from the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict in this country.”

Religion has always driven politics and vice versa in the Holy Land, be it the riots that erupted in 1929 over Jewish and Muslim rights and access to the Western Wall or the emergence of suicide bombing as a Hamas tactic following the 1994 massacre in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, itself a product of the extreme Jewish nationalist Baruch Goldstein’s delusional fantasy of reenacting a part in the biblical Purim story. For Gershom, this interaction of politics, religion, and nationalism manifests itself quite openly in Israel’s settlement enterprise.

“The settlement enterprise has led the Israeli state to partner with radical religious elements and thereby deeply distort the Jewish religion,” says Gershom. His interest in the settlements and their origins culminated in his 2006 book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, which The New York Review of Books praised as “masterly” and an account “that could have served as a telling additional chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly.”

In the book Gershom weaves a tragic and melancholy tale of Israel’s post-1967 reality, where in the euphoric aftermath of the 1967 war, Zionist idealism and religious zeal begin to overtake Israeli senses, a process which was aided substantially by a rash of indecision and incompetence from successive Labor governments. In many ways his work has completely revolutionized our understanding of the birth of the settlements.

“When you ask Israelis about when the settlements began – a kind of trivial pursuits game I often play with Israelis – you get many different answers,” Gershom says. “For instance, common answers will say that they started when the Likud came to power in 1977 or that they started with Gush Emunim in the mid 1970’s. If somebody is a really super-duper trivial pursuit player in Israeli politics, they’ll tell you that these Orthodox settlers forced the moderate Labor government to let settlers move back to Gush Etzion in 1967, or sometimes forced the Labor government to let them move into Hebron in 1968.”

“You know, that’s really the picture I began with,” Gershom continues, “there was this conflict between the radical right, the radical religious right and the moderate Labor government. It was a good thesis to start with and it was a good thesis to tear up and throw in the trash can, because I discovered a much more complex picture in which, for instance, the first settlement in the occupied territories was a secular kibbutz in the Golan in July of 1967.”

So while many Israelis remember those early settlements as largely the product of religious zealots heading for the territories in spite of popular resistance and governmental reluctance, in his book Gershom peels back the layers of collective memory to reveal what really happened. He paints a very different portrait, one depicting wide swaths of Israeli society implicated in the settlement affair. With a miasma of apocalyptic despair hovering over the country during those tense and lonely weeks before the outbreak of war in June of 1967, the thrill of quick victory dispelled all gloom and drove the country into a frenzy. In the ecstasy of the moment and with the whole of the Promised Land now no longer a promise, religious and national dreams could become reality. In the fertile soil of the biblical heartland, Zionism’s pioneering ethos, a philosophy of land, labor, and settlement embedded into the very core of the Zionist experience itself, could sprout anew and rejuvenate. The chance to participate in a grand Zionist drama galvanized both religious and secular alike to light out for the territories.

Meanwhile, paralysis took hold of the Levi Eshkol government as hawks and doves debated the fate of the territories. Eshkol and his Labor Party successors, neither wanting to annex the territories and absorb their large Arab populations nor return it for reasons of security and ideology, settled on a policy of no policy, which more or less amounted to a policy. Ambiguity and opacity allowed for not only acquiescence to citizens settling beyond the Green Line, but also permitted at times active, though quiet, encouragement from the government for settlement activity.

“I found myself writing a very different story then I expected,” says Gershom, “and much of it had to do with the inability of the Labor governments to make decisions after 1967 combined with an intense nostalgia for the ethos of the pre-1948 struggle for independence which was now applied in a totally anachronistic fashion to the reality of the post-1967 situation. The reason that Gush Etzion was reestablished had as much to do with Labor Party nostalgia for a kibbutz that had fallen in 1948 as to do with religious factors. In fact the reestablishment of Gush Etzion was in many ways a classic example of an expression of what the Israeli leadership of the time would never have said in these words, but what you could call, in a certain sense of irony, an assertion of the right of return, that of 1948 refugees – in this case Jews who had been forced to leave a particular spot that they had lived in before, and post-1967 they had the opportunity to go back and the government allowed and encouraged them to do so.”

Concentrating on the ten years after 1967 allowed Gershom to combine the best of the journalistic and historical methods, being able to interview still living policy makers and settlers while also having access to recently opened archival material in both Israel and the United States. Research in the archives helped Gershom discover the role that Labor governments played in encouraging settlement. He cites Gush Etzion as an example.

“The reestablishment of Gush Etzion was in popular memory the result of the original settlers protesting and publicly agitating against the government, which did not want them to move there, and then finally the government gave in and let them move there,” Gershom explains. “Part of that perception is based on the lived experience of people like Hanan Porat, the key figure in the re-founding of Gush Etzion, who truly experienced the fact that he led a public campaign that convinced the government to let him and his friends go back to Gush Etzion. However, Hanan Porat and the public did not have access to what was going on in the back rooms of the government, where Levi Eshkol was weighing the same decision himself for his own reasons. So when Hanan Porat walked out of a meeting with Levi Eshkol and said ‘We won,’ he didn’t know that he had broken down an open door.”

Perhaps the cultural and intellectual milieu of Gershom’s California youth inspired one particularly intriguing idea in his book: that as the New Left unleashed upheaval across the industrialized world in those heady years of the late 1960’s, an Israeli variety did emerge, but instead of Weathermen and student revolutionaries, in Israel arose the settler movement. The California of the 1960’s and 1970’s, an epicenter of anti-war protest and free love, became a birthing ground for a New Left, not an Old Left of Trotskyist labor unions and stodgy Stalinist bureaucracies, but a New Left of Fanon and Guevara and a pantheon of anti-colonial freedom fighters. Raised on tales of glory from their Old Left parents, stories filled with feats of daring do, heroism, and sacrifice on behalf of Republican Spain and the defeat of fascism and Nazism, these New Left children felt an illegitimacy complex, and so in response they rallied to the romance of distant liberation movements, be they Latin American or Vietnamese Marxist, or Palestinian or Algerian nationalist. In Israel, with the drama and the grandeur of the pre-state struggle and then the triumph and the jubilee of 1948 woven into the national fabric, the 1967 generation must too have felt their lives dull, routine, and complacent in comparison. So as the world hurtled towards the explosions of 1968, the settlements emerged as Israel’s 1968.

And it was all a tragedy foretold. Shortly after the June War a memo came across Levi Eshkol’s desk from the Foreign Ministry’s chief legal counsel Theodore Meron; the memo bluntly stated that settlements in the territories would violate international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. David Ben-Gurion himself pleaded from retirement for his countrymen to return the captured territories under any obtainable terms. Even before the war, Israeli intelligence had warned against seizing Gaza and the West Bank – even in the case of conflict – because doing so would require Israel to control a large and hostile Palestinian population. But the rush of victory overwhelmed all prudence and forethought, and in the course of resolving what to do with the territories, caution was thrown to the wind.

The country, says Gershom, “did a very bad job of deciding and in the policy vacuum that was created, political culture took the place of political decision and the political culture said that what we do is we settle land. That’s what we did before 1948 and that’s what we’ll do now.”

The British Mandate era before 1948 and the era after 1967, however, were two very different times. In the generation after 1948, decolonization swept away the great colonial empires of old, and the revolt of non-European peoples against the Europeans in their midst became à la mode. For many in the new nations of the Third World, the lightning defeat of the Arab states in June of 1967 appeared less like a tiny Israeli David overcoming a mighty Arab Goliath, and more like a small band of crafty Europeans outwitting and humiliating the natives, in the vein of Cortés seizing Tenochtitlan from Montezuma.  This new international environment would obviously be less conducive to Israel’s settlement and occupation of the territories.

In Gershom’s view, Zionism before 1948 could make a legitimate claim to being a national liberation movement. While the Zionist movement from its inception shared some aspects with the many different colonial movements of the 19th century with regards to such movements’ perceived European prerogative and disregard for indigenous populations, nonetheless the Russian and Polish Jews that cast off their Czarist shackles and freed themselves from their European oppressors by heading for Palestine and there staking a claim before Israel’s establishment could with some justification call their movement one of national liberation.

“Before 1948,” says Gershom, “Zionism was a national liberation movement, like many national liberation movements in the world in conflict with other national liberation movements that claimed the same piece of land. We did not invent that, it happened in Europe, it happened all over the rest of the world later – that more than one ethnic group lived in the same territory and claimed it and therefore movements for national liberation had conflicts with one another. The idea of settlement had been a part of this dynamic before 1948. After 1967, however, it was very much the project of a state, and it was a totally different reality.”

After 1967, those settlers who stepped across the Green Line could not so easily be called freedom fighters, and the occupation enacted and then institutionalized certainly had little to do with national liberation. The new reality would come to fit like hand in glove the chauvinist European colonialism of empires past. The following scenario applied to much of the colonized world – be it French Indochina or British Kenya – and it would now apply to the territories: with the metropol’s blessing, a colonizing population with full legal rights heads for the empire’s periphery to set up ethnically pure enclaves amidst a country teeming with indigenous inhabitants. A colonial and military governing regime emerges to protect the colonists and oversee the exploitation of the area’s resources. The empire then incorporates the native population into its economy as a cheap labor source and a captive market for its products. The indigenes, themselves deemed culturally and even racially inferior, are denied citizenship and civil rights, have their lands confiscated, and have their movement administered and monitored.

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan candidly said as much. At a December 1968 cabinet meeting, Dayan proposed for the territories settlements on the West Bank mountain ridge, their economic integration with Israel, and their permanent control by Israel but without their Arab residents receiving citizenship. He remarked that he once visited the German colony of Togo in Africa and was impressed by the memories the people still had of German rule before World War I; they had left behind “orchards and culture.” However benevolent and paternal he intended his vision, it would be intentionally colonial in its scope and implementation. Though at the meeting the cabinet rejected his program, in the absence of political decision Dayan’s plan would largely come to pass.

As he told the Palestinian poetess Fadwa Tuqan of Nablus, “The situation today resembles the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the girl he kidnaps against her will… You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.”

Some in Israel foresaw the threat of such a plan, knowing it would entail moral disaster and international isolation. Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir fulminated at a 1972 Labor Party meeting that Israel’s dependence on Palestinian labor would create “a class that does the clean work and those who do the dirty work” like “Negroes in the United States.” Should Israel continue to rule over Arabs without granting them equal rights, Sapir added, then it would put Israel in a class with “countries whose names I don’t even want to say in the same breath.” Yet the warnings went unheeded, and the Palestinians became Israel’s hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Meanwhile, a fire of religiosity sparked within Israeli hearts; the access to and the availability of the territories would make biblical myth, legend, and memory tangible, and from the divine loam of the Land of Israel would flare a pillar of fire to shepherd the Children of Israel back to God. Religious Zionism would come into its own as a political force to be reckoned with during the 1970s. The resurrection of faith in the Israeli setting, however, did not occur in a vacuum. In the 1970s, God would have his vengeance across the world, as the French scholar Gilles Kepel noted in his 1994 book The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World. The period saw the rise of politicized religion everywhere, be it in the form of Hindu nationalism in India, Islamism in the Middle East, or the Christian right in the United States.

“Interpretations of religion,” explains Gershom, arose in that time to haunt us down to the present. Religious elements “who explicitly reject modernity and implicitly accept the least liberal elements of modernity have become more powerful and allied themselves with politically rightwing elements throughout the world.” Gershom calls this process a “synthesis of reactionary politics and reactionary religion,” and in Israel, “the occupation has encouraged that, it has fertilized that in the Israeli context.”

The settlement drive and the increased religiosity of Israeli society would begin their long embrace during the 1970s. Over the decades, the Judaization of the territories would in turn promote the Judaization of Israel within its 1967 borders, thus negatively affecting the Israeli polity’s democratic infrastructure within the Green Line. Indeed, many religious Zionists perceive the settlement drive as a means to encourage religiosity amongst Jewish Israelis and incorporate theocracy into the national legal system. This increased Judaization has come at the cost to more secular and civic understandings of Israeli identity. The continued rupturing of Israel’s borders by the ethno-religious settlement project and the fluctuating and unclear status of the state’s political-geography have helped to erode territorial and civil definitions of what it means to be an Israeli, thereby deepening the Jewish component of Israeli identity. The process has thus further enflamed the sense of alienation felt by Israel’s Arab citizens towards the country in which they live.

Israel has seemingly never recovered from the bacchanalia of those rapturous years after 1967, and the hangover continues to this day. Yet Gershom appears optimistic. As the whirr and whistle of Masaryk’s coffee machines fill the air and the notes of Mozart dance about from above, Gershom cautiously reflects on what comes next.

“Here I’ll give you my religious line,” he refrains. “The Talmud says that on the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to fools and children. My beard is too grey to claim to be a child and I don’t want to fall into the other category.” Nonetheless, Gershom hopes that The Unmaking of Israel can point Israel in the right direction.

The book, Gershom says, will argue that it is possible to reverse the negative trends overtaking his country. “Reversing that pattern,” he explains, “requires in large terms three basic things. One is ending the occupation and a two-state solution. As much as I value and am deeply committed to the idea of peace and reconciliation, I think that there is a misconception. Israelis are used to looking at the idea of giving up the occupied territories as a concession of something good in order to achieve peace, and I argue that one should look at making peace as a means of safely giving up an occupation which is destroying our country. For Israel to leave the West Bank and end its role in Gaza safely, it needs peace with the Palestinians, and for Israel to continue to exist as a state and a democracy it needs to leave the West Bank and give up its role in Gaza, and therefore peace is not only a deeply valued end in itself but it is a means of achieving other deeply valued ends. So that’s the first thing. The second thing that I argue that for the sake of the state and for religion there has to be a separation of state and synagogue. And thirdly, I argue that it is legitimate for Israel to be a nation-state, but to be a liberal nation-state it has to create a shared civic identity to which both its Jewish and its Palestinian citizens can identify.”

The time is certainly ripe for such recommendations considering the impact of the Arab Spring. Revolutions and revolts have left have a big question mark for Israel about its place in the region.

“The attitude,” says Gershom, “of whatever regimes are in power in the Arab states around us in six months or in six years will be influenced, not determined, but influenced by the Israeli stance, and therefore it is in our interest to make it as clear as possible that we are interested in diplomatic solutions to conflict and integration into the region as a positive force.” Israel must free itself from a siege mentality and do everything within its limited means to empower moderate forces in Arab countries and positively influence Arab politics. “Israel,” Gershom adds, should “say that we look forward to peaceful relations and resolved conflicts and we look forward to working with democratic Arab regimes in order to achieve those common goals.”

Pulling back from the territories and ending the settlement campaign will be conducive to that effort, though Gershom knows it will not be easy.

“The Israeli fear of withdrawing from settlements,” he says,” consists of a minor and major factor. The minor factor is that it causes social upheaval and it is expensive to move any large group of people back inside of Israel so Israel would prefer to move the minimal number of people.”

However, he explains that it is doable. “We’re talking about a third of the population that Israel absorbed from the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s, and unlike those immigrants from the Soviet Union these are immigrants who speak Hebrew and many of whom have jobs inside of Israel. The real problem has to do with that part of the settlement population which is – ideologically committed is such a weak term – for whom the meaning of their lives is connected to living where they are. For whom the very project of their lives, the direction of their lives, the aim of their lives, the theology on which they live is based, everything is given meaning by living where they are and so when you tell them to move, you are challenging something which many people feel is more valuable than their lives themselves.”

Ironically, however, those most willing to leave are those who live in the areas that will likely remain part of Israel via land swap negotiations, while those unwilling to leave will be beyond Israel’s boundary.

“So Israel is left with the fact that it is going to have to clean up its mess and it is very difficult,” says Gershom. “How should we go about doing that? It’s something that I would like to do a lot of research on.”

“There’s a tendency for both Israelis and Palestinians to act like we invented everything,” says Gershom. “We didn’t invent nationalism, we didn’t invent population movements, and we didn’t invent returning populations. Sometimes we should be a little bit more humble on both sides and learn from the experiences of the world around us.” An answer can be found. “One of my mentors pointed out to me many years ago that politics is not about solutions, it’s about arrangements. You should stop expecting perfection and start looking, or as they say in the artistic world, the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The word settlement has two meanings in the lexicon of Middle East diplomacy, with a tremendous irony in that ambiguity. One meaning is that of an agreement, as in a peace settlement, and the other is red-tiled Israeli houses spreading on West Bank hilltops. The two phenomena do not sit well with each other within the same word or within the same region. In the aftermath of 1967, two roads diverged for Israel, one the path of a peace settlement, and the other the path of West Bank settlements. Israel chose the wrong path, but perhaps it is not too late.

A better future is possible for both Israelis and Palestinians. “Peace is good business,” says Gershom. “That’s the next generation.”

Gershom’s blog can be found at

Ellis Weintraub is a freelance journalist with a Masters in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He can be reached at