By Steve Wisch
Book Review: “Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?” by Daniel Gordis (Ecco, 384 pages)
Recent news from Israel and the Middle East reports a series of existential crises for Israel, now 75 years old, that have shaken both the Jewish homeland and the Diaspora.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed legislation to subordinate the authority of the nation’s Supreme Court to being overruled by the Knesset, the 120-member parliament, triggered tens of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets to protest the so-called reform measures. Opponents, including vast numbers of Jews in the Diaspora, worry that Israel’s complex democracy is unlikely to survive if the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court may be overruled by the Knesset.
Israel also now confronts very serious national security challenges. Saudi Arabia has recently restored full diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria, two Arab nations that have pledged to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. Historically, Iran has had a keen interest in developing full-scale strategic nuclear arms. The Business Insider news platform has pegged Saudi investment capacity to at least $34 trillion. The Saudis’ vast wealth in support of Iran’s pledge to decimate Israel severely impacts the balance of power in the Middle East.
Curiously, in recent years, Israel has been engaged in joint business deals and sharing intelligence data. In June, The Economist magazine reported that Saudi and Israeli leaders have discussed normalizing diplomatic relations.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has repeatedly threatened Israel with obliteration. “The enemies, especially the Zionist regime, have received this message that the smallest action against Iran will result in a response from the armed forces and will lead to the destruction of Haifa and Tel Aviv,” Raisi said in April. “The sooner they (Israel) leave, the better it will be for the people of the region.”
And, so far, the unresolved resolution of Israel’s Palestinian occupants regularly erupts into bloody confrontations in the West Bank and Gaza and threatens Israel’s future.
Such a litany of festering problems may appear insuperable. But — as Daniel Gordis elegantly writes in “Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled its Founders’ Dreams?” — in many ways the story of the modern Jewish state is a saga of practical miracles.
At the end of World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust shocked the civilized world. It is daunting to comprehend that in 1946, as Gordis explains, the Yishuv (Jews living in British-governed Palestine) numbered approximately 600,000.
Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian-Jewish journalist, convened the first Zionist convention in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1897. Herzl had reported on the Dreyfus affair, in which French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted on trumped-up charges of treason that flowed from antisemites in the French military in the 1890s. Herzl became convinced that only establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine could assure the survival of the Jewish people.
Gordis eloquently traces the principles that embody Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These include a secure, democratic Jewish homeland, religious freedom for all faiths and, in spirit, a renaissance of the essence of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. Israel’s founders envisioned a nation of new Jews, committed to reviving the country’s fallow soil; establishment of a modern and mighty military; and revival of the Hebrew language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a brilliant linguist who successfully dedicated his life to transforming Hebrew from an ancient tongue to a fully modern language spoken today by millions throughout the world.
Israel’s founders were not whimsical idealists. They firmly believed that through a commitment to honest toil in all endeavors, a new nation could embrace the entire Jewish people. Before Hitler’s rise to power, more than 9 million Jews lived in Europe. The Final Solution liquidated more than 6 million of them. Hundreds of thousands of Jews survived, most penniless, and saw no future life in Europe. Thus, from the ashes of the Holocaust, a modern Jewish state emerged.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a man of enormous intellect and vision. The British governed Palestine from the end of World War I until Israel declared its independence in 1948.
The Balfour Declaration formalized Britain’s commitment to establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. But realization of that pledge was ratified by a contentious vote on Nov. 29, 1947, when the U.N. adopted Resolution 181 establishing both Jewish and Arab states in Palestine.
For so many of us stymied by today’s seemingly endless news reports of crises in Israel, it is worth remembering that the odds of Israel’s surviving, thriving and flourishing were at best low. Gordis relates the victory of a ragtag military force of Jews in Israel’s War for Independence of 1948. Besides Arabs in the new state, Israel was attacked by forces from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan. Against all odds, the fledgling state prevailed.
Gordis also underscores the importance of Israel’s panoply of razor-sharp political leaders. In addition to Ben-Gurion, early Israel was led by highly-skilled pragmatists: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Israel’s victories in the Suez campaign of 1956, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War are all evidence that Israel’s founders’ dream of a modern-day military protecting the Jewish people has succeeded beyond their deepest dreams.
Today’s estimates are that Israel’s population exceeds 9.7 million, including about 7 million of Jewish heritage. Modern Israel is a world leader in technology, medicine and engineering. As we contemplate Israel’s crises that abound, it is worth remembering that today’s Israel, though troubled, is a modern-day miracle.
Gordis has provided a brilliant and elegant account of Israel’s successes and challenges against great odds.