By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There are several lists of must-read books about Israel floating around, some relate to the 70th anniversary independence celebrations or World Book Day, which is on April 23. One of the problems with many of the lists of books to read on Israel is that they tend to reflect a narrow cultural milieu. For instance one writer suggested that he had learned about Israel by reading Tom Segev, Anita Shapira and Ari Shavit. Unfortunately these authors tend to present a similar history of the country and come from a similar political tradition. they repeat the same stereotypes and focus on the same heroes and villains.
Many books on Israel replicate a similar narrative where European Labor Zionist Jewish immigrants to Israel generally reflect the author’s own background and are therefore presented as the mainstream. Everyone else is presented as a kind of interloper or other. That includes Jews from the “old Yishuv” that were in Ottoman Palestine when Zionists began to show up. It also includes Mizrahi Jews or Jews from Muslim countries and the Middle East. Oddly they are presented as more “foreign” and “immigrants” even if they came from Baghdad, Yemen, Aleppo or Cairo as opposed to Odessa and Vienna. The same goes for the Arab or Palestinian residents. In addition this hegemonic narrative tends to present everyone from the Former Soviet Union as “Russians” and stereotypes Ethiopians as well.
Ari Shavit, for instance wrote that by the 1990s “No one had moral authority anymore…hierarchy broke down. The sense of purpose was gone. The common set of core values disintegrated…the mass Russian immigration of 1989-1991 added to the chaos.” Herein is the myth that in the 1950s somehow Israel was “stable” and that every subsequent group of immigrants has caused some kind of “chaos.” Anyone who is not secular and “Western” is seen as an other in his narrative. “Desperately poor traditional Oriental Jews… who had rejected the secular progress that had established the state.”
Anita Shapira’s history is the same story of us and them. She claims the state of Israel had trouble “settling thousands of immigrants with neither experience in nor inclination toward agriculture.” Ethiopians are described as having to “transition from the small village in the mountains of Ethiopia to the industrialized, achievement-oriented Israeli society.” What is this “achievement-oriented” society that supposedly people in Ethiopia don’t have? They don’t know what is achievement? And why is it that immigrants who came after Herzl’s call in the late 19th century somehow transitioned to agriculture, which they had no experience in, but it was so difficult to deal with immigrants in the 1950s?
So Israeli history and the books often prized about Israel are primarily an ethnocentirc, even ethnocratic, history of the country. Is there an alternative list that might contain some of the former but also books about different groups and from the perspective of those groups? Here is my other list, including many books I’ve read over the years that I found interesting, inspiring and informative.
This list is not meant to exclude anyone, but rather to provide an alternative list of books, some of which are off the beaten path.
Sasson Somekh, Life After Baghdad (2012). Born in Baghdad, the author moved to Israel around the time of its establishment. The book covers his life growing up in the country.
Elias Chacour Blood Brothers (2003), a Christian Palestinian discusses life growing up in Israel after 1948 and his struggles with racism and understanding
Avi Shilon Menachem Begin: A Life (2012), looks at the life of opposition leader Menachem Begin
Abraham Rabinovich The Yom Kippur War, (2005) a riveting tale of the 1973 war
Baruch Tegegne Baruch’s Odyssey: An Ethiopian Jew’s Struggle to save his people, (2008), a look at an Ethiopian Jewish activist (also a cookbook by Sewesa Desta is worth looking at to learn about Ethiopian cuisine)
Kai Bird Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, (2010), growing up in the international community in Israel and the Middle East
Shoshana Madmoni Gerber Israeli media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair, (2009) a look at discrimination against Yemenite Jews
Sara Yael Hirschhorn City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli settler movement (2017) A look at Jews who moved to the West Bank
Ronen Bergman Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, (2018) a look at Israel’s intelligence services and secret operations
Alon Shaya: Shaya: An Odyssey of Food: My journey back to Israel (2018) 100 recipes told through the life story of a chef born in Israel
Gershom Gorenberg Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977, (2007) A look at the settlement movement
Orit Rozin The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel: A challenge to Collectivism (2011), a fascinating look at the struggles of the Labor Zionist society and its discontents
Uri Bialer Cross on the Star of David (2005), Israel’s relations with its Christian minority
Ariel Sharon Warrior (2001) looks at the life and controversies of Ariel Sharon who played a formative role in Israel’s wars from 1948. It ends around the time of his becoming Prime Minister. Arik, the life of Ariel Sharon by David Landau is also worth reading.
Matti Friedman, Pumpkinflowers (2016) an autobiographical sketch of part of life of a a Canadian immigrant to Israel who served in the IDF during the Lebanon conflict. (also see Marc Goldberg’s Beyond the Green Line 2017)
Chaim Herzog Living History, (1996), the former President of Israel looks back at important moments in the country’s history
Yossi Klein HaLevi The paratroopers wept: The story of the Israeli paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem, (2013) tells the intimate story of several men who fought in 1967 and where they ended up
Martin Gilbert Israel: A History (2008) A history of Israel, balanced and accessible
Joseph B. Glass and Ruth Kark Sephardi Entrepreneurs in Eretz Israel : The Amzalak Family 1816-1918 (1991) a look at the old Yishuv and Sephardi or Mizrahi wealthy families in the 19th century