Essential Books on Israel and Zionism

Map of the United Kingdom of Israel, around the time of David and Saul (11th century B.C.). Source: Wikipedia

Map of the United Kingdom of Israel, around the time of David and Saul (11th century B.C.). Source: Wikipedia

 Over the course of time, one of the great advantages of Israeli propaganda, called in Hebrew Hasbarah, is that it has been able to control the historical and ideological narrative over the conflict with the Arabs.  Particularly in America, Jewish support for Israel has been tied to a very certain way of seeing the conflict and its history.

For those who have read seriously in Israeli scholarship and media, this one-sided view of the conflict has long been questioned; its certainties undermined by careful examination of the historical record.

In many ways the scholarship that has been published on Israeli and Zionist history has really yet to be internalized by Israel’s supporters who continue to hold to an understanding of this history that is mired in error and myth.

For Sephardic Jews this matter becomes even more complicated because, in addition to the more obvious difficulties of the standard Zionist Hasbarah version of history that is repeated ad nauseum by Israeli politicians and spokespeople, it avoids discussing the harsh treatment and cultural erasure of the Sephardim.  Many Sephardim have found it more expeditious to simply ignore the problems that have been created for them by Israel and Zionism rather than honestly engage with those problems and the calamitous effect that they have had on our heritage and community.

In this spirit, I have put together a reading list that deals with the most important aspects of Israeli and Zionist history and culture.  The books are, with a few exceptions, written by Israelis – academics, journalists, and public intellectuals – and present an important reassessment of the Zionist past providing a deeply troubling set of facts about the ongoing struggle over the land and its past.  These are books that are not simply bold-faced assertions and sound-bytes, but serious and studious attempts to rethink the basic facts and contours of this history in a way that may come as a shock to those who have been raised on the standard narrative. 

As the discussions on Israel become ever more bitter and contentious, it behooves us to look more carefully at the historical and socio-cultural assertions that are being made by partisan writers and get back to a more accurate and informed understanding of the issues involved in what has proven to be a deeply intractable and emotionally-based battle that is too often waged in existential terms. 

I: Basic Introductions 

  1. Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) 
  2. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (W.W. Norton, 2000) 
  3. Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy (University of Michigan Press, 2006) 

For the novice reader, these books, written by the most eminent of the new Israeli historians, present an easy-to-digest summation of the basic facts of what has been called “New History” of Israel and Zionism.

Benny Morris has of late become a contentious figure in Leftist circles for moving further and further away from many of the groundbreaking discoveries in his research.  He has continued to stand by his findings as a researcher, but has often sought to reinterpret the meaning of these findings.  In spite – or even because of this political shift in his thinking over time – his books remain seminal introductions to the history of Israel.  In Righteous Victims he presents a largely military-centered view of the conflict.

Avi Shlaim, who has remained allied to the Left-Progressive view of the conflict, has produced an excellent book that can serve as a companion volume to the Morris book which looks at the issues from a more political-diplomatic perspective.

Zeev Maoz’s comprehensive survey of Israel’s military history goes well beyond a mere presentation of the obvious details.  Maoz, a military expert who taught at the Israel Defense Forces Military College, gives us a highly nuanced and contextualized view of Israel’s wars and diplomatic history.  He presents with great clarity the many mistakes that the belief in a violent solution to all problems has caused Israel.  He provides expert analysis of strategy and the corrosive mentality that has consumed Israel’s Spartan society.  His analysis is fortified by many practical discussions of the possible options that Israel might use to resolve its conflict with the Arabs.

These three books recount Israeli history in a thoroughly comprehensive manner ideal for the beginning reader. 

  1. Three Important Israeli Historians: Benny Morris, Tom Segev, and Meron Benvenisti
  2. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Original Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1987, Revised Expanded Edition, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 2004)
  3. Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (Oxford University Press, Expanded Paperback Edition, 1994)
  4. Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956 (Oxford University Press, Expanded Paperback Edition, 1997) 
  5. Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (The Free Press, 1986, Arlen Neal Weinstein, English Language Editor)
  6. Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (Metropolitan Books, 2000, Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman)
  7. Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East (Metropolitan Books, 2007, Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) 
  8. Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem(University of California Press, 1996, Translated from the Hebrew by Maxine Kaufman-Nunn)
  9. Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 (University of California Press, 2000, Translated from the Hebrew by Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta) 

In addition to the excellent work of Benny Morris, we can add that of the journalist Tom Segev and former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti.

Benny Morris’ individual studies of Israeli military history have literally changed the landscape of Israel studies.  His book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is acknowledged as definitive and it has reframed the debate in a very profound way.  His other studies of the early Israeli wars are equally persuasive and provide a wealth of detail to give us a very precise portrait of the events as they transpired.

The books of Tom Segev are an excellent introduction to Israeli society in its historical setting.  His 1949: The First Israelis is a brilliant presentation of Israel’s tumultuous first year and gives us an accurate indication of how things evolved.  Segev’s chapter on the tragedy of the Sephardim in Israel was perhaps the first attempt by a mainstream Ashkenazi Israeli writer to address the issue.  In One Palestine, Compete he looks back at the contentious years of the British Mandate and in 1967 he provides a brilliant picture of that war.

Meron Benvenisti was born to an old Sephardi family in Jerusalem and was the son of one of the pioneers of the Israeli “Love of the Land” studies movement.  After leaving government service he has become both a historian and an outspoken critic of Israeli policies on the West Bank.  In these two books he looks at the history of Israel in profoundly idiosyncratic ways.  His studies are chock full of important details that often fall outside the realm of scholarly attention.  These valuable studies provide a nuanced and intimate picture of Israeli history that will serve to educate even the most sophisticated reader of the conflict.  The studies are intimately informed by the author’s Sephardic background and his native roots in the region. 

III: Ottoman Origins 

  1. Michelle U. Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth Century Palestine(Stanford University Press, 2010) 
  2. Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict, 1882-1914 (University of California Press, 1996, Originally Published, Cambridge University Press, 1989) 

The pre-State history of Israel is something that is not well-known to many who are involved in discussing the conflict.  One of the things that Israel has successfully done is to downplay the Ottoman history or to simply distort it to affirm the Zionist narrative.

These two books provide important background to the post-1948 conflict and look at Zionism from a very different angle than is usually the case.

Michelle Campos’ study returns us to the last days of the Ottoman Empire when constitutional reform was underway.  This was a time when the majority of Jews in Palestine were from the Sephardic and Middle Eastern tradition and not the Ashkenazi.  Contrary to the standard reading of the matter, most Palestinian Jews were Ottomanists and not Zionists.

Gershon Shafir’s book looks more closely at the ideology of Zionist immigrants in the sphere of labor relations.  From an early period in Zionist history the idea of separation from the native inhabitants of the land was a central value.  As we now see, this idea was calamitous and has served to drive a wedge between Jews and Arabs.  In addition, Shafir points out the ways in which anti-Arab animus led not only to Zionist alienation and separatism, but to a marginalization of the Arab Jews – particularly the Yemenite Jews who were largely viewed by the European Zionists as primitive and barbaric.  

IV: Israel and the Holocaust 

  1. Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (Hill and Wang, 1993, Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman) 
  2. Idith Zertal, From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel(University of California Press, 1998)
  3. Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Statehood (Cambridge UniversityPress, 2005, Translated from the Hebrew by Chaya Galai) 
  4. Avraham Burg, The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Amrani) 

It has become quite clear that Israel’s history is deeply linked with that of the Holocaust.  Not quite as clear as this linkage is the actual reality of the Holocaust and Israel’s society and political system and how they were actually connected.

In Tom Segev’s pioneering study The Seventh Million, we are provided with a thorough analysis of how Israel dealt with the Holocaust as it unfolded and how it dealt with it in the aftermath of World War II and the emergence of the state in 1948.  It is a story filled with duplicity and manipulation that gives us a new picture of how the Israeli leadership made use of the Holocaust.

The scholar Idith Zertal has gone even further than Segev, providing us with in-depth academic studies of Israel and the Holocaust.  Her work has laid out a detailed picture of how Israel has internalized the Holocaust into its social and political networks.  Her analysis of the work of Hannah Arendt on the Eichmann Trial is particularly telling in its boldness.

The most recent addition to this discussion of Israel and the Holocaust comes from Avraham Burg, the son of the late Likud stalwart Yosef Burg.  In The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes Burg chastises Zionist thinking for its over-reliance on playing the victim card and the way it uses the Holocaust as a crutch.  It is a provocative book that demands that Israel look more honestly at itself and its history.  It is a startling cri de coeur from an Israeli who seeks a Jewish normality and a peaceful entente with the Palestinians. 

V: Zionist Ideology 

  1. Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1995) 
  2. Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel (Princeton University Press, 1998, Translated from the Hebrew by David Maisel) 

One of the most important aspects of Zionist ideology is the process of self-mythologization that has taken place over decades.  Israel, like many other nations, has invented its own understanding of history based on selective and misreadings of the past.

Yael Zerubavel’s seminal work Recovered Roots looks at some of the most prominent Zionist myths and how they function in Israeli social thinking.  From Masada to Tel Hai, Israel has sought to reify and canonize certain historical events in a way that affirms many Zionist certainties.  Zerubavel expertly picks apart these assertions and provides us with a clear and thorough analysis of Zionist thinking.

In a similar vein, Zeev Sternhell looks at how Zionist thinking is deeply rooted in European nationalist paradigms.  Zionism has from this standpoint adopted Eurocentric ideals and values in order to perpetuate a Jewish identity.  His important book recalls the work of Benedict Anderson in the way it presents an “invented history” on the part of the European Zionists.  The socialism and the collectivist mentality are shown as having strong roots in European political and social thinking.  Zionism has developed its myths and in the process has completely transformed Jewish identity and tradition.  

VI: The Sephardi Question in Israel 

  1. Rachel Shabi, We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden History of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands (Walker & Company, 2008) 
  2. Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (University of Texas Press, 1989, Reprint Edition, I.B. Tauris, 2010) 
  3. Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Stanford University Press, 2006)
  4. Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 
  5. Nissim Rejwan, Israel’s Place in the Middle East: A Pluralist Perspective (University Press of Florida, 1998) 

A matter not often dealt with in discussions of Israel and Zionism is that of the Sephardim and their tragic fate under the new national system.

It is very important for us to see that the negation of Palestinian Arab history and identity is closely related to a larger negation of Jewish nativity in the Middle East.  This negation has manifested itself in a deeply offensive dismissal of Arab Jewish identity by Ashkenazi Zionists.

The journalist Rachel Shabi provides a thorough and readable narrative of the Sephardi question in Israel.  In her recent book We Look like the Enemy she recounts the sad history of Arab Jewish immigration and the social discrimination faced by the immigrants.  In the conclusion to her excellent study she highlights the ways in which Mizrahi Jews in Israel have negated basic parts of their traditional identity and have largely adopted the hateful model of anti-Arab hatred central to Zionist thought.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the work of Ella Shohat in the articulation of a Mizrahi identity in Israeli culture.  Her seminal 1988 article “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims” completely reframed the discussion of Arab Jews in Israel and served as a provocative introduction to her study on the history of the Israeli cinema.  In that book she looks at the many aspects of an Israeli Orientalism that seeks to deny the culture and history of the East, with disastrous results for Mizrahim and Palestinians.

In the wake of Shohat’s pioneering research, the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav in his book The Arab Jews looked at the socio-historical aspects of this Mizrahi identity and laid out the complex and interconnected web of Zionist suppression of Arab Jewish identity and the machinations of the Zionist apparatchiks which served to undermine the integrity of Middle Eastern Jews.

The important study of Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber serves as an indictment of the Israeli political system in the matter that has become known as “The Yemenite Babies” affair which saw many Yemenite immigrants have their babies taken from them in Israeli hospitals in an elaborate and as-yet unadjudicated network of criminal kidnappers.  In addition, Madmoni-Gerber inspects the Israeli media system and its complicity in what has been in effect an Ashkenazi conspiracy against the interests of Arab Jews.

One of the stalwart figures of the Arab Jewish community in Israel has been the Iraqi-born Nissim Rejwan whose biography reflects many of the issues that have faced Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants in Israel.  He has written many books and articles over the course of a long and distinguished career outlining the problems of Arab Jews in Israel.  In his splendid book Israel’s Place in the Middle East he presents a sensitive and articulate vision for an Israel that is at peace with itself and its Arab neighbors.  Deploying his massive knowledge of the region in an erudite manner, Rejwan’s vision is one that has been missing from Zionist discourse and is sorely needed for Israel to normalize itself in its relations with the Arab-Muslim world.

V: Jewish Settlers and Messianic Zionism

  1. Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Lords of the Land: The War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (Nation Books, 2007, Translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden) 
  2. Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1996, Translated from the Hebrew by Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman)  

One of the long-term problems facing Israel is the emergence of a radical group of Orthodox Jews who see the emergence of the state as the beginning of a process of Jewish religious redemption demanding the settlement of the entire Biblical land of Israel.

Led by the radical Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, the spiritual progenitor of Religious Zionism in Israel, this cadre of mystically-inspired Jews has understood Jewish tradition from a messianic point of view and internalized the Zionist vision in ways that accord with an occult form of Jewish understanding that has made settling the Land the primary focus of redemption.

Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar have written the definitive history of the Settlement movement and its impact on Israel and Zionist ideology.  Their work looks at the main figures and trends within the rise of the radical Jewish Right and its impact on Israeli society and politics.

Judaic scholar Aviezer Ravitzky analyzes this religious radicalism from within the strands of Jewish tradition itself.  Making use of religious texts and traditions, Ravitzky shows us the ways in which this new movement has transformed rabbinic Judaism and laid out a new set of principles that form a decisive break with the past.

VI: Israel’s Nuclear Program 

  1. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1998)
  2. Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2010) 
  3. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (Random House, 2010)

MIT scholar Avner Cohen’s exhaustive history of Israel’s nuclear program details what remains essentially a secret and unacknowledged arms cache under what the Israelis called “Amimut” – a code term meaning “ambiguity” or “opacity” meant to cloak Israel’s nuclear weapons capability in silence.  Cohen leaped a number of critical hurdles to write the two books and they represent an interesting contrast to the things Israel is saying about Iran, given that Iran seems to be replicating the “Amimut”-denial strategy about its intentions and capabilities.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky takes up a number of critical lacunae in Cohen’s scholarship on Israel’s nuclear program.  His book unearths the arms sales provided by Israel to South Africa and goes into some detail regarding the relationship of Israel to Africa in the 1960s and its eventual relegation to pariah status among the Third World countries and the marriage of convenience that took place with South Africa.  We also learn about Israel’s transfer of nuclear arms technologies to South Africa.

These three books could not be more relevant to our current discussions as they relate to the question of Iran’s nuclear program.  The books make what was once hidden in the shadows quite transparent and add to our understanding of the complicated nature of Israeli history and how that history plays into current events and concerns.

David Shasha

From SHU 487, July 27, 2011


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