Shorting History

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

English-language introductions to modern Israel are few and far between, and good ones even fewer and farther. For that reason alone, the publication of Martin van Creveld's The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel raises the hope that here, at last, is the book to recommend to anyone seeking a definitive, concise, level-headed, and well-written guide to the Jewish state.

On the face of it, van Creveld has all the right credentials for the job. A Dutch-born professor emeritus of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is a highly regarded specialist in military strategy, a crisp writer, and the author of seventeen books. Now, whetting expectations further, he has set out to provide a "brief but comprehensive outline" of Israel, with "a feel for what life is like" in "perhaps the greatest success story of the entire 20th century."

So far, so good. Unfortunately, Blood and Honey, hailed in early reviews as an "exemplary" appraisal written with "economy and compassion," turns out to be a petulant meditation that, while at times boasting of Israeli accomplishments, just as often hammers away mercilessly at the country's imperfections. Worse, its author displays a number of disqualifying biases.

Van Creveld starts responsibly enough with the tumultuous half-century running from the first Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897, until the end of Israel's War of Independence in 1949. At the beginning of that period, with pre-Zionist Palestine languishing under Ottoman rule, the local Arabs were mostly illiterate while the Jews, not permitted to purchase land, lived off charity supplied by their co-religionists abroad. As for the early Zionists, they were divided between practical settlers, eager to create facts on the ground, and those, like Herzl, who wanted first to set the diplomatic stage for the Jews' return.

Both strategies would gain momentum after the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the supplanting of the Ottomans by the British Mandate power in the post-World-War I era. The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, provided the framework of a Zionist governing authority that would evolve into a state. In 1947, the Arab states, rejecting the UN partition plan that would have created an Arab Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel, attacked en masse. Though vastly outnumbered, the (now) Israelis overcame the onslaught at the loss of a staggering one percent of their population.

Turning next to the two decades between 1949 and 1967, van Creveld summarizes Israel's political system; maps out the ideological divides among the parties; emphasizes the paternalistic hegemony of David Ben-Gurion's Histadrut labor federation; and sagaciously takes cognizance of an early but still-unresolved dilemma: whether Israel was to be a definably Jewish state or simply a state of the Jews. In these decades, overcoming formidable obstacles, Israel absorbed enormous numbers of Holocaust survivors and other immigrants. Van Creveld makes a strong case for Ben-Gurion's wrenching decision to accept Holocaust reparations from West Germany, and finishes the chapter by welcoming the sound—the "sweetest [I'd] ever heard"—of Israeli artillery retaliating in June 1967 against the unprovoked Jordanian shelling of Jerusalem.

After the high point of the Six-Day War, the mood of the book turns sourer and the author's tone increasingly acerbic. In his speedy survey of the 1967–1980 era, "The Nightmare Years," van Creveld covers the 1970 war of attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the latter of which, he reports, left Israel's economy devastated. While documenting the Arabs' continued rejection of peace, recognition, or negotiations, he more pointedly deplores the Jewish settlement of the West Bank. In the following chapter, devoted to the years 1981–1995, he no less pointedly deprecates the change in Israel's "ethnic makeup" and the displacing of the secular, socialist, and Ashkenazi elite by growing Sephardi influence. Israel by the 1980s was becoming too nationalist—and too Jewish. A telling detail, at least for van Creveld: Likud premier Menachem Begin, elected in 1977, ate kosher food "even in private." 

In his final chapter, "Tragedy, Triumph, and Struggle," van Creveld asserts that the 1993 Oslo Accords were "well worth making" and "certainly" did "nothing to harm Israel's security." If, in the end, the agreement failed, the blame belongs as much with Israel as with the Palestinians. Van Creveld justifies Yasir Arafat's spurning of Ehud Barak's offer of sweeping territorial concessions at Camp David in July 2000, and largely holds Ariel Sharon rather than Arafat responsible for the outbreak of the second intifada two months later. On Israel's security fence, which led to a dramatic decrease in terrorist suicide bombings, he grudgingly allows that it was not a bad idea but that it should have been constructed within the Green Line.

From decade to decade, in short, the author's attitude turns progressively darker. Nor is it lightened by vignettes of Zionist heroes. In van Creveld's telling, David Ben-Gurion was a "tin-pot dictator," while Menachem Begin was worse: a "demagogue first and foremost." (Remarkably, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the former's nemesis and the latter's mentor, gets fair treatment.) The only Israeli who emerges as a true idol for van Creveld is the playwright Hanoh Levin, whose crabbed, nihilistic dramas allegedly exposing Israelis' "unfathomable narrow-mindedness" are, we are reassured, popular all over the world.

As a work of historical reconstruction, van Creveld's book similarly leaves much to be desired, with facts or partial facts often couched in sophistical or dismissive terms that undermine their import. The 1929 Arab uprising, which took 133 Jewish lives, was triggered, we're told airily, by mutual "bickering" between the two communities; the only time Israel's survival was ever actually in jeopardy was during the 1948 war; Adolph Eichmann "himself had never killed anybody." The first intifada of December 1987, van Creveld writes, broke out when a traffic accident in Gaza finally ignited rioting against Israel's "occupation"—at a time when in fact there were few IDF troops in the West Bank and Gaza. And so forth.

When it comes to the Kulturkampf between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, van Creveld is not so much wrong as completely lacking in nuance. He pitilessly denigrates religious Jews as if all Sabbath observers were rock-throwing fanatics, not only missing the heterogeneity among Israel's Orthodox but failing even to mention the existence of other streams. It is true that ultra-Orthodox religious coercion has alienated many Israelis from Judaism—but hardly all, and van Creveld's imputation to the contrary is typical of his injudicious treatment of a very complex topic.

Indeed, one cannot help connecting this lapse with the author's marked preference for odd nomenclature when it comes to matters Jewish. Thus, he is loath to use "Torah" or "Hebrew Bible" when the Christian term "Old Testament" can serve his purposes; the first Aliyah (1882–1903) becomes "the so-called First Migration," the Western Wall the "Wailing Wall." Judea and Samaria are always the "occupied" West Bank. In one invidious architectural comparison, van Creveld remarks that the Chief Rabbinate's headquarters could have been designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer; in another, he praises Arab villages for fitting naturally into the local terrain while Israeli towns look outlandishly European and out of place.

Another oddity: in a book published toward the end of 2010, there is barely an allusion to Iran's nuclear threat, nary a reference to the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and scant mention of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. No less strange is that, while Israel's debilitating political corruption, a major problem, is treated as a minor nuisance, Israeli feminism merits a meandering discussion that is bound to leave some readers confused as to whether the author is a radical feminist or a misogynist.

Lurching to a conclusion, van Creveld sums up that while Israel is not perfect, no country is. If so, why so much bile? As bookshelves continue to sag under pro-Arab and post-Zionist tomes, the wait goes on for a succinct, definitive, stylishly-composed, and truly balanced history of Israel.

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