Impos­si­ble Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Cre­ation, Has Israel Ful­filled Its Founders’ Dreams?

  • Review
By – April 3, 2023

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.

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