Much heated conversation is conducted in these pages and elsewhere in the media about Israel. We debate every aspect of Israel’s present and future — the ups and downs of its political leadership, the role of religion in the Jewish state, the path to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, the security risks that threaten its very existence, and much else besides.
The conversation assumes that we already possess a depth of knowledge about Israel. But we need to pause here and ask: What do young people, Jewish or not, actually know about Israel? After all, anyone under the age of 40 will have no personal recollections about the founding of the state, the wars that have shaped the status quo of the Middle East, or the men and women who played such a crucial role in these events.
That’s the problem to be solved in “Israel Matters: Understand the Past, Look to the Future” by Mitchell Bard (Behrman House: $22.50), a short and friendly introduction to the history, culture and politics of Israel that is clearly directed to younger readers but has something important to offer everyone.
Historian and political scientist Bard is executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the author of numerous books about Jewish history, including “The Arab Lobby,” which I recently reviewed in The Journal. His newest book was developed with the support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and represents an earnest effort to familiarize readers with both the origins and destiny of Israel.
“When most people talk about Israel, they talk about the pressing issues of the moment,” Bard explains. “Yet it is impossible to understand the context of the issues without looking at all the dimensions of this small country: its historical and religious significance, its technology achievements and its archaeological wonders.”
Indeed, Bard styles his book as a conversation with the reader. He acknowledges that the media is preoccupied with controversy and criticism when it comes to Israel, but he addresses a challenge to those who open his book: “This book was written to help you sort out these complex questions and help you form your own relationship to Israel.”
“Israel Matters” is eye-catching and eye-pleasing, full of sidebars, maps, charts, photographs and drawings, if only because an image is often worth a thousand words — Bard shows us that the entirety of Israel is a small fraction of the size of California and only slightly larger than New Jersey, which silently makes the point that the embattled little Jewish state sits on a tiny sliver of the Middle East, as we see for ourselves on a page that shows a snapshot of the region taken from space by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
We meet young people who represent “Faces of Israel” in all of its ethnic and cultural diversity. We are offered the opportunity to “Look Closer” in a series of sidebars that highlight some fascinating details of Israeli life. Source documents from crucial points in history are quoted or presented in their entirety. Now and then, Bard invites the reader to answer a provocative question about an event in history: “What Would You Do?”
“You are a Palestinian living in the refugee camp in the city of Jenin in the West,” goes one such exercise. “You have several paths you can follow in your life, including joining a group that interacts with Israeli peace organizations or choosing to stay out of politics ... [b]ut you could also join a group that advocates armed struggle that may ask you to try to attack Israelis.” Many of these sidebars tell the reader what actually happened in a real-life incident, but this one ends provocatively: “This episode in history hasn’t closed. Young Palestinians face these types of choices every day.”
“Israel Matters” has a point to make, of course, and the sharper edges of Jewish history and politics are buffed off. While Bard writes respectfully about the other faiths that claim the Holy Land as a place of significance, for example, he emphasizes the spiritual and historical Jewish linkages that “helped sustain Jews during long centuries of exile and nurtured them in times of persecution.” By contrast, he pauses to make the argument that “[t]he Arab connection to Palestine did not begin until after the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, and most Palestinian Arabs arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Even so, Bard provides enough of the raw material of history to allow the discerning reader to reach his or her own conclusions. For example, a series of maps show the various proposals for the division of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, starting with the original British mandate, continuing through the armistice lines drawn after the various wars between Israel and its Arab enemies, and including more recent peace proposals, all of which puts in perspective the current argument over the boundaries of Israel.
Some of the incidental details that enliven the text are clearly meant to enable young people to identify with Israel even if they have no strong Jewish connections. On one page, for example, we are introduced to violinist Itzhak Perlman, a native of Tel Aviv, and on the opposite page we meet Natalie Hershlag, a native of Jerusalem better known as the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. By the end of the book, however, it is clearly the hope of the author that the reader will not only be more knowledgeable but also more sympathetic toward Israel.
“[M]aybe Israel is too abstract right now, a faraway place that is only familiar from the news, the Bible, or from discussions with friends and family,” he concludes. “One’s feelings may be conflicted: it is possible to admire some aspects of Israel’s history and culture, yet feel uncomfortable with particular policies.” To his credit, Bard acknowledges that his book is only “a starting place,” and he insists only that “the conversation about Israel is never-ending, passionate, and meaningful, and it always matters.”
Author’s note: I have business dealings with the publisher of “Israel Matters” but played no role in the content of the book. Irwin Field, a former publisher and current board member of The Jewish Journal, played a leading role in developing “Israel Matters” for publication.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.