Daniel Gordis’s ‘Israel’ Named Jewish Book of the Year
Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis. (Ecco, 546 pp. $29)
The head of a major Jewish federation asked Daniel Gordis to recommend one book on Israel that could be shared with a group of lay leaders about to go on a trip to Israel—a book that covers Israel’s history, is academically credible, eminently readable and tells the story of Israel in a way that inspires.
Not finding a publication that met these criteria, Gordis (read our interview with the author here) resolved to fill the vacuum by producing a volume that “does not ignore or paper over the conflict, yet which engages Israel as an issue much wider and more profound…,” he wrote in an article in Tablet, the online publication, in October 2016. He wanted the book to be balanced, to not only celebrate “Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments” but also to be honest about “many of its failings.” Did the author achieve his objectives?
Discourse on Israel has become so toxic that rabbis and other Jewish leaders avoid the topic altogether. Gordis has steered a much-needed middle path through the political thicket. To his credit, he does not shy away from the term “occupation” when referring to Israel’s control of Palestinians in the West Bank, something that may irritate Jewish conservatives and current Israeli government officials.
This book covers an enormous amount of ground, from the early stirrings of Zionism in 19th-century Europe to contemporary Israeli political, religious and cultural issues. As such, it is virtually impossible to explore any aspect of Israel’s story in-depth. Aware of this, Gordis provides a list of suggested books and other resources for further reading on his website.
In other venues, Gordis has expressed deep concern about young American Jews’ ignorance with respect to Israel’s history. A recent survey of Jewish students conducted by researchers at Brandeis University found that many students avoided entering conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they lacked the necessary knowledge to do so effectively. This book can serve as a useful tool in overcoming this challenge. As an Israel “junkie,” I appreciated the extensive review of pre-state Zionist history. Yet, it may be a little too esoteric, especially for Jewish millennials we are seeking
Did the author succeed in conveying a story of Israel that takes us beyond the conflict? Yes and no. There is much material in the book on Israeli culture, the role of religion in the state and its multiethnic identity. There also is an interesting chapter on resurgent interest in Jewish texts and traditional values among secular Israelis. However, Israel’s military struggles—the epic War of Independence, 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War as well as smaller confrontations in Lebanon and Gaza, and the two Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas—still dominate the second half of
Is this the “one book?” I’m not sure; in any event, it is a terrific addition to your library.
Martin J. Raffel, a consultant, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.