The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for its Inner Soul
by Isabel Kershner, published by Scribe 2023, pp.370
Some view the Israel of 2023 through rose-coloured glasses — often as a reaction to campaigns against the state from those who wish that a Hebrew republic had never been established in the first place. This excellent book by Manchester-born Isabel Kershner, Israel-based correspondent for the New York Times, paints a realistic, nuanced picture, exploring the Jewish state’s spirit of innovation, its identity politics, its culture wars, its inability to agree a border with the Palestinians. In Kershner’s words: ‘Israel has largely learned to live with its outside enemies but seemed less adept at managing itself.’
She explores the soul of contemporary Israel in a way that recalls David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind, published in 1987. Each chapter focuses on a specific constituent of society — Russians, Ethiopians, Haredim, Mizrahim, the IDF — telling their story through their tribulations and triumphs. In many cases, this is a story of the transition from immigrant to Israeli citizen.
The book also examines how the socialist collectivism of the state’s founders has given way to ‘a society that is more competitive, individualistic and controlled by market forces’. There are now, for example, more Thai workers than Israelis in the Arava who manage the fish farms and the production of medicinal cannabis.
Israel’s citizens’ army, a founding precept of the state, is also now being questioned. Given that half the country’s first graders are being educated within the Arab and haredi school systems, the idea of a paid, professional IDF has become a serious consideration.
Quoting one of Haim Gouri’s classic poems, ‘I am a Civil War’, Kershner writes at the widening chasm between the warring tribes within Israel, a gulf that often be reduced to ‘Only Bibi’ or ‘Anyone but Bibi’. As she points out, even some old-time Likudniks and disciples of Jabotinsky, bemoan the direction which Netanyahu has taken.
The Mizrahim who felt discriminated against by the Labour establishment for decades, have made big strides in society. By way of example, she cites three particular Jews of Mizrahi descent: Eyal Golan who in 2012, was the third wealthiest person in Israel, the feted poet and founderof the cultural group, Ars Poetica, Adi Keissar and the Israeli rock musician and record producer, Dudu Tassa. The book also charts the trajectory of Mizrahi politicians on the Right and how they have raised the spectre of ‘an Ashkenazi deep state…that was using the judiciary and mainstream media to persecute and bring down the prime minister’.
Kershner also reminds us that 40% of the students at Haifa University are Arabs and that Haifa citizen, Ayman Odeh, convinced the various Arab parties to form a Joint List which went on to win 15 seats in the September 2020 election.
The citizens of Bnei Brak are vividly described including the haredi paparazzi (who knew?) who seek out prominent rabbis in unexpected moments, capturing them eating ‘a steaming bowl of cholent’. And Kershner discusses Lo Tishtok (You shall not be silent), a grassroots organisation driving awareness of sexual abuse in the haredi community.
Israel has also had its version of a Black Lives Matter moment. When 18 year-old Solomon Tekah was killed by an off-duty policeman, Ethiopian-Israelis and their allies demonstrated in Haifa, blocking a junction near where the officer was stationed.
Kershner’s comprehensive, accessible book should be compulsory reading before any trip to Israel.
Jewish Chronicle 4 August 2023