Israel, In One Volume

Review: Daniel Gordis, 'Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn'

Israel flag
Israeli youths wave national flags as they enter Jerusalem's Old City through the Damascus Gate during a march celebrating Jerusalem Day / AP
October 28, 2016

It's refreshing, in a world rife with anti-Zionist propaganda, to read a book written by someone who actually thinks Israel was a good, indeed a grand idea. Daniel Gordis describes the Jews' return to their homeland as "one of the great dramas" of human history—the story "of a homeless people that kept a dream alive for millennia, of a people's redemption from the edge of the abyss, of a nation forging a future when none seemed possible." From a collection of "vulnerable settlements," Gordis describes how Israel grew into a flourishing country with the largest Jewish population in the world using a revived language that even the founder of Zionism believed could not be resuscitated.

Gordis ascribes the book's origin to the request of a friend of his, a leader of a major Jewish organization, that he recommend a serious but readable history of Israel that he could give to a group of lay leaders he was bringing over for a visit. When Gordis couldn't find one that fit the bill, he decided it was time to fill the gap himself.

Gordis brought to the task a talent for deftly summarizing complex events—a skill he displayed in his last book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul. More important, Gordis has an ability to get to the core of issues and to discuss them in straightforward language that nevertheless conveys sophisticated analysis. Consider his treatment of the contradictions within Zionism. While it grew out of the millennia long Jewish yearning to return to Zion, modern Zionism was also a revolutionary effort to sever the connection to what came before. Gordis writes: "So desperate were the Jewish people to fashion a new kind of Jew that they even changed their names … it was time for a new Jewish worldview, a new Jewish physique, a new Jewish home, new Jewish names. It was time for a 'new Jew,' a Jewish people reborn."

The story of modern Zionism cannot be understood without reference to ancient Jewish history, and Gordis manages to distill what needs to be told in a mere 15 pages. Gordis describes the Bible as " a kind of 'national diary,'" with the Land of Israel at the center of the story, its centrality maintained even when the Jews were repeatedly cast into exile.

One of the best features of this book is the way Gordis weaves into his narrative literature, music—even dance—that capture, and sometimes shape, the emotions of the people at a pivotal point. For example he quotes Chaim Bialik's famous poem "In the City of Slaughter," written after the poet's visit to Kishinev following the pogrom there in 1903. Bialik attacks the Russian mob, but also the passivity of the Jewish men, whom he scathingly describes hiding behind casks as the Cossacks rape their women. The poem had a huge impact in underscoring not only the need for Jews to return to their land as a shelter from anti-Semitism but as a place to create a "new Jew."

Gordis cites the enormously popular songs of Naomi Shemer: the first, Jerusalem of Gold, written just before the triumphant Six Day War, and the second, equally prescient, written just before the disastrous 1973 war, a version of the Beatles' Let It Be. Just as Shemer had to add a stanza to Jerusalem of Gold to reflect the fact that the Old City was now in Israel's hands, so she had to change the lyrics to the second song, "There is still a white sail on the horizon but beneath a heavy black cloud" and modify the chorus, "All that we long for, let it be." To convey the country's deep, ongoing sadness after the Yom Kippur War, Gordis offers the lyrics of a popular song written over 20 years later: "You promised peace; You promised spring at home and blossoms; You promised to keep your promises; You promised a dove."

While its strengths outweigh them, the book is not without flaws. There are an astonishing number of factual errors. A sampling: Gordis makes it seem as if Ben-Gurion traveled directly from Turkey to the United States at the outset of World War I: "In 1911 he [Ben Gurion] departed Palestine for Turkey to study law (though he did not complete the degree) and then continued on to America …" In fact Ben-Gurion went back to Palestine from Turkey and was deported, manacled, to Egypt, the Turkish governor having written on the deportation order, ""To be banished forever from the Turkish empire." While missing Ben-Gurion's deportation, Gordis wrongly says Ben-Gurion's great rival Vladimir Jabotinsky (who was not in Palestine) was among those deported by Djemal Pasha. Gordis says that underground leader Yair Stern was killed in 1942 "in a shootout with British forces" when in fact (as one of the British officers in the room would later admit) he was shot in cold blood after his capture. Gordis says both Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon were born on kibbutzim, true of Dayan but not of Sharon. Much more serious, Gordis treats as fact that Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff was killed by fellow Jews (a charge that would have enormous repercussions on the direction of the Zionist movement) when this is anything but clear. An Arab would confess to the killing and the case was never solved.

Although generally strong on "why" things happened, sometimes Gordis's interpretations miss the mark. He repeatedly states that the 1929 Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron inaugurated the Arab-Israel armed conflict. Unaccountably, he ignores the 1920 Arab attacks, which led to the imprisonment by the British of Jabotinsky and those he led trying to protect the Jewish community. He misses the hostility of the British administration in Palestine that manifested itself early on, leaving the impression with readers that this did not occur until the mid-1930s. Gordis finds the seeds of Labor's fall in Begin's 1952 stand against reparations, thus "safeguarding Israel's Jewish conscience." But if anything, his threats of violence set back Begin's long hard path to respectability. Gordis ascribes Israel's lack of a Constitution to Ben-Gurion's unwillingness to see his power fettered. More important was the conflict between secular and religious concerns, with the religious unwilling to countenance a Constitution that made no reference to the divine basis of Jewish nationality.

A running theme in the book is Gordis's celebration of Jewish self-criticism as a positive national trait. You would never know from his anodyne quotes from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whom he describes only as "one of Israel's most important public intellectuals" that Leibowitz in 1982 pioneered the analogy of Israelis to Nazis. Others of Israel's most vicious critics receive similar deferential treatment. Gordis pays no mind to the enormous damage Israel's internal accusers do in empowering those abroad who demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.

In his excellent 2004 book, Saving Israel, Gordis laments the growing Jewish illiteracy of Israelis. He rightly says: "Ultimately, younger generations of Israelis will devote themselves to sustaining, protecting and enhancing Israeli life only if they can say something intelligent about what it means to be a Jew and how being a Jew can be a wholly different experience in a Jewish state from what it could be anyplace else." In his current book he finds comfort in what he sees as the trend for Israelis to re-connect with Jewish tradition. As an illustration, he describes the scene of Ruth Calderon, newly elected to the Knesset, going up to give her maiden speech in 2013, carrying with her a volume of the Talmud. Although she grew up in a secular home, she said, "Mr. Chairman, honorable Knesset, the book I am holding changed my life."

Gordis's concise history of Israel so well fills an urgent need that there should be new editions to follow. A new edition can correct the factual errors (many more than chronicled here), fill out the events of the 1920s scanted in this one, and perhaps reconsider some of the more dubious interpretations.

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