x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Orthodox Jew trying to unsettle the settlers

The writer Gershom Gorenberg has argued for 25 years that illegal Israeli settlements are ultimately self-defeating. His work has earned worldwide acclaim - but is anyone in Israel listening?

Gershom Gorenberg, the Israeli-American author and journalist, is is now regarded as one of the foremost experts on settlements and religious fanaticism.
Gershom Gorenberg, the Israeli-American author and journalist, is is now regarded as one of the foremost experts on settlements and religious fanaticism.

The writer Gershom Gorenberg has argued for 25 years that illegal Israeli settlements are ultimately self-defeating. His work has earned worldwide acclaim - but is anyone in Israel listening? Hugh Naylor, foreign correspondent, reports

JERUSALEM // If he could pinpoint when he became interested in Israel's settlement enterprise, Gershom Gorenberg - journalist, historian and iconoclastic author - would probably say the mid-1980s.

He was reporting for The Jerusalem Post when an editor singled him out, as an Orthodox Jew, to write a story about settlers. "I bet the settlers would talk more openly to you - a guy with a beard and a skullcap," Mr Gorenberg recalls beng told.

The American-born Israeli, 56, is now regarded as one of the foremost experts on settlements and religious fanaticism. As for the settlers themselves, appearance and a shared faith are about all he has in common with them.

Through his books and magazine articles, he has tried to illuminate how their flouting of laws and relentless expansion on to Palestinian land threatens Israel's democracy.

To his critics, his extensive work is just another variation of futile warnings by some Israelis about their government-backed settlement juggernaut. Whether it has even penetrated the debate beyond non-English speaking circles is not clear.

Nevertheless, those familiar with his work consider it second-to-none.

"He is absolutely brilliant," said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "There is no reason that, given his arguments, he should not occupy the centre of attention in Israel. But it's easy to ignore somebody who is not yet famous, and Gorenberg is not very famous in Israel."

But abroad, he has a devoted following. He is the Jerusalem correspondent for the magazine The American Prospect, and his three books in the past decade have been showered with praise by foreign commentators.

A New York Times reviewer called his 2006 book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, "a ground breaking revision that deserves to reframe the entire debate".

With access to government documents, Mr Gorenberg drew conclusions that upended commonly held notions about the early years of the settlement enterprise after Israel captured swaths of territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

He argued that it was more indecision and lack of policy than outright support by Israeli leaders that spawned the settlements shortly after that war.

Mr Gorenberg's admirers say perhaps his best book is the provocatively titled The Unmaking of Israel.

Published last year, the meticulously documented 300-page study argues that Israel's institutions are under attack by rising settler extremism and the financial strains of Israel's burgeoning population of fundamentalist, Ultra-Orthodox community, which relies on state subsidies for income.

His peers describe the book as "original", "incisive" and "brilliant".

"There aren't many other journalists here, local or foreign, doing the kind of work that he does," said David Green, a journalist who used to work with Mr Gorenberg at Jerusalem Report magazine.

In the book's concluding recommendations, Mr Gorenberg calls on Israeli leaders to unequivocally sever religion from the state, and for a wholesale dismantling of Jewish settlements, including the largest settlement blocs, which many believe Israel would want to retain should a Palestinian state be created.

His recommendations have provoked debate in social-networking circles and among English-speaking critics. Some are positive, others critical of what they see as a desperate attempt to salvage a two-state solution that many consider all but suffocated by settlements.

"Gershom is locked into the two-state solution, and everything has to fit according that solution's parameters," said Jeff Halper, an American-Israeli activist and former anthropology lecturer in Israel. "Nobody is going to dismantle the settlement blocs - it's just not going to happen."

But Mr Gorenberg rejects claims that it is too late to dismantle. To his mind, the issue is not about tipping points. Moreover, he does not necessarily oppose alternatives to the two-state model, but sees few if any outcomes other than festering conflict if Palestinians and Israelis are placed under one state.

"To me, that's a recipe for a failed state," he said.

That the arguments of Mr Gorenberg, born in St Louis and raised in Los Angeles, have barely made a splash in Israel may be because he has worked mainly in Israel's English-language media. None of his books has been published in Hebrew.

It may also be because there is little public appetite for revisionist thinking such as that of the Israeli historians Benny Morris or Ilan Pappe, the results of whose whose research drew public attention for contradicting the official narrative of Israel's creation in 1948.

Many Israeli newspapers and publishers are wary of associating with such figures for fear of losing readers, said Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz newspaper.

"Basically, Israelis are not tolerant at all, but instead of banning them, they just ignore them," he said.

But Mr Gorenberg, who is fluent in Hebrew, says his inability to find a Hebrew-language publisher is a business issue, and defends Israel as a culture of open and sometime fractious political debate. It was Israel's tolerance for such discourse that helped to convince him to emigrate there from the United States in 1977, after he completed his BA in religious studies at the University of California Santa Cruz.

"The political spectrum stretches from a real Left to a real Right," he said. "There have always been communists in the Israeli parliament. How many communist members of Congress have there been?"

But while he defends Israeli politics, he expresses concern that settlers have mastered the skill of building more settlements while politicians and activists debate "like froth above the surface".

"The Left objects and the Right builds settlements," he said.

This is the purpose he hopes his work will serve - not to gain notoriety, but to reveal the truth and properly frame public debate. He believes there is hope that debate can still be used to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic.

But that, he says, is becoming a more difficult balance with each passing day. "You're driving in the wrong direction, and the longer you keep driving in the wrong direction, the further back you have to drive, and the more it costs to get back to where you should be."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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