Reflections on Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Roger A. Gerber

Daniel Gordis’s widely praised Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, chosen as the 2016 book of the year by the National Jewish Book Council, is a highly readable popular history that covers the history of the State of Israel in a mere 425 pages of text, plus 27 pages of appendices that include helpful reference material, plus maps.

Gordis’s history has earned accolades from a wide range of luminaries including  Ari Shavit, Dennis Ross, Michael Oren, Deborah Lipstadt and Yossi Klein Halevi, blurbs from all of whom adorn the back cover.

The book, taken as a whole, is a good popular primer but since it has received nothing but praise (with the exception of a generally favorable review by David Isaac in Washington Free Beacon that pointed out flaws), I will take this opportunity to point out some of the problematic sections in this account of Israel’s history.

Gordis does not profess to be a trained historian and his felicitous style masks the superficial treatment of several controversial topics of major import in Israel’s history, including  the Altalena episode and the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, both of which roiled Israel’s society and politics from the early 1930’s (in the case of Arlosoff’s murder) to the present.  After noting that the conviction of Jewish suspects was overturned by the British Court of Appeals, Rabbi Gordis concludes darkly that the murder “would not be the last time Jews killed Jews over political disagreements in the Jewish State”.  This is despite the fact that it was never established that the murder of Arlosoroff was committed “over political disagreements”, nor that the killers were Jews. While Gordis writes that “Arlosoroff’s assassination remains a mystery,” he fails to indicate why this is so.  Space precludes a discussion of the various  speculations regarding the murder, including a possible connection to Arlosoroff’s alleged affair, while a student in Germany, with a close friend of his sister who subsequently became the wife of Joseph Goebbels.  The thirty-four year old Arlosoroff was killed two days after he returned from negotiations in Germany arranged through Goebbels’ wife.  The most plausible theory is that the killers were the two Arabs who actually confessed to the murder.

What is important to note is that the Arlosoroff murder left such an enduring scar on the Israeli body politic that in 1982, almost half a century after the crime, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with cabinet approval, established an official commission of inquiry headed by David Bechor, a respected retired judge of Israel’s Supreme Court.  In June 1985, after Begin’s retirement, the three man Bechor commission submitted a 202 page report unanimously exonerating the Revisionist suspects but failing to identify the perpetrators or to adduce new evidence in the case.  Rabbi Gordis’s account gives no indication of the enduring impact on Israeli society of the Arlosoroff murder.

In discussing the ship named Altalena, whose destruction was the most divisive and dramatic episode in the birth of the State, Rabbi Gordis writes: “Suddenly, Palmach fighters …fired on the Altalena.” He fails to say that they did so on Ben-Gurion’s order or to mention his subsequent statement: “Blessed is the cannon that fired on the Altalena.”  Sixteen Jews were killed, many others wounded, and large quantities of badly needed arms for the War of Independence destroyed.  Gordis does write that among the Palmach commanders on the beach was Yitzhak Rabin, but without indicating that it was Rabin who commanded the group that first fired  on the Altalena.  In The Revolt, Menachem Begin devotes 22 pages to the discussion of the Altalena affair and it remains one of the most painful and controversial topics in Israel  69 years later.

In discussing the death of Avraham (“Yair”) Stern, the leader of Lechi (the underground group subsequently headed by future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir), Gordis asserts definitively that “Stern was killed in February 1942 in a shoot-out with British forces after a massive manhunt” (page 138).  This is despite the fact that one of the three British officers alone with Stern admitted in an interview forty years later that the unarmed Stern was murdered in cold blood by a British officer.  Even if Rabbi Gordis did not know this—and he should have—the official British story was considered highly suspect within the Jewish community from the beginning.

While noting that “Judea and Samaria [is] the biblical name by which many Israelis refer to it” (page 414), Dr. Gordis consistently refers to the area as “the West Bank.”  This is an inexplicable distortion given the fact that the territory was universally called Judea and Samaria until 1950. In that year the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan annexed the land west of the Jordan River which  it had seized in Israel’s War of Independence  and began to refer to it as the “west bank” of the renamed Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.   Not only are the terms “Judea and Samaria” venerable names for the areas in question but they were precisely the names used by the League of Nations, by the British Mandatory authority,, and even by the United Nation General Assembly in its famous resolution 181. That U.N. Resolution, describing the projected boundary lines in the area now commonly called the “west bank”, used only the terms “Judea and Samaria”.   To imply that those names were confined to ancient times is simply wrong.

Gordis describes the Gaza “disengagement” of 2005 as “a remarkable display of Israeli democracy at work” (page 335).  Yet two pages later he contradicts himself, writing that “Sharon had run for office promising not to evacuate Gaza, and then never called for a plebiscite on the disengagement; the entire process struck many Israelis as fundamentally undemocratic.”  Just so.    While Gordis correctly states that Sharon never called for a plebiscite, he did call for, and pledged to abide by, a vote of the Likud party membership.  When that vote went against him by a 3-2 margin Sharon simply repudiated his pledge.  Moshe Arens stated that the disengagement would be “inconceivable in any democratic society in this day and age” and Yoel Marcus, a prominent liberal columnist who supported the “disengagement” wrote that the government’s methods engendered “this gnawing feeling of disgust inside me”.   The high-handed undemocratic manner in which the retreat and destruction of Jewish settlements was handled divided Israel, to quote Daniel Pipes, “in ways that may poison the body politic for decades.“ Some “remarkable display of Israeli democracy at work”!

Other portions of Gordis’s history  deserve critical comment:

Writing of Palestinian Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish, Gordis asserts that Darwish “was the voice of a people seeking independence and freedom.”  It is more plausible to hear Darwish’s voice (“If I become hungry, the usurper’s flesh will be my food”) as one calling for the destruction of Israel.

Mahmoud Darwish

Gordis inserts his own political preferences in his conclusory statement that “It might take years or decades, but for increasing numbers of Israelis, there was now little doubt that Israel would have to leave most of the West Bank sooner or later” (Page 357).  In fact, many in Israel’s governing coalition would strongly contest this perception of “little doubt.”

Gordis writes that after the Madrid Conference, with peace “now clearly on the Israeli public agenda, in 1992, Israelis elected the man they believed could make that peace happen – Yitzhak Rabin.”  The reader is not told that Rabin was forced to cobble together a coalition with a majority of a single seat, and even then was only able to do so thanks to the increase in the threshold for Knesset seats which had the effect of “wasting” the votes of three small right wing parties. Under the previous election rules they would have won two seats.  Moreover, Rabin campaigned as “Mr. Security”– stating, for example, that no one should even consider relinquishing the Golan Heights–and many Israelis cast their vote for him  on the grounds of security, not the promise of a peace deal.

Gordis titles one chapter “The Burden of Occupation” which detracts from the book’s objectivity.  There is a significant segment of Israeli opinion that would contest the use of both words:  “burden” and “occupation.”  This language is used again in the concluding chapter in which Rabbi Gordis asserts: “The occupation in all its manifestations remains one of the most pained dimensions of contemporary Israeli life” (page 420).

Dr. Gordis points out that the Palestinian Arabs living in the disputed areas (the “west bank”) enjoy a higher standard of living and  expanded educational opportunities under Israeli governance. Still, he writes, “the most salient factor for Palestinians was that they were now living not under Jordanian Muslims but Israeli Jews” (Page 297).  Gordis fails to mention that among the reasons that it is unacceptable to live under Israeli Jews is the congeries of Islamic tenets that preclude infidels from permanent rule over land that was once governed by Islam and that militate against Muslims living under infidel rule in such lands.

Daniel Gordis is enamored of the term “nuance.” in fact, his column in The Jerusalem Post is entitled “A Dose of Nuance” and his articles over many years frequently use that term.   And he does not disappoint in this history, writing that the two opposing visions for the Jewish future that he attributes to Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am were melded together and created a new “more nuanced” Jew than either by itself (page 416).   This editorializing is not objectionable but manifests the outlook of the author; it is important that the reader of this history understand that Gordis’s “nuanced” political outlook  permeates his  history of Israel.

On the whole, despite the reservations expressed above, Daniel Gordis’s book is a worthwhile addition to histories of the country designed for a general audience and can indeed be of great service to readers who seek an overview of the fascinating and inspiring saga of Israel.

 

Roger A. Gerber is an attorney and real estate consultant who served for many years on the Board of Jewish Education for Greater New York.  He compiled (with Rael Jean Isaac) What Shimon Says, a collection of the foolish sayings of Shimon Peres.

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