A bittersweet history

Martin Van Creveld chronicles the rise of modern Israel, the 20th century’s "greatest success story."

311_Tel Aviv beach shot, nice (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
311_Tel Aviv beach shot, nice
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Bringing his acerbic wit to the subject of Israel’s history, military historian Martin Van Creveld has produced a special book. Van Creveld lectured at Hebrew University for 26 years until his retirement in 2007. He has written generally on military history, where he carved out a niche for himself as one of the world’s finest. Prior to this book, he wrote a history of the IDF and a polemic entitled Defending Israel in which he argued that Israel could withdraw to the Green Line and remain safe and secure.
In The Land of Blood and Honey the author has chosen to write a history of Israel that “shows it for what it really is: namely a country that, while coping with every imaginable obstacle, in many ways is perhaps the greatest success story in the entire 20th century.”
This is not an academic book; Creveld has dispensed with primary sources in favor of a wide-ranging history based partly on his own memories, which add great flavor to the narrative. This is not the first attempt to write a sympathetic history of Israel – Ya’acov Lazowick and Martin Gilbert attempted the same over the last decade.
The Palestinianists will cringe at the “traditional” view of Palestine as a “remote and badly neglected province of the Ottoman Empire” with “not a single deep-water port” which scarcely had wheeled transport. Van Creveld notes what I’ve long suspected, that it was the arrival of goats with the Arab invasion in the seventh century that contributed to the deforestation of the country.
The 19th century brought foreign technology and influence. Prior to the arrival of secularized Zionists the Jewish community was divided between Ashkenazi religious people who, due to charity, “had no incentive to engage in productive work of any kind” and a Sephardi group that, while being religious, also worked in various trades. The author reminds the reader that despite the romantic notions about the agricultural communes established by the Zionists, most Jewish immigrants “did not choose agricultural labor at all but settled in the cities.”
For those seeking knowledge of the development of the Zionist movement, the book provides a great amount of detail in a quick and interesting narrative. Who recalls, for instance, that the German-Jewish immigrants, renowned cultural snobs, established both Nahariya and Jerusalem’s Rehavia as their own communities?
One of the most enlightening aspects is Van Creveld’s soft critique of the role of socialist bureaucracy in the development of Israel. The Histadrut, that giant union-cum-corporation, had a “hydralike presence” that “put great power into the hands of the party hacks” and decided willy-nilly where people could and should live. This is a welcome critique and an admiration of free-market liberalism runs throughout the narrative. It is a muchneeded correction to the traditional view that all these giant government bodies exerted a strictly positive stamp on Israel.
The author is also a critic of the state’s relationship with religion, pointing out that putting too much power in the hands of the Orthodox has been “problematic” but it “endows Israel with its unique character.”
Blood and Honey provides a welcome discussion of the discrimination and hardship faced by the immigrants from Muslim countries whom the author refers to as “Oriental Jews.” They are only “Oriental” from the standpoint of Europe; in fact they are the Jews who always lived in the areas where Judaism arose. Too much hatred has been heaped on these Jews by the elites over the years, who felt they “had no culture and constituted ‘human dust.’”
Van Creveld’s account also dares to provide some insight into the crude and savage crime that is called “architecture” in Israel whereby “a great many Jewish-Israeli settlements, which looked as if a magic hand had taken them from Europe and planed them in the Middle East... almost all houses were built of cement blocks... ugly and ill finished, mere cubes with or without pillions.”
The author seems to have grudging admiration for the Arab villages, which despite lack of planning at least have houses that give some pride to the owners. He is right, the Jewish community in Israel could learn much from the Arab villages in terms of how to have private property (93 percent of the land is owned by the government) and allow people to live as they desire rather than as some planning body believes they should.
The acerbic tongue of the author is never far from skewering Israel’s politicians. Ovadia Yosef, the great Sephardi political rabbi, looks like a “wizard” but is “coarse, ambitious and occasionally brutal.” Yitzhak Shamir was a “born conspirator,” Meir Kahane is judged to have been assassinated because “he who lived by the sword will perish by it” and Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, is a “misguided” but “brave” individual.
Van Creveld does not delve into the “might have beens” of history, such as the failure of Oslo. He instead devotes a fair amount of space to praising Israel’s economic success and its apparent lack of wealth inequality. He credits himself with the idea of building the security barrier. The book’s paramount oddity is that nine pages of the conclusion are devoted to a long rant against feminism. Whatever the merits of that, Blood and Honey on the whole is an enjoyable and welcome contribution to the bookshelf on Israel.