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On the Bookshelf

Armed struggles, exit strategies, cats, and lullabies

Josh Lambert
September 14, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

If books could make peace, everyone in the Middle East would have been singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire for years now. Still, one can hope that the vast and ever expanding range of publications on the subject of Israelis and Palestinians might convince a few of the militaristically minded participants in the conflict to put down their rifles and pick up a pair of reading glasses. Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine: Reflections, Revisions, Refutations (Verso, September), for example, may inflame more than it conciliates—the Oxford don has called Zionism “the real enemy of the Jews,” and spoken up in support of sloppy anti-Zionist polemicist Norman G. Finkelstein—but at least Shlaim perpetrates only figural violence.

• • •

Not so the acts considered by Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger in Jewish Terrorism in Israel (Columbia, October), which range from assassinations of Roman leaders in the first century C.E. to protests against the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Specialists in the study of security trained at the University of Haifa, Pedahzur and Perliger cast a wide net, and conducted many interviews, in a bid to understand why some Jews have chosen violence as the means to achieve their goals. The authors suggest that religion in and of itself does not produce terrorism, but that “it takes a major threat to the community of believers or to its most sacred values to radicalize its members.”

The Israeli Black Panthers—named in homage to the African-American group after a visit to Israel by activist Angela Davis—never quite radicalized to the extent their American namesakes did. Protesting for the civil rights of Mizrahis, Jewish immigrants from Arab lands, these Panterim Skhorim burned Golda Meir in effigy in the early 1970s and stole rich people’s milk, but they quickly turned to electoral rather than brutal methods. Sami Shalom Chetrit, a Morocco-born Israeli poet and scholar, praises the Panthers and other groups with similar goals in a survey of Mizrahi activism, titled Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews (Routledge, October).

What can Israel—or any country—do about its legacy of internal conflict? Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi takes up this question in Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassination and the Dilemmas of Commemoration (SUNY, August). Pedhazur and Perliger discuss Yigal Amir’s assassination of Rabin in 1995, of course, but Vinitzky-Seroussi—a sociologist at the Hebrew University whose last book interpreted the bizarre ritual of the American high-school class reunion—concerns herself not with the murder itself but with Israeli society’s responses, examining all the memorials and monuments, speeches and songs that mourned, or capitalized on, Rabin’s death.

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One thing Israelis have mostly managed to agree on, lately, is the proper way to pronounce Hebrew. The language revivalists who transformed Hebrew into a modern spoken language called their new accent Sephardic (though it was only partly based on the speech of Sephardic Jews)—but at first, in the late 19th and early 20th century, most poets wouldn’t write stanzas to fit the new pronunciation. Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana, September) describes how this gradually changed, and how the new accent turn into the standard for everyone except for some Yiddishists, Hasids, and of course all those few well-intentioned Hebrew school alumni who speak Hebrew with New Jersey or Long Island accents.

If it weren’t for the accent developed by Israeli poets, the rhymes in Ami Rubinger’s Hatul gadol, hatul katan—a popular Israeli children’s book published in 2004—might not roll off the tongue quite so comfortably as they do for this kid . But now that Rubinger’s picturebook has been translated into English, by Ray Baitner, as Big Cat, Small Cat (Abbeville Kids, August), even those with no Hebrew accent at all can enjoy it. Note that while Rubinger’s illustrations may delight your 2- to 5-year-old, he is more than just a children’s author; his other titles including Sefer ha’ziyunim hagadol, or, as it’s called in English, The Big Fucking Book, which is exactly what it sounds like.

If you’d rather stick to something kid-friendly—or if all the conflict in the Middle East just makes you want to curl up and go to sleep for a while—When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel (Kar-Ben, September), by veteran Israeli children’s author Mirik Snir and her daughter, Eleyor, a designer of children’s clothes, will sweetly fit the bill.

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Troubled as it is, Israel holds no patent on Middle Eastern tensions. It doesn’t even lead the field. A new publication of the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy—a part of the Brookings Institution bankrolled by, yes, Haim Saban, the Mighty Morphin Power Broker—suggest no fewer than nine possible approaches the United States might take in its relations with Iran. While laying out these possibilities, the book, Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran (Brookings Institution, September) proposes that all of them pose risks—and, oh, yeah, Israel’s fate hangs in the balance.

Then there’s Iraq. The pressing question is not exactly when the U.S. military should leave; it’s how that can possibly be accomplished without inciting more violence, fomenting more terrorism, and inflicting more suffering on Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers. In Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq (Penn, September), Michael Walzer, Nicolaus Mills, and a team of contributors propose that answers should be sought both in previous cases of military departure—including the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza—and in ethical considerations about the consequences of withdrawal.

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For readers who prefer conflicts on a scale a little more intimate than the geopolitical, two new novels present tenuously Jewish women looking out for others’ children. In Julie Buxbaum’s After You (Dial, September), Ellie Lerner cares for her dead friend’s 8-year-old daughter, Sophie. Though Buxbaum comes from “a tribe of New York Jews,” and though she gives her heroine a first boyfriend named Stuart Tannenbaum, the closest Ellie herself comes to acknowledging Jewish ethnicity is admitting to Sophie, “Books are almost a religion for me.”

Meanwhile, Tassie Keltjin, the college student heroine of Lorrie Moore’s widely praised A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf, September), whose Jewish mother married a Lutheran, calls herself a “quasi Jew” and takes a job as a nanny. Even she can’t escape heated talk about the Promised Land, though. Eavesdropping on the “transracial, biracial, multiracial” “support group” for whose members she babysits, Tassie hears someone recall the famed vegetarian “I. B. Singer speak[ing] of the holocaust of chickens.” A series of punning riffs on animal rights and the Holocaust follow, leading to one of the group’s Jewish participants proclaiming, more than a little tongue-in-cheek, “That’s why we got Israel, baby. We’re not chicken anymore.”

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.