|The author provides a lively national history, describing Menachem Begin (left) as a demagogue, Yitzhak Shamir as "a born conspirator," and Moshe Dayan as cunning. (Associated Press/ File 1981)|
A tour through Israel’s history
Chronicle offers a simplified account of the redemption of complex nation
Menachem Begin was a “demagogue first and foremost.’’ Moshe Dayan was “capable of stripping a man of his underwear without taking off his pants first.’’ Yitzhak Shamir was “a born conspirator.’’ Ehud Barak “seemed to test reality by theory instead of the other way around.’’
This is Martin van Creveld’s Israel, or at least the leaders of Israel, and along with the peoples of Israel — primarily the Jews, but with cameo appearances by Arabs and others — they are the heroes of van Creveld’s heroic new “The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel.’’
Very few national histories can be described as jaunty, but this one — the chronicle of a land as full of strife as of faith — is decidedly jaunty. (Indeed, how many histories of the country refer to Israel Harel as the nation’s “head spook’’?)
And it is not so much a history of Israel as a travelogue, carrying the tone of a National Geographic feature, setting out the colorful folkways of a faraway land. At least that is so in the treatment of the early years of Israel’s independence, heavy with descriptions of how rare were the cars, how inexpensive were the bus fares, and how trying was the life of the housewife (no vacuum cleaners, no cooking devices more sophisticated than a kerosene stove).
The people were hard working but content, their needs small, but their commitment large. “Except for a relatively short period in the 1920s and 1930s, most immigrants were young and penniless,’’ van Creveld writes. “Partly for this reason, and partly because they were surrounded by hostile neighbors, the new arrivals had to adopt socialist and collectivist ways of life. The land at their disposal was bought, and many of their economic enterprises erected, on behalf of the Jewish people as part of a national enterprise.’’
This is a familiar story, full of familiar names (Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Meir, Rabin), familiar events (the Balfour Declaration, struggles between the Jews and the British, wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982, and rebellions and intifadas thereafter), familiar rivalries (Jews vs. Arabs, British vs. Germans, Americans vs. Soviets), familiar emotions (hope, idealism, frustration, despair), familiar debates (Who got there first? Who gets to pray at the Wailing Wall? Who is a Jew?).
Van Creveld’s theme, like that of Israel itself, is redemption, and as early as his prologue he sets out his vision of a nation “whose progress in terms of maintaining and developing its democracy, economic growth, artistic creativity, academic excellence, and, last but not least, military might has eclipsed that of virtually all the rest, to the point where it is now able to field one of the most powerful armed forces on Earth.’’
Van Creveld’s Israel is a nation of complexities, but the account itself lacks complexity. Here, for example, is a description of Israel’s geopolitical problem:
“There they were, the enemies. On the one hand, the Arab states, with a population measured in the tens of millions and territories comprising many hundreds of thousands of square miles; on the other, Israel, with a population of a little over a million, eight thousand square miles, and a border that, at one point, came within nine miles of the sea.’’
Even so, sometimes there is virtue in simplicity. He explains that the Soviet Union assisted Israel during its early days of independence, assuring that weapons produced in Czechoslovakia made their way to Israel (the same sort of Czech arms that would within a half-decade go to Egypt), adding, “As the Korean War got under way, however, Ben Gurion — worried lest a world war might break out and cut off Israel’s maritime communications — took the country into the Western camp.’’ There: an entire chapter of the Cold War in 31 easily digestible words.
This is, above all, a deeply sympathetic look at Israel, though lacking the scholarship and gravitas of Martin Gilbert’s 1998 “Israel: A History,’’ itself a sympathetic portrait. Some readers may be discomfited by the tone of van Creveld’s boosterism, while others may be discomfited by the last word of this sentence on the Camp David accords:
“Some Egyptians, notably the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which had long been fighting first the monarchy, then Nasser, and then Sadat, rejected the agreement in principle, claiming that it presented a betrayal of Allah’s will, the Koran, or whatever.’’
Still, he helps us navigate the intimidating waters of Israeli politics and popular culture, introducing us to the novelists, social critics, philosophers, and playwrights that are the oxygen of the country’s life — and he captures Israel’s zeitgeist, a product of its size and geopolitical position: “Very often it made for an intimate working environment where everybody knew everybody else, did favors for everybody else, and intrigued against everybody else,’’ he writes. “Marinate, stir well, and let them stew in their own juices.’’
The result is an engaging tour d’horizon of a nation whose horizons so often have been filled with peril — the home of many ancient peoples and, though still one of the most dangerous places on Earth, the home of many ancient hopes and dreams.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.