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A chapter that has a lot of trees but in which the forest is clearly discerned is the one in which Shapira retells the story of Milchemet Tashach — the 1947–49 War of Independence. The reasons for Israel’s victory were, as Shapira reports, more than the standard narrative of heroic Jews protecting a beleaguered new nation, overcoming with indomitable spirit venal Arab nations intent on carving up the new state.
This version, which is celebrated by “Exodus” and has limited merit, ignores crucial dynamics: the lack of unified Arab war aims; the closing of the ordnance gap between Israel and the Arab states, especially after the first truce, in June 1948 (fighting resumed on July 9, not on Shapira’s June 9), and — curiously missing in Shapira’s analysis — the role played by the Yishuv’s superior agricultural technology and distribution system.
The point: After the first month of fighting in mid-1948, these factors enabled the newly constituted Israel Defense Forces to gain the upper hand while Palestinian Arab society was disintegrating. Shapira’s narrative is insightful in its analysis and gripping in its telling.
And there is culture, the interstitial tissue of political history. Shapira’s discussions of literary trends — from the early literature of the Yishuv through the Dor Ha-Palmach, the “Palmach Generation,” of the 1950s and ’60s, through the 1980s fear of chaos, to the return to family, community and nation that characterizes current Israeli fiction — neatly contextualizes larger questions facing Israel.
At bottom, “Israel: A History” is for everybody: scholar, student, and general reader. The book will be most valuable to those readers who already know something, and some scholars will yearn for more comprehensive annotation. But Shapira has done something that most surveys do not accomplish: Shapira’s “How?” and “Why?” put us right there, in the historical moment, and answer for us not only “How?” and “Why?” but also, “What was it like?”
Jerome A. Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is the author of four books. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.