It’s probably no accident that the two chapters on Israel in Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s new book, Future Tense (Schocken, cloth, $26.95) occupy almost the exact center of the work. Sacks is England’s chief rabbi, and a prolific and eloquent writer. Israel is just one component of this book that captures the rabbi’s worries on the state of the Jewish people — over-assimilated, over-intermarried, fractious and factionalized, he says. As a microcosm of the Jewish world, Sacks calls on Israel to be the beacon of justice the Bible says it is, to create “a new civic Judaism, one that embraces religious and secular, Jew and Palestinian, alike.” (Perhaps he could extend this attitude to inter-denominational relations within Judaism.)
Two other sides of Israel — with its dizzying array of facets — are presented in Lone Soldiers by Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon (Devora, cloth, $27.95) and By Hook and by Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank, a report from B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Lone Soldier is the uplifting story, told in words and photos, of Jews from around the world who come to Israel to serve as volunteers in its otherwise all-conscription army. Oftentimes living out of their cultural and linguistic element, they are dubbed “lone soldiers” and their plight can indeed be lonely but for the help they get from reserve officer Tzvika Levy, a volunteer himself, who seeks them out and provides a sense of connection and family. The lone soldier phenomenon is increasing, according to the author, because of the Birthright program, which is exposing increasing numbers of young Diaspora men and women to Israel and the IDF.
The B’tselem report is not so uplifting. It’s a detailed — though short — accounting of the legal maneuvers to which Israel has resorted in order to acquire land to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The report demonstrates the deception behind these land claims, calling the settlements “illegal.”
The same Birthright program that has brought more lone soldiers to Israel is the topic of artist Sara Glidden’s fascinating graphic (comic book) memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Vertigo, cloth, $24.99). Glidden arrived in Israel a confirmed skeptic with decidedly negative views about her host country. As the tour proceeds and she learns about both Israel’s history and the lives of all of its residents today, she struggles to assimilate her beliefs and her experiences, at times becoming emotionally overwrought. Despite her doubts she honors those she meets on her trip with balance and an open mind. Glidden’s account is moving and honest, funny and entertaining, and she captures some of the combination of angst and affection American Jews often feel about Israel.
Among the most moving sections of Glidden’s Birthright tour comes when the group meets a bereavement group. Glidden pays tribute to the victims of terrorism, depicting them as ghosts who stand beside their surviving family members as they share their stories.
In A New Shoah, (Encounter, cloth, $27.95) Italian journalist Gulio Meotti also honors Israeli victims of Islamist terrorism by telling the stories of their lives. Meotti is outraged at these deaths, which he feels are generally ignored by media in the West. He draws a straight line between Nazi anti-Semitism and Islamist anti-Zionism, calling both an excuse to kill Jews.
While the writing is impassioned, Meotti’s tone can be strident and a little off-putting. There’s no arguing, however, with his tender obituaries or his view that these victims probably deserve more recognition, even within Israel. Some of their plights are all the more tragic because they are either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. While generally well translated, there are still some errors in English and continuity within.
Finally, an Israeli-Moroccan author, Therese Zrihen-Dvir, puts her tribute to Israeli victims of terrorism into novella form in Stairway to Heaven (Gefen, paper, $14.95). The life of protagonist Naomi is permanently altered when she witnesses a terror attack on soldiers waiting at the Beit Lid junction, a waypoint between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The attack is real — it happened on January 22, 1995 — as are all the events in the story, although parts have been fictionalized for privacy. A memorial there, a stairway with 22 soldiers climbing it, inspired the author when she saw it in 2003. She interviewed surviving families and incorporates their words into a moving homage, weaving the fictional details of Naomi’s life with the stories of the dead. By the time Naomi’s grandson is born, she is, despite her pain — her own and her country’s — convinced that “life will always beat death.”