on 23 May 2009
David Shindler's "A History of Modern Israel" is a lucid and up-to-date account of the founding and development of a unique state whose fate concerns us all.
Shindler is Professor of Israeli studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, a position that must sometimes feel under siege given the vocally pro-Arab orientation of much of its faculty and student body. He writes from an Israeli perspective, but is even-handed and critical in his assessments.
In his excellent nine page Introduction, Shindler summarizes the condition of Israel on its sixtieth anniversary: "The dream of what could be and what should be never departs.... (but) for many Israelis, (the) heroic period of state-building has been replaced by an epoch of moral and political stagnation." There is, on the one hand, the emergence of a "vibrant and dynamic" modern state, and on the other, not only the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict which threatens that state's security and overshadows its moral legitimacy, but also deep rifts in ideology and the rot of spreading corruption.
Shindler maps Israel's history from its roots in nineteenth century, European Zionism, the holocaust, and the double struggle with colonialism and Arab nationalism, through its many waves of immigration, wars and territorial expansion. He traces the genealogy of today's Kadima and Likud parties clearly back through Sharon and Rabin to Begin, Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky.He sees the evolution of Israel's history as an interplay between "two central factors, the guiding influence of a specific Zionist ideology and the need for security. " Israeli politics is not monolithic: many Israelis are not Zionists and there is a deep, liberal democratic and anti-apartheid tradition. However, the security question cannot be ignored and, as Shindler points out, Israel is in many senses a military society. The turning point for the nation's unity of purpose and self identity may have been the 1982 Lebanon invasion: "It was not simply the war which divided Israel and broke its consensus but the continued insult directed at the intellect through the manipulation of language and facts."
The Palestinian narrative also unfolded through this period. Arab nationalism emerged at roughly the same time as Jewish nationalism. After the withdrawal of the Ottomans and the British, it evolved into the Pan-Arabism of Nasser and his contemporaries. It was only after the war of 1967 when Israel expelled Egypt and Jordan from Gaza and the West Bank that a specifically Palestinian identity emerged, and the long dance with Arafat began. The opportunity for peaceful resolution offered by the Oslo Accords came and went and the Palestinians split between Fatah and Hamas and, almost without any of the parties noticing, a largely nationalist campaign became inextricably Islamist.
"A History of Modern Israel" is strongest on political and military developments. Economic history is only briefly touched upon, even though Israel has completed a remarkable journey from a collectivist society to a high-tech, capitalist economy. Similarly, there is little examination of social history - how, for example, has the influx of one million Russian, largely secular Jews in the nineteen-nineties affected Israeli society, or to what degree have Ethiopian Jews, conspicuous in the streets of Tel Aviv and in the uniforms of the IDF, been integrated, let alone how do Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis interact on a daily basis? There might also have been more analysis of how the politics of the US and the strategies of Israel's regional neighbours (both professed and real, since it is evident that their real interests are ambiguous) have shaped and continue to shape Israel's options.
Shindler offers neither a prognosis nor a prescription for the future.
The glass half-empty perspective is that Israel's predicament is extreme: the state is bordered by Hamas and Hezbollah, two entities that virulently deny its right to exist; its own Arab citizens cannot be trusted; the demographic time-bomb suggests that there will be a day when the state cannot be both Jewish and a democracy within its current boundaries; military solutions are reaping diminishing returns, particularly on the international PR front; Iran is close to obtaining the Bomb, which even if not used to launch a holocaust, neutralizes Israel's deterrent; and the one steadfast ally is becoming frustrated with its troublesome protégé. The rightwing Netanyahu/Lieberman coalition government may not have the skill or the will or the grace to navigate through these hazards. Will there be a one hundredth anniversary celebration forty years from now?
The half-full perspective is that now is the time for a breakthrough. Both Israel and the Palestinians are led by hardliners (well, Fatah may have to be sacrificed), often a necessary condition for an accommodation. The moderate Arabs are just as worried about Iran as Israel and the US and may just help for once. Obama has the clear head and moral authority to break the deadlock. It will not be easy and it will not happen quickly. In the words of founding father, Chaim Weizmann, quoted by Shindler in another context, "Difficult things take a long time, the impossible takes longer."