Reviewed by Amiel Handelsman
The turmoil in Israel around judicial reform is tearing apart the country. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, fearing the demise of Israeli democracy, protest in the streets. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak calls Netanyahu’s project the “assassination of the Declaration of Independence.” At stake is the state’s very reason for being.
But what is this purpose? Why was Israel created? And what is being lost? For many American Jews, including me, the answers are not obvious. Perhaps this profound crisis is an invitation to pause and reflect on what Israel is here to accomplish.
It was in this spirit that I opened Daniel Gordis’s latest book, Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams? Gordis is an American-born Israeli author based at Shalem College in Jerusalem. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, he has been a mainstay on American college campuses and synagogues with a message as passionate and complex as his country. If you’re troubled by the daily humiliations Palestinians experience, like checkpoints and searches, Gordis shares your concerns. If you view the state’s creation as the “Nakba” (disaster) for Palestinians, Gordis may hold a different view, but he devotes three pages to summarizing this story. If you are proud of Israel’s successes and think the global media unfairly single it out using simplistic victim/oppressor narratives, you will recognize an ally in Gordis. In a public debate dominated by single-perspective arguments, Gordis sees the partial truth in many points of view.
This capacity for multiple-perspective-taking coupled with a deep love for the Jewish people characterizes all of Gordis’s work. It was visible in his first book after making aliya in the late 1990s, If a Place Can Make You Cry, in his exploration of the rift between American Jews and Israel, We Stand Divided, and in his one-volume history of the country, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. When I first encountered Gordis’s work a decade ago, I was both humbled and inspired. On the one hand, it revealed that my own views of Israel, which I considered nuanced and astute, were narrow and a bit naive. And yet his deep devotion to the country and its complex realities opened my heart and mind in surprising ways. Thus began a new way of encountering Israel: each time I am tempted by knee-jerk reactions, Gordis asks me to take a deep breath and view things through a wider lens.
This is precisely the challenge Gordis offers with Impossible Takes Longer. The book examines how Israel is doing at age 75. The standard Gordis uses for making this assessment are the 19 paragraphs that David Ben-Gurion read aloud in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 — Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Impossible Takes Longer is organized into four parts, each representing a set of aspirations expressed in the Declaration. This structure gives the book a sense of rootedness, as if to say: Before you default into arguing, remember why Israel is here. Drawing on his deep grasp of history and capacity for taking multiple perspectives, Gordis shows how Israel was born in contradiction, has defied the odds, and, despite its flaws, has achieved an astonishing result: transforming the existential condition of the Jewish people.
Part I covers three aspirations that, in Gordis’s assessment, Israel has largely realized. The first was the sheer right to exist. The United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, to permit a Jewish (and Arab) state was exceedingly close and at risk of being overturned. There was nothing inevitable about Israel’s creation. The second aspiration was creating a place free of the savagery and uncertainty that generations of Jews had experienced. In Christian Europe, this meant persecutions, pogroms, forced conversions, and expulsions. Yet even in “enlightened” Europe in the late 19th century, which granted Jews rights as citizens and access to more occupations, Jewish existence was precarious. This is why, decades before the Holocaust, Zionists had concluded “that Europe’s hatred for the Jew was fundamentally incurable.” For the Founders, Israel was a way for Jews to control their own destiny and escape the daily fear of antisemitism. The country, Gordis writes, “has succeeded so well [at this] that it is often difficult to recall the problem that a Jewish state was meant to solve.” Finally, Part I examines the goal of revitalizing the language and culture of the Jewish people. Here Gordis cites with astonishment Israel’s success. The nation revived Hebrew, long relegated to religious life, into a national language and created art and literature not dependent on the whims of a host state but instead rooted in a Jewish nation.
Part II focuses on the Founders’ twin dreams for Israeli security: developing the capacity to defend itself and finding peace. On this measure, Gordis’s assessment is deeply nuanced and references American Jews’ mixed feelings about Israel. On the one hand, for the first time in millennia, Jews have a state with a border and the capacity to defend themselves. Israel now has treaties with many Arab states that previously sought to destroy it. These are, Gordis reminds us, large feats. On the other hand, he says, Israel faces two major threats to its security: a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and a relentless global effort to delegitimize the state’s very existence.
In exploring the delegitimization efforts, Gordis delves into the issue that most haunts American Jews: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and relationship with Palestinians there and in Gaza. This section of the book highlights Gordis’ capacity for taking multiple perspectives with integrity and precision. For example, Gordis addresses widespread claims that Israel uses too much force. He acknowledges examples where this has occurred yet provides evidence that such abuse is less common than assumed and suffused with complexity. First, Israelis find the use of force “profoundly painful” and have “a tradition of vigorous public debate about morality and the use of force.” How many of its critics acknowledge or even know this? Second, the central Zionist ethos of havlagah, or “restraint,” continues to influence the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israelis take great pride in being the only country in the world that uses a “knock-on-roof” approach (dropping low-impact bombs on building roofs to ensure residents vacate) and in how the IDF protects civilians by dropping leaflets before bombing. Why, then, do Palestinian civilians still die? Because, Gordis asserts, Hamas deliberately positions its fighters and munitions in civilian areas to cause casualties and thereby stir global outrage.
Gordis’s take on the overall conflict between Israel and Palestinians is equally sensitive and nuanced. Here his heart of compassion meshes with an eye of realism. It makes sense, he says, that Palestinians view Israel’s creation as “Nakba” (the disaster), given their lived experience, which he recounts in detail. Yet, Israelis’ view of the state’s birth as a liberation is equally valid. Meanwhile, it’s reasonable to criticize the settlements, because they make a contiguous Palestinian state implausible. Yet, even if the settlements vanished, Gordis says, the odds of a solution would be slim. Why? Because of something that gets scant attention in the media: Palestinians’ insistence on their Right to Return. If enacted, this would eliminate the Jewish majority and return Israeli Jews to precisely the vulnerable position the Founders sought to reverse. Hence: stalemate. American Jews don’t always see these complexities, and one reason, he says, is their ambivalence about power. They wrestle with the very phenomenon that is central to Israel’s existence. “It would be simply impossible,” Gordis writes, “to overstate the prominence in Israeli ideology of the value of self-defense.”
Part III concerns the complexity of Israeli democracy, how the “other” has fared, and Israel’s economic fortunes. American Jews, Gordis notes, often view Israel as a miniature U.S. This, he suggests, is not helpful. The Founders never intended Israel to be a classic liberal democracy, but instead a Jewish democracy with a sovereign Jewish majority. Understand this, and a lot else makes sense. When it comes to treating the “other,” Gordis expresses a mix of appreciation (e.g. Tel Aviv’s gay-friendliness) and disappointment (e.g. the treatment of women around marriage, divorce, and religious ritual). As for economics, Gordis describes both the nation’s economic achievements, which its Socialist founders did not foresee, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Doing “what is just and right,” he suggests, remains a work in progress.
Part IV explores the Founders’ intention that Israel be a Jewish state. Beyond population, this involves questions about the nation’s soul. What role should religion play in the state? How does Israel relate with Diaspora Jews? How well is Israel serving the world? On religion, Gordis notes that although most Israelis aren’t religious, religion is central to Israeli culture. This includes not only the troubling Haredim-controlled rabbinic courts, but also the national-religious camp’s Zionist passion and how cities slow down on Shabbat. As for the Diaspora, Gordis shows how the current rift between American Jews and Israel was present in the Declaration’s subtle call for massive immigration (read: an end to the Diaspora), which offended American Jews. Finally, in serving the world, Gordis emphasizes Israel’s successes like rescuing Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and treating Syrian war victims today.
In the end, despite Israel’s flaws, Gordis considers it a success. It transformed the existential condition of the Jewish people, renewed Jewish culture, and created a flourishing sovereign state. Weighed against the Founders’ dreams, these are astonishing accomplishments. This is one of many reasons to hope that when the current crisis around judicial reform ends, the state and nation remain whole. Impossible Takes Longer says to American Jews and the world: You have a stake in this outcome.
For more of Amiel Handelsman’s writings, go to amielhandelsman.com