Daniel Gordis didn’t have any intention of adding a survey of modern Israel’s history to the list of books he has written about the Jewish state — until he realized no one else had done it.
A Jewish Federation leader in the United States asked Gordis to recommend a history book for lay leaders going on an Israel mission that wasn’t too long and was fun, interesting, accurate and inspiring. He drew a blank on any such book written by someone born in the United States since Howard Sachar’s much longer “A History of Israel From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time” 40 years ago.
Gordis said in an interview that he realized American Jews have a surprising lack of Israel knowledge even as Israel faces increasing vitriol. “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” is his roughly 500-page (not counting appendixes and endnotes) attempt to fill that gap.
Gordis said he had at least three distinct American audiences in mind for his book: the college-age Jew about to go on or just returning from Birthright Israel; Christians; and people, like his parents, who know an incredible amount about Israel.
So he wanted the book to be accessible to someone who knows nothing and full of new information for someone who knows a lot.
A history with an American perspective is important, he said, because “every society thinks about Israel just a tiny bit differently. … Young American Jews, especially given their tendency toward liberalism and a kind of universalism and so on and so forth, need to know that behind Zionism was actually a liberation movement. In other words, Zionism was the Jewish people’s liberation movement.”
Nearly 40 percent of the text covers the period before Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence because Gordis wants to set the intellectual underpinnings of the striving for a Jewish homeland. Zionism was about a yearning and a longing, Gordis said, not about creating a conflict or responding to the nationalism sweeping Europe in the late 19th century.
He said it’s important for the book to demonstrate that Zionism was never a static concept but has always been a conversation — often a heated one — about how a reborn homeland can remake Jews in the modern age.
To that end, although the book chronologically ends with last year’s Iran nuclear deal, the final chapter covers the trend of the secular Jews who make up the majority of Israel defying the intentions of the nation’s founders by digging into their Jewish roots. In most cases, they’re not trying to become more observant, but they want to gain a familiarity and closeness with tradition.
That gives the book an optimistic end, Gordis said. It’s “the return of Judaism to the Jewish state.”
The book is packed with snippets of poetry and with lengthy discussions of writers and their work because Gordis wants to show the crucial role of culture in Israel’s history. Those touchpoints provide a lens to see what Israelis were thinking and worrying about.
One example Gordis found in his research was a poem called “For This” that Natan Alterman published Nov. 19, 1948, during the War of Independence. In murky terms, the poem tells of what appears to be an Israeli soldier killing an elderly couple, although it’s not known whether Alterman is referring to a real incident.
David Ben-Gurion responded by asking to print 100,000 copies so that every Israeli soldier could carry it in his pocket.
“From the very beginning of the country, there was this deep commitment to self-criticism,” Gordis said.
While he wants people to gain a sense of Israel’s grandeur, he also rejects the idea that his history should be a cheerleading book.
Still, Gordis, who calls himself “a passionate centrist,” knows he’ll face flak for being too critical of Israel and for not being critical enough. “I tell my wife all the time: If the hate mail I get, and I get plenty, is coming pretty much equally half from the left and half from the right … I feel that kind of by definition makes me a centrist.”
Daniel Gordis cites two members of the Emory University faculty in the acknowledgments for “Israel”: Jacob Wright and Ken Stein.
Wright, an associate professor of the Hebrew Bible in the Candler School of Theology, checked Gordis’ work to be sure he got the biblical history correct. Gordis said he basically gave the second chapter, “Some Spot of a Native Land,” to Wright for review.
Stein, a professor of contemporary Middle East history, political science and Israel studies, as well as the head of Center for Israel Education and the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, not surprisingly helped Gordis with more recent facts. In particular, Gordis credited Stein with letting him know about a secret Egyptian peace initiative before the Yom Kippur War and Prime Minister Golda Meir’s refusal to take it seriously.
Review: History Beyond Battles
Modern Israel is a nation for which war is an inescapable fact.
Violence by Jews and Arabs for most of the British Mandate forced the United Kingdom to submit the problem of Palestine to the United Nations, which decided on partition. Israel earned its independence on the battlefields against all of its neighbors in 1948, has fought wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014, and forces most of its citizens to do military service because of the constant threat of terrorism, tunnel infiltrations and rocket fire.
The easy way to write a history of Israel is to create a history of armed conflict.
Fortunately, Daniel Gordis chose the more difficult, more enlightening path.
His “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” does not ignore the Arab neighbors or skip the wars, but neither does he dwell on them. He addresses the causes and consequences of each conflict but doesn’t rehash tales of Israel’s battlefield exploits.
He’s much more interested in the unending conversation among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora about what Zionism is and should be and about the culture that has developed along the way.
So the highlights in the pages about the War of Independence, for example, are not heroic stands by kibbutzniks, but the problems with Arabs fleeing or being driven out, the rare but horrible slaughter of Arab civilians, and the critical response from Israeli writers.
To be clear, Gordis is not in the camp of revisionist historians who find fault with every Israeli action. Nor is he the type to hide or deny Israel’s mistakes.
As the title promises, he delivers a concise, readable history that celebrates its subject without idealizing it. It’s a book that belongs on the shelf of every believer in the Zionist dream.