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We Need to Talk About Israel

Is it possible to write a book about Israel where conflict is not the fulcrum of the Jewish state’s history?

Daniel Gordis
October 14, 2016
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis march with their national flag next to Jerusalem's Old City walls during the Jerusalem Day parade, June 5, 2005.Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis march with their national flag next to Jerusalem's Old City walls during the Jerusalem Day parade, June 5, 2005.Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Why do we insist on telling the story of Israel using 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, the First Lebanon War, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, and the Second Lebanon War as the central milestones? What does that tell us about why the Jewish people sought sovereignty in the first place? What does it convey about the ways in which Zionism was a product not of nineteenth century nationalism but of a carefully crafted soulful yearning that was essentially synonymous with Judaism for almost two millennia? What does a story told that way reveal about what Zionists hoped they might be able to create? How does a narrative like that do anything to portray Israel—despite the conflict and even in the face of its many missteps and worrisome future—as a country in which (part of) the Jewish people seek to explore anew what being a Jew might mean in this still-young century?

Can we somehow engender an Israel conversation that does not ignore or paper-over the conflict, yet which engages Israel as an issue much wider—and more profound—than the conflict? This is, in large measure, what I am about to find out through the publishing of my new book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.

Any book of this sort is going to be assailed from left and from right—that is inevitable. What remains to be seen, however, is whether when the dust settles, a history like this can help engender a conversation about Israel that puts the conflict in context and that focuses no less on questions such as how Jewish sovereignty was meant to—and has—transformed Jewish peoplehood.

For the sake of Israel’s future, I hope that it can. Yet it is not only Israel for which the answer matters. What is at stake is not only Israel’s security and support, I believe, but the souls and the Jewish futures of the people engaged in that discussion no less.

That today’s Israel-conversation has grown toxic is sadly obvious. So, too, is this irony: Israel is the single issue with the power to exercise a wide swathe of the Jewish community, but it is also the one increasing numbers no longer wish to touch. Many congregational rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel from their pulpits. Our gut tells us that if the Jewish people faces a potential split, it will be not over denominations, but over Israel. The Jewish state is becoming the one subject of conversation that many Jews wish would simply go away.

* * *

Not long ago, matters were very different. To be sure, differences of opinion about Israel abounded, but the issues that roiled the American Jewish community were other: would Orthodox rabbis refer to non-Orthodox rabbis as “rabbis”? What did we mean by “Jewish continuity,” and how could it be cultivated? How far could Orthodox feminism progress? How should the Jewish community respond to the LGBT movement, then just gaining steam? Were large suburban synagogues dinosaurs, destined to disappear as Jews sought greater intimacy and choice, or could those behemoths reinvent themselves and serve the spiritual needs of a rapidly changing generation? Today, though, the people inclined to debate those issues as if they are critical to the Jewish future could now fit into the social hall of a medium-sized synagogue. When it comes to those issues, the sad truth is that only a slim slice of the Jewish communal pie cares what anyone else thinks or does. Only with regard to Israel is the matter entirely different. Yet only with Israel has the conversation become so hostile as to be untenable.

Can we get beyond the toxicity? That depends in large measure to what we attribute its origins. While the panoply of its causes is beyond the scope of this essay, one contributing factor reigns supreme: Many participants in the conversation have turned up the volume to camouflage an overwhelming ignorance about issues. It is no exaggeration to say that many of those who advocate ending the occupation tomorrow or continuing it forever have given much more consideration to which smartphone to purchase next than they have to the likely repercussions of the position they advocate with absolute certainty.

Many American Jews despair about Israel’s conduct of its conflict, but know nothing about how Israel responded to the very same challenges in the 1940’s and 1950’s, even in its public school curricula. We know the names of the prime ministers we detest, but cannot name five Israeli poets or novelists and say something about what they sought to communicate to and about Israeli society. Most young American Jews are largely opposed to the occupation, yet are unaware that the Palestinians’ explicit drive to destroy Israel began before there even was an occupation.

A few months ago in Jerusalem, I met a group of visiting New York high school students, many from top schools. These young people were being been “trained” to be leaders on the campuses they would soon attend in the drive to defend Israel. They had studied the issues in New York for months, and now, they were in Israel for the culmination of their program.

They had all sorts of questions: Is the argument that the occupation is not legally an occupation an effective one to use on campus? Is it worth getting into the inevitable shouting matches with pro-Palestinian students at school, or should we just cede them the public square? Good questions, with no easy answers.

To tackle some of them, I figured we should quickly review the history. “When did the occupation begin?” I asked them, figuring that a slow Socratic pitch would be a good way to get our conversation started. Not a hand went up. I thought they might be tired, or shy. So I pressed, and waited. Within a minute or two, though, it became clear—not a single one of these students, headed to the country’s finest campuses and near-graduates of a program designed to enable them to make the case for Israel—knew when the occupation began.

* * *

The degree to which the mainstream American Jewish life has abdicated the challenge of educating people about Israel is evident on Amazon, no less. It has been four decades since anyone raised in the American Jewish community, with a sense of how the story of the Jewish state might be woven for this unique community, has written a history of Israel for a major press. Howard Sachar wrote his magisterial A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time in 1976. Subsequent editions followed, of course, and other excellent books have followed, including, among others, Israel: A History, by the British Martin Gilbert in 1998 and another book with precisely the same title by Tel Aviv University’s Anita Shapira in 2014. Nothing, though, has been crafted specifically for the unique American Jewish Israel-conversation.

It was the head of one of American’s most significant Jewish Federations who inadvertently brought this to my attention. “I’m bringing a group of lay leaders to Israel,” he wrote in an email, “and I want to give them a book that covers Israel’s history. It has to be academically credible, eminently readable, and it needs to tell the story of Israel in a way that inspires. I can’t find anything.”

That could not be, I told him; there had to be something, and I promised get him a suggestion by the end of the day. When I perused my shelves several hours later, and found nothing that fit the bill, I scoured Amazon. Again, nothing. Many excellent books, but nothing matched what he wanted. Someone clearly needed to try this.

A few months ago, a couple of years after beginning my book, I finally had a complete first draft, but it was still early enough in the process to make significant changes in tone and content. So I sent the very rough text to a few close friends, people who know a tremendous amount about Israel and love it deeply, who are exceedingly capable writers, and who, I hoped, would be willing to be honest about the work that still lay ahead. Writing a history of Israel that is concise and that flows as novel-like as possible required making agonizing choices about what to omit entirely and what to include, even if only briefly. I wanted to hear what they thought about the choices I had made, and no less important, what they thought of the overall tone that emerged from those choices.

That even my respondents, deeply involved in the worldwide Jewish conversation, focused their responses on pieces related to the “usual” conversation and almost not at all on the questions I listed above was a stark warning. Shifting the focus of the Israel conversation—which I certainly hope others will try to do as well, through other books, films, articles and much more—is going to be a steep uphill climb. Their responses drove home how hard it is going to be for us as American Jews to reignite a conversation about Israel, not only about what Israel should do or become, but even about what has already transpired. One of my colleagues wrote:

[I]n many places, the narrative focuses so much on the problems that the accomplishments will be lost on most readers… [In the section that begins on] May 15, 1948, [you cover] Ben-Gurion’s callousness towards the lives of young Holocaust survivors in his decisions regarding Latrun, the Altalena affair that highlights Jewish internecine warfare, the possible massacre of Arabs by Jews in Lydda, and the exodus of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, including the expulsion of a substantial portion of them.

I agree with you that all of these are worthy of treatment, but I am concerned about what did not get treated in depth. There are no descriptions of any real Jewish heroism; there are no Jewish heroes…no great battles, no impressive strategies, no story of the few against the many or of amazing exploits to procure weapons abroad…

That very same day, I heard from yet another reader:

Just as a poet chooses to notice and dive into what moves him/her, so do you here. [This] doesn’t feel like a concise history of Israel to me but rather a subjective one. It feels written for an audience that does not want to hear a certain set of pieces of the story and therefore those angles/pieces don’t appear here.

The occupation is addressed only in its early years and never with the seriousness—ethically, strategically, tactically—that it merits, in my opinion… Israel’s missteps in general are so highly contextualized that they are like a loving slap on the wrist, bumps of growing up… The Bedouins are mentioned three times in the book…. The Intifadas are expressed as acts of frustration and not more than that. The erosion of Israel’s soul as a function of Lebanon, the first Intifada, the Gaza Wars, etc. is not dealt with. The destructive role of the chief rabbinate—and its damning of much of your readership—is not mentioned even once. The fact that so many Israelis have chosen to leave the country to raise their children—many of them not because of the violence but because of other factors—doesn’t appear… It is simply too much of a poetic love history and not one that strives to be objective beyond a few efforts here and there. I must be clear here—I don’t think there are inaccurate facts—I just believe the clear omissions are not fair to the reader or to the country itself.

What first fascinated me was the fact that these two opposing critiques were both correct in many ways. Obviously, I disagreed with much in each of the assessments. Yet the first respondent was correct that I had omitted many of the classic stories of brilliant Israeli generals leading small bands of brave, ill-equipped men against massive invading armies. It was a choice I had made quite consciously. Part of it was due to the work of more recent historians who have shown that the Zionists were much better prepared for the War of Independence than had been suggested by some of the earlier renditions of Israeli history.

No less important, though, I wanted to write a book that people from across the political and Zionist spectra could read and discuss. The book had to be factually correct, but it also had to tell the story in a way that did not make young American students roll their eyes, sensing here was yet another book about the “magic of Israeli bravery” stories on which many of us were raised. The “fairy tale” version of Israel’s story simply had to go; this could not be the book-version of the famous UJA poster showing an Israeli soldier standing on a tank in tallit and tefillin.

That meant celebrating Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments but also trying to be honest about many of its failings. I knew that listing many of Israel’s misdeeds would disturb those who treasure the classic Zionist narrative. But I was surprised, even stunned, by the degree to which my narrative made many of my colleagues—who prize academic objectivity—deeply uncomfortable.

Even that critique, interestingly, was insufficient for the second respondent. His problem with the book was not the absence of heroes, but the absence of harsher critique. I didn’t agree with all his suggestions (though I incorporated suggestions from both of them into later drafts) but I was struck that two people could read the very same manuscript and disagree so vehemently as to whether it was a naïve, romantic love-story, or a harsh, even nasty take-down of a country all three of us love.

Could it be that because the first respondent is a person who made aliyah decades ago, a confrontation with Israel’s many—and potentially insurmountable—faults and follies is simply too painful to bear? Could it also be that because the second respondent left Israel with his family, a narrative that does not indict Israel more harshly does not do justice to his sense of why Israel is a country in which deeply committed Jews might specifically wish not to live?

I’m not certain. That aside, what was perhaps most sobering about these responses (and many others I received) was that they focused on issues related to the conflict and what we might call the “warts” of the Israel story—and had virtually nothing to say about the main subject of the book.

From the very outset, I made a decision not to write a book about the conflict. Of course, the book had to cover Israel’s many wars and the ongoing conflict, but the book would not begin with the conflict nor end with it. When I selected photographs, I rejected every image with a soldier, a plane, a tank or a gun. No other book took that approach, but in mine, I decided, other pictures would have to help tell the story.

Why? The reason is the way we conduct the Israel-conversation suggests that the conflict is the essence of Israel. Yet grinding and painful as the conflict is, that is absurd. Were someone to ask us to tell them what United States is “all about,” a response that began with the War of Independence, proceeded to the War of 1812, then the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, then Vietnam, then Iraq and then Afghanistan (thus omitting quite a few) would actually tell us very little about America. Yes, many of those events proved defining in profound ways. Yet those conflicts are not why America was created, nor do they articulate its central values. A story of the United States told that way misses the point entirely, and the same logic applies to Israel.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.