Book Review: Impossible Takes Longer
“The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” Daniel Gordis takes the title of his new book, “Impossible Takes Longer,” from a saying popularized in Israel by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion (the saying predates Ben-Gurion but accurately characterized the spirit of Israel’s founders).
Gordis’s book is an examination of whether, 75 years after its founding, Israel has fulfilled its founders’ dreams. The modern State of Israel hardly seemed possible 50 years before it declared independence, and its achievements since then are rightly deserving of celebration even if Israel remains, like every country, imperfect.
We should read to learn rather than to confirm our biases. Considering differences of opinion based on shared facts is how we grow. But how do we know whether the facts upon which an author bases their opinions are true if we are learning them for the first time in their book? One rule of thumb is to consider statements presented by the author on subjects we are already familiar with. If the author gets those wrong then we can’t be sure that anything else the author says is true and the book becomes less valuable.
Gordis’s idea of using paragraphs from Israel’s Declaration of Independence to see whether today’s Israel has fulfilled its founders’ dreams is a good concept that would have benefited from an examination of truths about Israel that do not necessarily fit the author’s view of what Israel should be and from better fact-checking.
This book is written in the style of an objective, sometimes-both-sides-have-a-point treatment of an emotional subject that might make some readers feel that they are getting a true accounting of Israel’s past and present. But it dodges too many issues and contains too many inaccuracies. It instead serves as an example of the type of thinking responsible for the morass in which Israel finds itself at 75 despite Israel’s considerable, sometimes miraculous, achievements.
Throughout the book, Gordis reproduces long poems and lengthy passages from major writers, all of whom deserve the space he gives them. Yet when he cites Moshe Dayan’s eulogy for Roi Rotberg, murdered by Arab terrorists in 1956 (which Gordis notes is a “brief eulogy” at a “mere 238 words,” akin to the Gettysburg Address), Gordis reproduces only part of one version of the eulogy: the part about how Jews must remain vigilant against losing their land, “ready and armed, strong and moveable–or else the sword will fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”
But Gordis does not mention that there are several widely cited versions of the eulogy. The language Gordis chose not to include speaks volumes about the book’s point of view. This is some of what Gordis omitted: “Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt. Not from the Arabs of Gaza must we demand the blood of Roi, but from ourselves.” That’s from not some teary-eyed lefty or some American who doesn’t understand the nature of the conflict. That’s from Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s great military heroes, and it’s from a version cited by, among others, former Israeli Defense Minister and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers.
Dayan saw and had the courage to say what too many refuse to acknowledge: The rebirth of Israel, a miracle for Jews, was a catastrophe for many Palestinians, many of whom were in the land before today’s Israelis. Not including this language obscures the complexity and ambivalence of what makes the eulogy so powerful. At the risk of your clicking away and not returning, I strongly encourage you to read the entire eulogy. It won’t take long (it’s short–Gordis was right about that) and it’s more important than anything in this review or in Gordis’s book.
Aluf Benn, who also compared Dayan’s brief speech to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, wrote an analysis in 2011 that perhaps explains Gordis’s omissions: “Today, Dayan would be accused of post-Zionism, of sympathizing with terror, of violating the ‘Nakba Law.’” That’s exactly the point, and readers unfamiliar with the eulogy would have no idea that Gordis missed the point.
Gordis discusses the challenges to achieving a two-state solution but does not discuss what Israel will become if it does not achieve a two-state solution. Suddenly the impossible won’t take just a little longer. It is far out of reach and must be dismissed as unrealistic.
“Galut” is the Hebrew word for diaspora (exile). Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote in his memoir that the refusal of Netanyahu’s government to take risks to disentangle Israel from Palestinians on the West Bank is “living proof of the old saying that it’s easier to take Jews out of the galut, than take the galut out of the Jews.” Barak explains that “the whole Zionist project was based on the idea of taking our fate into our own hands, and actively trying to change the reality around us.” Yet for all his praise of what Israel has achieved against all odds, Gordis refuses to credit today’s Zionists with the capacity and the will to do what is necessary to preserve Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. Whether that is a failing of the author or of modern Zionism is for the reader to decide.
Ami Ayalon, Gilead Sher, and Orni Petruschka wrote in July 2022 that “there is currently no political feasibility for a two-state solution,” but instead of “blindly walking down the road of a one-state reality” by ignoring settlement expansion and settler violence, Israel should “preserve the chances and conditions for future Israeli-Palestinian disengagement and creation two distinct nation-states with a border between them.” Shaul Arieli explained in 2020 that the so-called impossibility of a two-state solution “stems from the lack of political feasibility, especially on the Israeli side.”
You won’t find those opinions discussed in Gordis’s book. He talks about the status of Israel’s democracy within the 1967 borders but he does not address the unsustainability of an occupation under which Arabs who live in the West Bank do not have the same legal rights as Jews who live in the West Bank or as Jews and Arabs who live in pre-1967 Israel (although he does acknowledge the problem). Unequal rights are understandable in the context of a temporary military occupation caused by Jordan’s attack on Israel. But Israel cannot remain Jewish and democratic and in permanent control of the West Bank indefinitely; it can only have any two of the three, which means that the only way to realize the classic Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state is to cede the West Bank, not “shrink the conflict.”
Gordis claims that some American Jews view the Israel-Palestinian conflict “through an American lens of the powerful versus the powerless” and believe that “the powerful country (Israel in this case) has the moral obligation to settle it.” Even putting aside that Israel is, in fact, the powerful party and thus does have certain obligations that come with power, the burden is on Israel to get to a two-state solution not because Israel is more at fault or has more power but because Israel, for its own sake, for the sake of remaining Jewish and democratic, needs a two-state solution. Failure to achieve a two-state solution is an existential threat (one of several) to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state. For a book titled “Impossible Takes Longer” not to take up this challenge is the epitome of unintended irony.
Gordis believes that the standard to which Israel should hold itself is that of an ethnic democracy, not a liberal democracy, and that Israel should make that distinction clear. In an “ethnic democracy,” according to Gordis, “all citizens have equal claims on civil and political rights, but the majority group (Jews in Israel’s case) have some sort of favored cultural, political, and at times, legal status.” He says this approvingly.
Gordis does not provide examples of other countries that are ethnic democracies, nor does he square his vision of ethnic democracy with the language of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which he cites throughout his book and in that chapter on democracy: “The State of Israel…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Instead, he points to the absence of the word “democracy” itself in the Declaration, as if that is a defense. Gordis is essentially trying to wave away the problem by redefining it, perhaps hoping that if Israel was upfront about being an ethnic democracy the world would then say “Oh, an ethnic democracy. Now I get it. Nothing to see here.”
To his credit, Gordis explains the disproportionate scrutiny Israel receives without mentioning antisemitism (which he spells as “anti-Semitism”). According to Gordis, in addition to being a country with a stated purpose (most countries do not have purposes), “Israel mesmerizes the world because it is an almost magical story” and “Israel mesmerizes because it is one of the greatest stories of resilience, of rebirth, and of triumph in human history.” It wasn’t long ago that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) apologized for saying that Israel “hypnotized” the world, but Gordis’s use of that trope is meant as a compliment. Gordis also correctly defines “pogrom” as “government-incited violence” without narrowing its definition to violence against Jews.
One would think that a thoughtful examination of Israel at 75 would not be the place to grind axes against the Obama administration, but Gordis thinks otherwise. Gordis does not mention most American presidents or secretaries of state at all. Early in the book comes this head-scratcher: “Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979; Jordan followed in 1994. The UAE and Bahrain followed in 2020, and then came Morocco and Sudan.” Egypt and Jordan did sign peace treaties with Israel. But the other countries Gordis mentions are more than a thousand miles from Israel and did not “follow” with peace treaties. Rather, they signed economic normalization agreements sweetened by arms deals.
Later in the book we see why Gordis seeks to conflate peace treaties with the Abraham Accords. He couldn’t resist quoting former Secretary of State John Kerry at greater length than he quoted Moshe Dayan’s eulogy of Roi Rotberg to claim that the “Abraham Accords proved, of course” that Kerry was wrong when he said in 2016 that there could be no separate peace with “the Arab world” without peace with the Palestinians.
Gordis quoted from one minute of a 75-minute speech in which Kerry said “if Israel goes down the one state path, it will never have true peace with the rest of the Arab world, and I can say that with certainty. The Arab countries have made clear that they will not make peace with Israel without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Four Arab states not at war with Israel have normalized relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords.
The Arab world comprises 22 countries, not four. Circumstances have changed in the years since Kerry gave that speech. Kerry’s critics did not question him at the time for these statements, and if the Arab world does make peace with Israel without a two-state solution, we would do well to remember what John Maynard Keynes said when he was called out for changing his mind: “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” But that hasn’t happened.
More important, Kerry can only be wrong if Israel has gone “down the one-state path,” and if that’s what Gordis thinks Israel has done, then his book could have been a page long–the answer would be no, Israel has not fulfilled its founders’ dreams. Kerry’s speech is too long to watch, but you should read it. He’s still right about everything else, and the part Gordis unfairly lambasts him on is a peripheral point. His main point was that Israel needs a two-state solution for its own sake. The points he made are the points that Commanders for Israel’s Security repeatedly make to this very day.
Michael Koplow wrote on April 20 that “the Palestinian issue still matters to everyone, even if the degree varies depending on where you look…thus you have Mohammed bin Salman, who Israeli officials and some Americans too insisted could not care less about what happens with the Palestinians, hosting Mahmoud Abbas in Saudi Arabia this week while a Hamas delegation just happens to be there too for the first time in half a decade.” Neither Gordis nor Israel’s government can wish the Palestinian issue away, try as they might.
Gordis discusses the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s concerns about Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons but never mentions that the Iran Deal negotiated by President Obama permanently and verifiably removed the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons and that President Trump, egged on by Prime Minister Netanyahu, left the deal while Iran was still in compliance, which led to Iran now being only weeks, if not closer, to breakout. Gordis doesn’t mention the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at all except in connection with a statement by Iran about its intention to destroy Israel in 2021 when the US and Iran were negotiating about returning to the deal.
Gordis repeats the canard that “during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, even as the United States withheld Hellfire missiles that Israel desperately needed…” In fact, Israel already had Hellfire missiles and there was no evidence that any delay in delivering additional Hellfires would harm Israel’s security. The proof that they were not “desperately needed” is that two weeks went by with no negative effects on Israel’s military capabilities. Gordis criticized the cease-fire agreement Kerry drafted, but fails to note, as Barak Raviv reported in 2014, that “when reading the thin Egyptian document to which Benjamin Netanyahu [eventually] agreed, John Kerry’s draft – which was rejected by the cabinet with a disdain that bordered on humiliation of the secretary of state – suddenly looks like the proposal of the year.”
Israel at 75 deserves a book that celebrates its achievements and that accurately describes its challenges and shortcomings, a book that commemorates the real Israel at 75. That’s not impossible but it will take a little longer.
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