Books — 'Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn'

Scholar Daniel Gordis brings Israel’s history to life and makes it accessible for a new generation.

Daniel Gordis  (photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
Daniel Gordis
(photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
‘I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war,” was a song by Yehoram Gaon, once popular in Israel. “By the end of 2000, after a new intifada had erupted, few Israelis believed that there would be a ‘last war,’” writes Daniel Gordis in his new book. The utopia of Altneuland that Theodor Herzl had imagined was not going to happen. The country was maturing, leaving behind its founding generation and accepting reality.
What was true a decade and a half ago is true today. With the passing of Shimon Peres, as with David Ben-Gurion’s death in the 1970s, the country is growing up and leaving behind idols of the past.
In Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, Gordis provides a welcome new primer, just in time for a new generation of English-speakers who are interested in Israel, to learn about the country and its struggles. A senior vice president at Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of numerous books on Israel, Gordis is well placed to write a book like this.
The author wants to reintroduce readers to the history of Israel with a fast-flowing, convincing narrative. A country that once rationed food, he notes, has become an exporter of fine wines. It’s a country based on a revolution and the return of an ancient people to its land. “There has been, until now, no single historically rigorous and balanced volume to tell Israel’s story to a broad audience the way that this book does.” He seeks to appeal to general readers and he castigates other one-volume histories of Israel for merely explaining what happened and not why.
So why did Jews gather for the First Zionist Congress in Basel, an otherwise unimportant, sleepy city, in 1897? “Jews from around the world gathered in one place to take history back into their own hands. No longer merely pods of disconnected Jews scattered around the globe, thanks to Herzl’s call they were now... reasserting their ancient claim.”
Of course, the reality in Basel, which Gordis doesn’t fully unpack, is that this was a small group of European Jews, unrepresentative of their brethren around the world. Many Jews in the West, Gordis points out, were seeking assimilation.
Democratic countries such as France, England and America beckoned for the Jews to become citizens, equal before the law, not “the Jews,” as they were seen in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
This explains why Zionism appealed more to Central and Eastern European Jews. They were the ones living in the ghettos and Pale of Settlement.
What the Jews had done in Basel “was to cyclically relive moments in history, even if they themselves had not experienced them,” argues the author. They were the new Maccabees, the new prophets, like Jeremiah of old.
There is certainly something prescient and prophetic about the Zionists who gathered in the 19th century. That a few men, and they were basically all men, arrogantly thought that they could carve out a new country in the Middle East made up of Jews, the least nationalistic people, whose fighting and farming prowess was untested and mocked, is truly revolutionary. But it was a time of revolution, of Italian and German reunification, Irish nationalism, Communism.
It was a time for mad dreamers. And Zionists were mad dreamers.
Gordis narrates through the early Zionists, trying to reintroduce us to Ahad Ha’am, Haim Nahman Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Max Nordau. The Hebrew language was revived and immigrants to Ottoman Palestine begin building kibbutzim. As the author tries to introduce every leading Zionist of the period and explain to the reader a multiplicity of little movements and ideas, he also tries to paint a picture of the developments on the ground in Palestine. This is a difficult task, but Gordis takes it on nonetheless.
For instance, he notes that in 1921, even as “the Yishuv was learning to defend itself, it suffered a serious diplomatic blow.”
The area of Jordan was “carved away” from the promised Jewish state. Was this a blow? Why would it have been helpful to include Jordan in a nascent Jewish state? It was an eminently pragmatic choice to remove as much Arab territory as possible from a Jewish state, rather than swamp that state with a million more Arab citizens from Jordan.
Gordis is strong when he provides some corrective to the typical Labor Zionist narrative of Israel’s history that has prevailed in the past. The text is best when discussing the role and importance of Mizrahi Jewish immigration, the increasing role of religion in society and how Israelis have become “hungry for meaning, yearning for roots.”
However, readers might walk away yearning for more of the “why” regarding some of the subjects Gordis raises. Noting that Israel provides free childhood education, like every other country in the world, he points out that Israel’s school system is segregated into Arab, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and secular schools. Why did early Zionists think segregation was the best system, better than the integration of communities? That is left unanswered.
As the book moves toward the present day, Gordis diagnoses a problem; the conflict “grinds on endlessly” and Israelis have “no choice” other than to overcome challenges placed in the country’s way.
But a country living on “no choice” and the “burden of occupation,” as it is described, is only a stopgap. The Byzantines had no choice but to build long walls around Constantinople. But that didn’t save the city in the end.
Readers might finish the book wishing to hear more of the author’s own voice about what should be done and some criticism of where Israel made mistakes that need to be corrected. Gordis was right to take up a new introduction to Israeli history.
Hopefully this one will cause them to question more deeply some of the things Israelis take for granted.
The following is an excerpt from Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.
Though it is a story of a country, the story of Israel is also the story of a revolution. Zionism was a movement committed to transforming the existential condition of the Jew. It was time, Zionists insisted, for the Jewish people to be reborn.
In many ways, Zionism was a rebellion against the Judaism of old. As European Jews were attacked repeatedly and marginalized constantly, Zionist leaders began to argue that while Europe was obviously to blame, so, too, were the Jews. It was time for the Jews to refuse to be victims on call, living wherever they might call home until their host country decided to evict or murder its Jews.
England evicted Jews in 1290; Spain, in 1492. And then came violent European antisemitism. Meanwhile, complained Zionist leaders, Jews remained passive, weak, fearful, and huddled over ancient, sacred texts instead of defending themselves and taking history into their own hands.
That, said many early Zionist thinkers, was what had to change. It would be hard to overstate the revolutionary zeal of these early Zionists. Zionism was in many ways about severing their connections to what had come before them.
So desperate were the Jewish people to fashion a new kind of Jew that they even changed their names. Israel’s first four prime ministers were a case in point.
David Ben-Gurion had been born David Gruen. Moshe Sharett was born Moshe Shertok; Levi Eshkol was originally Levi Shkolnik. Golda Meir (Israel’s first female prime minister) had been Golda Meyerson. Altering their names was a way of saying “no more” – it was time for a new Jewish worldview, a new Jewish physique, a new Jewish home, new Jewish names. It was time for a “new Jew,” a Jewish people reborn.
In the State of Israel, that new Jew has emerged. In fact, many forms of the new Jew have emerged. Part of what makes Israel fascinating is the ongoing conversation about what Judaism and Jews should be and become. Sometimes that conversation is polite and restrained; at other times, it erupts into heated battles on Israel’s many political fronts. All the vitriol notwithstanding, on that front Zionism succeeded – and admirably. Jews today are not the cowering, fearful Europeans of yesteryear. That Zionism succeeded in creating a new Jew is beyond doubt.
Zionism was also a revolution against the very possibility that there could be Jews who would have no place on Earth to call home. When mid-20th-century Europe erupted in a paroxysm of genocidal hatred, many Jews had nowhere to flee. The United States closed its borders.
So, too, did Canada. The British blocked Jews who sought to go to Palestine. Boats loaded with hundreds of Jews sailed the seas, desperately seeking a place to dock, often unsuccessfully. On occasion, ships that set sail from Europe loaded with Jews fleeing the Holocaust had to return to Europe, or were purposely sunk by enemy ships, simply because no one wanted “surplus Jews.” Zionism was determined to change that; it was committed to a world in which Jews would never again be homeless. On that front, too, the creation of Israel brought a dream to fruition.
After centuries of Jews languishing in exile, Zionism was about restoring the Jewish people to the cultural richness that a people has when it lives in its ancestral homeland, speaks its own language, charts the course of its own future. If the Jews had been scattered to what their liturgy called the “four corners of the earth,” Zionists hoped to gather them back together once again. If millennia of exile had reduced Hebrew, once spoken and vibrant, to a language used only for sacred and liturgical texts, Zionism would breathe new life into that ancient tongue. The Jewish people would produce music, art, literature, and poetry like all other peoples. There would be high culture and popular culture.
Jews would live in the cities that their ancestors had known, would walk the same paths that had been home to their biblical forebears. Jewish leaders would make policy on war and peace, economics, health care, and immigration.
Zionism succeeded in all that, and more. How Israel reflects this rebirth of the Jewish people is part of the story that this book tells...
Israel is a complex and dynamic place.
It is a country filled with sacred places but also a secular (some would say profane) thriving bar and music scene. It is a deeply traditional society in some ways, and hypermodern in others. It is home to ultra-Orthodox Jews who shun much of modernity and is one of the world’s high-tech capitals. It is home to Jews of different colors, Jews of different ethnic backgrounds, Jews who speak different languages, Jews both secular and religious – and many non-Jews, as well. Most of the many immigrants that Israel absorbed (and per capita, Israel has absorbed more immigrants than any country in the world) came from countries without a democratic tradition; yet Israel has always been a democracy, and a thriving one, at that. And though a tiny country in terms of both size and population, Israel and its story are constantly at the center of the world’s attention. It is essentially impossible to understand today’s world without understanding the Jewish state – with all its vibrancy but also its complexity.
Reprinted with permission from Ecco Publishing.