The pun in the title of Israel Is Real, the new book by Rich Cohen, is silly but not meaningless. The problem of reality, and how to distinguish it from fantasy, fear, and hope, has been with the Zionist project since the very beginning. The slogan “If you will it, it is not a dream,” coined by Theodor Herzl in his novel Altneuland, was a way of acknowledging the sheer fantasy of the Zionist idea—to recreate a Jewish state that had not existed for 2,000 years.
Yet while Israel is real, and has been for more than 60 years, it also remains a zone of fantasy, a screen onto which Diaspora Jews, Arabs, Europeans, and even Israelis themselves project their own images of Jewishness and nationhood. It is all too easy to think about Israel as a symbol—of Jewish strength or vulnerability, of power and its dangers, of sinister Jewish influence (according to Tehran and the Walt-and-Mearsheimer school)—even, for religious settlers in the West Bank, of the Messiah and the end of days. Any book that can cut through all those fantasies and get to the reality of Israel would be welcome.
Unfortunately, Rich Cohen’s book is very far from achieving that goal. Cohen, who has written several popular books on Jewish subjects (including Tough Jews and The Avengers), set out to write a history of the Zionist idea from the Second Temple down to the Second Intifada. It is a huge and complex subject, which has been written about many times before; but Cohen does not know enough, and has not thought deeply enough, to do it anything like justice. Instead, what he offers is attitude—talky, slangy prose, jokes and pop culture references, stereotypes and legends. Though he has spent a good deal of time in Israel, he does not make it come to life.
One simple way to gauge his book’s lack of engagement with reality is to examine its really remarkable disrespect for facts. I don’t mean the kind of facts that partisans or opponents of Israel like to fight about, facts that are really interpretations—who said what to whom at Camp David. I’m talking about facts like dates, places, and names, the kind of thing that anyone reading a serious book on any subject takes for granted.
Jerusalem, Cohen writes, “entered the orbit of Rome in AD 66”; in fact, Judea became a Roman province in 63 BCE, some 120 years before AD 66, which was the year of the Jewish rebellion that led to the destruction of the Temple. “In 50 BC,” Cohen writes, “Judah Maccabee, among the most famous warriors of Jewish lore, took [the city of Jabneh] from the Assyrians”; but Judah Maccabee lived more than 100 years before that date, and the occupiers he fought were not Assyrians but Seleucid Greeks. (The Assyrians made their appearance in Jewish history when they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, 600 years before the Maccabees.) Cohen devotes several pages to Jochanan ben Zakkai, appropriately, since this survivor of the Jewish War was instrumental in rebuilding Judaism after the fall of the Temple; unfortunately, he refers to him throughout as Jonathan ben Zakkai. He describes the Mishnah as “the oral history of Israel that grew over the centuries, a hodgepodge of legends and prophecies and poems”—clearly what he means here is the Agadah, and even then it is hardly accurate.
Nor is it only ancient history that Cohen botches. He writes that the Kuzari, the classic work of Jewish apologetics by Yehuda Halevi, “appeared amid the turbulence that would culminate in the Spanish expulsion as Theodor Herzl’s book (The Jewish State) appeared amid the turbulence that would culminate in the Nazi Holocaust.” But the Kuzari is usually dated to 1140 CE, more than 350 years before the Jews were expelled from Spain. Apropos of the French Revolution, Cohen writes, “In 1780, Clermont-Tonnerre, a leader of the Assembly, demanded that Jews be given equal rights”: this would have been remarkable, since the Revolution did not take place until 1789. Disraeli’s novel Alroy was not published in 1855, as Cohen writes, but in 1833. And so on.
Do all of these mistakes matter? Well, they certainly invalidate Israel Is Real as any kind of trustworthy introduction to the subject; but probably any serious reader would rather turn to an authoritative history like Howard Sachar’s History of Israel, anyway. What’s more important is that Cohen’s errors show how hastily and inadequately he has worked up the whole subject of Jewish history. As a result, he has not tried to listen to what that history has to say. Instead, he has projected onto it a whole complex of contemporary assumptions and attitudes, which are all familiar and mostly unappealing.
The two central messages of Israel Is Real are incompatible, even though both of them are wrong. The first is that Jews before Zionism were weak, contemptible, and ridiculous. Cohen usually tries to make this point by invoking his own immigrant relatives, whose very names and faces he seems to believe are inherently funny. “Grandpa Morris came to the Lower East Side because he had a family. Uncle Hymie went to Rehovot because he was out of his mind. That’s the back story of Israel,” he cleverly sums up at one point. Elsewhere, Cohen writes, “Hillel is one of those names, like Chabad or Maimonides, that you might remember from the Haggadah or from Hebrew School.… they are intoned as the name of your great-grandfather from Plotsk is intoned,” as names out of “the past, the ancient Jewy past.” What could be funnier than Plotsk, or your great-grandfather, or the word “Jewy”? (And does Cohen know that Chabad is not a person?) Then there’s Menahem Begin, who Cohen says offered “an odd image for the nation to project: the dark, slumpy, Yiddish-inflected Jew…he looked like my grandma Esther’s second husband, Izzy Greenspun, of Skokie, Illinois, who stuttered and repeated and got flustered and died wiping a dish.”
Cohen offers this explanation of the effect of the ghetto on Jewish psychology: “It’s the ghetto that makes Woody Allen stammer; it’s the ghetto that makes Richard Perle gin up war; it’s the ghetto that makes Jerry Seinfeld funny; it’s the ghetto that makes Albert Einstein calculate; it’s the ghetto that makes Karl Marx foam.” What to object to first? How about the fact that none of these men ever lived in a ghetto at all; or that the bellicosity attributed to Richard Perle (who seems thrown in simply because Jewish neoconservatives are acceptable hate-figures) is the opposite of the timidity Woody Allen plays on; or that Einstein’s genius was a gift, not a stigma, and in no conceivable way related to ancestral oppression?
Someone who writes and thinks this way about European Jews would have to embrace Zionism, one might assume. Indeed, Cohen is reprising, in vulgar and often hateful terms, one of the central ideas of early Zionism—that the Diaspora had caused an injury to Jewish character than only a Jewish state could repair. And Cohen does, in fact, evince a certain fascination with Israeli warriors like Ariel Sharon, in just the same way that, in Tough Jews, he was fascinated by Jewish gangsters. “To many,” he writes, “Sharon is the fat old kosher butcher, with blood on his apron and a sly grin on his face”—(Who are these “many”? Readers of Al-Ahram, or Der Sturmer?)—“but in the 1950s he was a fit young Sabra … a personification of the strong, inarticulate new Jew.” Cohen’s accounts of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War are as naively glorifying as possible, and few of the shameful episodes in Israeli history are touched on.
But at the same time, Cohen seems to endorse a favorite contemporary critique of Zionism, which is that it somehow diminishes Jews to be a nation instead of a light to the nations: “Now the Jews have returned their holy idea to the street, where, as is happening with the Hebrew language, it has been barbarized and filled with slang.” He also touches on the corollary argument that Israel endangers Jews: “By making the faith physical, by locating it in a particular place at a particular time, Zionists have made Jews vulnerable in a way that they have not been since the fall of the Second Temple.” Like everyone who makes this argument, Cohen seems to believe that the eras of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Chmelnitzsky pogroms, and the Holocaust were safer for the Jews than the era of the IDF.
Neither the facts nor the ideas in Israel Is Real, then, deserve much attention. But the best way to take the measure of Cohen’s book is to look at his language. I know that Cohen’s hyped-up style depends on a certain swagger and exaggeration. Still, when I read that “according to the critics” the early Zionists had “the same goal as the Nazis: a world without Jews”; that Rishon le Zion, the first modern Zionist settlement, was “the punk corpuscle that herald[s] the disease, the lonely pimple that portends the general outbreak, the tiny bud that suggests the sea of wildflowers,” followed by the invitation to “pick your metaphor”; that “Israel is not a nation—it’s a landfill, a garbage dump, where Europeans heaped the ashes after the war”; or worst of all, that “No one hates a Jew like a Zionist”—I cannot help feeling that Cohen’s desire to make an impression on the reader comes at too high a price, and that cleverness without taste, knowledge or wisdom is a poor foundation for a book—about Israel or anything else.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.