I n Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn
n Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, Daniel Gordis sets out to tell the story of Israel in one 560-page volume and to do so without giving way to political or religious bias. This is not only an admirable goal; it’s a daringly ambitious intellectual quest, as Israel is a nation characterized by perpetually disputed territories, competing histories, and kaleidoscopic religious practice. And that’s before involving disputes with Arabs.
No history of the Jews lends itself to an easy telling. Thus, Gordis, a rabbi and senior vice president at Shalem College in Jerusalem, quotes the immortal words of Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik early in the book: “Does God have mercy on Zion?” It is a question the reader will find herself returning to again and again.
Gordis’s account opens with Psalm 137, the cry of lament and longing sung for centuries by Jews hoping to return to the land promised them by God. We are then ushered into the ceaseless fight for Jewish survival from the Kingdom of Judah to the Babylonian exile to the establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the building of the Second Temple to its destruction three generations later. By the book’s hundredth page, Gordis has already relayed a history of more than a million dead.
From the martyrdom atop Masada, Gordis moves straight to the modern effort to establish Jewish statehood, a narrative choice highlighting the link between Jewish struggles ancient and new. As the book’s subtitle indicates, this is the history of “a nation reborn.” In the 19th century, that potential rebirth was a source of both fear and fascination for Gentiles. Gordis quotes Mark Twain, who wrote of the Jews in an 1898 Harper’s essay: “It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs we should not ride anymore.” But for European Jews of the 1800s, sometimes forced to flee their homes in order to evade increasing persecution, the prospect of a reborn Israel was beginning to sound appealing. In response to growing anti-Semitism across the Continent, the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State (1896), proposing an independent homeland for Jews (in Palestine or perhaps even Argentina) to save Jewish lives. But in Gordis’s telling, it was the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, Russia—in which anti-Semitic mobs, harassed, assaulted, and raped 50,000 Jews and murdered 41—that added the necessary accelerant to Herzl’s somewhat fanciful thought experiment.
Gordis clearly and carefully examines the debates that ensued among Jewish intellectuals. Some thinkers saw a conflict arising between statehood and faith. The essayist Ahad Ha’am, for example, feared that the birth of the former would bankrupt the latter. Others, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Max Nordau, saw the birth of a Jewish state as an opportunity to redefine the Jew, turning him from a book-taught Yeshiva-dweller to what Nordau called the “muskel-juden”—a strong and self-reliant Jewish warrior.
Gordis is particularly insightful on the years leading up to the Holocaust. He focuses on the cruelty and callousness with which the British stewarded Mandatory Palestine. More often than not, the British turned away or interned Jews seeking safe harbor. This breathed life into the Jewish resistance movement that convinced Great Britain to wash its hands of its imperial management of the Mandate.
Gordis has not written a pogrom- or Holocaust-centered book. The creation of Israel is not framed here as a response to tragedy, but as an ancient promise fulfilled. In placing the State of Israel in the proper context of 3,000 years of Jewish history, Gordis deftly refutes the erroneous and all-too-popular understanding of Israel’s creation as an act of reparations for the murder of 6 million Jews.
There would be little rest for the Jews of the new state, who suddenly faced an age of wars. With the 1967 war came the death of the Pan-Arab dream and the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Gordis’s portrait of the Jewish state, flourishing in the desert while surrounded by enemies, poignantly highlights the failure of the Palestinian project and the fruitless obsession of the Palestinian people and their leaders with the destruction of Israel.
Israel is a concise, yet comprehensive, mostly apolitical history of the Jewish state. (The rare political opinion rears its head when he writes that after the first intifada, “an increasing number of Israelis saw that there was little doubt that Israel would have to leave the West Bank, sooner or later.”) Gordis brings to life the colorful patchwork of Israeli society and all those whose work helped shape it—as in the stunning reincarnation of the Hebrew language through the life’s work of the fanatical Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the continuing struggle between religious and secular Zionism.
His writerly feat is in making so much so vivid through straightforward prose. Gordis pulls this off, in part, by making liberal use of the poetry of others. The author deploys the verse of Nathan Alterman, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yehuda Amichai, and others to paint a richer picture of events and to give the reader a sense of the accomplishments of Hebrew poetry. In this way, he reveals the soul of a nation and conveys the nature of its people.
Gordis’s concise history, certain to become a standard work for the layman, is a candid account that serves as a kind of mirror for the small but bountiful nation he describes.