In 1901 the cultural Zionist Israel Zangwill, borrowing a phrase from Lord Shaftesbury, declared, ‘Palestine is a country without a people, the Jews are a people without a country.’ That cliché has continued to influence the impasse in the Middle East for almost a century.

Advocates for Israel’s policies seem to relish rehearsing the notion that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In this version of history, Palestinians were offered statehood in the proposed partition of 1939, by the United Nations in 1947, in 1979 during the Egypt–Israel peace negotiations, the Oslo agreement in the 1990s, by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, and by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Accordingly, Palestinians have refused the offer to dismantle settlements, the reclamation of East Jerusalem, and sovereignty over religious sites and proposed withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank. For Palestinians, the missed opportunities are the consequence of Israel’s bad faith during a catalogue of failed negotiations.

The calculated development of Jewish settlements in the West Bank certainly makes one doubt Israel’s commitment to peace. So, too, do the checkpoints, constant military presence, and the harassment. Palestinian aspirations to self-determination have evolved from the demand for the right of return to a two-state solution with a return to pre-1967 borders. Agreement in this region is rare, but public opinion polls on the two-state solution suggest that most people support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and an end to the occupation. Anshel Pfeffer’s biography suggests that Israel’s leadership from Ben Gurion onwards has vacillated between ambivalence and hostility regarding any real progress towards peace. This is a fascinating, albeit deeply depressing account of Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarkable political long- evity (prime minister since 2009, he also held the position from 1996 to 1999). To understand his staying power, Pfeffer revisits the political leadership that preceded him to discover the themes that shaped his prime ministership.

Netanyahu’s rise to power derived largely from his father, a mediocre academic and devout follower of Jabotinsky (who hoped Israel would be an ‘iron wall of Jewish bayonets’), an education in the United States, and the death of his older brother, Yoni, in the Entebbe raid, in 1976. The Netanyahu family has been particularly adept at inserting itself into political history. Yet the father was never an influential figure in the revisionist movement, Yoni was not a military hero in Entebbe, and Bibi was not an especially talented army officer.

Netanyahu likes to imagine himself as the saviour of the Jewish people. The reality is that his policies have jeopardised the security of Israel’s citizenry, corrupted civil society as only prosecuting an occupation can do, and made Israel an international pariah.

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Netanyahu lacks the political will to make peace with the Palestinians. He plays the international community with cynical abandon, and relies on a coalition of religious extremists and right-wing bullies for electoral success. He is the master of spin both at home and abroad, he seduces a devoted American Jewish lobby, he has ‘reached out’ to Christian fanatics (fellow readers of Ayn Rand), and he has cosied up to right-wing leaders from Putin to Trump and Orbán. Last time he addressed the US congress, he received twenty-six standing ovations – to quote Jon Stewart, ‘by far the longest blowjob a Jewish man has ever received’.

Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Trump at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem on May 23 2017 (photo by  US Embassy Tel Aviv)Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Trump at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem on May 23 2017 (photo by US Embassy Tel Aviv)


At home, Netanyahu performs as the strong leader who will brook no deal with the Palestinians, while abroad he continues to feign interest in a resolution. He has toyed with a succession of worn-out American emissaries, while encouraging settlements and offering Palestinians the token of highly delimited self-rule. According to Pfeffer, he has never relinquished the conviction that the Middle East conflict is the result of implacable Arab hatred of the West and of Israel as the West’s outpost in the Middle East. The recent Nation-State Law declared Israel the nation state of the Jewish people, that only Jews have the right to self-determination, downgraded the status of Arabic, and continued support for settlements.

From all the evidence, it is hard not to conclude that Netanyahu has zero interest in resolving the conflict. He describes the Palestinian issue as a ‘rabbit hole’, while adopting the diversionary tactic of ramping up the threat Iran poses to the region and international order. Netanyahu’s enemies are the usual suspects: objective journalists, academics, policy analysts, Haaretz, and, of course, The New York Times. Like Donald Trump’s politics, his own are populist; his rhetoric appeals to the polity’s basest instincts. He fosters outsider versus insider resentment, dismisses criticism, and thinks in sound bites. Trump’s support for Israel, his relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem to insist on the city as Israel’s capital, were gifts from one marketing whiz to another.

All four of Israel’s most recent prime ministers have been investigated for corruption and bribery; Netanyahu and his wife are currently under investigation. Netanyahu has been caught with the proverbial in the trough. His wife finds largesse irresistible, bullies staff, and seems to have a touch of the Imelda Marcos. As a quid pro quo for Netanyahu’s indiscretions, his wife now vets all his appointments and has full access to his schedule.

Pfeffer argues that Netanyahu embodies Israel, a ‘hybrid society of ancient phobias and high-tech hope, a combination of tribalism and globalism’. The former prime minister, Ehud Barak, told Netanyahu ‘your behaviour is living proof that it is easier to take the Jews out of the galut [diaspora] than it is to take the galut out of the Jews’. Netanyahu’s strategy is to tolerate diplomatic entreaties while continuing to ensure that Israel does not have defined borders. Put simplistically, the problem is that Israelis want a homeland for Jewish people and Palestinians want a state of their own.

Pfeffer’s biographical challenge is to situate Netanyahu in the context of Israel’s political history, to accept the constraints of anonymous sources, and the subject’s refusal to be interviewed. He reportedly said, ‘Pfeffer doesn’t know anything about me, it will be a cartoon.’ Unfortunately, the story of Benjamin Netanyahu is anything but comedic.

My only quibble with this superb study is Pfeffer’s suggestion that Netanyahu is an intellectual. Tragically for the citizenry of Israel and Palestine, I can see no evidence of intellectual rigour and all that entails – evidence-based analysis, transparency, moral decency, and integrity. Instead, I read this brilliant biography as revealing a talent for spin, reading the Zeitgeist, blazing self-belief, raging ambition, and opportunism. How the impasse will be resolved remains unclear – in the era of the populist demagogue, I fear Bibi is not finished yet.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Louise Adler reviews 'Bibi: The turbulent life and times of Benjamin Netanyahu' by Anshel Pfeffer
  • Contents Category Commentary
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In 1901 the cultural Zionist Israel Zangwill, borrowing a phrase from Lord Shaftesbury, declared, ‘Palestine is a country without a people, the Jews are a people without a country.’ That cliché has continued to influence the impasse in the Middle East for almost a century ...

  • Book Title Bibi
  • Book Author Anshel Pfeffer
  • Book Subtitle The turbulent life and times of Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Basic Books, US$32 hb, 432 pp, 9780465097821

While there have been many histories of Israel written over the decades, Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea, published in 1959, remains a classic guide to the intellectual underpinnings of Zionism. It is now joined almost sixty years later by Michael Brenner’s excellent book, In Search of Israel: The history of an idea. Inspired by the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s establishment, the passage of time has allowed Brenner to do something different from Hertzberg in his retelling of the Zionist idea. He has written a book that uses the founding voices of Zionism to test whether their vision has been fulfilled. In this sense, In Search of Israel is a retrospective overview of Israel’s history, a kind of parlour game in which the reader gets to ask if so-and-so came back to life, would they recognise the state in its contemporary incarnation. This method of mixing vision with current reality can also be read as a counterfactual history, opening up questions about the paths not taken, or the options available in the Zionist armoury beyond military occupation. As Brenner writes of his project: ‘It is the story of the real and the imagined Israel, of Israel as a state and as an idea.’

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Mark Baker reviews 'In Search of Israel: The history of an idea' by Michael Brenner
  • Contents Category Israel
  • Custom Highlight Text

    While there have been many histories of Israel written over the decades, Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea, published in 1959, remains a classic guide to the intellectual underpinnings of Zionism. It is now joined almost sixty years later by Michael Brenner’s excellent book, In Search of Israel: The history of an idea ...

  • Book Title In Search of Israel
  • Book Author Michael Brenner
  • Book Subtitle The history of an idea
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Princeton University Press (Footprint), $49.99 hb, 392 pp, 9780691179285

In December 2015, Israel’s Ministry of Education banned Dorit Rabinyan’s prize-winning novel All the Rivers from the high school curriculum on the grounds that the story of a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man ‘threatens separate identity and promotes intermarriage’. Far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett backed the decision, claiming that the book not only encourages assimilation but also compares the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to Hamas. All the attention made the book a bestseller, but Rabinyan became a target on social media, where she was cursed and threatened. She was spat on in the street.

All the Rivers, now available in English, is a suspenseful, engaging, painful story. It chronicles the relationship in New York between Liat, a translator student from Tel Aviv, the secular capital of Israel, and Hilmi, a Hebron-born painter from Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinians. When Liat first meets Hilmi, voices are already active in her head: ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’re playing with fire ... What do you need this for?’ Liat experiences simultaneously both attraction and fear. She wants to surrender herself to Hilmi, but she is afraid of falling in love with a Palestinian.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Ilana Snyder reviews 'All The Rivers' by Dorit Rabinyan, translated by Jessica Cohen
  • Contents Category Israel
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In December 2015, Israel’s Ministry of Education banned Dorit Rabinyan’s prize-winning novel All the Rivers from the high school curriculum on the grounds that the story of a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man ‘threatens separate identity and promotes intermarriage’. Far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett backed the decision ...

  • Book Title All The Rivers
  • Book Author Dorit Rabinyan, translated by Jessica Cohen
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Serpent’s Tail, $24.99 pb, 288 pp, 9781781257647

On the final page of his biography of Yitzhak Rabin (1922–95), Itamar Rabinovich tells us that he contemplated an alternative subtitle for his book, ‘The image of his native landscape’. Because this particular life was so closely tied to a political project, it is similarly tempting to read Rabin’s biography as a story of the State of Israel, and to respond in kind: first according to your position on that State, and second according to how you evaluate Rabin’s performance against your ideal Israel. If you regard the 1948 War of Independence as an act of violent colonialism, then Rabin’s role in the Palmach (the proto-Israeli military) damns him to complicity, one that became active perpetration when he took on the task of transforming the infant Israeli Defence Force into an ironclad machine, and leading it, as chief of staff, in the 1967 Six Day War. If you regard the Oslo Accords as a betrayal of the Jewish people, on either religious or security grounds, then as the prime minister who authorised them, Rabin, as image, becomes the reckless traitor. It is a good thing that the author decided to discard this subtitle, because if one were to read the book thus, one may as well not read it at all. This is, after all, Israel we are talking about, and for almost every reader that die will already be cast.

Unless one is seduced by the ideology of self-creation, it is something of a truism that we are all shaped by our social, cultural, political, and economic contexts. What makes the story of a life intriguing are those mysterious junctures where it diverges from the foretold plot; what Hannah Arendt called the spaces between past and future, where authentic thinking and action occur, and the new comes into the world. In Rabin’s case, the new were the moves to make peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat, and the Syrians under Hafez al-Assad. I leave to the side here the myriad criticisms one might level against what Israel envisaged that peace ought to look like, and how appallingly the Palestinians have fared since Oslo. One can always ask why Rabin was not Mandela, or an unalloyed universalist. More interesting is to ask why he was Rabin; how he moved from being a hawkish general and prime minister of a state whose political identity was forged in trauma, religious nationalism, and existential threat, to, in his own words, forging the war for peace.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Danielle Celermajer reviews 'Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, leader, statesman' by Itamar Rabinovich
  • Contents Category Israel
  • Book Title Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, leader, statesman
  • Book Author Itamar Rabinovich
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Yale University Press (Footprint), $37.99 hb, 272 pp, 9780300212297

Two Jews, three opinions. Jews nod their heads in agreement when they hear those words, just as they chuckle knowingly at the story of the two Jews stranded on a desert island who build three synagogues – one for each of them and one that neither would visit on principle.

Sometimes those differences of opinion can assume an unpleasant character. Since Trouble in the Tribe was published earlier this year, Dov Waxman, a professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center, has been the target of abusive attacks and scathing criticism from right-wing American Jews. Ironically, the hostile reactions to Waxman's book only serve to demonstrate the escalating polarisation over Israel within the American Jewish community that he describes. Waxman was shocked, however, at the Manichaean world view of his critics for whom any perspective or analysis that conflicts with their own is denigrated and dismissed out of hand. Some detractors even resorted to ad hominem attacks, accusing him of being a self-hating Jew, a traitor, or simply an idiot.

In Trouble in the Tribe, Waxman argues that an historic transformation is occurring in the American Jewish relationship with Israel: the age of unconditional support for Israel is over, the pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews has eroded, and Israel has become a source of growing division and conflict. With these changes there has been a fundamental shift in American Jews' attitude toward Israel; increasing numbers are less willing to unquestioningly support Israel and more willing to publicly criticise its government. Some see this as a positive sign of a more confident community, but others as a negative phenomenon – that a divided community is bad for Israel.

Many American Jews are deeply worried about Israel's ability to remain a Jewish and democratic state if it continues to rule over Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They want Israel to stop its expansion of Jewish settlements and resume serious peace talks with the Palestinians aimed at achieving a two-state solution to the conflict, but with security for Israel guaranteed. The current Israeli government, the most right-wing in the country's history, is a cause of much consternation amongst expanding numbers of American Jews. Its policies have galvanised debate and ire at the frightening prospect of Israel becoming progressively more right-wing and isolated in the international community. These American Jews believe that dissent does not weaken Israel, and that discussing Israel's real challenges is the only way to resolve them.

Haredi Judaism in New York City 5919137600An Haredi Orthodox Jewish man in New York (photograph by Alex Proimos, Flickr)

However, Waxman maintains that American Jewish disagreement about Israel is not just a reaction to events in Israel and Palestine; it reflects broader shifts in the American Jewish community in demography and culture. Younger American Jews frequently come from intermarried families, a background that is less hospitable to the older generation's routine veneration for Israel. At university they learn to value diversity and, excluding the Orthodox, are more secular. And the more secular and cosmopolitan American Jews are, the less attached they are to Israel, more so as Israel becomes more religious and nationalistic.

Younger American Jews are also more critical of Israel because they know it better than their parents, who cling to the image of a heroic Israel which defeated the Arab states in a lightning victory in 1967. Since 1999, more than 500,000 have flown to Israel on Birthright trips paid for by wealthy American Jews and the Israeli government in the hope that American Jews would stay Jewish. But those trips have also inspired disillusionment: the young people encounter a complicated country with an occupation of Palestinian territories, periodic clashes with Gaza, and an extreme right-wing government. Paradoxically, the attempt to engage them has produced the base for left-wing groups such as J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Open Hillel, which emphasise concerns about social justice, human rights, and the environment. Although more young American Jews are engaged with Israel, they are also increasingly critical of the direction the society is taking.

What then of the power of the legendary pro-Israel lobby in the United States? Waxman suggests that it is not the monolith it is often made out to be. It is divided between left-wing, right-wing, and more centrist groups, so much so that it might be more accurate to refer to three distinct Israel lobbies rather than just one. These divisions are not new; they have been fracturing for some time. The increasing divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the Oslo peace process, have spilled into the pro-Israel lobby. Just as the wider American Jewish consensus over Israel has eroded, so has the unity of the lobby.

This means that no single group speaks on behalf of American Jews on the subject of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations continue to assume this role. Waxman claims that a majority of American Jews would welcome a more activist and assertive US policy toward the conflict, one that might help to bring about peace. But with Jewish leaders and institutions less and less able to claim that they represent Jewish opinion on Israel, it is unlikely to eventuate.

Dov Waxman 550Dov Waxman (photograph by Northeastern Humanities Center, Flickr)

The ascendancy of Orthodox Jews is another aspect of the American Jewish community that Waxman explores. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly divided by religion and politics. Given current social and demographic trends, this wide divide is expected to expand. The data show that, as a whole, American Jewry is simultaneously becoming more secular and more religious – in other words, a process of polarisation is taking place. One future scenario is that the Amer-ican Jewish community will slowly split into two. But, even more likely, writes Waxman, is that over time the community will just become more Orthodox and the reason is simple: Orthodox Jews have more children.

This potential demographic change could have major long-term political implications for American Jewry and for Israel. American Jewish politics would shift to the right as Orthodox Jews gradually come to outnumber non-Orthodox. The American Jewish community could be slowly transformed from 'a bastion of progressive social values and Jewish religious pluralism to a redoubt of ultra-Orthodoxy'. Demography isn't destiny, but it seems safe to say that the predominantly secular liberal American Jewish community of today is endangered.

In making his argument that Israel has become a divisive issue among American Jews, Waxman draws on an array of articles, books, PEW public opinion surveys of American Jews, and interviews with American Jewish leaders and activists. Some readers might not like Waxman's overuse of summaries as it makes for repetition. Some readers might think there is nothing particularly new in the book, since it relies heavily on secondary sources. However, I appreciated Waxman's scholarly exploration of two main themes: the impact of shifts in demography and culture on the American Jewish debate about Israel, and the impact of the conflict over Israel on Jewish communities, Jewish organisations, and the pro-Israel lobby.

It would be interesting to know if there is similar trouble in the tribe in Australia, but there is no comparable recent study of the Australian Jewish community. Some insights will become available when Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University's Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation publishes the findings of his second Australian Jewish Population Study, Gen16, which is a follow-up to Gen08, published in 2008.

Without doubt, Trouble in the Tribe will continue to ignite heated conversations amongst Jews in the United States and beyond. It is to be hoped these conversations will be based on the complex reality of the American Jewish community rather than one-dimensional fantasies. Let us also hope they do not degenerate into accusation and acrimony.

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Ilana Snyder reviews 'Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish conflict over Israel' by Dov Waxman
  • Contents Category Israel
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Two Jews, three opinions. Jews nod their heads in agreement when they hear those words, just as they chuckle knowingly at the story of the two Jews stranded on a desert island ...

  • Book Title Trouble in the Tribe
  • Book Author Dov Waxman
  • Book Subtitle The American Jewish conflict over Israel
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Princeton University Press (Footprint), $63 hb, 326 pp, 9780691168999