Speaking Nov. 11 at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg called for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, severance of religion from state, and more rights for Israel’s Arab minority.
“Out of three possible goals — a Jewish majority, a democracy in the electorate, and the full land of Israel — you can have two in the real world,” said Gorenberg, an author most recently of the book The Unmaking of Israel. “If we want to have a Jewish state that is a democracy, we cannot also control all of the land.”
His talk, which drew 75 people, was the first installment in B’nai Abraham’s “Varied Voices” lecture series.
If Israel dissolved the settlements in the West Bank — with the exception of settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim, built on land contiguous with Israel — and brought about a peaceful arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, said Gorenberg, it would not only encourage economic and political growth in those areas, it would help ensure the country’s continued existence.
“We need to stop ruling that land,” he said. “We need to withdraw from the land in order to preserve Israel’s democracy and its future. The only safe way to do that is through a peace agreement. Peace is a means to preserving Israel, and not just an end in itself.”
Gorenberg, himself religious, also worried that the influence of Orthodox parties within the government is impeding peace talks and Israel’s progress.
He described a religious gap-year program between high school and the army intended to shore up the religiosity of new recruits and prepare them for the most prestigious military branches. The result, he said, are soldiers who follow an agenda based not solely on the army itself, but on the teachings of their rabbis.
From 1990 to 2007, the rates of officers in the army coming from this program have risen from 2.5 percent to 31.4 percent. The higher-ups within the army consistently wonder if their commands will conflict with the teachings of politically charged rabbis.
Reducing the influence of these rabbis, said Gorenberg, would not diminish the importance of religious observance in the fabric of society, but would allow for the government to act without worrying about oppositional minority groups.
Gorenberg, an American who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, is also the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. In that book and in his Livingston talk, he argued that settlement policy came about because different policy-makers within the government acted on their own accord without thinking of the greater consequence of their actions. Rather than operating within lawful guidelines, they instead pursued their own ideological gains.
“The government itself is subject to the rule of law, not to the whims of individuals, which is another of the deep definitions of democracy,” he said. “State officials were returning to the glory days of their youth when they fought British rule and determined the borders of the future Jewish state by establishing settlements. They were going from being institutionaries to revolutionaries and acting as if the rule of law did not apply to them.”
Rabbi Clifford Kulwin seconded Gorenberg’s call for reducing the religious influence in Israeli politics and everyday “status” issues.
“I don’t think they [Israel’s founders] would approve of what this has evolved into even though they were the ones who laid the groundwork for it happening,” Kulwin said. “I understand those same people would fight against [the separation of religion and state] desperately because they benefit by it enormously.”
Audience member Herb Ford of Livingston cautioned against applying certain American political principles to the Israeli political sphere. “As Americans it’s very hard to say to Israel that they should do what we do because it’s so good for us,” said Ford.
Gorenberg, in response to a question from an audience member, emphasized the fact that American foreign policies can have a profound impact on Israel’s direction. He urged American Jews to make their voices heard; if they do not, he said, the government has the freedom to act on behalf of its own desires rather than the well-being of its people.
“Not saying anything becomes a statement,” he said. “If their views are not your views, you either have to say something, or you have essentially voted for their representation.”