It’s become a December-January tradition for newspapers to publish lists of the best or most popular books of the past year. Very few of these lists have included the types of books I am reading on Israeli and Jewish matters (including Torah commentary).
So here is my admittedly narrow list of best books of the last year, published in either English or Hebrew, some by small publishers that are often overlooked.
• In Defense of Israel: A Memoir of a Political Life, by Moshe Arens
With the passing of former ambassador and defense minister Arens last week, it’s appropriate to highlight this trim memoir. Arens recounts his early role in the birth of Israel’s aerospace industry, and his relentless drive to keep Israel secure. He recaps the Lavi jet fight, First Gulf War, struggles with the Bush-Baker team, and his opposition to the Gaza disengagement and to West Bank withdrawals.
• Milchemet Zechut haShiva (The Palestinian War of Return), by Dr. Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz
This important and timely book exposes the Palestinian campaign for everlasting refugee-dom and rips into UNRWA for perpetuating the Palestinian dream of destroying Israel. The authors finger the international community, the Israeli government and the IDF for prolonging the destructive refugee ethos, which is the biggest obstacle to peace. The book must be published in English soon!
• The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland – Then, Now, Tomorrow, by Prof. Gil Troy
Building on Arthur Hertzberg’s classic reader of over 50 years ago, this volume anthologizes 170 Zionist voices to shed light on diverse and shared commitments to Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Perhaps most interesting is Troy’s selection of modern Zionist thinkers, including Aharon Barak, David Grossman, Ayelet Shaked, Benny Lau, A.B. Yehoshua and Jonathan Sacks. The stated purpose: to reinvigorate Zionist conversation.
• Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi
Ostensibly, this incisive book seeks to explain to Palestinians why Jews have returned to Zion and how Israelis see the Arab-Israeli conflict. I sense that the book really is aimed at progressive Jewish youths in the Diaspora who have no clue why Zionists are so committed to the nationalist-religious project of building and defending Israel.
• The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors, by Charles Krauthammer, edited by Daniel Krauthammer
This is a second collection of the recently-deceased columnist’s most important works, spanning the personal, the political and the philosophical (the first was Things that Matter, published in 2015). It includes a fierce essay about the effect of today’s populist movements on the future of global democracy. A good reminder of what made Krauthammer a celebrated and influential American commentator.
• Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts
I’m rolling with the crowd in praising this book. It has been declared one of the 2018 best by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. The author delves into extensive newly-available material such as cabinet transcripts to show how Churchill’s fundamental values of courage, tenacity and moral conviction drove his wartime leadership.
• Kissinger. 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Prof. Niall Ferguson
Harvard’s Ferguson is the closest thing we have to an official biographer of Henry Kissinger. This 1,000-page volume covers the lesser-known years of Kissinger’s upbringing and academic career, from his flight as a child from Hitler’s Germany to his appointment as president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. It’s an epic biography with compelling takeaways about American politics and foreign policy.
• The Virtue of Nationalism, by Dr. Yoram Hazony
This Jerusalem-based philosopher offers a counterweight to the prevailing political correctness that considers the resurgence of nationalism in the West as cause for alarm. He presents Israel and the US as examples of healthy societies in which both national identity and individual liberty flourish, and he roots this in biblical values.
• Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness, by Kenneth Pollack
An examination of the poor combat performance of Arab armies and air forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war, from the Jordanians and Syrians in 1948 to Hezbollah in 2006 and the Iraqis and ISIS over the past decade. Behavior patterns emphasized by Arab culture, along with politicization of the military and societal underdevelopment explain Arab defeats.
• VeNahar Yotze meEden, al Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur ve-Succot (And the River Flows from Eden, on the High Holidays), by Rabbi Uriel Eitam
This is the third volume in a brilliant young scholar’s exposition on Jewish holidays from a theological perspective. Eitam, who is deputy dean at the Yeshivat HaHesder Yerucham, views almost every Jewish tradition and all the holidays as an effort to return to the Garden of Eden; to repair the ruptures and overcome the spiritual contamination that courses through life and human history since the primordial sin. His exposition is revolutionary and original, written in very clear modern Hebrew.
• Ari Bein HaOlamot (A Lion Between the Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi Arye Bina), by Prof. Aviad Hacohen
Rabbi Bina’s life took him from the elite yeshivas in Lithuania, to Zionist agricultural farms in the 1930s, to Egypt, Libya and Greece in service of the Hagana, to the deanship of Netiv Meir Yeshiva High School in Jerusalem – a flagship institution of religious Zionism. Among that school’s alumni are hundreds of professors, scientists, journalists, politicians, military men and religious leaders who span a wide spectrum (including me). Rabbi Bina’s magic? His emphasis on moral scruples, religious modesty, intellectual rigor and the obligation to contribute to Jewish renaissance in Zion.
• Ruth: MeNikur leMelucha (The Book of Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy), by Dr. Yael Ziegler
The Hebrew edition of this masterful study combines Midrash with contemporary scholarship (using modern techniques of literary analysis) to reveal deep strata of textual and religious meaning relating to leadership, redemption, identity and social morality. It traces society’s downward trajectory during the era of the Judges and its ascent during the era of Davidic monarchy.
• Haftorah Unrolled: Weekly Insights from the Prophets, by Kira Sirote
Many shul-goers pay little attention to the haftarah, which is sort-of an add-on from the prophets to the core Torah reading. This beautifully-written volume offers a modern line-by-line translation of the haftarot with deep and often uplifting analysis. The author almost always finds relevant insights for today’s personal and national challenges.
• Mitzva BaParasha (The Weekly Mitzva), by Rabbi Binyamin Tabory
The Hebrew edition of this halachic masterpiece has long been awaited by devotees of Rabbi Tabory’s “Brisker-style” analysis, drawn from the weekly Torah reading. He quickly arrives at the fundamental hakira, the logical point upon which the discussion hinges, and applies that insight to various practical legal questions. (I was privileged to be Rabbi Tabory’s student, and wish him strength).
• Taaroch LeFanai Shulchan (Set the Table Before Me: The Life and Times of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel Epstein, the Aruch haShulchan), by Rabbi Eitam Shimon Henkin
Rabbi Dr. Eitam Henkin was a prolific young historian and halachic (Jewish law) scholar until he and his wife, Naama, were gunned down by Palestinian terrorists three years ago. A manuscript he left behind has become this new book, which details the halachic repertoire of Rabbi Epstein on the background of late 19th century European intellectual and societal ferment.
• Alayich Zarach (Dawn Break Upon You: The Life and Times of Dr. Zerach Warhaftig), by Itamar Warhaftig
Until he passed away in 2002, Zerach Warhaftig was the last man standing – the oldest signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He worked with the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania to issue visas that saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. He was elected to the first Knesset; was minister of religion for 15 years representing the National Religious Party; and was board chairman of Bar-Ilan University. He is famous for quipping that he viewed the State of Israel’s achievements as “more than I expected but less than I hoped for.” The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.