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Read Daniel Gordis’s New, Outstanding Book on Israel
Check out "Impossible Takes Longer."
On April 26 this year, Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. Daniel Gordis’s new book, Impossible Takes Longer, is timed for that event; its subtitle asks: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?
Gordis, an American-born Israeli and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, is an intensely engaging, deeply insightful author and commentator on the subject of the Jewish state. And in Impossible Takes Longer, he comes through again, offering a masterful overview of Israel’s development and significance.
For those knowledgeable in the subject, it’s a fresh, engrossing discussion of some major issues; for those not versed in the subject, it can be recommended as a great introduction to it. (Although Impossible Takes Longer is not a history, it can be well complemented by Gordis’s own concise history, Israel, or by Anita Shapira’s longer and more detailed Israel: A History.)
Gordis opens this new work by noting that Israel, while the world’s hundredth largest country, ranks sixth in terms of news coverage. One of the reasons, he suggests, is that Israel’s is “an almost magical story” of return to an ancient homeland, “one of the greatest stories of resilience, of rebirth, and of triumph in human history.” Another reason, in his view, is that Israel is one of the few countries that has set itself a purpose—“to save the Jewish people”—thereby enabling the question Gordis asks at the outset: “Is Israel a success?”
Overall in this book, Gordis answers that question with a resounding yes—though not without criticisms, some of them quite harsh (on which more below).
After winning a war for survival against five Arab armies immediately after it declared independence in May 1948, Israel faced challenges of the most daunting nature. They included the massive absorption of European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Middle Eastern Jewish refugees from persecution in Arab countries; ongoing terror and hostility from the surrounding Arab world; and—in a country whose then standard of living was no higher than America’s in the 19th century—the need to impose even greater austerity.
In addition, the new state had to swallow a huge disappointment: the disinterest of the American diaspora, then numbering seven-to-eight times the Israeli Jewish population, in immigrating to it. And, finally, there was the need to somehow mold a largely indigent population, including a few hundred thousand refugees with little or no knowledge of Hebrew, into a coherent polity capable of contending with those formidable tasks. To its great good fortune, Israel in those early years was guided by its brilliant first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who, with his wise diplomatic, military, and economic management, and—even more essential—his fostering of an ethos of patriotic devotion (or mamlachtiyut) that unified the masses, was able to steer the rickety ship through those early, stormy seas.
The challenges, of course, continued—not least in the security sphere as the new, small, but constantly growing country fought and prevailed against Arab states and coalitions of Arab states in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1967–1970 War of Attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That newfound military prowess, too, resonated deeply with one of the original wellsprings of Zionism in 19th-century Europe: the aspiration to overcome Jewish helplessness in the face of pogroms and unflagging antisemitism.
The 1967 war, in which Israel conquered territories vastly larger than the state itself, also turned the Palestinian issue into a major international focus and a conundrum that persists to this day. Gordis, in a chapter on the Palestinian issue, notes that—with polls finding a majority of Israelis and an even larger majority of Palestinians now opposed to a two-state solution—the chances of it materializing are “unlikely for as far as the eye can see,” and the ongoing worldwide expectation of it is misplaced.
Yet, as Gordis also notes, the demand for such a “solution” persists among American Jews, particularly younger ones, and feeds into alienating perceptions of Israel as a “white” oppressor of “brown” people (notwithstanding that a large percentage of Israeli Jews are “brown” Mizrahim). While Gordis views growing discord between Israel and American Jewry as a rift that needs bridging, perhaps it can be seen instead as a fundamental disparity between a Jewish polity forced to cope with Middle Eastern realities and a diaspora community with a shallower problem-solving mentality.
The Israel of today is indeed, in many ways, nothing like either the Zionist polity of the 1950s or the American Jewish community at that time could have imagined. Its Jewish population of seven million now exceeds that of American Jewry, and by 2040 Israel is expected to house the majority of the world’s Jews. It is already, as Gordis notes, “the only place in the world in which secular Jewish couples are almost certain to have Jewish grandchildren.” Israel ranked fourth in the 2022 World Happiness Report, has been ranked eighth in the world in military power, has the highest birthrate among democratic countries, and has made formal peace with six Arab countries. The startup nation’s achievements in a wide variety of high-tech and other fields are by now iconic, and with its plethora of international aid programs and dramatically disproportionate contribution in general, today’s Israel strikingly fulfills the biblical promise of “through you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.”
For all that, Israel, inevitably, has its failings and unresolved problems, and Gordis points out those, too—though sometimes in a surprisingly harsh vein not far from Israel-bashing.
For example: Gordis writes that “for Palestinians, having soldiers enter their homes in the middle of the night (especially when no weapons are found) is deeply humiliating.” True—but would Gordis prefer that Israeli soldiers not vigilantly preempt terror attacks? And what would happen if Palestinians were to end such attacks and the glorification of them? Elsewhere he grumbles that “Israel’s gender disparity is among the worst in the OECD.” Yet a study by the Taub Center found that Israel’s gender wage gap was explainable in terms of number of work hours and fields of study, not in terms of discrimination. Again, Gordis pronounces that “one million Israeli children now live below the poverty line”—without mentioning that a large portion of those children are in haredi Jewish or Israeli Arab families in which one parent does not work.
The objection, of course, is not that Gordis sometimes casts a critical eye, but that he sometimes does so without the balance one would expect of him.
That aside (just as no country is no perfect, nor is any book), this latest effort by Gordis is a stirring and highly informative tribute to a uniquely revivified nation—one that has “succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams,” “transform[ed] the existential condition of the Jewish people,” and “in almost every way imaginable, … beaten the odds.”