Where is Israel going? And where has it been? These questions are explored in four new books — non-fiction and fiction — that highlight aspects of Israeli history, life and culture.
Hirsch Goodman will give you a good sense of where Israel is going in The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival (Public Affairs, cloth, $26.99). The longtime journalist, now a senior researcher at the University of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, assesses his country’s prospects for long-term peace and prosperity. Summarizing Israel’s history and place in the Middle East, he reviews the challenges to its survival, both internal and external. He offers a hopeful stance that conflict is not inevitable.
Goodman can probably be described as center-left, although he might resist characterization. “Israel has to move ahead with peace without Gaza,” he writes. “There is a potential partner in the West Bank, and that is where Israel has to invest its energies…. Peace is possible…the risks tremendous.”
The very thoughtful Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel (Atlas, cloth, $26.95), by Hadara Lazar, uses personal testimony to bring a specific era into sharp focus. Lazar traveled Israel and the world to interview those who lived through the time of the British Mandate, before Israel’s independence. Over the course of 25 years, the Haifa-born journalist talked to British, Arab and Israeli witnesses to that time of enforced peace, when intelligentsia of all backgrounds mingled professionally and socially, putting aside differences and perhaps ignoring growing unrest as the quest for independence grew.
“Of course it was beautiful,” says one of her Arab subjects — one of many living in the U.S. or Europe. As Lazar brings current politics into these mostly positive memories at the end of the book, she says “It was because of the uprising, in fact, that we could discuss what I had wanted to: shifts in memory after forty years, the last years of the Mandate as a time of transition, and recollection itself.” A fascinating story of a time not much discussed.
Yael Politis’ novel The Lonely Tree (Holland Park Press, paper, order at www.hollandparkpress.co.uk) is a near-epic sweeping through Israel’s formative years, from the 1930s to 1968. Tonia Shulman is our protagonist; her family has emigrated from Europe to religious kibbutz Kfar Etzion, before independence.
Tonia does not share her parents’ Zionist fervor for the land and the hardship of kibbutz life, and she clashes with her father. Allowed to attend high school in Jerusalem, she mingles enviously with privileged girls and dreams of a peaceful life, one that involves a little house with a white picket fence — in America. In order to achieve this she must discard her first love, Amos, a Yemenite Jew from her kibbutz. But Amos haunts her and draws her back.
War is as big a character in this book as any of the fictional characters, and the events are historical. Kfar Etzion was purchased from local Arabs in the 1920s and its development fluctuated over the decades. During the 1948 war it was overrun by Arab forces and a tragic massacre occurred there. During the war of 1968 the land was reclaimed and it is now a city of 70,000 people. These battles bracket Tonia’s life, and Politis gives them a larger role in the book than even the birth of her children.
Finally, Evan Fallenberg, author and translator of A Pigeon and a Boy, brings us his excellent second novel, When We Danced on Water (Harper, paper, $14.99). Two lost souls are drawn together by their art in this story set in contemporary Tel Aviv. Teo is a world-renowned choreographer and Vivi is a waitress in the coffee shop where he has his daily coffee and where they first begin to discuss the meaning of art. In his 80s, coming to grips with his mortality, Teo is at the end of his career. Vivi has never married, and never quite recovered from an early love affair gone bad, one that left her estranged from her family and disconnected from her creativity. As they become friends, and Teo reveals his deeply disturbing Holocaust survival story for the first time, they discover a strange commonality in their pasts. Without quite meaning to, they come together in a journey of creativity and healing. A lovely piece of fiction from a prize-winning author.