Zionism’s Trials and Triumphs
The Israeli Century: How the Zionist Revolution Changed History and Reinvented Judaism
By Yossi Shain (Wicked Son)
Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted
By Daniel Sokatch. Illustrated by Christopher Noxon
Two recent books on Israel examine the country’s current situation, potential trajectory and its relationship with the Diaspora. Yet, they could not be more different, both in style and substance.
In The Israeli Century, the English translation of a book first published in Israel in 2019, Yossi Shain, political science professor at Tel Aviv University and member of the Knesset from the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, provides a three-millennia account of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and life in the Diaspora. The book contains a voluminous, even daunting amount of material. But the patient reader will find much value in it.
Shain’s overall judgment, as implied by the book’s title, is that a thriving and dynamic Israel represents a “tectonic shift of Jewish history” and increasingly has come to dominate the Diaspora, displacing “the United States as the center of global Jewry and as the long-term definer of the Jewish people’s interests and identity.”
Citing the example of Birthright Israel, the program that has sent hundreds of thousands of young Jews on 10-day trips to the country, he argues that only through engagement with Israel can the Diaspora hope to nurture its Jewish identity.
It certainly is true, as Shain observes, that Israel has long enjoyed a prominent place on the Diaspora’s agenda. However, I suspect many American Jewish readers will have a difficult time accepting one of the book’s central premises, namely, that a diminishing and assimilating Diaspora has ceased to contribute much of anything significant to the Jewish people.
The last chapter, which explores the so-called Israeli century, raises profound questions, such as the extent to which the Jewish state should serve as a “light unto the nations,” how it should relate to its non-Jewish citizens and whether it must be democratic.
The most pressing domestic challenge facing Israel, according to Shain, is its relationship with the rapidly growing non-Zionist and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox population. He wonders whether the ultra-Orthodox eventually will “take over the state’s institutions and levers of power, tightening their grip and overpowering its sovereignty and modernity.” He recognizes that unless that is avoided, the Israeli century could become the ultra-Orthodox century, with far-reaching implications for the Jewish state
Meanwhile, Shain barely touches on the festering conflict with the Palestinians. For Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, this is the central challenge facing Israel. His book, Can We Talk About Israel?, is written in a lighter and more accessible style than Shain’s and includes cartoons by Christopher Noxon throughout. “This book is an attempt to explain why Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to drive so many otherwise reasonable people completely bonkers,” Sokatch writes in his introduction. “This is the story of why Israel turns some classic Jewish liberals into uber-conservatives on one issue alone. It is the story of why some otherwise compassionate and judicious progressives feel driven to single Israel out for boycotts, sanctions, and a level of condemnation they would never dream of applying to, say, any of the dozens of worse state actors out there….”
Sokatch, too, begins with history, moving quickly from biblical times to the dawn of the Zionist movement in the 19th century to an explanation of how the establishment of Israel clashed with Palestinian nationalism.
Yet, Sokatch’s main purpose is to act as a modern-day prophet admonishing Israel. He joins with many Israeli and American Jewish progressives who believe that, in the absence of an agreement that accepts Palestinian independence in the West Bank, Israel soon will face the untenable choice of protecting the state’s Jewish majority or sacrificing its democratic character.
Sokatch places blame for the impasse on both Israelis and the Palestinians, unequivocally condemning extremist Palestinian violence and Palestinian Authority corruption as well as acknowledging peace offers rejected by Palestinian leadership. However, he finds that Israel’s settlement and infrastructure building in the West Bank poses the greatest obstacle to the two-state vision—an assessment that I believe is well-founded.
It is easy to be discouraged over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sokatch injects a note of optimism, though, drawing on stories of ordinary people from both sides, among them Maisam Jaljuli, a Palestinian Israeli social activist working with Arabs and Jews, and Gadi Gvaryahu, a religious activist for Tag Meir, an organization that works to counter racism in Israel. People are doing extraordinary things to create a better future for everyone between the river and sea.
Sokatch, who weaves his personal experiences with Israel throughout, expresses the hope that after reading his book, “you’ll be able to hold your own in any Israel conversation, at any dinner party.”
Different as they are, both books deserve a place on your reading list.
Martin J. Raffel is a former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.