Monumental History Worthy of Israeli Saga

Review by David M. Shribman, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 9, 1998

ISRAEL, A History

by Martin Gilbert

Last week Israel celebrated its 50th anniversary with dancing in the streets, fireworks in the sky and the sacred screech of 50 rams' horns in the air. But the most enduring commemoration of a half-century's survival may be the 750 pages pressed between the hard covers of Martin Gilbert's history of the Jewish state.

In those pages Gilbert, the distinguished Oxford historian and author of nearly 60 books, chronicles Israel from idealism to intifada, and does so with a passionate dispassion. Gilbert, to be sure, is no disinterested observer; he owns a home in Israel and lives there part of the year. But his is a historian's eye, and that eye is neither blind to Israel's imperfections nor unmoved by its achievements.

It is hard to imagine that any aspect of Israel's difficult birth, strife-filled youth or ambivalent maturity has not been covered in the sandstorm of commemoratives and retrospectives that was prompted by this spring's anniversary. In influential Jewish journals, which examined the promise and problems of the nation; in well-illustrated news weeklies, which stressed the frisson and fright in the region; in the dutiful newspaper stories, which were more even-handed than insightful, the story of Israel and its internal and external challenges has been set out repeatedly.

The value of Gilbert's volume is that he has written a book at leisure, intended to be read at leisure. The result, which will not be surprising to the reader of his monumental biography of Churchill, is a thoughtful book intended to provoke thought - and intended to remain fresh long after the commemoratives by the popular press have faded or been thrown away. Here, in meticulous page after meticulous page, is the story of how a collection of dreamers and schemers set out to build a country, settlement by settlement. (At times it seems as if the founding of every one of them is noted.) Here, in a quiet tone, is the story of how those dreamers and schemers crowded out the Arabs who were, in turn, their angry neighbours, bitter adversaries and suspicious partners in the least peaceful peace on earth.

History is almost always the victors' version of events, and so the story of Israel that has been told these past weeks has had a heroic tone, written as if it were typed to the temp of the theme from Exodus. Gilbert seemed to have typed to a sound-track by Arnold Schoenberg, particularly the composer's mixed choruses. In his volume there is room for the troubling idea, for the ironic and the infuriating. In his volume there is room for the complex thought: the meditation on Israel, so often regarded as the land of the conquered, as the conqueror - and as the occupier.

"The nature of Israeli society was an unusual, perhaps a unique mixture of peoples and customs," Gilbert writes. "The unifying factor was their Jewishness, but the many strands of Judaism and Jewishness that had evolved in the Diaspora since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans 2,000 years earlier made for complex and often conflicting lifestyles and attitudes. Unlike any other state, a majority of Israel's inhabitants were immigrants, and they came from very different linguistic, social and cultural backgrounds."

But Israel is more than a Middle East version of the United States and Canada, both lands of immigrants and both, come to think of it, idealistic countries built by pioneers on land owned by someone else before the Europeans arrived. Gilbert puts the setting and settling of Israel in a broad political context - the yearnings of the early Russian Zionists, the vision of the Hungarian Theodor Herzl, the political disputes from the Basle Congress to the Balfour Declaration, the anguish prompted by the British in their White Papers and by the Nazis in their death camps.

Of its many historical landmarks, each a turning point in the story of Israel, Gilbert seems particularly drawn to the 1967 war, which gave Israel its large Arab population. That triumph was a window into Israel's strengths - and its weaknesses. It showed the nation's stubborn refusal to be conquered, and it led to Israel's impulse to conquer others. It was the end of the period that consisted of the struggles of the British mandate, the fiery era of independence and the complex big-power calculations of the 1956 war. It led to the occupation of Lebanon, the rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Gilbert, like all of Israel, seemed moved by President Bill Clinton's remarks when he learned of the death of Rabin. "Shalom, haver," the president said. "Peace, my friend." That to, is Gilbert's verdict and valedictory to Israel at its 50th birthday. "Shalom, haver," Gilbert is saying. "Peace, my friend."

David Shribman is the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe and a former Pulitzer Prize winner.

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