Interview'The Israeli people care so much, there's no apathy here'

A house divided: New book explores roots of the rifts between Israel’s many ‘tribes’

In ‘The Land of Hope and Fear,’ veteran New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner crisscrosses ‘a country on the precipice’ and comes away with ‘great faith in the people’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Author and journalist Isabel Kershner and her new book, 'A Land of Hope and Fear.' (Rina Castelnuovo)
Author and journalist Isabel Kershner and her new book, 'A Land of Hope and Fear.' (Rina Castelnuovo)

Pundits in Israel often rush to declare events “unprecedented.”

Over the past few months, as tensions and disagreements over the government’s judicial overhaul plan have wracked the nation, many have opined that the country is more divided than ever before.

But a new book from Isabel Kershner suggests that such a fissure was a very long time coming — and has its roots in divisions that date back to pre-state Israel.

The latest work from the veteran New York Times correspondent, “The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul,” was completed long before the current coalition’s legislative plans galvanized hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets.

“It feels like this judicial overhaul plan came out of nowhere three months ago – but actually, if you look at the divisions and the increasingly competing worldviews of the different tribes living here, I guess you could have seen it coming,” Kershner told the Times of Israel during a recent interview in Jerusalem.

“There are long processes that have been going on here – fundamental changes, generational changes, demographic changes, our politics have changed,” she added. “So I guess you could have seen something like this coming… in terms of the general trends in society, what’s happening now definitely has roots.”

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, April 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Over nearly 400 pages, Kershner delves into the religious, political, racial and ideological divides that have plagued Israel since before its founding, and in many ways only sharpened as time went on.

“This is a portrait of a country on the precipice, battling for its inner soul,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Historical perspective

Drawing on more than 30 years of living in and reporting on Israel, Kershner digs even further back in time, exploring the deep divides among Jewish groups at the time the state was founded, including the seminal Altalena Affair in 1948, a violent confrontation between the nascent IDF and the Irgun paramilitary group in which 19 were killed.

She dissects letters written by founding prime minister David Ben Gurion to poet Haim Gouri in the 1960s in which he compares his foe Menachem Begin to Hitler, calling the future prime minister “distinctly Hitlerite: Racist, ready to destroy all the Arabs for the sake of the integrity of the land, sanctifying all means for the sacred goal – absolute power.”

The Altalena ship burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948. (Hans Pinn/GPO)

But still, she sees a major difference between the divisions that plagued the country 75 years ago and those threatening to tear it apart today.

“That was the period of building the country, founding the state, and at the end of the day, however bitter the fights were, and the rivalries were, there was a kind of common goal, which was to establish the state, and then build the state,” she said. “So there was always at the end that survival instinct and pulling together.”

Today, Kershner suggested, the state is already built into a “regional powerhouse.” And “now, when you get these crises, it’s really about not building the country, but the future of the country. Where’s it going? What trajectory are we on? Is it going to be sustainable? Is this thing that has been built going to exist as we know it, in the decades to come?”

Sde Boker to Sakhnin to Bnei Brak

In researching the book, which she worked on for a number of years, Kershner crisscrossed the country, working to understand the many “tribes” that make up the modern State of Israel.

From the gift shop at the grave of the Baba Sali in Netivot, to the banks of the Asi River next to the Nir David kibbutz, the coral farms of Ein Yahav in the south and the abandoned dining hall of the once-bustling Kibbutz Ma’ayan Zvi, Kershner met with residents from all walks of life and all corners of the state.

The Amal, or Asi Stream flowing through Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel, August 9, 2020. (Menachem Lederman/Flash90)

“I set out to go on this journey, and try and answer this question: Who are the Israelis? What do they want? What do they aspire to? Where are they coming from?” she said, noting that she was seeking above all to “increase some understanding of the complexities of this country and the contradictions.”

Kershner took a trip to a luxury Airbnb listing in the illegal outpost of Esh Kodesh, toured the Doha Stadium in Sakhnin, dug into the dusty archives of Sde Boker and visited the headquarters of the ultra-Orthodox media outlet B’Hadrei Haredim in Bnei Brak. She explored the deep divisions between the Jewish and Arab residents of Lod, which were laid bare in the May 2021 conflict, and examined the growing gulf between Arab citizens of Israel and West Bank Palestinians.

As the country approached its 75th anniversary, “the looming challenges instilled fear in those who dared look over the precipice,” Kershner wrote. “A demographic trajectory pointing to a population more ambivalent and conflicted about Zionism and less equipped to contribute to a robust and modern economy; a potential nuclear arms race in the region, and a people’s army fighting to preserve its popular legitimacy; the rise of the political fringes and the threats to liberal democracy.”

Above everything, she added, “most daunting of all was the fading prospect of a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians as the likelihood of partition gives way to creeping annexation and a binational reality, with resolution deferred at least until the Palestinians, and the Israelis, can make some peace among themselves.”

Evolving landscape

Kershner started writing the book years before the political paralysis that led to Israel’s five recent consecutive elections, and completed it shortly after Netanyahu was ousted by a shaky coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which ultimately collapsed after about a year. But she said the underlying issues have remained the same throughout.

“The forces at play are what’s relevant, and still are… the arguments, the social aspects, the political aspects, they don’t go away,” said Kershner.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although in some ways, she added, the years she spent working on the book as Israel’s political chaos unfolded helped enhance many of her insights.

“The book benefited from my missed deadlines and delays because obviously, the story here just became more and more defined, sharper and more acute,” she said. “It just made the story of the book more urgent and relevant and edgy.”

There is little reporting that is under more scrutiny than The New York Times’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kershner said she imagines her latest book will receive an equally close reading from those most invested.

“I’m sure people will find things to hate and things to quibble about and things they think I’ve got wrong and things that they think are unfair,” she said. “I just try and be fair, I hope that comes across. In this country,” she added with a laugh, “everybody’s right.”

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on April 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Kershner said that after spending years speaking to Israelis of all stripes, “I came away with, despite it all, a great faith in the people here.”

After months of Israelis taking to the streets in mass protests, Kershner said she has seen both fear and hope – but few who are raising their hands in defeat.

“One thing we’re seeing in this very current crisis now – which is extremely acute, and has brought to the surface a lot of these old resentments – we’re seeing this incredible energy and dynamism, the fact that people care so much, there’s no apathy here,” Kershner said.

“There’s definitely a sense of ‘this is our country, and we’re going to fight for it,’ wherever you turn,” she added. “And I think that’s a source of hope and inspiration that you don’t find in every place.”

The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul by Isabel Kershner

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