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On the Bookshelf

Optimists, pessimists, realists, and the disheartened: new books on Israel

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(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Who isn’t an expert on Israel? Every magazine, television channel, newspaper, pulpit, campus, website—and, as many of us will be reminded in a couple of weeks, every Seder table, too—seems to have at least a couple of people certain that their opinions on the Zionist state merit wide airing. And, our hypersaturated punditosphere notwithstanding, authors keep churning out books on the subject, too.

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Our Way to Fight: Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peace

Some authors focus on the present moment and record the perspectives of the people on the ground. In The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem (Routledge, February)—a translation of 2007’s Kikar Hashuk Reka—Hillel Cohen surveys internal Palestinian politics and explains that it’s not just peacenik Israelis whose hopes have been dashed since the Second Intifada, but also those hoping for a part of Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state. Michael Riordon speaks to those optimists (or Pollyannas) who continue to agitate and hold out hope for compromise and stability in Our Way to Fight: Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peace (Chicago Review, May). Jennifer Griffin and Greg Myre, a mom-and-pop pair of journalists who report for Fox News and the New York Times, have collaborated on a book the subtitle of which emphasizes its of-the-moment quality: This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Wiley, March). One fears, though, that all these books, recently researched as they may be, hit the shelves already out of date, given the consequences we’ve already seen developing for Israel, and for the Palestinian population and leadership, of the ongoing revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.

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Unsettling Gaza: Secular Liberalism, Radical Religion, and the Israeli Settlement Project

One thing not likely to change: Minorities will still have strained relationships to the mainstream in Israel, as they do everywhere else. Amal Jamal—himself a Druze Israeli and, as a professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, one of the most prominent non-Jewish academics in the country—studies the political behavior of Arab Israelis in comparative contexts in Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity (Routledge, March). Joyce Dalsheim treats another minority that also relates fractiously to the secular Jewish majority in Unsettling Gaza: Secular Liberalism, Radical Religion, and the Israeli Settlement Project (Oxford, March). Having done fieldwork among the settlers, Dalsheim offers insights into the political, theological, and social dimensions of life in pre-withdrawal Gaza.

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Land and Desire in Early Zionism

To many, Israel’s complexities just make it that much more fascinating. Even a piece of cheery, visually exuberant promotion like Aviva Werner’s Experience Modern Israel: Explore, Discover, Connect (Behrman, April, ages 10-12) acknowledges that part of the appeal of Israel is arguing about it: Among other features of the book and the companion digital experience, designed to market the country to the pre-bar mitzvah set, are sections titled “Debate It,” in which students “discuss the separation barrier and other hot topics.” Good times! A better selling point, Werner seems to realize, is the landscape, which photographs beautifully. There’s good precedent for this, according to Boaz Neumann’s newly translated Land and Desire in Early Zionism (Brandeis, May): Neumann takes seriously all the earnest paeans to the land in the diaries and literary works of Zionist pioneers, understanding their passion for territory, both symbolic and concrete, as foundational to the Israeli enterprise.

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Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League

Despite the conflicts—or because of them?—books on every aspect of Israeli society proliferate, topic by ever more specific topic. Raz Yosef’s The Politics of Loss and Trauma in Contemporary Israeli Cinema (Routledge, February) examines the spate of award-winning films produced in Israel over the past decade, emphasizing their framing of painful experiences as personal, rather than national, struggles. Daniel Maman and Zeev Rosenhek, two sociologists, turn their attention to the country’s financial system in The Israeli Central Bank: Political Economy, Global Logics and Local Actors (Routledge, March), tracking the competition between the central bank and the Ministry of Finance. Aaron Pribble, a self-described “redneck Jew-boy” whose minor-league baseball career has included stints on the Toulouse Tigers and Sonoma County Crushers, chronicles a brief, recent interlude in the history of Israeli professional athletics in Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League (Nebraska, April); Pribble witnessed all the glory and awkwardness from the mound, as a southpaw for the Tel Aviv Lightning. Meir Finkel—director of the Israeli Defense Force’s Ground Forces Concept Development and Doctrine Department—offers tips that will come in handy for anyone managing a military force in On Flexibility: Recovery From Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield (Stanford, March); he offers such historical examples of effective military responsiveness as “The German Recovery From the Soviet T-34 Tank Surprise” and “The Israeli Recovery From the Egyptian Sagger Missile Surprise.” And, finally, in Law and the Culture of Israel (Oxford, April), Menachem Mautner identifies the Israeli Supreme Court as the institution through which Israeli secularists, looking to Anglo-American liberalism for their models, resist the religious fundamentalism that asserts itself elsewhere in Israeli political life. By highlighting the particularities of the Israeli courts, army, baseball league, financial industry, and movie business, such books help to fend off the reductive thinking so persistently applied to the country.

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Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest

Meanwhile, in his most recently translated book, Amos Oz effaces the particularities, mapping the emotional and mythic dimensions of the conflicts he has witnessed onto an abstracted fable about the disappearance of all the fauna—“even bugs and reptiles, bees-flies-ants-worms-mosquitoes-moths, hadn’t been seen for many a year”—from an isolated village. Titled Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest (Harcourt, March), the book comes recommended for young adults, but it works as an allegory for adults, too: With whom would a tale about how communities and individuals struggle with their collective losses not resonate?

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Judith Nusbaum says:

Perhaps I misread the “Books” article, but it seems to me that Tablet is promoting books whose content bashes Israel and is opening anti-Israel. Why?

Steph F. says:

It seems to me that the books listed here cover a range of topics and viewpoints, as Tablet itself does more generally.

Shalom Freedman says:

Once upon a time Israel was referred to as ‘the Jewish state’. Then its enemies began calling it ‘the Zionist state’. For American Jews this way of saying it is a way of distancing themselves from the Jewish state. I am disappointed seeing this
in an article by Josh Lambert whose work I have respected in the past.

Yishai says:

Why is it a problem referring to Israel as “the Zionist state”? I’m a Zionist, I’m proud of the best aspects of what Zionism has meant historically — that is modern Jewry as a humanist nation in a land that can serve as a symbol of the best in Jewish history. Israel is a Zionist state. All of the founding ideologues, fathers and mothers of Israel were Zionists and considered Israel a Zionist state.

It is a bit sad that you two, Shalom and Judith, don’t seem to think enough of what Zionism could mean and has meant (despite its misappropriation by parts of the current government of Israel and some of its supporters in the US) to be willing to engage with an open mind with reasonable discussions about Israel and its complex and challenging history and present (and, to be clear, none of the volumes Josh has written about here constitutes unreasonable discussion). If you don’t like being challenged, you can always go read Leon Uris, live in the past, and leave those of us who still care passionately about what Israel is and will be in the future to engage in intelligent discussion. Or, you can choose to re-enter the reality of the present and take part. It’s up to you.

Thanks for helping out, wonderful information.

Shalom Freedman says:

Dear Yishai,
There is nothing wrong per se with referring to Israel as ‘the Zionist state’. But in the current climate of discourse those who ordinarily refer to the ‘Zionist
State’ are its enemies who wish to destroy it. They refer to it as that precisely because they wish to say that it is only the ‘Zionists’ for whom the state has meaning and relevance. But the state was not created for ‘Zionists’ alone it was created to be the state of the Jewish people. It was created to provide a homeland for any Jew who wished to make it their home. It was created to be a place of refuge for Jews who were not wanted anywhere else. Remember the condition and time of the state’s creation immediately after the Shoah.
Now when the legitimacy of the Jewish state is being challenged globally there is a group of Jews who are as moral as Judge Goldstone. i.e. They put themselves outside and above the Jewish state while falsely accusing it of immoral actions it is not guilty of. Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein speak of the Zionist state. Ben- Gurion spoke of the Jewish state.

Jed Brandt says:

Ethnic cleansing, colonization, explicitly racial governance (a state of the “Jewish people” and not of the people who live there).

These are terms not discussed in any of these books, yet they are simple terms for understanding the “complex” situation.

One book that isn’t new, but is certainly quite helpful in understanding the underlying racial-state notions of Zionism (really existing and the romantic, bloodless kind favored by many American liberal Jews) is Norman Finkelstein’s “Image and Reality is the Israel/Palestine Conflict.”

The problem with fascism wasn’t just that it “went off the tracks” — it’s that the anti-democratic idea that a state can only represent a single “people” — not the people who actually make up its territory. Israel for the Jews (in Palestine) is not different in any relevant way from “Germany for the Germans”.

Never again doesn’t mean “next time its our turn.”

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On the Bookshelf

Optimists, pessimists, realists, and the disheartened: new books on Israel

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