On the Bookshelf
Separating Synagogue and State
Taking credit for an achievement as monumental as the founding of a modern state seems a rather foolhardy thing to do. Take, for example, the young man born David Green in Płońsk, Poland, in 1886, known just about universally as the founding father of the state of Israel. What does he get for his troubles? An airport named for him, which Israelis pass through when they’re getting the hell out of the Middle East. Worse yet, he also became, as Shlomo Aronson notes in his new book David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance (Cambridge, November), “a kind of pariah, the root of all the incurable evils of contemporaneous Israeli society,” at least for those who abjured his policy decisions and philosophy. Aronson’s book proposes to weigh Ben Gurion’s legacy as a “leader-intellectual,” to take him seriously without giving him a pass.
Central among the complaints raised by Ben-Gurion’s detractors, then and now, is that he failed to erect what an American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, famously called “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a colleague of Aronson’s at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes in Theocratic Democracy: The Social Construction of Religious and Secular Extremism (Oxford, November) how Ben-Gurion declared, in October 1950, that maintenance of the “status quo” should be the principle guiding the Israeli government’s approach to “religious issues,” without defining what, precisely, such issues were. As Ben-Yehuda tells it, the result has been a nation in which the relationship between religious and secular interests is subject to perennial renegotiation. And in which some haredim—in the hope of transforming Israel’s theocratic democracy into a genuine theocracy—have systematically engaged in behavior that Ben-Yehuda, as a social scientist, refers to as “deviant.”
Fascinatingly, even the extremists among Israeli religious Jews partake in modern culture, in their own ways. In his study Beyond Political Messianism: The Poetry of Second Generation Religious Zionist Settlers (Academic Studies, December), Brown University’s David Jacobson explores a number of second-generation settlers in the West Bank who turn to poetry as a means of self-expression, exploring aesthetic and political questions in verse to reflect upon both their biblical models and their daily lives.
Before this summer’s flotilla fiasco, there was rarely much reason to think about Israel’s navy. Sure, the country has plenty of coastline to defend, but with so many enemy states just a short jeep ride away, who would bother to attack by sea? Ze’ev Almog, a retired rear admiral, explains in Flotilla 13: Israeli Commandos in the Red Sea, 1967-1973 (Naval Institute, November) that, in fact, some maritime engagements he led—knocking out enemy radar stations, incapacitating the Egyptian navy during the Yom Kippur War—were key strategic victories.
“Why is it,” Alan Mintz asked back in 2001, “that when Hebrew literature has come of age and finds itself in the midst of its greatest boom that American Jewish readers, so cultured and so committed to Israel, should have so little use for it?” The question continues to resonate even as more and more Israeli authors appear in serviceable English editions.
Yishai Sarid, a lawyer with a graduate degree from Harvard, has his English debut in Limassol (Europa, November), a thriller featuring a secret-serviceman who goes undercover as an aspiring writer to ingratiate himself with a Palestinian poet.
Sarid’s novel takes its title from a Cypriot city, while Zeruya Shalev’s latest novel to be translated is named for a Greek isle. Shalev is no stranger to translation: Her novel Love Life appeared in English in 2000 and in 23 other languages including Macedonian, Vietnamese, and Slovenian. The new one, Thera (Toby, November), concerns an archaeologist whose family is quickly transforming itself into a ruin.
Yael Hedaya, meanwhile, is better known by Americans than most of her Israeli peers because of the reverent transformation of the hit TV series for which she served as head writer, B’Tipul, into HBO’s In Treatment. (She’s also an alumna of NYU’s creative writing program.) Hedaya’s third novel, a study of suburban disaffection ironically titled Eden (Metropolitan, November)—which, one reviewer has pointed out, has been responsibly abridged in translation—bears some resemblance to the TV series in that one of its characters, a teenage girl, has an affair with a much older man. There’s a reason, Hedaya recently told New York, that she so often returns to the plot device of younger women seducing older men: “I had a lot of relationships with older men when I was her age.”
Hadaya’s fictional moshav isn’t the only Israeli community with restless and unsatisfied residents. The geographer Steven Dinero argues in Settling for Less: The Planned Resettlement of Israel’s Negev Bedouin (Berghahn, November) that, on balance, it has not been an entirely positive development for the formerly nomadic Bedouin to put down roots in Segev Shalom, a town established specifically for them near Beer Sheva in 1979.
Still, another Israeli planned city can be celebrated as a triumph: In Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities (Scribner, November), the urbanist Witold Rybczynski points to Modi’in, a development conceived by the architect Moshe Safdie and built from scratch as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a success to be emulated. With its out-of-sight, underground parking and “landscaped walks that … recall the pedestrian stairs of San Francisco and Montmartre,” Modi’in provides, Rybczynski declares, “some useful lessons for achieving a denser and greener—in both senses—urbanism” here in the United States. How lovely would it be to see Hartford or Detroit revitalized through emulation of this Israeli example?
The German artist’s new show, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ tackles the Bible, Kabbalah, and the Passover Seder