Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia

Anderson.LawrenceCurrently I’m reading Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. The title is a little misleading; this book is not just a book about T.E. Lawrence, although his is the most completely fleshed out story. The book also deals with three other Europeans who shape the story of the Middle East in the early 20th century. By drawing back to focus on more than just the romantic figure of Lawrence, Anderson offers us a better understanding of the history and its consequences.

Anderson’s four figures:

T.E. Lawrence needs no introduction (surely) – Lawrence of Arabia? Peter O’Toole on a camel? He was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the Middle East during WWI.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist. He was born in Romania but moved at age 6 with his family to Ottoman Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya’acov, now a thriving city in Northern Israel. He would have been among the Founders of the State of Israel had he not been killed in an air crash over the English Channel in 1919.

William Yale was an American civil engineer and executive with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which sent him to Istanbul and then Cairo to explore for oil. In 1917, he was appointed special agent in Cairo for the U.S. Department of State, and the next year he was given a commission as Captain in the U.S. Army and was assigned as an advisor to British General Allenby in Palestine.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat from 1907 until 1945. He served primarily in the Middle East although he finished his career in WWII in Brazil. He was one of the architects of German policy towards the British in the Middle East, and thoroughgoing antisemite.


This history is mostly about the Great Powers of Europe, not the Turks or the Arabs or the Palestinians. I might argue for a different subtitle: How the European Powers Laid Waste to the Middle East with Some Help from Standard Oil.

I confess to reading about Aaronsohn with some special interest: only he, among the four, regarded the Middle East as his home. I was also curious because, frankly, I’d never heard of the guy and he’s important both as a Zionist and as an agronomist. He was one of the people who “made the desert bloom;” without his work, Israel today would look very different.

Another thing that interests me about this book is its account of the Armenian genocide. I had heard of it, of course, but now I can see how it happened. I now understand its connection to the Nazi Final Solution: Germans like Prüfer were watching very closely to the Turkish policies and to the inattention of the world.

I’m only about half way through the book, and I already feel that I understand more about the modern Middle East. If you have read it, or in future read it, I hope you’ll leave your impressions in the comments here.

How Can We Talk About Israel?

A reader asked, “How do you talk to non-Jews about an Israel that’s less than perfect?”

I live in the capital-L Liberal San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles south of the University of California, Berkeley. I get the question on a regular basis: “How can you support Israel, and call yourself a decent person?”

In many ways I’m a typical resident of the “East Bay” – my politics are liberal. I didn’t start out that way, but various life experiences have made me into a definite social democrat.

I’m also a fervent Zionist, by which I mean that I believe there needs to be a place on the planet where Jews are in charge of our own fate. I think that because there’s a massive pile of evidence that when other people have power over us, especially if there is an established religion, they’ll treat us very badly. In the 20th century, nearly all the Jews of Europe were wiped out, and there are still people saying that that would have been a good thing.

So, the questioners ask, how do I resolve supporting Israel and being a decent person? Like a rabbi, I answer the question with a question: “Are you an American?” Usually the answer is yes, so I ask another question: “Do you approve of everything about America?” That brings a sputtering “No!” And then I can say, “Me, either,” which gives us some common ground.

I do not carry an Israeli passport, but I support Israel. Do I approve of everything about Israel? Heck no, any more than I approve of everything about America. Some things I disapprove of are common to both places!

I’m not going to give out a laundry list of things I would change about Israel any more than I would give a Russian newspaper a rundown of what I would change about America. However, I’ve got my list, and when I’m in a situation to act effectively upon it, I act. Right at the moment, there are so many people hating on Israel – saying that it has no right to exist whatsoever – that I prefer not to provide my words as ammunition for that chorus.

What bothers me most  is the attitude that Israel has no right to exist. I want to say, pray tell, where should the millions of Jews who live there go, if they are not to live in Israel? They were born there. It is their home. A few have been there since long before Zionism: that group was called The Old Yishuv. They’d been in Israel for a long, long time.

Note that I’m not talking about some kind of Biblical deed to the land. I base my understanding on the fact that the majority of Israelis today are the children of Jews who settled in the one place where they were allowed to go, in a place that as a group they had regarded as “home” for millennia. Others came by choice, most of them (admittedly not all) during periods when that choice was legal. Then, in 1948, the United Nations set an arbitrary line down what had been the British Mandate of Palestine and said, Jews on one side, Arabs on the other. The Jews promptly declared a state on their side of the land, and the next day armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded, intent on killing the Jews. Too few people cared about the Palestinian inhabitants of the land and that was tragic.  I admit that they were badly treated – by ALL parties.

I would like to see peace with justice for all, which means that no side will get everything they want. Especially it means that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, or fall into the sea, or otherwise just get out of the way. I don’t want an apartheid State of Israel, and I don’t want a Palestinian State that will bomb Israel forever with impunity.

What I want is for both sides to figure out a way to coexist. And maybe that isn’t possible, but I am unwilling to give up on it yet. I know for a fact that there are Israelis who want it, and Palestinians who want it, too.

What I know for certain is that there is no simple solution, and that anyone who uses the word “simple” in relationship to this problem is sadly misinformed or deluded.

In the meantime, I have millions of Jewish cousins in Israel. To me, that’s one thing being a Jew means:  that all the Jews in the world are my cousins.  I am going to worry about them, and be loyal to them, because we have this kinship. If I am upset with them, I’ll tell them privately, but I won’t hand the haters weapons to throw at them.

This may be more of an answer than my reader really wanted. It might be that all you need to do is ask the person you’re talking with, do they love everything about the country of which they are a citizen?  I guarantee you that there’s something they don’t like. Part of loving something – or someONE, for that matter – is knowing that they aren’t perfect. Either that, or you don’t know them well enough yet.

I would just caution you against trying to find agreement by listing all the things you don’t like about Israel. It will not persuade them. If they are antisemites, it will be ammunition. If, on the other hand, they are troubled by some of the choices Israel’s governments have made, a reminder that all governments fall short of the ideal may help them understand.

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.