Crucial period, less crucial book

Many events of that early period echo today, including the refugee issue and the status of Jerusalem.

September 3, 2009 15:27
3 minute read.
Crucial period, less crucial book

the making of modern israel 248 88. (photo credit: )

THE MAKING OF MODERN ISRAEL 1948-1967 By Leslie Stein Polity Press 412 pp., 20 pounds My first reaction on seeing the title of this book and the famous photo on the cover of young Israeli soldiers looking up at the Western Wall after the Six Day War victory was: What, yet another work on this period, fascinating though it is? But to be fair to the author, it does not pretend to contain earth-shattering revelations. For the very first words of his introduction state: "This book aims to provide a succinct overview of the most critical periods in Israel's short history, during which the country's nature and character were molded." He also admits that it is not intended to provide new information, rather "a judicious synthesis of published material." The "educated lay reader as well as the student pursuing Israeli studies" will find "a balanced and... fair rendition of Israel's early years." And in that Stein, senior research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, succeeds. In many cases, such as the chapters dealing with the run-up to the Six Day War and the war itself, he gives much more than an overview, often going into great detail. And not all of it is favorable to Israel. He admits that while he is "unashamedly sympathetic to Israel's general plight, I have not stinted in reporting the country's blemishes and occasional misdeeds." This is confirmed by a quick look at the notes at the back of the book, where the sources for many of his statements are listed. Frequent use is made of well-known critics of Israel, such as Avi Shlaim - who recently described Operation Cast Lead as "a vicious assault" in which Israel transgressed "the norms of acceptable behavior" - and Benny Morris. The events leading up to the declaration of the state are followed by an account of the subsequent War of Independence, which includes a number of critical references. For example, a unit of "undisciplined North African Jews" allegedly rounded up a dozen Arabs and "shot them in cold blood." Also, looting of Arab property was commonplace - a charge which, Stein points out, David Ben-Gurion confirmed in his diary. It is the following two chapters that I found the most interesting: those concerning the fate of Arab refugees following the war and, on the other side, so to speak, the ingathering of Jews from all over the world in the aftermath of victory. While the number of Arab refugees is still a matter of dispute, as are the events leading to their departure, Stein says that the probable number was close to 726,000 - though no one knows how many would want to return if given the chance. Two tables of statistics provide fascinating reading: the number of Jewish immigrants - 1949 was apparently the most popular year, with almost 240,000 arrivals - and the major sources of that aliya. Iraq was the most fruitful, with more than 125,000, followed by Romania, with over 121,000. The problems Israel faced in integrating such large numbers from diverse backgrounds are often movingly recalled - as in the case of one newcomer who bemoaned the fact that "we left Iraq as Jews and arrived in Israel as Iraqis." The enormous challenges Israel faced are recalled, as are the solutions, as the country gradually flourished, despite continual Arab attempts at infiltration. In recalling the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War, Stein offers stark reminders of which countries were sympathetic to Israel both politically and in terms of supplying arms - the French were particularly helpful, with Shimon Peres playing a key role as go-between. The political infighting among Israel's top echelons is also detailed. So many of the events in that 19-year period have their echoes today - not only on the Arab refugee issue but also on the status of Jerusalem and Israel's borders. After the Six Day War, the cabinet offered to withdraw to recognized international frontiers, under certain conditions, though no mention was made of the West Bank, over which the cabinet was split. Yet Ben-Gurion, Stein writes, was apparently prepared to cede the entire West Bank, declaring that he would prefer "a small Israel, without territories but with peace" to "a greater Israel without peace." Any reader of this book, however familiar he or she is with the history of this crucial period, is bound to learn something. Yet I can't help feeling that it falls between two stools. It is more than "the succinct overview" Stein refers to in his introduction, but "the educated lay reader" may well be left wondering why yet another book on this period has been published. Before making aliya seven years ago, the reviewer was deputy editor of the London-based Jewish Chronicle.

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