My late friend, the political writer Ben Wattenberg, used to say that if you condensed the history of the past two centuries into a single day’s newspaper, the page-one headline above the fold would be “AMERICA.” If so, somewhere on that same page you would also find “Israel.” In Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, the prolific author Daniel Gordis has now produced an account that might appear beneath that headline. As he summarizes the case succinctly in his opening passage, Israel’s is “one of the most extraordinary human stories of all time.”
Gordis means this in a double sense. First, in the 68 years since the birth of their state, Israelis have accomplished remarkable feats—military, economic, intellectual, cultural, and humanitarian—which compare favorably with the achievements of any of the other hundred-plus states founded since World War II. Second, the return of the Jews to their ancestral home, and thereby their renewal as a nation, is an event without parallel among history’s countless instances of ethnic dispossession and dispersion.
Gordis’s chronicle of the Jewish state succeeds handsomely on its own terms, but the book’s special strength lies in the way the author embeds Israel’s story in the pre-state history of Zionism and, through necessarily brief references, within the broader sweep of modern Jewish history. His story thus begins in earnest with the French Revolution, which both liberated the Jews from ghettoization, allowing them to take part in French and, more broadly, European life and contrarily kindled flames of xenophobic nationalism across the continent. The Jews, long persecuted as Christ-killers and deniers of the true religion, now appeared as an alien presence within the body politic—a bacillus, as Hitler would put it in Mein Kampf.
This situation—and the underlying question of how Jews could fit into modern states increasingly defined by a narrow sense of national identity—was addressed as “the Jewish question” not only by anti-Semites but also by Jews seeking answers to rejection and persecution. Some looked to theological explanations; the more secular put their hopes in socialism or the general march of human progress, whose conquest of prejudice seemed inexorable. In the latter view, in order to make their integration possible, Jews would themselves have to change religiously, socially, and economically.
But by the end of the 19th century, with pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Dreyfus Affair in France, and a socialist revolution still not on the horizon, some began entertaining a very different solution. Zionism found its avatar in the unlikely person of Theodor Herzl, a highly assimilated playwright and journalist chastened by his encounters with anti-Semitism first among the Austro-German intellectual elite and then among the masses in France. Having attracted a wide following with his seminal booklet, The Jewish State, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, bringing some 200 participants to Basel in 1897. “For the first time in nearly 2,000 years . . . Jews from around the world gathered in one place to take history back into their own hands,” writes Gordis, an assessment no less grand than Herzl’s own when he confided to his diary, “At Basel I founded the Jewish state.”
Zionism aimed not only at rescuing the Jews physically from European surroundings sensed as increasingly ominous—even if few could imagine their denouement in the Holocaust. It also aimed at bringing an end to centuries of weakness, at enabling and encouraging Jews to defend themselves. Gordis cites the poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, who voiced “horror, both at what Europe was capable of doing and—because of the passivity that Jewish tradition had fostered in them—at what the Jews could not do. . . . The point of . . . the return to the Jewish homeland was [thus] not simply to create a refuge” but also to “fashion a ‘new Jew.’”
This second aim, fashioning a “new Jew,” constituted a generational rebellion against traditional Judaism that also planted a contradiction in the heart of Zionism. As Gordis writes:
Many of the most prominent Zionist thinkers . . . had been born into Orthodox families but to some degree or another left the world of Jewish tradition. Zionism would become a fusion of profound Jewish knowledge and, at the same time, hostility to much of the tradition.
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With an energy and courage unsurpassed among the world’s state-building projects, the Zionist pioneers succeeded so well in transforming Palestine—whose landscape, at the end of the 19th century, was far more forbidding than welcoming—that from the moment of the state of Israel’s founding in 1948, it became the refuge envisioned by Zionism. “Between independence on May 15, 1948 and the end of 1951, . . . 686,739 Jews arrived in Israel,” writes Gordis. “[R]elative to the size of the population they were joining,” they constituted “the largest single migration of the 20th century,” and their absorption into their new homeland was “by any measure one of the most extraordinary . . . in modern history.”
Wave after wave, the immigrants have kept coming. Yet, notwithstanding the dual burden of absorption and acculturation, Israel’s economy has simultaneously flourished, generating an income level that now ranks in the top fifth globally and a score on the UN’s Human Development Index—which measures income, education, and health care—in the top tenth. Today, strong economic growth is powered by hi-tech industries, which, together with Israel’s vaunted military achievements, bespeak the fulfillment of the Zionists’ other goal: the transformation of the Jew.
Of course, Israel has its warts, and Gordis is careful to mention several. In the early years of the state, Mizraḥim, Jews from Arab countries, did not mix smoothly with the dominant Ashkenazim from Europe, who looked upon them with condescension. “The issue was not racism,” Gordis hastens to qualify. “It was a matter of cultural elitism.” More recently, the situation of Ethiopian immigrants has also been problematic, and in this case he does see racism as a factor.
Nor does Gordis fail to report brutalities committed by Jews during Israel’s War of Independence and in its ongoing struggles with the Arabs. In his effort to provide extenuating context, however, he observes that “What distinguishe[s] Israeli society [is] its almost compulsive tendency to self-critique,” which he sees as one of the country’s “great strengths.” Curiously, and no doubt unintentionally, he exhibits the overbearing influence of this same self-critical tendency in illustrating the plight of the Mizraḥim, in the course of which he reports sadly that David Ben-Gurion “went so far as to suggest segregating schools” so that Israeli Jews would not “‘descend’ to be ‘like the Arabs.’”
For his source here, Gordis cites a 2015 op-ed in the Forward that in turn cites an article in Haaretz that in turn cites minutes of a meeting in which Ben-Gurion participated. The Haaretz account, however, renders Ben-Gurion’s remarks in a manner almost opposite to the meaning placed on them by the Forward writer on whom Gordis relies. It seems from the minutes of the meeting that Ben-Gurion was actually advocating special advanced education for the most promising Mizraḥi students so that they might become an elite capable of leading the nation when, as he anticipated, Mizraḥim would constitute the majority in Israel. Evidently, if self-critique is a great strength, it can also sometimes be a weakness.
As for the vexed issue of the Palestinian Arabs residing in the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, it has created challenges “no less existential than the threats that the Six-Day War had sought to end.” Although Gordis refrains from saying how he thinks these challenges ought to be met, hints suggest that he finds the matter of Israeli extrication from the West Bank more urgent than does Israel’s current government. In his evenhanded way, though, he also shows little ambiguity when it comes to the failure of the 1990s peace process, placing the blame for that failure squarely on the shoulders of Yasir Arafat and then on the Palestinian electorate for enthroning Hamas.
Finally, Gordis does not scant the political environment Israel faces as a lone Jewish state against the many Arab and Muslim states in a world in which Muslims outnumber Jews 100 to one—or the lack of Western sympathy for this situation. In addition to recounting England’s effort in the 1930s and 40s to appease the Arabs by closing Palestine as a refuge for Jews attempting to escape the Nazis, Gordis reminds us of less well remembered episodes like the angry international reaction to Israel’s 1960 capture of the Nazi arch-murderer Adolf Eichmann, an act condemned by the UN Security Council and by a chorus of denunciations in Western media, and the later Security Council censure of Israel’s 1981 destruction of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, lambasted by the New York Times as “an act of inexcusable . . . aggression” and “terror.”
To his credit, Gordis does not try to force Israel’s brief but complex history into a grand narrative or to advance a single overarching thesis about it. Instead, he concludes with a chapter about the resurgence of religion in Israel, a significant phenomenon in itself and one that brings his story back to its beginning while gesturing at new challenges yet to be overcome.
Paraphrasing the former Knesset member Ruth Calderon—who believes that secular Israelis like herself should reclaim their religious heritage—he writes: “Zionism had created a new Jew, but that new Jew was rudderless, an ‘orphan in history.’ . . . Desperate . . . to fashion a Jew who would not cower . . . when Cossacks attacked, . . . Zionism had . . . eradicated connection with the Jewish tradition.” Yet, adds Gordis, “scarcely more than half a century into its history, the very religious tradition that the founding fathers of the state had sought to banish was making its way back to the center of Israeli life.”
The project of rescuing the Jews and remaking them into people capable of defending themselves turned out to be insufficient without an answer to the question of why the Jews should exist as a people in the first place. For many, that insufficiency had once been remedied by the ideological fusion of Zionism with socialism. Labor Zionism, as it was called, dominated the movement and then the politics of the state of Israel for its first 30 years, assuring many Israelis of an older generation that the Jews were not merely rescuing themselves but creating a living example of a redemptive socioeconomic system.
Indeed, through its kibbutzim Israel gave the world the most crystalline example of true-to-the-ideal socialism. But once the challenge of state building was securely met, kibbutzniks themselves began to acknowledge the unpleasantness of their supposedly utopian life and set about systematically repealing it, transforming their communes into communities of nuclear families practicing private ownership and private industry. In doing so, they arguably helped to justify the broader shift of the Israeli economy away from collectivism and state control.
This latter transition was initiated by Menachem Begin—the first prime minister, Gordis notes, who also carried a kippah with him at all times. By fits and starts, it has resulted in Israel’s spectacular leap from being a model of socialism to becoming one of the world’s most successful exemplars of capitalist innovation.
Meanwhile, if pioneering kibbutzniks were once the symbol of Israel—a “serving elite,” as the political scientist Shlomo Avineri called them—that role has been passing to others, including in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces. In the 1960s, Gordis writes, it was the kibbutzim that “had produced officers—and suffered casualties—at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the population.” Nowadays, the national-religious community has assumed that role.
The full import of this development has yet to unfold, but it is a momentous and, Gordis implies, positive thing that in the wake of disillusionment with socialism, Israelis seeking a sense of meaning are more often finding it in Judaism. The movement inspired by Herzl did indeed produce a new Jew, but at the end of the day, this new Jew yearns to be reunited with something of the old.