Veteran New York Times Israel correspondent Kershner illuminates the serious domestic issues dividing that country in The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel's Battle for Its Inner Soul, which was published by Knopf May 16.
There have been a lot of books written about Israel; what were you trying to do that was different?
Jonathan Segal, the vice president of Knopf, was looking for somebody to answer his question, “Who are the Israelis today?” I said that that was exactly the book I’d been wanting to write – to take a journey through Israeli society through its people. But as I was working on this book, it also struck me that while a lot of people have written about Bibi Netanyahu, the longest-serving Prime Minister, there hasn’t been so much about the Israel he’s shaped as its leader.
To what extent are the fissures that you write about long-simmering ones?
These fissures have been boiling for a long time. In Chapter Two, I go back to the pre-state underground militias, and the competition between them. There have always been serious divisions here, but I think several things have changed. One is the demographic balance - some of what were marginal populations are now becoming major parts of the population just because of the varying birth rates. The settlement project has reached what some might see as a kind of critical mass, which makes it impossible to disentangle in many ways now. I think that you also have much bigger trends all over the world where identity politics come into play, and certainly that is something that Netanyahu has played on greatly.
You would think with generational change in Israel, and the original melting pot concept of Ben-Gurion, now that we're 75 years in, and you have these Israeli-born generations, that these fissures would be fading a bit. But in fact, the opposite seems to be happening. You have this divide between those who put Israel before the Jewish state component, and the other side, who want to see a more Jewish country, and a less liberal one, in terms of Western values. So, all these divisions just seem to be becoming sharper, rather than fading.
You’ve lived in Israel for decades; what stands out for you as something you learned researching this book?
I came across sections of the newer Israel that I didn't really know about before. In particular, the so-called Generation 1.5 of Russian-speaking Israelis. We had this million-strong immigration in the 1990s, mostly from the former Soviet Union. And the families who came with children, those children didn't have a choice. They might have been perfectly happy in St. Petersburg, or Ukraine, wherever they were at the time. They found themselves in a country which was not entirely welcoming. I mean, at the state official level, yes, everybody was very happy for the mass immigration. But down at the street level, it wasn't always a welcoming place. And these were children, who were in Russian-speaking households, and going to school in Hebrew, and being mocked and laughed at because of their kind of Soviet-era clothing, habits, and discipline. Now, they are young adults, and they've become very active and very vocal in trying to make some space for Russian culture here, and to have some kind of recognition of where they've come from, and what they brought with them, and what their parents brought with them. And they're very inspiring. These are the younger forces that are also helping to shape the new Israel.
Is Israeli democracy being eroded by the judicial reforms and other legislation that the Netanyahu government is proposing?
First of all, I do want to say that everybody here, on either side of this divide, they all think they're fighting for Israeli democracy, they just have a very different view of what that democracy should look like. And, when an increasing proportion of the people here are ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionists, etc., in their view, having their voice heard and having influence, that's democracy. So, it really is a kind of struggle over what kind of democracy you're talking about - whether it's a more Jewish one, or a more liberal universal one. What happens if it becomes the more Jewish and less liberal universal one? What does that mean more broadly? For thousands of years, it was the Jewish hope to be a free people in their land. And if people here do not feel free, if they feel they're living under some kind of coercion - people are now using the term dictatorship, people are talking about civil war? Then it really is the end of that Zionist dream - and then what?