Daniel Gordis’s latest book begins with a question: “Is Israel a success?”
The question appears somewhat prescient, written months before the remarkable upheaval and division that have plagued the Jewish state in recent months during an ongoing crisis that at times appears to shake the foundations on which it was built.
But as the book, “Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?” hits shelves this week, the prolific author, thinker and educator finds himself feeling optimistic about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
“I think that something very powerful about the Zionist pathos of the country has been unleashed. We’ve seen thousands of people in the streets caring about this country,” says Gordis during a recent interview with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem. Our conversation took place a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a pause in his government’s push for a judicial overhaul.
In “Impossible Takes Longer,” Gordis attempts to answer his opening question about Israel’s success while also laying out the parameters by which to judge the accomplishments and achievements of the Jewish state 75 years after it was established.
Delving deeply into the Declaration of Independence and the intentions behind the state’s founders, Gordis seeks to determine how the country measures up to the goals it originally set out to achieve. On many of those criteria, he ranks the state as an unmitigated triumph.
“What I was trying to do was to elevate the conversation about Israel at the time of its 75th anniversary,” says Gordis. “The point was really to say, look – the point of the State of Israel was to create a new Jew. It was to reimagine what it would mean to be a Jew, it was to reimagine a Jew who was not weak, and nervous and diasporic, and never at home and not having their own language.”
And 75 years later, he says, “we have been so unbelievably successful in meeting those challenges, that it’s very hard for many of us – especially younger people – to remember what it was that we were trying to change. Because it was so overwhelmingly successful.”
While Gordis sings Israel’s praises loudly and emphatically, he also doesn’t hold back on criticism. He calls the Sabra and Shatilla massacre an “appalling moral failure,” laments that “corruption in Israel has reached staggering proportions,” and says the Jewish state “stumbled badly” in its treatment of Ethiopian immigrants and has not just “fallen short” but “failed” in dealing with African migrants. Furthermore, the Chief Rabbinate, he writes, is “anti-intellectual… untouched by modernity, misogynist, corrupt… and often morally vile.”
But its biggest failing, he writes, is the one that looms large over every conversation and headline about the Jewish state.
“The single greatest disappointment of Israel’s first seventy-five years is the fact that conflict endures,” Gordis writes. “Israel’s various wars and its enduring conflict with the Palestinians have exacted horrific costs on both sides. Israel’s controlling the lives of another people is a moral morass that has without question calloused parts of Israeli society. Waging this war, even if it is a low-grade war, invariably leads to mistakes and at times terrible misdeeds.”
In conversation, Gordis says he worked to find a balance between praising Israel for its victories and criticizing the state for where it has failed.
“I tried to make it very balanced, I didn’t want to make it a pile-on on Israel – because first of all, I don’t believe that, and second of all, it’s not the kind of book that people who buy books about Israel want to read,” he says. “But I also didn’t want to make it one of these whitewashes, because that’s also not what I believe, and nobody serious would have been engaged by it.”
And yet (spoiler alert), unsurprisingly to anyone who picks up “Impossible Takes Longer,” Gordis concludes his assessment by declaring that the State of Israel “has accomplished far more than what anyone might have dared hope for in 1948.”
The author admits that the book was never intended to be a “nail-biter,” but rather an effort to rethink and reframe the conversation about Israel’s accomplishments. What he hopes is that readers come away with “a new way of thinking about whether or not Israel is a success.”
Gordis also argues that Israel’s foundational basis as a democracy is one that is misunderstood by much of the world, and even many Israelis.
“Israel was never intended to be a liberal democracy. Israel has always been something different, commonly called an ‘ethnic democracy,’” he writes. The state cannot be easily compared to many other Western democracies because it was fundamentally established to provide its majority population with “some sort of favored cultural, political, and, at times, legal status,” while still providing equal civil and political rights to all.
Although written long before hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to vociferously demand that checks and balances on governmental power remain, Gordis argued that Israel’s democracy was one that requires vigilance to protect.
“When it comes to democracy, therefore, there is no room for Israeli complacency,” he writes. “The challenge facing Israelis is to ensure that not only does Israel not slide into autocracy but that it moves steadily forward to make its already formidable democracy ever more robust.”
Moving steadily forward, he argues, also requires an understanding of where things have been in the past. Ultimately, he writes, the State of Israel can only be declared an ongoing success story “if it and its people continue to be honest about who they have been, who they are, the terrible decisions that they have at times made, and who they and their country still need to become.”
Gordis does not support the judicial overhaul legislation. But even as its future hangs in the balance, he maintains that the pronouncement of Israel as a story of victory and triumph holds up no matter what.
“I think that the fundamental thesis of the book is unaffected by any of this, because I think that the fundamental thesis of the book is that in order to assess whether or not Israel is a success, one has to ask why Israel was created, and what its purpose is,” he says. “That is true regardless of whether you have a government that you love or a government that you hate, a government that’s acting mature or a government that’s acting insane.”
Likewise, the civil disobedience and mounting public pressure that built up to ultimately lead Netanyahu to pause the overhaul in order to allow for negotiations should be seen as its own success story, Gordis says.
“We have a lot of work to do, so we can’t go to sleep – but we can take a week or two and feel really proud about what we accomplished,” he says. “And then move on.”
And as Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary later this month, Gordis believes that the events so far of 2023 will make it all the more meaningful.
“I think we’re going to have a very, very profound Yom Haatzmaut [Independence Day],” he says. “I think to spend your 75th anniversary fully cognizant of how much keeping this thing going requires your ongoing vigilance, and how it’s not something we take for granted – I think it’s a huge gift.”
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As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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