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The Land of Hope and Fear review: vivid portrait of Israel in ferment | Books


Isabel Kershner of the New York Times has written an absorbing account of a country at war with itself

Sun 28 May 2023 07.00 BST

Last month, Israel marked its 75th birthday. In the aftermath of eight wars, two intifadas and countless terror attacks, its population swells toward 10 million. Per-capita gross domestic product tops $55,400. Silicon Wadi, Israel’s hi-tech base, drives the economy. But wealth has not birthed national contentment. Decades-old grudges have morphed into pitched political warfare. The social fabric frays.

This year, independence day was acrid. Even cemeteries were not off-limits. A day earlier, Isabel Kershner reported in the New York Times, “commotion broke out as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist minister of national security, began speaking on behalf of the government.

“Loud shouting matches erupted over the graves between the families who opposed his presence at the cemetery and his supporters.”

Ben-Gvir never served in the military, which deemed him unfit. Still, he loves to swagger.

A cold civil war simmers, fueled by religion, blood and soil. God and country breed controversy – as they do in the US. With The Land of Hope and Fear, Kershner, a Jerusalem-based correspondent, dives headfirst into this cauldron of enmities.

Subtitled Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul, her book delivers an in-depth look at the tribes that compete and clash within the Promised Land. Painstakingly researched, the book is the product of scores of interviews coupled with living on the ground for more than three decades. Kershner knows of what she writes.

Originally from Manchester, England, she moved to Israel with an Oxford degree in hand. Hirsch Goodman, her husband, was a paratrooper and founding editor of the Jerusalem Report, where she first worked. Their sons served in the Israeli military.

The Land of Hope and Fear is reminiscence, scorecard and guidebook all in one. It is personally revealing. Early on, Kershner attempts to make sense of what she describes as a “national unraveling”. Cue Reuven Rivlin, the country’s 10th president, and his 2015 “Four Tribes” speech, which Kershner details at length.

In Rivlin’s taxonomy, Israel is broadly split along the lines of Arab, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular. “The ‘new Israeli order’ is not an apocalyptic prophecy,” he says. That “reality” can “already be seen in the composition of the first-grade classes in the Israeli education system”.

Eight years later, all that is truer than ever. The divides grow starker and deeper, going beyond the classroom, touching the hot-buttons of military service, religion, income and education. What it means to be Israeli is up for grabs.

“There’s no single answer,” Kershner writes. “There never was.”

These primordial cleavages undergird the Israeli right’s attempt to neuter judicial independence and the continuous waves of protest against this bid to transform Israel into a state bound to halacha, Jewish religious law. Demographics are not on the side of secular Israel.

“Democracy is doing what God says,” Simcha Rothman, an ally of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, helping to drive the judicial overhaul, declared in 2021. For good measure, Rothman expressed his admiration for Viktor Orbán of Hungary, adding: “Those who don’t wear a kippa are actually harming democracy.”

Rothman’s sentiments are unoriginal.

I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” the late Sheldon Adelson – a US billionaire and sometime Netanyahu-backer – remarked in 2014. God “didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state”, he said. “Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state – so what.”

So what? A sitting US president and his party are alarmed. Joe Biden will not be inviting Netanyahu to the White House in the foreseeable future.

By the numbers, the Israeli military is a realm of secular Jews and religious Zionists. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs are generally exempted. At the same time, their populations grow.

Kershner speaks with members of each competing and at times clashing community. She provides a series of poignant windows but no resolution. Once upon a time, secular Israel stood socially and politically dominant. Not any more.

The resentments between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox are particularly acute, amplified by yawning gaps in education and income. In the latest election, educated secular Israelis overwhelmingly voted against Netanyahu.

In the US election of 2012, when Mitt Romney spoke of “makers” versus “takers”, he could have been channeling the sentiments of what has come to be known as the State of Tel Aviv, home to the top quintile of the Israeli socio-economic ladder, city become hi-tech incubator.

By contrast, Israel’s religious parties, denizens of the State of Jerusalem, draw their votes from the lower rungs. Piety dominates. There, the past is the present. A reminder: politics is about values, interests and anger.

Whether Israel remains a liberal democracy is an open question. Pressed on that point by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu appeared hesitant. “I am a 19th-century democrat,” he once told Bari Weiss. For many, including Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, Orbán’s Hungary provides the comforting model.

Kershner is mindful of history and political realities. The Land of Hope and Fear dwells on the 2021 independence day speech by Aviv Kochavi, then the military chief of staff. Amid festivities, Kochavi went out of his way to strike a discordant note.

“This was only the third time in all of Jewish history that a unified nation of Israel was sovereign in its country,” the general reminded his audience. “The previous two times had ended disastrously.”

On Wednesday, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, enacted a budget that provides a windfall to Netanyahu’s base. Elections have consequences.

Kershner remains optimistic. “As the drama plays out, the actors are staying put,” she writes. “The air is thick with memory and premonition. This land, thrumming with obstinate, exuberant life, is their home.”

Said differently, the land and its people are very much in ferment.


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