MAXWELL:  In a land called ISRAEL // A history is detailed and disappointing

5/10/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



A History

By Martin Gilbert

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

As one who has traveled to Israel several times during the last 30 years and who has devoted a lifetime to studying the development of this young-old nation and its place in the Arab world, I am sorely disappointed with Martin Gilbert’s new book, Israel: A History.

Granted, this is the year that Israel celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding, and, yes, Gilbert wrote the book for the occasion. Even so, he has produced an amateurish 750-page tome that tells the reader more about what Gilbert likes about Israel than what Israel itself is about.

The book encompasses the time from the emergence of Zionism in the mid-19th century through the events of 1997. Although the book is a history of Israel, the author relies too much on Israeli sources, shamelessly downplaying and, in some instances, ignoring the very real Palestinian role in shaping the modern Holy Land.

Even when he writes critically of the Lavon Affair of the mid-1950s, when Israeli-trained Egyptian Jews bombed many sites in Egypt to destabilize the Nasser regime and slow the British pullback from Suez, I sense that his heart is not in the portrayals.

One critic of Gilbert said that he is afflicted with “chronicle-itis.” I agree. As he did in his authorized biography of Winston Churchill, Gilbert displays an admirable talent for detail. But unlike the multivolume Churchill work, Israel: A History reads like an interminable newspaper article that recounts events and details without analyzing them. The book is authoritative, but it has little value to the historian or political scientist seeking the “whys” of decision making and outcomes.

The reader is given exact numbers, names and ages of people killed four decades ago, lists of Israeli scientists, philosophers, writers, painters, musicians (and all of the awards they received); lists of kibbutzim, settlements, hospitals, schools, museums, founders and dates and so on. Again, all of this recounting is done without the benefit of interpretation.

Another problem is that Gilbert spends too much time looking at Israel’s past through the nation-state prism. As such, the reader confronts page after page of war scenes, a misleading paradigm because, in reality, Israel has been in actual combat no more than four months out of its 50 years of existence. But the reader has no way of knowing this fact by reading Israel: A History. For example, Gilbert devotes 35 pages to the Yom Kippur War alone.

He blithely waltzes through the non-war years, when Israelis looked inside themselves to determine whether or not Israel would be a Jewish nation or a Western-style democracy that respects the rights of each segment of its ethnically rich population. When I was in Israel two years ago, I constantly heard Jews debating the merits and demerits of a pluralistic society and the impact of immigration on religious values. Readers could benefit from seeing Jews debating among themselves, as Israeli Jews do, hammering out definitions and establishing boundaries. But we get little help from Gilbert.

Indeed, the Jews who fill these pages are the sympathetic, plucky pioneers, the dispossessed socialists the rest of world has come to know, a people who turned sand and rock into a Zionist dream. And Gilbert lets the reader know that he is a dove who feels quite comfortable underscoring the virtues of Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, while summarizing the contributions of Lukid personalities such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.

For the person new to the history of Israel, Gilbert’s chronological approach, exhaustive detailing and easy style offer a broad introduction to a country that millions call the center of the world. For the reader looking for an analysis of Israel’s social and economic maturation, however, this book falls short.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.