Author interview

‘Times’ reporter goes inside Israel’s identity crisis, 75 years in the making

Isabel Kershner, in a new book chronicling Israel's many divisions, crisscrosses the country in search of who the Israeli people are today

Rina Castelnuovo/ Penguin Random House

New York Times reporter Isabel Kershner and her new book 'The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul.'

In a new book examining “the new Israel,” New York Times reporter Isabel Kershner investigates the myriad ways Israel has changed since its founding 75 years ago — a change, she argues, that is no more apparent than when she visits the dairy aisle at the grocery store.

Kershner first lived in Israel more than 30 years ago as a gap-year student learning Hebrew at a kibbutz near Zichron Yaakov, when the socialist ethos of the kibbutz movement was still strong and the high-tech “Startup Nation” was in its infancy.   

“You could basically get two kinds of cheese in the local store: yellow cheese or white cheese,” Kershner, laughing, told Jewish Insider in an interview on Tuesday. “Now you can get, you know, Israeli Camembert and sheep…whatever. It’s just become so much more of a sophisticated country on so many levels, and much more multicultural and fast.” 

But at the same time that Israel has become an economic powerhouse and a Zionist success story, divisions that were present at the time of the country’s founding have morphed and become even more deeply entrenched. It is this identity crisis — what she views as a core contradiction at the heart of modern Israel — that Kershner seeks to describe and unpack in The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul

“There are problems that have festered for decades and not been dealt with, and they’re just becoming more acute. But at the same time, there’s a vitality here,” said Kershner, who has been at the Times since 2007. “You look at the demography, and these competing visions of what the country should be, and yet at the same time, there’s passion on all sides. I think we’ve seen that from the last few weeks and months with the mass protests on both sides of the political map, peaceful protests of equally passionate people on either side, both carrying the Israeli flag.” 

Her book was not sparked by the myriad political crises that Israel has faced in recent years: the controversial judicial reform package being promoted by Israel’s right-wing government, the corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the continued reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, she set out to answer one key question: Who are the Israelis today? 

There’s no single answer, Kershner writes. There never was.

She points, for instance, to the 1948 Altalena affair, when the new Israel Defense Forces sank a cargo ship captained by the Irgun, a rival right-wing paramilitary. Three IDF soldiers and 16 Irgun fighters were killed. Kershner looks at the long-simmering resentment harbored by many Mizrahi Jews toward the country’s historically Ashkenazi leadership, accused of looking down on the hundreds of thousands of Jews who came from Arab countries. And she reports on the Arab citizens of Israel, many of whom have found economic success in Israel but still feel a sense of cognitive dissonance and a lack of belonging.

Still, Kershner argues, there is something different about the internal divisions roiling Israeli society today. 

“When you look at the historical divisions, all the different camps at the end of the day did have one common vision or one common purpose that they shared,” she said. “The bottom line was to establish the state, to build the state, to have the state survive.” 

Now, anyone involved in the project of creating the Jewish state has seen that dream realized.

“It’s a prosperous, mighty country. Yes, it has its social and political problems. But at a macro level, it’s miraculous, as many people would say,” Kershner explained weeks after the country celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding. “Now these divisions are over the future character of the place. What kind of a country will this be? If it survives, how will it survive? There is really no common vision for that anymore.”

Like the people she profiles in her book — ranging from a disaffected kibbutznik-turned-tech-entrepreneur to a hilltop settler operating an Airbnb in the hills of the West Bank, to working-class Mizrahim protesting for access to a popular recreation area in a kibbutz — Kershner is in Israel for a reason. It’s more than just a place to live. And her life in Jerusalem has its own contradictions, too.

“I for some unknown reason was very obsessed with the Arab-Israeli conflict from an early age,” said Kershner, who grew up in a Jewish family in Manchester, England. “My dream was to be a foreign correspondent in Israel. So in a way, it worked out and I’m living my dream. But I came not for a job. I came because I was so somehow intrinsically fascinated by this place.” 

Kershner has lived in Israel for more than three decades now, and her family is distinctly Israeli. Her sons served in the IDF. As a result, she has to navigate the complicated task of covering her home country objectively as a reporter for a foreign outlet, which makes her both an “insider looking out” and an “outsider looking in,” she said. 

“I am a stakeholder. I’ve brought up a family here. This is my home. And yet, I’m working for the foreign press,” Kershner observed. But the task of observing and chronicling current events in Israel for her is no different, she argues, from American reporters covering American politics: “You just apply the rules, and you’re trying to be fair in your coverage, and you’re not writing with an agenda. If you did, you wouldn’t last very long in the profession.” 

Reporting on one of the most complicated and scrutinized beats in the world comes with certain challenges. Eagle-eyed advocates read any Times coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ready to find mistakes or missing context or misinformation. 

“You get it from all sides,” Kershner noted. “You get called a self-hating Jew. You get criticized for having had a son or two in the army. Whatever you do, there will be people who are not happy with it.”

In February, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan sent a letter to the Times’ executive editor lambasting what he described as the paper’s “overt anti-Israel bias.” When the op-ed editor Bari Weiss, who wrote often about Israel and Jewish issues, left the paper in 2020, she described “constant bullying” by Times employees who disagreed with her positions. “They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again,’” she wrote in a resignation letter

Kershner noted that, as a reporter, she did not cross paths with Weiss, who worked on the opinion desk.

“I don’t know if she’s right or wrong,” said Kershner, who added that she has not felt any changes at the paper in terms of its political identity or the political beliefs of younger staffers. “In my international department, we just work professionally, and in my little satellite bubble here of the Jerusalem bureau, I haven’t felt any change in approach at all on the reportage side of the paper.” 

“I am not feeling any change at all in the 16 years I’ve been at the Times,” she added, “in terms of how I’m supposed to be doing my job.” 

The criticism of the paper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also pretty much the same it’s always been, Kershner argues. What’s changed is how it reaches reporters — through social media and viral posts that can quickly make it to a reporter’s inbox.

“The tenor of the criticism or scrutiny hasn’t really changed,” said Kershner. “When I started out in journalism, I think email was just beginning. So yeah, I mean, social networks, social media has made it all the more toxic in a way and it gets directly to you and in your inbox, and people start campaigns and it ricochets.” 

This is not to say she tunes it out completely. 

“I take on board legitimate criticism. And some people do make very valid points,” noted Kershner. “At the same time, I try and block out the noise, because I’m not going to ever satisfy the advocates on either side. People that would want you to write according to one narrative or the other, and satisfy one agenda or another, they’re never going to be satisfied, and it wouldn’t be my job to satisfy them.” 

Despite the complexity and the noise and the challenges of this moment, Kershner feels hopeful about where Israel is headed. 

“It can be a frightening picture and a gloomy picture if things remain on the trajectory they are on. But on the other hand, I came away from my work on this book, which really did involve crisscrossing the country and delving into so many different communities here, with a great faith in the people,” she said. “They’re not turning their back on it.”

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