Israel: A History
By Anita Shapira
Brandeis University Press, 528 pages, $35
Everyone wants to write a “history of Israel” — and many good, and some not so good, historians have done so. Martin Gilbert’s “Israel: A History” (not to be confused with the book we are reviewing here) is excellent for the beginner in the field; Netanel Lorch’s brief but insightful “One Long War” uses the unending Arab-Israeli military conflict as a vehicle for offering a readable history; Martin van Creveld’s “The Land of Blood and Honey” is quirky and insightful.
And for context — “How did we get to this place?” — David Fromkin’s “A Peace To End All Peace” is the account nonpareil of the beginnings of the modern Middle East. And, lest we forget, the blockbuster “Exodus,” which for many American Jews was the introduction to the history of Zionism and the Jewish state. More’s the pity.
Anita Shapira ups the ante in her history, which recently won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, offering a truly comprehensive narrative of Israel, from its genesis in the first stirrings of Zionism in the 19th century to present day’s unsettled Israeli society. Shapira is a historian who believes things actually happened in history and they deserve a good telling. But the author, who has had a distinguished academic career, is a superb analyst, as well.
In “Israel: A History,” the “Why?” and “How?” of Zionism and Israel beautifully complement the “What?” She is a forthright centrist in her historiography, paralleling in many ways the views of Mapai/Labor, the regnant political institution for many decades in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate and in the State of Israel.
Shapira’s opening chapter, on Herzl and the evolution of Zionism, is by itself worth the price of admission. The Herzl story is not just the enduring myth — the “Herzl-was-appalled-by-L’affaire-Dreyfus” version of the origins of Zionism — but also a far more nuanced analysis. Indeed, this chapter points the reader in the direction of the flow of the book: a skillful interweaving of narrative history, engagingly told, and analysis.