5 Good Books on Israel and Zionism

Last night I had an hour and a half to cover “Zionism and the Modern State of Israel” with the Introduction to the Jewish Experience class. As I told them at the beginning, there’s no way that that is enough time to even scratch the surface of such a complex and important topic. What I hoped they would take away was a single sentence, “It’s complicated.”  I promised them a list for further reading, with my hope that they would avail themselves of at least one book on that list:

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit. When I heard voices both on the right and on the left complaining that Shavit’s book was too far to the left and too far to the right, I suspected it might be a really good book. What makes it so good is that it is personal, teasing out individual stories that illuminate the complexities of the land and its people. It does not claim to be a scholarly work.  Rather, it is a way to get to the emotions and human beings that too often get lost in talk about sides. Shavit is a journalist with HaAretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times.

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History. By Rich Cohen. This is an informal history of Israel written by another journalist, this time, an American Jew who loves Israel. He makes a strong effort to be even-handed and mostly succeeds.

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert. This is a more scholarly work on Israeli history, written from a secular Jewish point of view.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar. This is one of the histories of Israel you might read if you were taking a college class on the subject. Not for light reading, but very thorough. 

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur. As one reviewer wrote, this book will either seem like the most wonderful resource you’ve ever seen on the subject, or it will cure your insomnia. The editor has made an effort to collect all the documents you might ever need to see about the Israeli-Arab conflict. These are the raw documents.

Is there a book you particularly recommend on the subject of the history of Zionism, the Jewish State, Palestine, etc? Please add to this list in the comments!

A Matter of Great Urgency

(photo credit Associated Press)
(photo credit Associated Press)

There are many different things I want to write about tonight, but there’s an urgent matter I want to discuss with you.

Yesterday I re-posted Rabbi John Rosove’s article about voting in the World Zionist Congress Elections. He does an excellent job of explaining what it is about. I want to explain to you why this is important to me, and why I hope you will vote.

Jews everywhere in the world have a stake in Israel, not least because it is where Jews go when they can’t stay where they are. That was true in 1492, when Jews moved to the land of Israel after we were expelled from Spain. That was true when violent anti-Semitism wracked Russia and Eastern Europe, and the first modern settlers went to Israel. In the 20th century, when the Holy Land was ruled under the British Mandate, the British closed the area to Jewish immigration because “too many” Jews wanted to move there, fleeing Hitler.  The feeling grew among Jews that we needed a state of our own, under our own control, where we would not be persecuted or exterminated. That’s what the idea for an independent State of Israel is about.

(If you are thinking we could have gone to the UK, or to the USA, or to Canada, or to X, Y, or Z, know that all of those places had tiny quotas in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Check out the film Shanghai Ghetto to learn about the one place in the world where there were no quotas, and why it was a fluke.)

The State of Israel, as it exists today, is not a perfect place. (If any of you live in a perfect nation, please tell me about it in the comments!) Diaspora Jews do not get a vote in Knesset elections (nor should we!) However, we can influence how things go in Israel through the World Zionist Congress election, because this election influences how the funds controlled by the WZO are spent. When you register to vote, first you have to pay a small fee. That’s because these elections are self-funded – we pay the fee to make the election happen, so that WZO funds go only to WZO projects, not to the election itself. Then you are taken to the site for the election and you will be shown a slate of parties. Each of those parties has a platform – you can read them if you like. (And yes, Israelis get to vote for their own seats in the Congress.)

I voted for the ARZAUS slate because they stand for, and will fund, projects that I want Israel to have. They are “for” a democratic, pluralistic Israel. That means an Israel that respects all its citizens: Jewish, Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Christian. That means an Israel that recognizes and funds all expressions of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and secular. It means an Israel with equal rights for women. It means an Israel that respects the rights of its LGBT citizens. These things are important to me.

Keep in mind that not voting is also a vote. Not voting gives more weight to the other slates, which means that if you are eligible and you don’t vote, you are one less vote for the Israel you would like to see, whatever that might be. In my case, that means if I didn’t vote, it would be more funding for the programs and policies that think I should ride in the back of the bus, and many other things I don’t want.

Voting is open now through April 30. To learn more, read Rabbi Rosove’s excellent piece, or go to the ReformJews4Israel site to read about it. (Note: Going to the website is not voting. You can go to the website just to learn. Nothing will happen if you just go and read. From there, you will follow a link to vote, and even then, you will vote for whomever you choose.)

If you care about Israel – even if there are things you don’t approve of right now – this is the appropriate way to voice your opinion, if you are a Jew. This is your right, as a Jew.

Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh – All Israel is responsible one for another. Be responsible. Vote.

My Promised Land – A Question

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright