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On the Bookshelf

Israel: personal and political

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Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation

Another fall, another round of peace talks, another stack of books promising enlightenment and delivering ideological reinforcements on the subject of Israel. Discussing governments, policies, and diplomacy can get a little grim these days, so some writers approach the conflict from a personal angle to strike a lighter tone. While he served as NBC’s Tel Aviv bureau chief for years—long enough for the folks at CAMERA both to praise him for reporting on Palestinian hate-mongering, and to pillory him for daring to describe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as a problem—Martin Fletcher, for example, calls his new book Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation (Thomas Dunne, September). He records his promenade down the country’s Mediterranean coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, which seems rather like a walk in the park compared to other trips Fletcher has taken—including, as he has described it to Jon Stewart, a three-week stroll across the Hindu Kush mountains with the Mujahideen back in the summer of 1980.

How to Make Peace in the Middle East in 6 Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment

Gregory Levey, meanwhile, admits at the outset of his second book on Israel that it turned out to be more personal than he expected: “Even if I intended to take a bird’s-eye look at the Middle East situation,” he writes, “I have inevitably approached it from the point of view of someone who is North American, who is of my generation”—Levey’s a Canadian in his thirties—“who is secular, and who is Jewish.” And who, it should be said, has a rather enviable, if accidental, following on Facebook; his debut, Shut Up, I’m Talking, garnered an astonishing 700,000 Facebook fans who just liked that chutzpadik title phrase and didn’t care a whit that Levey had written a book about his gig as a speechwriter for Ariel Sharon. Befuddled but apparently emboldened by that experience with a runaway title, Levey has called his follow-up How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment (Free Press, September).

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

If Levey’s half-a-year timetable and 288 pages of prose seem like more of an investment than you can handle, you can always wait a couple of months for Sarah Glidden’s somewhat less ambitiously titled How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Vertigo, November). A memoir-in-comics, the book documents its author’s skepticism during her Birthright Israel trip, which begins somewhat inauspiciously with an Israeli airport security officer asking her what Torah portion she read at her bat mitzvah.

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Israel's Asymmetric Wars

Less personal, and unsurprisingly rife with disciplinary jargon, are several newly translated academic studies exploring relatively unexamined aspects of Israeli life. Tel Aviv University professor Noam Yuran’s State Ideology in Commercial TV: Lessons From the Israeli Case (Academic Studies, September), for example, focuses on the rise of commercial television in the country since the 1990s and how the advertising-funded station, Arutz 2, though subject less directly to government influence, still reflects the ideas of those in power. In Israel’s Asymmetric Wars (Palgrave, September), originally published as Tsahal à l’épreuve du terrorisme, Samy Cohen, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, wonders why the Israeli military, phenomenally successful as it has been in conventional military engagements throughout its history, has been so much less effective waging war against terrorist insurgents, from both military and public-relations perspectives. Yaacov Yagdar, a Bar Ilan University lecturer, meanwhile attempts to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates thinking about Israel society in Secularism and Religion in Jewish-Israeli Politics: Traditionists and Modernity (Routledge, September), in which he focuses on the third of Israeli Jews who identify themselves as “masorti” or traditional. Even if they move our understanding of Israel’s complexities and challenges forward only another inch or so, at least these books don’t simply rehash the stale narratives we’re used to.

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 Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller

How does the stalest of stale narratives about Israel manage to stay fresh? This is the mystery and magic of Leon Uris’ Exodus (1958), which has racked up some 7 million sales to date, grammatical errors and all. (“Thank God,” Uris once said, inexplicably, “English and writing have little to do with each other.”) Ira Nadel, a literary scholar and biographer of Leonard Cohen, David Mamet, and Tom Stoppard, among others, explores the question of Uris’ phenomenal success in Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller (Texas, October). Beginning with Uris’ epitaph (“American Marine / Jewish Writer”) and covering everything from the author’s early clashes with his Russian Jewish father to his many professional and personal embarrassments later in life, Nadel attempts to explain how a novelist “who wrote so ineptly” could “still find such a wide and persistent audience.” M. M. Silver concentrates on Exodus itself, as book, film, and phenomenon, in Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Narrative (Wayne State, September). Even if Uris’ novel contained errors and exaggerations, he argues, they delivered to American readers something they needed: images of Jews as nationalist to-the-death fighters.

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The Trials of Zion

One sign of Uris’ continuing popularity: Alan Dershowitz’s latest novel, almost inevitably titled The Trials of Zion (Grand Central, October), has been described by its publisher as assuming its place “in the tradition of Leon Uris’s blockbuster Exodus.” In this thriller, Dershowitz dispatches two generations of American Jewish lawyers to the Middle East to argue terrorism cases before Israeli courts. In proudly Urisesque fashion, he packs his prose with his own characteristic bombast and constructs a plot with nothing resembling subtlety.

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To the End of the Land

The Israeli novelist David Grossman could be described as the opposite of Dershowitz, the antithesis of Uris. In a better world, one could venture to hope that To the End of the Land (Knopf, September), Grossman’s new novel about one Israeli mother praying that her son will come home safely from his military service, might reach even more readers than Exodus—that this might be the sort of book that changes the way a community thinks. In our world, such as it is, the most we can hope is that those few readers who are thoughtful and generous of spirit will derive some comfort from a work of art that manages to preserve beauty and dignity in the most trying of circumstances.

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I am both amazed and mystified by the single paragraph accorded David Grossman’s new new novel. Not that I think TABLET has to compete with the NYTBR in terms of space but surely the author’s reputation, influence and sheer talent merit more than what looks like a postscript to Uris, Dershowitz and an academic opus.The emotional magnitude of the novel, its piercing relevance and its almost archaeological uncovering of life in Israel deserved more respect than what it got. Shame!

Linda Silver says:

What a wonderful round-up of books about Israel! I envy anyone who (1) has boundless new books at his disposal, and (2) has time to read them. The pile on my table keeps getting taller and I’m still not finished with Gal Beckerman’s exhilerating account of the struggle to save Soviet Jews, WHEN THEY COME FOR US, WE’LL BE GONE – all 600+ pages of it. I haven’t started TO THE END OF THE LAND yet (it’s next) but I suspect that Pnina is right: it deserves a more extensive Tablet review. But for now, thanks, Josh!

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On the Bookshelf

Israel: personal and political

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