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Some books about Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian issue
Hi everyone. I am working on throwing together a podcast about the ongoing crisis in Israel/Gaza. I don’t want to fly off the handle or get loose with the facts, so give me a day or two. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a book list for those of you who would like to read up on the issue for yourself. This list is obviously far from exhaustive - it contains maybe 10% of the books I read for Fear & Loathing - and I won’t even claim it’s representative… Basically I just perused my bookshelf and pulled down a stack I thought you’d be interested in.
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This is a single-volume overview of the whole history of the Zionist project (through the early 2000s), so if you’re looking for an exhaustive and detailed history, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Gilbert is what you’d call a court historian on the Israel-Palestine issue, and his book provides the official establishment narrative in Israel and the West.
Segev is one of the Israeli “New Historians,” and one of the better ones, IMO. The New Historians were a group of Israeli historians who emerged in the 1980s to start taking a fresh look at the early history of the Zionist project. They are looked at by many right wing Zionists the same way someone like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky is viewed by right wing Americans. In some cases (Pappe, Sand, etc) that view may be justified, but Segev is a measured historian who, if he has any ax to grind, hides it well. This book focuses on the period starting with the First World War and ending with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It’s a valuable resource that contains information not included in other histories of the period (including an excellent section on Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the radical Arab militant who sparked the Palestinian revolt of the late ‘30s, and remains an inspiration to Hamas and other Palestinian extremists. Segev recognizes that there were not two players in this period of Israeli-Palestinian history, but three, and that the British were perhaps the most important of the three actors. He does a good job selecting anecdotes to illustrate the state of relations between Arabs & Zionists, and between each of them with the British authorities.
Gelvin is a Middle East scholar who has been a faculty member at UCLA’s history department for almost thirty years. This, again, is a general survey - that will be the case any time the title of a single-volume work contains the words One Hundred Years - but Gelvin is one of the best historians of the issue, who goes out of his way to understand and incorporate the perspective of both sides. While some use “both-sides” to let one or the other side off the hook, Gelvin clearly sympathizes with the grievances and aspirations of both sides, but does not let either of them off the hook. If you’re into those Great Courses lecture series, Gelvin has an excellent one on Israeli-Palestinian history.
This is a collection of eighty essays and articles that deal with not only the history of the conflict, but with the roots of Israeli and Palestinian identity, the consequences of Britain’s conquest of the Middle East, the Americans’ inheritance of the Israel-Palestine problem from the British, and more. In addition to essays and articles, it contains diary entries and letters between key actors, government white papers and legislative resolutions, and documents written by Zionist and Palestinian secret organizations. This book is best if you’ve already read one of the general histories (or have listened to Fear & Loathing in the New Jerusalem) and have the broad outlines in view. It’s one of the books without which Fear & Loathing would have been much less serious and detailed than it turned out. Highly recommended to people interested in diving deeper.
This is a great book, which provides a look at the inner workings of British foreign policy during the critical period leading up to the British Empire’s conquest of Palestine during the First World War. While many other books give only a general view of British Zionism, focusing on officials being influenced by Chaim Weizman and a few other key Zionist leaders, this book goes much deeper and gets into the different factions and complexities with which the Zionists had to contend to get what they wanted.
This book is easily one of the best histories I’ve found on the pre-1948 period. It focuses on the Arab riots of 1929, which were a larger-scale and even more violent version of the catastrophe we’ve seen recently unfolding in southern Israel. Before that year, Zionism was still a niche issue among the Jewish diaspora, but the trauma of a mass attack on Jews in Palestine rallied Jews around the world to the Zionist cause. It holds nothing back, and shows the unrestrained brutality of the Palestinian rioters without sparing our nerves, and yet it also shows how bad faith by the British and Zionists caused many Arabs to decide that they had no other recourse but violence. It’s a great book.
Eastern European Jewry
The first phase of the Zionist state was almost exclusively a project of Eastern European Jewish revolutionaries, and so understanding the Eastern Jews is really necessary to understand how the early Zionists understood what they were doing. Here are a few books that will give a solid (if selective) historical grounding.
When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was dissolved and absorbed into neighboring states in 1795, the large population of Jews in the Commonwealth suddenly found themselves subjects of a Russian Empire that viewed them and their place in society much differently than had the Polish lords. In a stroke, the Jews of Poland went from a place of relative privilege, managing noble estates, holding trade and manufacturing monopolies, collecting taxes from the peasantry, to being a suspected non-Christian minority in a Russian state that held them in no special regard. The road to both Bolshevism and Zionism began in the year 1795, and this is a good book on the period leading up to it.
The Lords’ Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 18th Century, by M. J. Rosman (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University, 1990)
As you can tell from the title, this book deals with the same period of time as the previous listing, but it contains enough unique information that I thought it was worth mentioning both. It’s an academic work with a narrow focus, and provides a lot of detailed insight into where the world’s largest concentrated Jewish population was situated in society at the cusp of modernity. One of the reasons it’s valuable is that, unlike many other works, it doesn’t focus on how the surrounding environment affected and influenced the Jews, but on the Jewish economic, social, and political influence in Poland-Lithuania. This and the previous listing may seem very niche, but (to repeat myself) Eastern European Jewry has been, pound-for-pound, undoubtedly the most consequential population in the world during modernity, and any real understanding of 19th and 20th century Jewish history requires an understanding of this period.
This is a great book. The early Zionists were Eastern European socialist revolutionaries, and while they, under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, played the largest role in organizing the movement and establishing the state, these “Revisionist” Zionists eventually created the Likud Party, and have dominated Israeli politics since the late 1970s.
If you’d like to go deeper…
Many Jews have chosen the diaspora life since at least the Babylonian exile, but when the Romans drove them from Judea they became one of the world’s exclusively diaspora peoples. Jewish history cannot be understand using the same framework we might use for other nations, or even other diasporas (like the Overseas Chinese or Lebanese merchants in West Africa) because, like the Romani, they had no homeland. Rooted nations typically had a history of relations between soldiers, peasants, priests, and merchants, castes and classes, of wars and international relations. Not so for the Jews, whose similar history had faded to myth, and whose experience of living as strangers in the land of others shaped every aspect of their outlook. Since the Roman exile, they’d had no peasantry, no landowning aristocracy; they had no warrior class, no designated political leadership, and fought no wars; they lived almost exclusively in or near towns and cities, and engaged almost exclusively in urban trades; any place they laid their head was understood to be a temporary stop on an endless nomadic wandering, and their relations with the surrounding majority was always a matter of life or mass death. This experience creates a different kind of people. These books give some deeper history on aspects of Jewish survival and identity in diaspora.
I really enjoyed this one. While people point to the Roman-Jewish Wars of the first and second centuries as the beginning of Jewish exile, the truth of the matter is that the exile began with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and didn’t end until the Israeli war of independence in 1948. The Babylonian exile only last seventy years, but most of Babylonian Jews stayed in the place where they had built new lives while only a relatively small number accepted the Persians’ invitation to return and rebuild Jerusalem. By the time of Caesar, many more Jews lived outside of Judea than lived inside it, and there were more Jews in Alexandria, Egypt than there were in Jerusalem. Even after the Babylonian exile, Jerusalem was a Persian vassal state, not an independent kingdom. Persian rule was soon replaced by the Greek, and then replaced again by the Roman, with only a brief period of independence breaking the chain of foreign domination. Other peoples tended to disappear from the history books after their homeland was conquered, but what makes the Jews so unique is that they found a way to hold themselves together as a people for literally thousands of years without a homeland, outliving the great civilizations in whose lands they traveled and lived, until they were eventually able to return and reconquer Palestine. Judaism is, from one perspective, an instruction manual for how a people can survive and retain their identity in diaspora. This book, as the title says, focuses on the formative period under Hellenistic cultural and political suzerainty, that set the stage for Christianity, the Roman-Jewish Wars, the emergence of rabbinical Judaism, and the exile.
Most people have only a very general idea of Jewish history in Europe as a long string of atrocities and blood libels, but of course the reality was very much more complicated. The first mental adjustment we have to make when considering the history of the Jewish diaspora in Europe is that they were living in feudal kingdoms, not contiguous modern states. There were no citizens, no such thing as immigrants, and comparisons to oppressed minorities in modern nations (such as the Jews in Germany) are totally inadequate to understanding the premodern situation. This book provides insight into how premodern feudal Europe, which did not yet have any concept of citizenship, immigration, or other ideas that were born with the modern nation-state, related to a people who were often both insiders and outsiders, enjoying a privileged position relative to the peasant majority, but nevertheless always tenuously living on the edge of an abyss.
The Modern Era
I’m just going to tell you up front: the author Becker is coming from a perspective that is hostile to the PLO and the Palestinian cause in general. She doesn’t hide it, though, and while her editorializing runs in one direction, she did a useful job collecting ground-level accounts of the conflict over the years, and shows that the Hamas savagery we’ve witnessed in recent days is something the Israelis have been dealing with for decades.
This is one of the most interesting books I’ve found on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Weizman focuses on the physical infrastructure of occupation, in which tunnels, roads, villages, fences, as well as electrical, water, sanitation, communications, and other infrastructure are all designed for a military purpose. Highly recommended to people interested in going deeper.
The is one of the best, and most gripping, books I’ve read on any topic in the last few years. Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman has so many highly-placed sources in the Israeli establishment that he’s able to give a history of Israel’s targeted assassination programs straight from the horse’s mouth. You might think, given his sources, that this book would be an exercise in apologetics, but it’s not. While his perspective as an Israeli comes through here and there, he exploits the personal and professional rivalries of his sources to get them to open about mistakes, deceptions, and disasters. Bergman’s book tells the history of the targeted assassination programs, but, perhaps even more relevant today, also explains how, under Netanyahu, Israel has largely abandoned the precision approach of targeted assassinations in favor of large-scale military assaults on the Palestinian territories. Those whose understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been formed since the Second Intifada (2000-2005) might assume that the Palestinians have always been seen and dealt with as a military problem, but the reality is more complex. This book is recommended to everyone, even those not particularly interested in Israeli-Palestinian history.
Obviously, this is just a small sampling, but if you guys have any questions about particular aspects of the history, let me know and I’ll tell you some books you might check out to learn more.