Gershom Gorenberg’s Great Book on the Settlements, and What It Says About Ideas in the U.S.

Consider the following condemnations of the Israeli settlement policy in the occupied West Bank: It would create “some kind of South African Bantustan” by frustrating Palestinian rights to self-determination. It would cause international condemnation because at a time of “decolonization in the whole world,” Israel was “marching in the opposite direction.” Such “colonization” was flatly illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was adopted because of Nazi Germany’s conquest of its neighbors.

You’d think that these condemnations came from Arabs, or Noam Chomsky. They don’t: they are from high Israeli officials, including a foreign minister and top legal adviser, in 1967 and 1968.

The evidence that the Israeli Labor government understood the dangers of settlement at the very beginning of the policy’s implementation is contained in a stunning and stirring new book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, by Gershom Gorenberg.

The book has been out for a few months. I’m just halfway through it. It is impressive not only because of the tremendous archival digging Gorenberg did—exhuming the official Israeli doubts about occupation and settlement—but because of the spiritual struggle the book represents, the struggle in Gorenberg’s soul. Here is a longtime Israeli journalist, born in the U.S. but living in Jerusalem, who is plainly agonized by what the settlements policy did to his country and is using every tool at his disposal to try and understand how this came to pass. Gorenberg has combed the archives of the LBJ Library and the Nixon library, to figure out why the U.S. allowed the plainly-illegal settlement policy to get off the ground. I might quarrel with Gorenberg’s conclusion that the policy came about by “accident”—when he himself produces so much evidence that a strong nationalist religious desire to settle the West Bank gained the blessing of leading Israeli politicians—but what makes his book so electrifying is the underlying question that animates every page: How did my country lose its idealistic soul? As Gorenberg tells us, then reminds us, When LBJ said to Israeli P.M. Levi Eshkol, “What kind of Israel do you want?” Eshkol basically ducked the question, allowing rightwing settlers to answer it; and Gorenberg is still looking for a better answer.

I’ll say more about this book when I’ve finished reading it, but what seems most remarkable about this book is that it is written by an Israeli. An American could never write this. As former intelligence official Graham Fuller said at the U.S. Institute for Peace yesterday (in a panel on religious aspects of the conflict in the Middle East), the American mainstream liberal press is incapable of printing even half of what appears in Haaretz, the leftwing daily in Israel. Fuller said that this is “dangerous,” and he’s right: The reality that Israelis get to see, the issues they have to live with, are largely denied to intelligent Americans.

The Gorenberg book is further evidence of this. Yes, it was published in the U.S., by Times Books. But its central points have gotten precious little attention in this country, and the broad intellectual trend that it represents, of Israel’s “new historians” threshing the country’s history to demonstrate Israel’s part in the bad relationships it has with its neighbors, goes unspoken in the U.S., outside of the New York Review of Books. In Washington, this kind of talk is verboten; and yet Gorenberg has scooped the Washington Post, and the Times, by doing what no selfrespecting American paper can bring itself to do: he visited our country’s archives so as to anatomize Washington’s passivity and culpability in the illegal settlements policy.

Let’s compare Gorenberg’s book to my whipping boy: Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm, of 2002. It’s an important book because its “liberal” (and stupidly naïve) argument for invading Iraq got so much attention in the pages of the New York Times; Ken Pollack sold the war to liberals.

One great fault in Pollack’s argument was his facile claim about the Arab street: he said that in the Arabs’ view of the world, the problems in Israel/Palestine had no connection to what we do in Iraq. I.e., we could proceed to invade Iraq, and not do anything about the occupation, and the Arab world would be just fine with that. As I have said here before, Pollack’s dismissal of the occupation as an issue was so complete that he referred only to the “violence” in Israel/Palestine. That’s as much as he ever had to say on this question that tortures Gorenberg. According to a google search of the book, he did not once use the word occupation, or occupied, to describe Israel’s policies in the West Bank. This is a staggering moral dereliction, for as Graham Fuller and Walt and Mearsheimer, and James Zogby, and countless others, remind us, the humiliation of the Palestinians in the West Bank is a key point in Why They Hate Us.

I am whipping my whipping boy again because the difference between Gershom Gorenberg’s discussion of the settlements—What have they done to my country???—and Pollack’s—Huh, what occupation?—absolutely demonstrates the difference between the discourse in Israel and the U.S. In Israel, intelligent people have to live with the real consequences of Israel’s militarism and colonization, and so the leftleaning press can broach the issue, What has Israel done to alienate the Arab world? In the U.S., Israel exists as some sort of dream of democracy, and you still can’t have the discussion in the mainstream press. The thinktanks are allergic to this sort of discussion. The Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, where Pollack came on as an official just when his book came out, “is financed by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American businessman and ardent Zionist… What was once a non-partisan policy institute is now part of the pro-Israel chorus.” (So say Walt and Mearsheimer)

The big question that arises is Why? Why is it that Israelis can talk about things we can’t talk about?

The inevitable answer is the Israel lobby. Or to put it somewhat more subtly, the power of Jews in the media, and the important role that diaspora Jews feel they must perform for Israel in the U.S. Let me break that down further. Most American Jews are liberals, certainly most Jews in the media. Most American Jews have never been to Israel, still they feel an emotional and spiritual loyalty to Israel, as a refuge to the persecuted Jewish people worldwide. They idealize Israel (and don’t see it as just another country, with regional ambitions) and they even feel guilty because they haven’t made aliyah themselves (an idea that Mike Desch first put out there, in the American Conservative). And they know, and are constantly reminded by Jewish leaders, and Israeli pols, that they have an important role to play here: to make sure that the U.S. supports Israel. God knows, they have done that job to a fare-thee-well. In Congress there’s hardly a dissenting voice, and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is seen as a radical for calling the destruction of Lebanon “madness.” But there is a feeling within the Jewish community that if you left America to its own devices, it would abandon Israel, or forget about it.

The way these attitudes impact the media is that Jews in the media also feel tugged to do what they can for Israel, and let’s be clear, many genuinely believe in Israel (e.g., Mort Zuckerman). Most of the editors and reporters have probably never been to Israel either, and they don’t have to live there either and try to sort out the difficult questions, as Gorenberg does. They feel by and large it’s a good place, a democracy, we should do what we can to support it; and they know damn well that the Jewish establishment, which includes publishers, or the publishers’ social peers, are big supporters of Israel. That is just the culture in the mainstream press. Editors feel a silent responsibility to protect Israel. It’s become part of their function, and their not knowing the issues through and through only makes them more reluctant to say anything daring about the place, out of some unspoken fear that if criticisms were noised about, Americans might drop Israel. Which is to say, editors are simply not prepared to hear what Gorenberg has to say. Put another way, I have gotten big fees from glossy magazines for articles about the Christian right in Idaho and the power of the National Rifle Association—pieces making fun of zealots, under the journalistic precept that the further away someone lives from your printing press, the more sport you can have at their expense. But in all my years as a magazine journalist, I could never get a dime to take a look at the Israel lobby, or the nutbag zealots who have colonized the West Bank. On these issues, our discourse is enfeebled. So: Buy Gershom Gorenberg’s book.

And one other thing. Graham Fuller said the openness of the discussion in Israel is a great testament to its society in that area, freedom of speech, access to gov’t records. Amen.

Gershom Gorenberg’s Great Book on the Settlements, and What It Says About Ideas in the U.S.