On the Bookshelf
Optimists, pessimists, realists, and the disheartened: new books on Israel
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.
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 One fears, though, that all these books, recently researched as they may be, hit the shelves already out of date, given the consequences we’ve already seen developing for Israel, and for the Palestinian population and leadership, of the ongoing revolutions in Tunisia,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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
In this week’s “Tell Me,” Tablet Magazine’s illustrated question-and-answer column, we interrogate what it means to ask questions—and ponder a fridge full of damaged eggs