History seems to happen when we’re not looking. The controversial UN vote to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer state took place — intentionally — on the historic date of Nov. 29. Sixty-five years ago on that date the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The Arabs rejected the resolution, the Jews accepted it. It would not have occurred to Arab leaders of the time that more than six decades later the Palestinian state their followers were trying to establish would be much smaller than the one partition would have granted them. Blinded by hatred of the Jews, who had settled on land they considered their own, they expected to possess all of the country very soon. History happened in unexpected ways.
A fascinating new one-volume history of Israel by the eminent Israeli historian Anita Shapira explains Arab thinking about partition back in 1947 and the many other unexpected and real events that have comprised Israel’s history from the beginnings of the Zionist movement in the 1890s through the second intifada in 2001. Unlike other histories that often tell Israel’s story by jumping from one war to the next, this one, called “Israel: A History” (Brandeis), captures the nation’s diversity and cultural richness along with its existential struggles. In the span of the years covered, Shapira writes, the Zionist movement became “one of the most successful national movements in history,” the State of Israel was established, and its citizens developed “a vital, vibrant society with a dynamic economy and an academy that has gained international recognition.” All this against a backdrop of massive immigration, constant struggles with neighbors, and growing tensions within the country between religious and secular, and right and left.
Winner of the prestigious Israel Prize in 2008, Shapira is able to integrate all the pieces that make up the Israeli tapestry — including the Palestinian narrative — because she writes as an insider who understands the country and its leaders. I interviewed her a few years ago for my own research, and we became (full disclosure) friends. I also became an admirer of the depth and breadth of her knowledge. In this book, for example, she writes extensively about the nation’s economy at various points in its history. She shows how after World War II, the government’s direction of the country’s economic life led to a vast social safety net, a welfare state, that included such things as paid maternity leave and old-age pensions. At the same time, people became fed up with the bureaucracy and the government officials who lorded over them in this system, contributing to the ruling Mapai party’s eventual loss of power.
The book does not shy away from the “hot” subjects that still plague Israel, but it always puts them in the context of their time. In the first stage of Israel’s War of Independence, for instance, Palestinians fled their homes in confusion, leaving Israelis “aghast” at the ghost towns that remained. In the second stage, after Arab armies invaded Israel, there were “numerous instances in which the IDF expelled the Arab population,” Shapira admits. The belief that the Palestinians had caused the war “hardened the hearts” of some soldiers. On the other hand she points out, of all the refugees of that period, the “Palestinians were the only ones not absorbed by the countries where they lived,” becoming “a permanent problem in the Middle East.”
As to the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war, Shapira carefully describes the many competing emotions operating at the same time: the euphoria that followed the nation’s stunning victory but also the sensitivity many young soldiers felt “to the enemy’s pain”; the desire of key leaders for “defensible borders” to protect the state’s security but also a powerful religious-Zionist messianism that called for creating a Greater Israel on all the land conquered. Shapira deftly illustrates how those contrasting emotions continue to be played out today.
During the Gaza conflict last month, like many American Jews concerned about Israel, I nervously followed the news and worried about friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, who seemed suddenly within range of Hamas’s rockets. But when I phoned my friends they spoke more about their daily activities than about the conflict, more about the marvelous Iron Dome than about enemy missiles. I was reminded again that while the media here blares out frightening accounts of the country’s dangers and faults, Israelis themselves go on living full and productive lives.
Anita Shapira chronicles those lives in all their fullness, with references to poets and novelists as well as generals and politicians. “Israel is a success story of global proportions,” she writes. Yet it “still faces world criticism to a degree hard to discover elsewhere.” This book, honest and balanced, offers a fine antidote to the incessant criticism.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.