Sunday, December 12, 2010

History Book Modern Israel

Short English-language histories of Israel are few and far between, and good ones even fewer and farther. For that reason the publication of Martin Van Creveld's The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel (St. Martin'; 320 pages) raised hopes that here at last, is the book to recommend to the person seeking a definitive, concise, sensibly compassionate and elegantly-written account of modern Israel.

Van Creveld is a Dutch-born professor emeritus of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose specialty is military strategy. In this book, one of 17 he has authored, he sets out to provide a "brief but comprehensive outline" of Israel with "a feel for what life is like" in "perhaps the greatest success story of the entire twentieth century." Blood and Honey is intended as a synthesis of what is already known.

Unfortunately, it also turns out to be a petulant, puzzling meditation, at times bragging of Israeli accomplishments, though just as often hammering away mercilessly at the country's imperfections. It employs odd nomenclature: Van Creveld is loath to use "Torah" or "Hebrew Bible" when "Old Testament" can serve his purposes; "the so-called First Migration" supplants the First Aliya; it's "Wailing Wall" not Western Wall. And, ad nauseam, it's the "occupied" West Bank -- never Judea and Samaria.

The narrative starts with "Forged in Fury," covering the period from the first Zionist Congress convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897 until the end of the War of Independence in 1949. Van Creveld accurately portrays pre-Zionist Palestine as a backwater lacking in infrastructure – no ports, roads or rail system. The British would remedy that. Under Ottoman rule the Arabs – there were no "Palestinians" at the time – were mostly illiterate while the indigent Jews, not permitted to purchase land, lived off charity supplied by their co-religionists abroad.

Political Zionism was spurred by the failure of Europe's Enlightenment to solve the Jewish question in the liberal West and by continued violent persecution in the reactionary East. The Zionists were divided between practical settlers eager to create facts on the ground and those, like Herzl, who wanted to first set the diplomatic stage for the Jews' return. Britain's Balfour Declaration offered the Jews a homeland though not a state. Soon Winston Churchill lopped off most of the Promised Land to create Transjordan. The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, provided the framework of a Zionist governing authority that would evolve into a state. In 1947, the Arabs rejected the creation of an Arab Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel and attacked. Though vastly outnumbered, the (now) Israelis were better organized and overcame the Arab onslaught. Still, a staggering one percent of Israel's population perished in the war. So far, so good.

In "Full Steam Ahead" Van Creveld covers the 1949-1967 period summarizing Israel's political system, taking the trouble to note that Israel's hyperactive high-court does not require a litigant to show they have any stake in a matter before filing suit. He maps out the ideological divide between the political parties, emphasizes the hegemony of David Ben-Gurion's Histadrut labor federation which both much of the means of production and represented the workers.

Van Creveld also sagaciously takes cognizance of an early dilemma still unresolved: Whether Israel was to be a Jewish state or simply a state of the Jews? Overcoming formidable obstacles, he tells us, Israel absorbed enormous numbers of Holocaust survivors and other immigrants. Youth movements were created in which, quite distinctively, young people not adults were mostly in charge. Van Creveld makes a strong case in support of Ben-Gurion wrenching decision to accept Holocaust reparations from West Germany. It proved essential to Israel's economic development. The chapter finishes with Van Creveld praising the sound of Israeli artillery retaliating against unprovoked Jordanian shelling of Jerusalem in June 1967 as "the sweetest" "he ever heard."

In "The Nightmare Years" Van Creveld speedily covers the 1967-1980 era which included the 1970 War of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, noting Dayan's haunting warning that "the Third Temple [was] in danger." The war, writes Van Creveld, left Israel's economy devastated. Finally, he deplores the settlement of the West Bank though he documents the Arabs' rejection of peace, recognition and negotiations.
Throughout his, at times, awkward prose, Van Creveld uses flashes of color to great effect. Herzl, he records, received a 15-minute standing ovation at the First Congress. Chaim Weizmann was prescient in urging Zionists to be ready with their demands when the Great War ended.

"New Challenges" the chapter covering 1981-1995 bemoans the change in Israel's "ethnic make-up." Under growing Sephardi influence, the mores of the secular, socialist and Ashkenazi elite were being supplanted. Israel had become too nationalist, too Jewish, as exemplified by Likud premier Menachem Begin who -- gasp -- ate only kosher food "even in private."

Shimon Peres is rightly credited with saving the economy from hyperinflation. Van Creveld is enthusiastic about Israel's high-tech industry whose rise he properly credits to skills gained by its founders in the IDF. He absurdly reports the mind-boggling claim that Israelis prefer theater to soccer.

We learn that the first intifada broke out in December 1987 after a traffic accident in Gaza ignited rioting. At a time there were few IDF troops in the West Bank and Gaza. The "occupation," it seems, was rather unobtrusive. Van Creveld does not tell us that during the ensuing blood-letting more Palestinians were killed by their compatriots than by Israel. Later, he neglects to mention that five separate deadly terror attacks took place in the weeks preceding Baruch Goldstein's notorious massacre of Arabs in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs.

Indeed, some readers will find Van Creveld tendency toward moral relativism, sophistry and even dubious history-telling off-putting. The 1929 Arab uprising was, we're told, preceded by mutual "bickering." At Deir Yassin, the Irgun "massacred about a hundred Arab civilians." Menachem Begin offers a very different and more convincing account in The Revolt. The only time Israel's survival was ever actually in jeopardy was during the 1948 War, Van Creveld claims. Adolph Eichmann "himself had never killed anybody." While Arab villages fit naturally into the terrain, Israeli towns look outlandishly European and out of place. The Chief Rabbinate's headquarters could have been designed by Albert Speer. Arab refugees sought to infiltrate the country's boundaries in the 1950s "in the absence of peace." The concept of "defensible" borders was "invented" by Yigal Allon. As president, Jimmy Carter was a real supporter of Israel. Jewish religious claims to the land are "pretty close" to racist. The image of Israelis in sealed rooms waiting out Iraqi missile attacks in the First Gulf War is "vastly exaggerated." And, today's Israeli children are "barred from the public sphere" a problem "imported from the United States."
In "Tragedy, Triumph, and Struggle," the final chapter, Van Creveld asserts that the 1993 Oslo Accords were "well worth making" and "certainly" did "nothing to harm Israel's security." Anyway, "if it did fail" the blame belongs equally to Israel and the Palestinians. Premier Ehud Barak's midnight withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 (which may have set the stage for the second intifada and paved the way for Hezbollah's takeover of the south) is adjudged "a minor masterpiece." Ariel Sharon not Yasser Arafat was largely to blame for the outbreak of the second intifada. Arafat's rejection of Barak's Camp David offer was understandable "since Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were to remain in Israeli hands." As prime minister during the second intifada, Sharon did not know how to cope. The number of Israeli casualties "was never very large" just over 1,100 dead, actually. Van Creveld allows that the security barrier was not a bad idea, but that constructing it beyond the Green Line was. Of course, Sharon's purpose was not to reward enemy violence and to take topography into account. Not one suicide bomber, writes Van Creveld, entered Israel from Gaza since disengagement. Not exactly. The Eilat bakery bombing occurred on January 29, 2007. The trauma suffered by the people of Sderot? Van Creveld claims that the IDF pullout from Gaza was unconnected to the increased bombardment of Israel's south.

There are a few Zionist heroes in Van Creveld's telling. Socialist David Ben-Gurion is described as a "tin-pot dictator. Remarkably, Ben-Gurion's nemesis, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a liberal democrat and advocate of free enterprise, gets fair treatment. Ben-Gurion, we learn, referred to Jabotinsky's followers as "Jewish Nazis" and a "bubonic plague." Yet Van Creveld is perpetually disparaging of Menachem Begin. He was a "demagogue first and foremost" though Van Creveld undermines his own assertion by lauding Begin's decision not to retaliate against the Haganah's unprovoked attack (ordered by Ben-Gurion) on the Irgun arms-ship Altalena thereby avoiding a civil war; Begin's decision not to purge Laborites from positions of influence after his 1977 electoral victory showed him to be a true democrat, and his covert outreach to Anwar Sadat before the Egyptian president's historic journey to Jerusalem enabled peace with Egypt. Van Creveld does seem to have a soft spot for the "Russian-accented" Moshe Dayan. But only playwright Hanoh Levin emerges as a true Van Creveld idol. Levin's sour, nihilistic work, exposing Israelis' "unfathomable narrow-mindedness" is, we are told, popular all over the world.

In Van Creveld telling (though not Michael Oren's) then-U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara belatedly gave Israel a green light to launch its preemptive attack in the 1967 War; Yitzhak Rabin got along famously with Gerald Ford. (Oren said they were an "infelicitous" pair.) Youth movements such as the Scouts are no longer popular (hardly true) except for B'nei Akiva, whose main task is (supposedly) to boost the "occupation." Begin is excoriated for calling Palestinian terrorists "two-legged beasts" however Van Creveld does not tell us the context: the killing of 18 Israelis by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command in Kiryat Shmona.

Van Creveld's characterization of the Kulturkampf between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis is not so much wrong as completely lacking in nuance. He pitilessly denigrates the observant as if all Sabbath observers are rock-throwing fanatics; he misses the heterogeneity among Israel's Orthodox. Other streams get no mention. A description of the overflowing Friday night services at the Reform movement's flagship synagogue in Jerusalem would have done wonders to round out the picture. Of course, he is right about the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on a structurally dysfunctional political system. True ultra-Orthodox religious coercion has alienated many Israelis from Judaism. However, his passing remark that "but for Judaism" Israel's "raison d'être would disappear" does not salvage a chronically injudicious treatment of a very complex topic.

Considering this is a book published toward the end of 2010, it is odd that there is barely an allusion to Iran's nuclear threat; nary a reference to the Second Lebanon War; and scant mention of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. Debilitating political corruption is treated as a minor nuisance. Instead, of illuminating these topics, Van Creveld goes off on a meandering discussion of Israeli feminism that will leave some readers confused whether the author is a misogynist or a radical pro-feminist. Lurching to a conclusion, Van Creveld sums up that while Israel is not perfect, no country is. If so, why did the author allow so much bile to overshadow his narrative?

While bookshelves sag under the weight of pro-Arab and post-Zionist tomes, the wait for a succinct, definitive and stylishly-composed history of Israel will have to continue.

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What then?

Here are several classic histories worth turning to...

The Siege by Conor Cruise O'Brien (1986)

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert (updated in 2008)

A History of Modern Israel by Colin Shindler (2008)

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