Israel: A Con­cise His­to­ry of a Nation Reborn

  • Review
By – May 16, 2016

Daniel Gordis’s new his­to­ry of Israel should become a stan­dard for years to come, per­haps even a clas­sic. At 576 pages, Israel: A Con­cise His­to­ry of a Nation Reborn can indeed be con­sid­ered con­cise, as so much more could be and has been writ­ten about each era and asso­ci­at­ed issues addressed in the book. Clear, force­ful, frank, and often inspir­ing, this mighty tome of both aca­d­e­m­ic and per­son­al writ­ing explores the ups, downs, and turn­ing points in a his­to­ry that begins with Theodore Herzl’s vision and ends with tomorrow’s challenges.

Gordis is mas­ter­ful at step­ping into the per­son­al­i­ties of the key thinkers and doers of the mod­ern Jew­ish state. His por­traits are alive, and his judg­ments are shrewd. He under­stands and con­veys with author­i­ty the ways in which, for the most part, the right lead­ers arise to encounter the trou­bles of spe­cif­ic eras, such as Men­achem Begin’s fruit­ful ascen­den­cy fol­low­ing a peri­od of rel­a­tive dis­grace and invis­i­bil­i­ty. Quick to point out the flaws in his parade of Israel’s pre-state and lat­er lead­ers, Gordis expos­es how the times make the leader (and vice ver­sa) with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and nuance.

As vig­or­ous­ly as he draws the pre-state decades of Zion­ist immi­gra­tion, Gordis’s depic­tions of inde­pen­dent, mod­ern Israel’s remark­able and even mirac­u­lous abil­i­ty to absorb mil­lions of émi­grés are tru­ly uplift­ing; the sta­tis­tics are stag­ger­ing, espe­cial­ly those exam­ined from peri­ods when Israel’s econ­o­my was rel­a­tive­ly weak. Each of Israel’s major and minor wars receives its due in terms of its rel­a­tive com­plex­i­ty and con­se­quence. Per­haps the most intrigu­ing chap­ter is Six Days of War Change a Coun­try For­ev­er” about the 1967 war: the eupho­ria which fol­lowed Israel’s mul­ti­lay­ered vic­to­ry is pal­pa­ble straight off the page.

The very next chap­ter, The Bur­den of Occu­pa­tion,” redi­rects read­ers’ under­stand­ing of the Israeli mood and sense of real­i­ty. Gordis quotes Amos Oz: Even unavoid­able occu­pa­tion is cor­rupt­ing occu­pa­tion.” Such has been the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence or col­lat­er­al dam­age for Israel, along with dan­ger­ous hos­til­i­ty from many quar­ters. Gordis’s deci­sion not to employ a term less-charged than occu­pa­tion” is ulti­mate­ly to his cred­it, though it will be a point of con­tention for many read­ers and reviewers.

One might not expect Gordis to quote poet­ry in a his­to­ry book, but he judi­cious­ly employs poet­ic pas­sages to help shape the his­to­ry of the Israeli heart and soul — includ­ing the words of Nao­mi She­mer, whose song lyrics trace the shift­ing emo­tions and per­cep­tions of the peo­ple of Israel. In lat­er chap­ters, Gordis observes changes in Israeli sen­si­bil­i­ties. Some changes are the result of gen­er­a­tional con­trast. After all, how many of today’s Israelis have mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust, or even of the great chal­lenges of 1947 and 1948? Who real­ly expect­ed a Hebrew-speak­ing nation to emerge and pro­duce a major body of lit­er­a­ture in an old/​new lan­guage? Who fore­saw the ride from social­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, from farm labor­ers to tech­nocrats, from Zion­ist sec­u­lar­ism to a grow­ing religiosity?

Gordis guides read­ers through all of this and much more, with a blend of ener­gy and grace, brain and heart in mutu­al embrace.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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