The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Bat­tle for Its Inner Soul

  • Review
By – June 12, 2023

Who are the peo­ple liv­ing in Israel now? And what do they want?” Such are the ques­tions that Isabel Kershner’s edi­tor asked her. The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Bat­tle for Its Inner Soul is her attempt at an answer. Rem­i­nis­cent of Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel, the book presents a series of encoun­ters with Israelis from across all pos­si­ble divides — polit­i­cal, reli­gious, eth­nic, and more. Kershner’s work as a cor­re­spon­dent for the The New York Times in Jerusalem, and her pas­sion for peo­ple and their sto­ries, is evi­dent as she seeks to under­stand who peo­ple are, why they believe and act the way they do, and how those actions and beliefs come togeth­er to cre­ate and fuel mod­ern Israel’s soci­etal complexities.

Kershner’s reports are deep and expan­sive. Offer­ing beau­ti­ful depic­tions of neigh­bor­hoods and vil­lages, she draws the read­er into the lives of the every­day Israelis who com­prise the nation’s diverse land­scape. She also edu­cates us about recent events — includ­ing the con­flict sur­round­ing the Tem­ple Mount in May 2021, and the hor­rif­ic Lag B’Omer crowd rush just a month pri­or, which left forty-five 45 Hasidim dead — and how they affect­ed the peo­ple she met.

In gen­er­al, Ker­sh­n­er paints sym­pa­thet­ic pic­tures of the peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties she pro­files. Most com­mu­ni­ties in Israel first arrived after hav­ing escaped some form of trau­ma — exile, anti­semitism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, geno­cide — and, for many of those com­mu­ni­ties, the trau­ma has become inter­gen­er­a­tional. Just as many Holo­caust sur­vivors were ini­tial­ly reluc­tant to share their sto­ries, so too did Pales­tini­ans who sur­vived the Nak­ba hide theirs, only decades lat­er telling younger gen­er­a­tions so that their for­mer lives, fam­i­lies, and homes would not be for­got­ten. Ker­sh­n­er describes the pain expe­ri­enced by 1990s Russ­ian immi­grants, par­tic­u­lar­ly immi­grant chil­dren, who often met hos­til­i­ty and ridicule from their Israeli-born peers. They lat­er found them­selves Jew­ish enough for the State but not enough for the Ortho­dox rab­binate that ques­tioned their lin­eage — just as the 2018 Nation-State Bill dealt a blow to the Arab Israeli psy­che” — affirm­ing that they would nev­er be ful­ly wel­come in Israel, the unique home to the Jew­ish Peo­ple.” The pri­ma­ry excep­tion to Kershner’s gen­er­al­ly sym­pa­thet­ic por­tray­als con­cerns the Hared­im. Although she avoids any overt con­dem­na­tion, her descrip­tions sug­gest frus­tra­tion with their lack of army con­scrip­tion, their reliance on gov­ern­ment sup­port, and their response, or lack there­of, to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Land of Hope and Fear reads as a series of most­ly par­al­lel jour­nal­is­tic por­traits. The sub­jects’ lives rarely inter­sect, and, for the most part, Ker­sh­n­er doesn’t draw com­par­isons or offer inter-por­trait analy­sis. Each per­son, each com­mu­ni­ty, stands alone: the Ethiopi­an refugees fac­ing racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, the high-tech busi­ness­men from Tel Aviv care­ful­ly explor­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties with new part­ners in Dubai, and the descen­dants of Labor Zion­ist kib­butzniks reimag­in­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the desert in a chang­ing econ­o­my and grow­ing coral in the Ara­va to be used for bone grafts. It is a glimpse behind the analy­sis so often pro­vid­ed by oth­ers. Addi­tion­al­ly, with min­i­mal notes, the read­er is left to rely sole­ly on Kershner’s accounts of the peo­ple she met and the sto­ries, his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary, she describes. In that way, it is an engag­ing and descrip­tive nar­ra­tive of a nation and a peo­ple, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly a resource for future research. 

Yis­ra-el” means one who wres­tles with God.” Ker­sh­n­er depicts a nation made up of peo­ples each wrestling with their own sto­ries along­side each other’s expe­ri­ences, trau­mas, and dreams. As Israel cel­e­brates its sev­en­ty-fifth birth­day, hav­ing wit­nessed five elec­tions in three years, Ker­sh­n­er con­cludes that as the dra­ma plays out, the actors are stay­ing put.” The peo­ple Ker­sh­n­er met either have nowhere else to go or can’t imag­ine them­selves any­where else. They are in Israel to stay; they are intrin­sic ele­ments of the land­scape.” The future of Israel, then, will depend on a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the diver­si­ty of its peo­ple and how their desires inter­sect and diverge. Per­haps these por­traits can serve as a guide to that end, so that — as Ker­sh­n­er hopes — Israel will con­tin­ue to adapt, and ulti­mate­ly, endure.

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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