Books: Israel, Looking Backward
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. (Spiegel & Grau, 464 pp. $28)
On my first trip to Israel, as our bus wended its way from one must-see landmark to another, some of our fellow travelers would nod off. Approaching our destination, our thoughtful guide would sing out, “Wakey-Wakey!”
Such a wake-up call is the not-so-underlying theme of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit’s penetrating and carefully nuanced look at his country, a Western-style democracy that bobs and weaves as a target, and occupier, of hostile neighbors. Shavit combines family history and stirring tales of little-known but important figures who shaped Israel’s founding with a recounting of the shocking stories of Israel’s failure to reconcile the fate of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Arabs.
For those who believe that tiny Israel can do no wrong because Jews are only reclaiming their ancient “promised land,” the embarrassing parts of its early and modern history will be difficult to embrace. But Shavit has a greater mission: to acknowledge errors and then force some new thinking. It’s a noble mission, but it isn’t easy.
Shavit blends colorful personal experiences, trips to remote parts of Israel for interviews with key figures in the nation’s history and consequential historic events to frame his narrative, leading to his two basic points: His fear for his country after its miraculous, now sometimes overlooked achievements, and his outrage over its occupation policy. “On the one hand,” Shavit writes, “Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, we are the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened.”
In 1897, Shavit’s great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a London lawyer, led a delegation of Zionists to Jaffa and determined that this ancient port would be the start of their future. With hard work and determination, these pioneers began the task of building a new land.
Each chapter in the book signifies an essential time and place: the young farmer who bought land from his Arab neighbor to grow the Jaffa oranges that would create a booming economy by the 1930s; the visionary youth group leader who transformed and developed the ancient fortress of Masada in 1942 as an eternal symbol for Zionism; the Palestinian and his family who were driven from Lydda in 1948; the immigrants and orphans who survived the Holocaust and took on backbreaking work to help build the state; the anonymous engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s, in the only interview he ever gave; the zealously religious Zionists who started the settler movement in the West Bank in the 1970s; and the dot-com entrepreneurs who have turned modern Tel Aviv into one of the world’s edgiest cities.
Perhaps the most mind-numbing disclosure concerns the rarely recalled story of the dismantling of the Arab city of Lydda. “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland,” Shavit writes. People were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. Thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes into the desert. Zionism, Shavit argues, was to blame. “The miracle of Israel,” he brutally insists, “is based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”
And there lies a conundrum. Against this brutal assessment, Shavit gives a no-nonsense riposte. “The choice is stark,” he declares. “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” Shavit does not reject Zionism, nor does he excuse its conduct. “If need be,” he writes, “I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the state of Israel would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.”
Shavit is blunt about the current Israeli position in peace-process negotiations. “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.” Making predictions concerning the Middle East can be a vexing enterprise, where surprise and uncertainty, not necessarily logic, reign. And peace partners, at least for now, remain elusive.
Surprisingly, for a book with so much passion and that covers so much territory, there is no mention of the religious foundation of Judaism—Torah. This is an odd omission in a work of great importance.
In page after page of honest revelations and fierce opinion, Shavit lays out the case for fulfilling the dreams of Israel’s founders. Let us hope it is not too late. —Stewart Kampel
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi. (HarperCollins, 575 pp. $35)
It is no exaggeration to say that the 1967 Six-Day War changed the course of Israel’s history. Israel’s startlingly quick victory transformed its society and created dilemmas that the Jewish state still grapples with today. In Like Dreamers, leading Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi writes about the paratroopers who led Israel’s unbelievable entry into Jerusalem’s Old City.
To call this book a military history, however, would do it a disservice. An American who visited Israel in 1967 with his father, a Holocaust survivor, and then made aliya in the 1980s, Halevi has written a book that transcends the confines of one war. By following the lives of several paratroopers in the decades after the Six-Day War, he is able to track what followed: the soul-searching in the immediate aftermath; the decline of the kibbutzim and the Labor Party; and the concomitant rise of the settler movement and the Likud Party.
Halevi also weaves the paratroopers’ stories with geopolitical cataclysms, such as the normalization of relations with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and the wave of terrorism after the Camp David talks failed.
The soldiers Halevi follows range from the far-left anti-Zionist Udi Aviv and kibbutznik Arik Achmon to settler leader Yisrael Harel. Many of them played notable roles in Israeli history: Hanan Porat became a member of the Knesset; Meir Ariel became a well-known songwriter and poet.
While artfully portraying the roles his subjects played in Israel’s history, Halevi makes sure that they are more than just symbols by depicting their personal and political struggles, and he goes beyond the stereotypes of “secular” and “religious” that dominate thinking about Israeli society. He describes Ariel and other kibbutzniks’ struggles with the collective experience, and how Yoel Bin-Nun, a founder of the Gush Emunim settler movement, breaks with the movement over Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
Equally compelling is how these paratroopers strove to maintain friendships with each other in the face of their political differences.
Even though Halevi provides a who’s who at the beginning of the book, keeping the main people straight can be confusing. This is a minor flaw. As a result of his prodigious research and authoritative yet accessible writing, Halevi has produced a history that gives rich texture to four decades of Israeli history. He writes with such empathy that readers will find themselves sympathetic to all of the paratroopers, even those whose views they do not share. —Peter Ephross
The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet by Gloria Abella Ballen. (Gaon Books, 240 pp. $65)
Colorist Gloria Abella Ballen presents the 22 letters of the alef-bet majestically, devoting 8 to 10 pages to each, in 230 full-page images. The first alef is pure white set against the reds, browns and greens of a decorative Oriental design. The facing page looks like drops of water on a blue background that darkens into black, the alef a fiery red. There are angular images, collages, a lace design backlit by light and shadows.
Abella Ballen concomitantly introduces the kabbalistic understanding of the alef-bet, whereby each letter has an intrinsic numeric value (gematria): alef is one, bet is two and so on through tav, the final letter, which is four hundred. When learning Torah, she writes, these values give hidden meaning to the text.
She also joins her art to the deeper meaning of letters and words. About the alef, she writes: “Two yuds and a diagonal vav form the letter alef. In Genesis, water is the first substance created. According to Rabbi Isaac Luria, the yuds represent the higher and lower waters and the vav the firmament between them. Alef represents the connection between God and man. Alef starts the word truth, emet (alef, mem, tav).” The writer-artist recalls the Jewish mystical tradition in which the world was created with the alef-bet.
It is possible that Abella Ballen’s background—she grew up in a Sefardic family in South America and today lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico—has influenced her spiritual tendencies. The award-winning Abella Ballon’s images and mystical insights will draw you back repeatedly to these pages. —Zelda Shluker
A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel by Dara Horn. (W.W. Norton, 336 pp. $25.95)
Reading Dara Horn’s latest novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, one eavesdrops on conversations about medieval philosophy, contemporary Egypt, high-tech inventions, Solomon Schechter’s scholarship, love, motherhood, memory and envy. Horn shifts easily between eras and settings, truth and fiction, in this novel of ideas. In her signature style, she’s as fluent and compelling describing the rivalry between sisters in Silicon Valley as the concerns of Moses Maimonides, who was personal physician to the grand vizier in 12th-century Cairo.
A Guide for the Perplexed is the name of Maimonides’s major philosophical work. The titles of Horn’s previous novels, including The World to Come and All Other Nights, are also drawn from Jewish literature, reflecting her scholarly background. Unusual among her generation of Jewish writers, she is fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew, with a doctorate in comparative literature and a deep interest in Jewish history.
Several plots proceed at once, intertwining and suspenseful. Josie Ashkenazi, a software genius, has invented a product called genizah that records and stores human memory. Her digital archive is named for the Cairo Genizah, the huge stash of valuable remnants of medieval manuscripts and ordinary papers stored in a hidden room in a Cairo synagogue that had been unseen for a thousand years.
Invited to postrevolutionary Egypt to do consulting, Josie’s sister urges her to accept the offer for the value of publicity, in spite of possible danger. In a parallel plot a century earlier, Solomon Schechter searches for the Cairo Genizah, which is less an archive than an unorganized attic. He is aided by a doting pair of aging twin sisters he encounters during his studies at the University of Cambridge (siblings appear throughout the novel).
Horn conveys a textured sense of place and captures the emotional and philosophical complexities of her characters’ lives, all making for great reading. They are not always likeable, but they are believable and some are unforgettable, like the very polite, suspicious and ice-cold guide who is assigned to accompany Josie at the Library of Alexandria.
Through her characters, Horn poses questions of free will, fate and belief, framed in ancient thought and futuristic technology.
As in her previous novels, Horn is interested in exploring the nature and quality of human memory and its connection to identity, whether our memory is merely a repository of facts and faces—an unedited archive—or whether it’s possible to select, or curate, what’s worth saving and potentially retrieving in future days. —Sandee Brawarsky
The Hysterectomy Waltz by Merrill Joan Gerber. (Dzanc Books, 184 pp. $15)
Only women, linguists say, can be “hysterical.” Of Greek origin, the word means womb. Some scholars, however, with “moon” and “menses” in mind, also argue that only women can be lunatic. Regardless, the United States has the highest rate of hysterectomies in the industrialized world, the second most frequent surgery after Cesarean section and one typically performed by male doctors. As anyone who has undergone this operation can testify, it is extremely painful, made no easier by denigrating attitudes and myths about being empty, sterile and sexless, even if 90 percent of the proximate causes for the procedure turn out to be benign.
In retrospect, Merrill Joan Gerber will not abide the arrogance, impatience, if not downright hostility that frequently attend this debilitating medical procedure. Her novel, based on personal experience, may be slim and obvious and go on a bit more than it needs to, but with wit and humor it hits the right critical spots. The Hysterectomy Waltz contains some laugh-out loud lines that will resonate with many women who, like her unnamed protagonist, receive an ambiguous but frightening diagnosis (uterine tumor) that leads to the surgery. Though the book carries the usual pro forma disclaimer, “Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author,” many women may well think otherwise.
The middle-aged narrator, however, is fortunate—she has three daughters, a loving husband, a childhood friend and a doctor who advises her to use her brother as a surgeon. She also has, most significant, biting sarcasm that she wields defensively to keep fear at bay, to stay sane in face of absurd and destructive hospital situations, to remain creative and to exact delicious revenge. Gerber just about covers it all, starting with insufficient information in consultation, inane booklets about “Life and Love After Hysterectomy” (with dancing couples on the cover) and simplistic pre-op videos of carefree recovery. In-hospital challenges include inadequate arrangements and treatment: wrong rooms, gruff staff, ignorant aides, inappropriate roommates and indifferent nurses. “When ample time had passed,” the patient quips, “and [the nurse] didn’t appear I called Western Union and sent her a telegram.” Add in casual pharmaceutical largesse and dubious secondary diagnoses (a breast cyst, improperly aspirated, almost leads to additional surgery).
Gerber takes criticism to the max, including a sloppy security system at the hospital that allows a sexual deviant to make harassing phone calls. Then factor in domestic stress once a patient gets home. The narrator’s daughters do, however, offer diversion by way of their current boyfriends—a bisexual marine, a gambler with a horse staying at the house and a falconer, traded in for a Talmudic scholar. Gerber also provides a nod to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus when she takes aim at an over-the-top bar mitzva, replete with narcissistic kid, sculpted chicken liver centerpiece and gift-deposit area. The event nonetheless allows our heroine to “assert freedom and inner resiliency” as she works her smart aleck wiles on her surgeon and makes her way back to a sense of her identity after being lied to about the operation’s physical and psychological aftereffects.
The Hysterectomy Waltz is a bauble but a lot of fun. —Joan Baum
Leave a Reply