The one book you need to read: The Unmaking of Israel – Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg

I am late to this, but The Unmaking of Israel (published 2011) is that one book that you need to read on Israel, if you read no others.

And if you read others, you should still put Unmaking at the top of the pile.

And if you read nothingnothing else?

At least read the first chapter. It’s only 14 pages, and it’s a brilliant little précis of the book’s entire argument.

Plus the book’s short, and honed razor-sharp, and a pleasure to read, to boot. (And look! It’s only $10.94 on Amazon!)

Gorenberg is an American-Israeli like myself, except he stayed. He’s been there for more than 30 years, is Orthodox, lives in Jerusalem, and he’s a very, very good writer — I often recommend his short-form work, and over on the right you’ll see a link to his blog, South Jerusalem. Before I go any further, though, a caveat: I agree with virtually every single word in Unmaking, and the only reason I say “virtually” is because I’m sure there’s some small point that I would have handled differently, because surely there has to be. I just can’t remember which one, just now.

So it’s possible that part of why I recommend this book so highly is simply because it is such a relief to read something that to me feels like the very finest of common sense. But even so, having gotten that out of the way: It’s a great book, with an excellent summary of Israeli history that manages the supposedly impossible task of respecting the Palestinian narrative as well right in that first chapter, and you really should read it.

Gorenberg’s bottom-line point is this: The settlements, and everything that led up to and is flowing from the settlements, is pulling apart the positive good that is Israel, and has been so doing since 1967 — and it’s not just Israel that’s suffering, but Judaism itself.

The trends I’ve introduced here did not grow out of one carefully premeditated policy. Some resulted from ignoring commonsense warnings about long-term rule of another people. Some are the completely unintended consequences of seemingly safe decisions, or of choices made to solve immediate problems. Many are the product of continuing to sanctify values that made sense before 1948, when Jews were seeking self-determination — and that make no sense in an independent state.

There’s an essential chapter about the utter lawlessness of the entire settlement enterprise — even by Israeli legal standards — and Gorenberg very clearly lays out the dangers of allowing a particular ideological group rise to the top of the military in a democratic state (especially when that group openly opposes government policy), as well as the danger in fostering the flowering of an entire sub-society, the ultra-Orthodox, that rejects the secular state, contributes nothing to it and consciously fails to prepare its children to ever contribute to it, all while depending on that state for its livelihood.

In his concluding chapter, Gorenberg writes:

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue — freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.

As someone who focuses almost exclusively on Gorenberg’s three-part #1, I must say I got a little bit of a frisson in my Israel-loving heart when I realized that hey now, he’s about to say that ending the occupation/settlements is not the be-all, end-all! Because of course it’s not. It’s the first, prerequisite step, but then there are these other messes that we’ll have to clean up.

In those final pages, Gorenberg presents a very, very reasonable plan (a series of very, very reasonable plans) to essentially save Israel from itself, and perhaps the greatest disagreement we have is in tone — merely by laying these things out, Gorenberg suggests their possibility, and I have become so disheartened that I have a hard time believing anymore in those possibilities. I would venture that Gorenberg probably has his bad days, too, though.

And even if it never happens, I believe there’s value in marking the place and saying “This is what might have been.”

At any rate: If you read nothing else about Israel, read Gershom Corenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel.

(And happy new year!)


  1. This looks to mwe like a very interesting read. I’ll try and get it.

    Thanks for the great discourse over the few short weeks I have been follwoing your blog. It’s good to hear a sane voice in all the noise.

    Happy new Year

  2. Excellent suggestion. Have to fill up the new Kindle with interesting books!

    Hope you and yours have had a fine holiday season, Emily!

  3. Want2Know

     /  January 1, 2013

    Did Mr. Gorenburg at all discuss changing Israel’s electoral system?

    Because without major electoral reform, the big decisions he advocates will have little chance of happening. Requiring parties to get at least 18-20% of the vote for ANY seats in parliament, and a strong President, directly elected, would help. The current system, with its very low vote threshold for seats and and patched together coalitioins encourages division and gives both a voice and too much influence to smaller, often extereme factions.

    • He does address the electoral system, if not quite from this direction. His argument boils down to: As long as Jewish parties refuse to see the Arab parties as potential coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing will have out-sized power in the system, no matter what other reforms are brought to bear.

      • Want2Know

         /  January 9, 2013

        “As long as Jewish parties refuse to see the Arab parties as potential coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing will have out-sized power in the system, no matter what other reforms are brought to bear…..”

        I fear taht this is the view of someone who is too willing to let what is perfect or right as they see it, be the enemy of the good or the possible. The only way to get beyond stitching together unstable coalitions that give outsized voices to those on the extreme and ignore the presence of other voting blocs is to change a system which allows so many parties to have seats and a voice in government. It would force all parties, and anyone who wants to lead the nation to appeal to a wider electorate, as a matter of sucess and survival. It would allow governments much more room to tackle the major issues facing Israel. Want to know how it can be done? Read about DeGaull’s return to the leadership of France in 1958. It is—on some many levels—instructive for Israel and its present day challenges.

  4. Definitely sounds like one I want to pick up. Thanks for this great review! I’m curious – have you read Jeremy Ben-Ami’s book? I like his organization; they seem to line up fairly well with my own beliefs, and I’ve read a couple good reviews of his book, but since you are someone whose opinions on these matters I trust, I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read it.

    • I’m a big supporter of the organization, but I have to admit, I haven’t read the book! It seems there are too many books and too few hours in my life. If you read it, let me know what you think!

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