Book review: Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

Lawrence Joffe finds much of interest in a history of the Jewish state


‘Jew, go to Palestine!” That threat from Hungary’s National Anti-Semitic Party may well have driven the young writer, Theodor Herzl, as much as the Dreyfus Affair did. As Daniel Gordis notes, Herzl transformed those same words into a rallying cry when he founded modern political Zionism in 1897.

Gordis concedes that Herzl would cannily ally with antisemites if they could further his diplomatic goals. Weizmann and Sokolov, he argues, similarly exploited bigoted superstitions about Jews.

Perhaps the biggest ruse was that Zionists hid the fact that they represented only a minority of Jews. Anglo-Jewish leaders like Edwin Montague preferred assimilation; millions had fled the Pale for America, not Palestine; most Orthodox rabbis wanted Jews to wait for God to intervene. Meanwhile, the atheist Marxism of the October Revolution, which erupted virtually simultaneously with Balfour, appealed more strongly to the emerging Jewish proletariat.

Somehow, Zionism outlasted its decriers, assisted certainly by the grim reality of Nazism. To Gordis, the key factor was the positive notion of “reborn”. Hence his segue from the sight of bourgeois rebels in black tie at Basel to the Old Testament, which, writes Gordis, was, to Jews, still “a national diary, the story of their family — and central to that story was the land itself”.

At the same time, Gordis explains, Zionists did not imagine a literal return to the past. Rather, most wanted to escape their rabbis and “atavistic” customs. Many dreamed of becoming new Hebrew labourers. But, without a spiritual centre, Jewish settlers would not endure, as Ahad Ha’am had warned even before Herzl. Or, at best, their identity would be nebulous. Furthermore, admits Gordis, Palestine already had a majority Arab population who resented the newcomers and their strange ways.

Gordis shows how socialism built the state-to-be, while Ben-Gurion emerges as a necessarily autocratic, founding genius. Then the military triumph of 1967, when Israel tripled the area it controlled in just six days, was succeeded by the near-disaster of Yom Kippur in 1973. By now, Jews whose post-1948 ancestors left Arab lands, and who constitute about half of Israel’s population, voiced pent-up anger at the Ashkenazi Labour “founding elite”, which stuck them in tented camps far from Israel’s centre. (Ben-Gurion himself once called them “human dust”.)

In a lurch to the right, Likud was elected in 1977, led by Menachem Begin, a former terrorist against the British Mandate. Gordis wryly notes that Begin achieved what no other Western leader had: he lost nine elections in succession and still won power. Despite a brief turn to the left during Oslo, 1993, Israel has since remained defiantly right of centre, especially since the second intifada.

Today, the term “Zionism” has become a touchstone for toxic argument. Happily, Gordis has returned the idea to the context of the time of its creators. In the process, he has written an accessible, appealing, concise and vivid history, switching deftly from analysis to near-cinematic depictions of key moments in Israeli and proto-Israeli history, from the despair of Hebron 1929 to the triumph of the Ethiopian airlift of 1991.

Gordis seldom denies Israeli shortcomings yet defiantly sees the glass as half-full. In his final chapter, he praises Ruth Calderon MK, raised in a quintessentially secular Zionist family, who wields a copy of the Talmud during her Knesset maiden speech. She speaks movingly about rediscovering the richness of Jewish tradition, without abandoning modernity and Israel’s new start-up ethos. Maybe, Gordis muses, Calderon epitomises a blending of streams, where Herzl meets Ahad Ha’am and the New Hebrew rediscovers the Old Jew inside.

Yet, as subtle as is his portrayal of Jewish Israelis, his depiction of Arabs is two-dimensional. No Palestinian name other than the Mufti’s appears before 1948; by dismissing Arafat as an inveterate terrorist, he disregards how far the PLO chief travelled ideologically to recognise Israel in 1993. Moreover, Gordis virtually calls Palestinians violent by nature, without accepting that most people would be upset to lose their homes in 1948, be corralled behind roadblocks after 1994, see settlements erode hopes for statehood, or find themselves besieged in Gaza since 1997.

He also blithely ignores all Arab peace plans since 1967; and ignores rising signs of racism, growing pay gaps and erosion of democratic norms, especially under Netanyahu.

Where Israel excels is in its often surprising vignettes: like Prime Minister Eshkol fumbling his speech to the nation before the triumph of June 1967; or the supposedly “fascist” Begin campaigning on democratic grounds in the late 1950s against Israel’s long military grip over its Arab citizens. Then there is the catharsis of the Eichmann trial; and the revelation that Israel is one of only two nations that has more trees now than it did a century ago.


Lawrence Joffe is the author of An Illustrated History of the Jewish People

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn is published by Ecco/Kuperand £14.99 

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