Tag Archives: Israeli history

“Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn,” by Daniel Gordis


Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. 576 pages. Hardcover $29.99.

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. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis |

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

The Lebanese security outposts are long gone, but nothing is over

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, by Matti Friedman. Algonquin Press. 256 pages. Hardcover $25.95

This remarkable book – part memoir, biography, history, and meditation – explores a particular place of intermittent combat at a particular time in the history of the Middle East. Matti Friedman takes us through that brief sequence of years, the winding up of the twentieth-century and the unleashing of the twenty-first, with a journalist’s eye and a poet’s heart. The transition is one from fragile hopes of peace to something far less optimistic: a condition of endless and perhaps escalating war.  Friedman_Pumpkinflowers_jkt_HC_rgb_HR

The place is the security zone established in southern Lebanon by Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies. More particularly, it is an outpost in that zone at the top of a hill known as the Pumpkin. The time is the 1990s, with a peek into the coming century. These young soldiers, teenagers for the most part, learn what has been learned before throughout the history of war. There is very little glory in it. The soldier’s bond is increasingly to other soldiers and not to the ideals or even the nation and citizens for whom he or she fights.

What soldiers suffer through during their tours of duty is rarely in the public consciousness, especially in a war that has no official name and where television news is not being made. For all but its surviving participants and the relatives of those who died there, it is quickly forgotten if ever known at all. There is a serious question about whether the sacrifices made changed anything, whether the costs bought anything. Perhaps the security zone experience only accelerated the misunderstandings, hatreds, and patterns that mark the region’s situation fifteen years later.

Matti Friedman tells the story of his time spent on the Pumpkin, but he does not begin there. Rather he begins with someone else’s story, a soldier named Avi who came to the Pumpkin in 1994. Avi was an individualist, a young man who distrusted institutions. His outlook added stresses to his time in the Security Zone, but, knowing himself, he managed to overcompensate and get his job done. Through Avi’s story, Friedman tells a version of the universal coming-of-age tale that is military basic training. This is a process of stripping you down and rebuilding you as part of a dedicated team – as part of a machine.

Avi was an eloquent person who was likely to become a fine writer. His writings about life in the Security Zone survived him, and Friedman makes effective use of these to paint one version of the mid-1990s on The Pumpkin. In this section we learn: “In the jargon of army radiomen, wounded soldiers are ‘flowers.’ Dead soldiers are ‘oleanders.’ It isn’t a code, because it isn’t secret.” Such language is “intended to bestow beauty on ugliness.” The outposts take names like Basil, Crocus, Red Pepper, or even Pumpkin. A piece of military technology might be named Buttercup. Such naming is a useful distancing device from the horrors that soldiers will most likely need to describe.

The Avi section introduces a range of interesting characters, as a group learning to live with the constant threat of guerilla warfare: improvised explosive devices, standard land mines, and shelling. It concludes with an accident: the rotors of one helicopter cut through the bottom of Avi’s.

Matti Friedman

Matti Friedman

Part Two opens with the aftermath of this dual crash – the reaction to the sudden death of seventy-three Israeli soldiers. This momentous event usher’s in Friedman’s moving exploration of the Israeli way of mourning and memorializing. He notes: “There are many layers of dead in this country.” The new top layer created on February 4, 1997 is, for Matti Friedman, “the beginning of the end” of the security zone enterprise. It forced the questions “what were these young people doing here?” and “what did they die for?” –  questions for which no answers both honest and uplifting were available.

The accident changed nothing but the people. A kibbutznik woman named Bruria started a movement of mother’s to end what seemed to her and those who joined her an insane policy. Soon after her cause began taking shape, it was Matti Friedman’s turn to serve his country on the Pumpkin outpost.

Part Three describes Friedman’s time of duty in the security zone, really not very far from his parents’ home in northern Israel. Here, as elsewhere, the author’s journalistic and literary gifts provide a kind of pleasure within a series of observations and experiences brimming with pain. He gives us the sensations of daily life, whether under attack or within the numbness of routine. As one would expect, Friedman traces the short route from innocence to experience.

He writes:

“It is hard to recall how little you once knew, and harder to admit it. I understood that we were Israeli soldiers, that our enemies were Arab fighters, whom we called terrorists, and that we should kill them before they killed us: that the battlefield was this place, Lebanon. I knew I couldn’t let my friends down. That was it. Matters seemed fairly clear to me on the first day.”

In the deceptively simple prose, readers cannot help feeling that a much more complex, nuanced response will build and build. And it does.

This section includes a careful portrait of Nabatieh, the nearby Lebanese town. It also contains the delightful story of the religious soldiers who visited the Pumpkin with blowtorches in order to prepare the place for Passover. Friedman brings to life a cast of characters, his comrades in arms, and he lets us know how it feels when Hezbollah gunners are firing at you.

All is beautifully textured in a tone that often seems oxymoronic: hard nostalgia. Part Four takes us beyond the end of Matti Friedman’s time at the Pumpkin, and then records the shutting down of the security zone. He also offers us a stirring vignette on his more or less secret return to the Pumpkin as a Canadian tourist, and then leaves us wondering about what this story tells us about the future.

Indeed, looking back from the situation of today’s Middle East to the abandonment of the security outposts, one can piece together the accumulating future that gave us the Arab Spring and its demise. Where have all the flowers – the oleanders – gone? Why?

This is an instant classic of Israeli literature and of war literature.

The review appears in the September 2016 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“City of Secrets,” by Stewart O’Nan

Viking, 208 pages. Hardcover $22.00

City of Secrets is a brilliantly imagined vision of turmoil in 1945 Jerusalem. A Jewish Latvian man who survived the Russians, the Nazis, and then the Russians again has made his way to Palestine, going by the name of Brand. Like many with whom he associates, Brand’s lifeline is a passable identity document. If he is found by any Mandate official—or betrayed by those with whom he is shakily allied—Brand can readily be turned over to the British Mandate authorities. His life, like theirs, is a web of secrets.

Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O’Nan

Brand finds himself indebted to and dedicated to the Zionist revolution, and thus against most policies of the Mandate. He is part of a cell that uses violence to undermine the Mandate and bring about the Jewish State. At this time, the Irgun and the Haganah are working together rather than fighting each other. The members of the cell live in world that blends loyalty and suspicion in an explosive formula. Few know all of the elements of any planned action, and the stated plans are often disguising the real ones for security purposes. No one is fully trusted: no one is considered above cracking under torture. Undercover as an independent taxi driver, Brand may find himself ordered to pick up an accomplice at a certain location, but find another cell member there instead, perhaps with new orders to pick up someone else at another location. The security arrangements assure confusion and frustration.

They also frustrate relationships: Brand is in love with a woman working undercover for the revolution. She is capable and courageous, and she cares for Brand, but her loyalty—like his—is to the movement. His guilt brings painful dreams of Eva, his deceased wife. O’Nan brilliantly presents those dreams and visions, revealing a man haunted by his concentration camp experiences and losses. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: City of Secrets: A Novel by Stewart O’Nan | Jewish Book Council

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books

“Let There Be Water,” by Seth M. Siegel

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press  2015
352 pages    $27.99
Review by Philip K. Jason

This smart, engaging, and extremely feel-good book tells one of the stories that best illustrates how Israel consistently turns crises into opportunities and challenges into victories.

Long before statehood, the nascent country’s leaders and planners had realized that population and economic growth required an efficient and secure infrastructure, and that a dependable, affordable water supply was at the heart of it all, necessitating both scientific and managerial innovation. Even as Israel grew to be more and more exemplary of booming private capitalism, government monopoly would be the best way to manage water.

And so it has proven to be.

The invention of and commitment to drip irrigation—a technique that put the water only where it was needed, when it was needed, and in the precise quantity that was needed—revolutionized agriculture, first in Israel and later throughout the world. The commitment to extracting fresh water from seawater also contributed not only to Israel’s water independence, but to the improbable condition of water abundance as well—similarly accomplished by building the capability of turning sewage into a major component of an unparalleled national water system. And developing a water-sensitive culture proved every bit as important as the technologies implemented. (The government of Israel effectively encourages citizens not to waste a drop—and to make sure there are no leaks in their distribution systems—by charging users at least the actual cost for water.)

To read the entire review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World

Leave a comment

Filed under Jewish Themes

Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned against Israel

 by Joshua Muravchik. Encounter Books. 296 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

At once impassioned and clear-headed, this abundantly researched discussion of Israel’s decline in world public opinion is necessary reading for all who care about this highly vulnerable country. How is it that an innovative, democratic, peace-seeking nation keeps losing the propaganda war? Murovchik shows us how in a series of well-crafted chapters.

The author begins by reminding readers of the high esteem with which Israel was gener­ally regarded in the first decades following its declaration of nationhood. To some measure, that esteem grew out of how the tiny new nation had overcome seemingly insurmount­able odds—and continued to do so.

Over time, however, various forces dimmed the luster of the glorious David. The chapter entitled “The Arab Cause Becomes Palestinian (and ‘Progressive’)” outlines the story well, exploring the psychological warfare in Arab and Muslim politics that slowly repositioned David and Goliath. Israel was positioned not as threatened by the Muslim masses, but as the demonical usurper of Palestinian rights. Losing underdog status in world opinion was a major blow.

Terrorist assaults on Israel did one kind of damage, constantly diverting resources. Assaults on Jewish institutions in Europe weakened the moral fiber of European nations and also released latent anti-Semitism. On top of this, Arab countries were able to use the petroleum weapon to make Europe cower. The message was clear: If you want oil, detach yourself from Israel in every possible way. . . .

To read the entire review, at it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site and in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Book World, click here: Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Tel-Aviv, the First Century

A splendid critical celebration of Tel-Aviv’s first hundred years, this collection of essays reads like a spirited conversation across academic disciplines and across ideologies. While the primary focus is on the shaping of Tel-Aviv up until the founding of modern Israel in 1948, there is also a satisfying amount of  attention paid to the changed conditions after 1967 and even into the twenty-first century. Most people are not aware of the fact that an independent municipality of Tel-Aviv existed during the British Mandate period. Like so much else in the Yishuv years, the Zionist enterprise was in the business of institution-building long before the declaration of statehood. The planning and nurturing of the first new Hebrew-speaking city was an important part of that agenda. . . .

Okay, you’ve read the teaser. Now for the entire review as it will appear in Jewish Book World, click here: Tel-Aviv, the First Century. Visions, Designs, Actualities

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes