Progress and Pain in the Promised Land

REVIEW: ‘Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?’

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April 9, 2023

As Israel reaches its 75th anniversary on May 14, a spate of books is appearing to celebrate—or at least commemorate—the occasion. Daniel Gordis, a professor and prolific author born and raised in the United States, made aliyah to Israel in 1998 and has been teaching and writing there ever since. His new book Impossible Takes Longer asks how Israel is doing: "Has Israel fulfilled its founders’ dreams?"

Pretty well, Gordis answers in a well-written and thoughtful examination of the challenges Israel has overcome and those it still faces. One way of measuring is the simple concept of happiness: How do Israelis feel? The "World Happiness Report," which rates every country, finds that Israel comes in 4th out of 146 countries, behind a few northern Europeans but ahead of Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland—and the United States. And Israel now has the highest birth rate of any OECD country, another measure of its people’s confidence in their society and its future.

But the goal of Zionism wasn’t happiness; it was survival. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that it is "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state." As Gordis writes, "we begin with an extraordinary fact—extraordinary in part because it now seems entirely natural—that the Jewish people can defend itself." This is a complete inversion of the historic reality Jews had faced for 2,000 years. As Gordis says, "Power has done what it was meant to do: Jews are no longer victims on call."

Beyond survival, the list of Israeli achievements is long, and Gordis takes us through it. The revival of Hebrew is itself a sort of miracle. Turning a poor foreign aid recipient into the "start-up nation" has spawned innumerable articles and books, and Israelis now enjoy European levels of GDP per capita. Maintaining democracy through a series of brutal wars is remarkable enough, but as Gordis writes, the Israeli case is unique—Golda Meir was the only founder of Israel who had grown up in a democratic country.

Israel’s uninterrupted democracy is particularly noteworthy given the fact that almost all its mass immigrations were from countries where no democratic tradition existed. The 700,000 Jews who fled or were forced out of North Africa and other countries in the Levant, the almost 1.5 million immigrants who were finally able to leave for Israel when the Soviet Union collapsed, to say nothing of the millions of Israel’s other immigrants—all came with no democratic experience. Yet they have overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly embraced Israel’s democratic institutions.

Gordis is well-attuned to changes in Israeli society over these 75 years. One of these is the changing locus of passionate Zionism from the secular and originally socialist Left to more religious portions of the society: "For quite some time now, it has been clear that the true wellspring of Zionist passion and ideology in Israel today is the national-religious sector." These are not the ultra-Orthodox "Haredim" but Orthodox Jews who are fully part of, indeed increasingly at the center of this world. As Gordis notes, "Though the national-religious community represents only some 12 percent of Israeli society, in some combat units religious men now make up 50 percent of the officers (four times their representation in society)." Gordis sums up this phenomenon well: "No longer are Judaism and Zionism polar opposites, as they were to Israel’s founders."

So the book’s conclusions are positive: "In almost every way imaginable, Zionism has beaten the odds." In fact, Israel has not only survived and thrived, but is now the world’s largest Jewish community. And with its high birth rate, "by the time of its centennial in 2048, most of the world’s Jews … will live in Israel."

But Gordis is no Pollyanna and spends many pages examining the deep problems Israel continues to face—internal and external. Internally, the lack of a written constitution has proved to be no technical legal issue. Today’s bitter disputes and huge demonstrations about the role of Israel’s supreme court are proof of this, for Israel’s constitutional system has large lacunae about where legal power lies. With the rapid growth of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities, religion-and-state issues are increasingly fraught and divisive. And Israel has not resolved the problem of integrating fully the 20 percent of its population that is Arab. Gordis warns that "by 2048, 25 percent of Israeli Jews will be Haredim and 21 percent of Israelis will be Arabs," at which point "almost half the country will be, in principle, opposed to Zionism." Will Israeli Arabs in the coming decades join the political system and use it to protect their interests, or seek to delegitimize that system and undermine it? Will the growing Haredi community integrate more with the society and the economy, or seek isolation from the "corrupting" influences of the rest of Israel?

And externally, though Israel has made extraordinary strides in achieving peace with its Arab neighbors, there remains the unsettled issue of the Palestinians. Here Gordis evinces no optimism: The deep divisions lead him to conclude that "peace between Israelis and Palestinians [is] unlikely for as far as the eye can see." Gordis is right: The magical "two-state solution" increasingly fades away and neither Israelis nor Palestinians today appear to favor it. In Israel, the "peace camp" was largely dissolved by Palestinian terrorism. In the last election the Labor Party, which ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977, got four seats in the 120-member Knesset; the Meretz Party, to Labor’s left, got none. Gordis canvasses some of the proposals for progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations but cannot persuade himself that progress is plausible.

Gordis is a Zionist, which is what of course inspired his move to Israel decades ago. He argues that "Israel’s founders took upon themselves an impossible task" and "to a great degree, they succeeded." They changed the existential condition of the Jewish people, after 2,000 years of statelessness and vulnerability. They did not create a state that is, in the words of their Declaration of Independence, "like all other nations," but that is due to the enduring hostility that led to the denunciation of Zionism as racism in the United Nations, to wars in 1948, 1956, 1973, and to endless terrorist attacks that continue to this day.

Yet even without the vicious hostility, could Israel ever have been a "normal" state? Given the unique history of the Jewish people and of the new State of Israel, and given the waves of immigration that have formed the new society, Israel was never plausibly going to be "like all other nations."

Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary in 1897, right after the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, "At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it." That was exactly 50 years before the U.N.’s partition resolution approved the establishment of a Jewish State and 51 years before Israel’s independence was declared. Zionism was the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century. Older now at 75 years than more than half the member states of the United Nations, Israel continues to captivate the attention of the world. Herzl wrote of Jewish statehood, "If you will it, it is no dream." After 75 years of trial and struggle, Israel’s very existence and surely its successes and achievements often do seem like a dream. Daniel Gordis is 63, so we can hope to see him reprise this volume for Israel’s 100th centennial—and judge whether Israel has moved closer to the normal existence that has eluded it for its first 75 years.

Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?
by Daniel Gordis
Ecco, 384 pp., $32.99

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Published under: Book reviews , Israel