I just finished reading two books covering the subject of Israel - the first in sequence being Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Dan Ephron; the second being Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis. One goes into great depth and analysis about the events leading up to and immediately after the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, while the other creates a broad narrative of the modern state of Israel, starting all the way back to the causes leading Theodor Hertzl to convene the First Zionist Congress in 1897. It was fascinating to read them both back to back; I felt like one gave context for the other. There is far too much information packed into each book for me to adequately summarize all of what is in them, although I found both very easy to read. What I will attempt to do here is provide an overall view of each book, and how I perceived each to lend its perspective to the story of Israel.
I read Killing a King first - it is a dual track story, following the paths of Rabin and his eventual assassin, Yigal Amir, a Jew from an orthodox family. Ephron gives us insights as to what ultimately motivated Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli military hero from the 1967 Six Day War, to make peace with Yassir Arafat, the man who extensively practiced terrorism both in Israel and abroad during most of his leadership of the PLO. This is important - Rabin, one of the key people involved in the capture of the West Bank and the Sinai - believed Israel's future lay in making peace with the Palestinians and moving them towards self governance in the West bank. (No less than David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father and first prime minister, thought Israel should leave the captured territories.) At the same time, Ephron provides the thinking behind Amir's move towards, and ultimately act on, the killing of Rabin. Many in the settlement movement, in particular certain ultra-Orthodox groups, viewed Rabin's actions as nothing short of treasonous towards Israel and the Jewish people, and extremist right-wing incitement towards Rabin may have fueled this fire. The peace process had been gaining momentum, the first of two peace accords was signed in 1993, the second in 1995. Violence marred much of these two years, as extremists opposed to the peace process tried to derail it through terrorism. The years 1994-1996 began some of the worst terrorism that Israel has suffered, with frequent suicide bombings in public squares and on public transit that resulted in mass casualties, many of which were perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It must be said that there was violence from Israelis as well during this period (most notoriously the massacre of Arabs praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs, perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994). Right in the middle of this violence, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was killed by Yigal Amir, which for all intents and purposes ended the peace process.
It's a devastating story, all the more so that he was killed at a peace rally attended by 100,000 supporters for peace. It also made me wonder how Israel got to that place, and where it is right now. I knew the general outlines of Israeli history of course, the big events. But I was seeking something a little richer, a story from the beginning that might shed a little bit more light and context on Israel's story. That brought me to Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.
A Concise History tells the story of Israel in a broad historical arc - it is in part a story of how the Jewish people see themselves, and in part the story of how the modern state of Israel came to be. Like the old joke that if you ask a question to three different rabbis, you'll get three different answers, A Concise History pushes and pulls on its assumptions, delves into philosophical reflection, and tries to see the flaws and mistakes the Israelis have made in addition to its successes. I admit I found it riveting.
Daniel Gordis traces the roots of modern Israel all the way back to the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans in 132-135 CE. The Jewish population was decimated and exiled, and the Diaspora began. The reason Gordis starts with this context is to give the reader an idea of the stories Jews have told about themselves over the centuries, in particular Jewish liturgy and observance often speaks of the return to the land of Israel. Most prominently, every year (even today), each Passover ends with "Next year in Jerusalem". This context and background is important - while the persecution of Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries (including the Holocaust) directly led to the creation of modern Zionism and the formation of Israel, the roots of the modern day state of Israel hearken back millenia - as a core identity and ritual of the Jewish people.
Gordis takes us through the years that followed the First Zionist Congress in 1897, formed by Theodor Hertzl. Jews began to emigrate to their historical land of Judea from the darkening clouds in Europe; at that time, the Ottoman Empire had controlled the region for centuries. In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated support for a Jewish state in Palestine. In the interwar period, many more Jews began to immigrate until the British tightened immigration restrictions before and during the Second World War. During the war, boatloads of fleeing Jews were turned away from many countries - including the United States - only to be returned to Europe. And as stated above, the British severely restricted immigration to Palestine during the war. The horrors of WW2 were indeed the catalyst for the UN partition plan of 1947 which created both an Arab and a Jewish state in Palestine. The land now known as the West Bank belonged to Jordan. Immediately, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq all attacked Israel, but in 1948 an armistice was signed and Israel was reborn. That territory did not include the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or Gaza.
The modern state of Israel was essentially a secular endeavor, with its leaders (all the way back to Herzl) looking to step away from the dark past for the Jews. In 1967, the surrounding Arab countries moved to attack Israel, but wound up losing control of the West Bank (then part of Jordan), the Sinai peninsula (part of Egypt), Gaza, and the Golan Heights (part of Syria) to Israel. This changed the character of Israel into an occupying force; many, including as mentioned above, David Ben-Gurion, advocated an exit from the occupied territories. The rise of settlers, largely but not entirely religious, began to complicate matters for the government. Much of what we see in modern Israel today traces back to the 1967 war, and the inability and/or unwillingness for the Israeli government to exit the occupied territories. Additionally, Israel's laudably broad welcoming of immigrants resulted in separation between the generally white Ashkenazi (Eastern European) community and darker complexion Sephardic/Mizrachim (Medeterranean/Middle East) communities. In 1977 Menachem Begin - of Russian descent - is elected to Prime Minister; he supported religious and Mizrachim communities, opening up a new era for these groups to influence Israeli politics. (Note it was Begin who made peace with Egypt and gave back the Sinai.) A complex and tense dynamic arises, and Gordis takes us through Israel's varying wars, successes and failures, all the while confronting violent terrorism and continued efforts by much of the international community to de-legitimize Israel's right to exist.
Gordis' approach to the Rabin assassination differs from Ephron in the sense that Ephron took a generally positive approach to Arafat's detailed involvement in the peace process and how his relationship with Rabin developed, while Gordis reminds us that Arafat did not speak out against the continued violence perpetrated by Hamas, and puts the blame for violence in large measure on Arafat's shoulders. Ephron focused on the decay caused by radical extremism in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities as a catalyst to Rabin's assination; while Gordis agrees with the premise put forth by Ephron, his focus is on the repeated cycles of violence perpetrated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups to derail the process, separate and apart from Rabin's killing. Subsequent efforts, whether by Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak, both of the Labor party (the more liberal party), proved fruitless. Ariel Sharon of Likud (the conservative party) decided to just pull up stakes and exit Gaza, which led to Hamas controlling the region.
Where that led me to is Israel then, finds itself in a duality it is difficult to escape from - it is a country of wonder, filled with dynamic and enterprising people looking to best make a just home for the Jewish people. It is also a country that has made mistakes, and is in constant vigilance from peoples and countries expressly sworn to its destruction. An understanding of its experience in unilaterally exiting territories it occupied, in particular Lebanon in 2000, and Gaza in 2005, helps bring context as to why Israel doesn't just pull up stakes and leave the West Bank. In each case, a well funded and organized terror operation sworn to Israel's destruction (Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza) wound up controlling those territories and increased violence against Israel. The world judges Israel in ways that most other nations are not.
As history has shown, the Jewish people have a core need for self governance and self reliance. Israel is that rare country that while often imperfect, is very open about its successes and failures. It is a technological, educational and cultural powerhouse, and is unapologetic about its right to exist securely. It struggles trying to find the right balance between the secular and the religous, and the issues that come up with each. It continues to debate and search for its Jewish identity and its future, much as the Jewish people have done for thousands of years. And - it is entirely possible that Israel's own progress could be used to help build a Palestinian state. If you have any interest in the story of Israel, both the good parts and the bad, I wholeheartedly recommend both books.