One Nation Under God

Shapira's Award-Winning Volume Recounts Israel's History

Our Historian: Anita Shapira won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award for her comprehensive narrative of the history of Israel.
Omri Shapira
Our Historian: Anita Shapira won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award for her comprehensive narrative of the history of Israel.

By Jerome Chanes

Published February 05, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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(page 3 of 4)

But Shapira’s account — just one sentence long — of a key Yishuv institution misses the point. The Palmach was not just a function of the Haganah; it came out of deep ideological struggles within the Yishuv between the regnant socialist Mapai party, which generated the Haganah, and kibbutzim of the territorial-maximalist socialist Ahdut Ha’avoda and the far-left Hashomer Hatzair.

The Palmach was in effect an ideological military countermove to Mapai’s Haganah, even as it was technically part of the Haganah and many “Mapainiks” served in the Palmach.This point is more than mere nuance; it tells us that the Jewish community in Palestine was all about ideology and “movement,” and that the institutions of the Yishuv were informed by struggles over ideology.

Indeed, crucial to any telling is that the history of Zionism and the Yishuv was a reflection of European 19th-century Jewish history: It was all about ideology, and here Shapira is spot-on. Mapai’s left-of-center socialism, Ahdut Ha’avoda’s territorial-maximalist socialism, Hashomer Hatzair/Mapam’s radical socialism, Mizrachi’s moderate Religious Zionism, Agudat Yisrael’s aggressive religious stance, the rightist Zionist-Revisionist Herut (later Gahal, now morphed into the Likud) — it’s all there in Shapira’s narrative.

And this is what’s best about “Israel: A History”: Here, we finally have a history that enables the reader to make sense of the arcana of the political and social ideology of the Yishuv, and then of the state. How did Mapai come to be? Ahdut Ha’avoda? Hashomer Hatzair? Without an understanding of the genesis of these parties, it’s impossible to make sense of how the Yishuv developed and how the state itself came to be.

To be sure, Shapira could be a bit clearer on Mizrachi/the National Religious Party, and she is not sure-footed when it comes to Agudat Yisrael and the historically important left-wing voice of Agudah, Poalei Agudat Yisrael. But the few paragraphs on Hashomer Hatzair are a model of how social and political history ought to be written, and they illumine the larger story of the Yishuv.

Along similar lines, Shapira walks the reader through the five waves of immigration to Palestine — the “Aliyot” — again, crucial to the understanding of the political, social and religious development of the Yishuv. From the First, in the 1880s, through the Fifth, in the 1930s, the Aliyot have puzzled many a student. We have, at long last, a fine road map to the politics, ideology and social history of the developing Yishuv.


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