In his new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, Israeli scholar and author Daniel Gordis, traces the remarkable history of a people’s 3,700 year attachment to the soil and soul of their historic homeland, Israel. He relates in objective and scholarly prose a story about a people, once dispossessed of their birthright, today miraculously restored. It is a story about a people whose attachment to their land is grounded in tradition, continuity and constancy.
Gordis takes us back to the biblical account of Abraham, who in response to God’s directive, leaves his father’s house and settles in the land of Canaan that today is Israel. Over the course of time his descendants dwelled in their covenantal land until Roman legions vanquished and expelled them from Jerusalem two millennia ago. With clarity and concision Gordis chronicles the two-thousand year history of a people exiled.
Years of homelessness rendered the Jewish people vulnerable and victims of virulent anti-Semitism resulting in expulsions, pogroms and genocide. The author presents in bold relief the image of a landless and powerless people, who were often shunned, abused and murdered. They had neither standard bearer nor standing in the court of world opinion; they were shorn of their peoplehood.
Gordis notes how ironic it was that the writings of an anti-Semitic German intellectual Eugen Dühring inadvertently motivated a young playwright named Theodore Herzl to become the founder of modern Zionism. Because of centuries of systemic European anti-Semitism coupled with the exhortations of their neighbors, “Jews go home,” they became an estranged people. A people with nowhere else to go, they dreamed of going home. Herzl’s iconic proclamation, “If you will it, it is no dream” resonated with them like the blast of a ram’s horn announcing the beginning of a prophecy fulfilled.
So how did the sheer “will” of a people transform a dream into reality?
Gordis suggests that perhaps the will of a people was more than just the will of the Jewish people. Maybe at long last the world could no longer ignore or deny centuries of discrimination and persecution of the Jews. The conscience of fair-minded people came to the realization that their years of willful blindness to the plight of the Jews emboldened genocidal German intellectuals, and their all too willing European accomplices, to carry out their plans: the extermination of the Jewish people.
Additionally Gordis cites that one should not ignore the impact that poets, politicians, philosophers, theologians and militants had upon transforming the image of the weak, passive and dependent European Jew to that of the new independent, robust Israeli Jew. How that was accomplished and how the land of miracles provided fertile soil for the miraculous to occur is the story told in this book.
But all miracles do not occur by divine intervention alone. For example, how did a British chemist who developed acetone used in explosives, become a statesman and ultimately Israel’s first Prime Minister? And how did the Hebrew language, long neglected and left languishing on the dusty shelves of classical Jewish academia, restored, revitalized and modernized, become the lingua franca of a modern Israel?
But even miracles run into stumbling blocks. Over the years the Arab states tolerated the surviving remnants of Jews living in Israel but they became increasingly alarmed by the trickle of returning exiles. That prompted revolts against the Jewish residents of the nascent state of Israel. In response to those belligerent impediments, the Jews formed rag-tag militias such as the Haganah to defend Jews and the Irgun to take the fight to the enemy. In time those disparate militias coalesced into what today is a world class military, the IDF (Israel Defense Force).
Also, scattered throughout the book are little known tidbits of information, such as how the country was named Israel and not Judea or Samaria, and why there are two blue stripes on a field of white adorning Israel’s flag along with the Star of David. And incredibly, why did the Israelis jubilantly accept sundry ordnance and uniforms shipped to them from Europe which contained emblems of Swastikas on them?
Gordis also does not shy away from exposing problems within Israel’s society such as the friction between the Jewish-American and Israeli communities, both past and present, the increased hostilities between secular and religious Jews, discord between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, and the intractable difficulties of administering the Palestinian populations residing in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria.
It is no secret that friends of Israel have long bemoaned the fact that Israel does not effectively tell its story. They say Israel needs to show its better side. Gordis’ work addresses that lament in rich prose by refuting the unfounded slurs, smears and slanders of adversaries who unfairly single out Israel for condemnation.
Gordis’ book, Israel, is worth reading and rereading because it is a well-documented flowing narrative of the history of a narrow strip of land whose sands still bear the footprints of a people whose ancestors and religion were born and raised there. It is the story of how a people, after two-thousand years, found the ‘will’ and way to come home again.