Is Israel a success? This is a common question in Jewish and Israeli circles. The answers vary, but so do the metrics. Do we measure Israel’s success by what we believe Theodor Herzl envisioned, or Ahad Ha’am, David Ben Gurion, or Menachem Begin? By the haredim, or the secular left in Tel Aviv, or the Diaspora Jew looking from afar? In Impossible Takes Longer, distinguished writer Daniel Gordis seeks to answer this elusive question through the lens of Israel’s Declaration of Independence — a compilation of its founders’ dreams. In the absence of a constitution, the Declaration serves as a guide for a state still somewhat in the making. Through this unique approach, Gordis aims to judge Israel against the goals it set for itself, not against the range of outside opinions. In that way, Impossible Takes Longer is as much a commentary on the state of Israel today as it is a lesson on the historical and evolution of the state, in all its facets, as each era of citizens and leaders struggles to uphold its founders’ ideals in changing times.
Impossible Takes Longer is comprehensive in both breadth and depth, a reflection of the expansive vision of Israel’s founders. Gordis explores ideas about security and the role of the Israeli military, the Jewish nature of the state, the relationship between Israel and Palestinians and neighboring Arab states, the nature of Israel as both a democracy and a theocracy, the roles and rights of minority communities within Israel, the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and the nature of Israeli Judaism. Organized thematically around each section of the Declaration, the book covers different segments of Israel’s past, but often without a focus on chronology. In that way, the book might be best suited to a reader with some foundational historical knowledge; but Gordis’s clear explanations of characters and events ensure that the text remains accessible to those who aren’t as familiar with Israel’s particulars.
The last section — on the subject of Israel as a humanitarian state — is the only one to deviate from Gordis’s overarching approach. While such goals were mentioned during the founding of the Knesset, humanitarian aims weren’t in the Declaration of Independence itself. Perhaps that is in part why the section feels somewhat misplaced, as if it belongs more in Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer or Israel by Noa Tishby. (Both books intend to uplift Israel’s great achievements beyond the founders’ dreams, and to emphasize its role as a light unto the nations.)
While certainly there are ways in which Israel has not achieved the goals of its founders — most notably with regard to the relationship between Israel and Palestinians — Gordis argues that, for the most part, Israel has been a great success. He notes that whereas most revolutionary movements have failed, Zionism has not. Seventy-five years after the Declaration of Independence, and well over one hundred years after the beginnings of modern Zionist philosophy, Israel remains an independent democratic Jewish state, at peace with most of its neighbors, and at the center of the global Jewish world. This is perhaps beyond what Herzl had dreamed.
While Gordis acknowledges that not all will see Israel as such a success, he is quick to dismiss these critiques, particularly where they pertain to challenges of pluralism and equality among ethnic and racial communities in Israel (which are based on a different conception of history than the one imagined by Zionist founders). He is also quite critical of the haredim and the role of rabbinic courts.
The conclusion is perhaps overly rosy in its depiction of Israel. This is especially true when Gordis discusses Palestinians. He notes that “Palestinians deserve better lives than they have,” but then argues it is Palestinian leadership that is hindering the path to a brighter future — all while encouraging Israelis to continue and expand their important work of “shrinking the conflict,” yet making no mention of Israeli policies in Gaza or the West Bank. While the majority of the book feels balanced, Impossible Takes Longer is, ultimately, a book in support of the State of Israel, flaws and all, one that’s designed to showcase the positive and downplay the negative.
Nevertheless, Gordis’s book is an insightful read and a valued addition to the field, interweaving historical and contemporary visions in a fresh and thoughtful way. Readers will likely walk away more informed, and more reflective, about Israel as a complex dream and reality.
Joy Getnick, PhD, is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning Beyond Borders: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, has taught history at area colleges, and previously worked in the JCC world and as the director of a teen Israel travel summer program.