Nine Lives of Israel: A Nation’s History through the Lives of Its Foremost Leaders (REVIEW)

September 12, 2012 1:14 pm 0 comments

Nine Lives of Israel: A Nation’s History through the Lives of Its Foremost Leaders, by Jack L. Schwartzwald.

Nine Lives of Israel: A Nation’s History through the Lives of Its Foremost Leaders, by Jack L. Schwartzwald. (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company: 2012.

“History,” wrote the Victorian sage and hero-worshiper Thomas Carlyle, “is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Jack Schwartzwald, a professor of medicine at Brown University, has adopted this principle for his compact history of the country that, in a mere 64 years, has already survived at least the proverbial nine attempts upon its life by enemies who think little of building up their own societies, but much of destroying that of their neighbor. Delicately balancing biography and history, he tells Israel’s story through the lives of nine of its founding figures  and brief yet remarkably thorough analyses of the historical epochs and critical events (both glorious and calamitous) in which they played crucial roles. They are as follows: Theodor Herzl and the birth of modern political Zionism;  Chaim Weizmann and the British Mandate; David Ben-Gurion and the birth of the state; Abba Eban and Israeli statesmanship; Moshe Dayan and the wars of 1967 and 1973;  Golda  Meir and the Yom Kippur War;  Menachem Begin and Camp David; Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo accords;  Ariel Sharon and disengagement.

The chapters are not written according to formula; each has a shape that develops organically from its biographical and historical content. We begin with Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Hungarian Jew whose manifesto The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question (1896) , may be said to have dreamed the Jewish State into existence. Recognizing that Jewish existence was imperiled by assimilation in the west and by antisemitism in the east, he proved John Stuart Mill’s axiom that “philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence….”  In his diary entry for September 3, 1897  Herzl wrote that “At Basle [the first World Zionist Congress]  I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal  laughter . Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” Fifty years later, in 1947, everyone did.

The distinctiveness of Schwartzwald’s  biographical approach  becomes clear if we compare this opening chapter with Hannah Arendt’s account of the birth of the Zionist movement during the Dreyfus Affair. As Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse in 1894, Herzl  covered  that trial,  witnessed the French mobs chanting “Mort aux Juifs (“Death to the Jews”), and in his writing and political activity drew the Zionist conclusion about the Jewish future in Europe: the Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Nazi movement. Arendt, in her historical analysis of the  Affair,  grudgingly but correctly called  Zionism  “the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.” But she attributed that Jewish awakening to “the subterranean forces of the nineteenth century,” and did not even mention Herzl.

Nine Lives is a small miracle of conciseness and compression, yet we never have the sense that the author is cutting corners or curtailing analysis. Even so tangled a web as the moves and  countermoves leading to the Six-day War or UN resolutions are patiently unraveled.  Schwartzwald  carries his erudition lightly, though its vastness is hinted at in  voluminous endnotes and a superb index which comprises almost every crucial point in the book (for the benefit of readers who like to enter books from the rear). He relies heavily on a keen instinct for the pregnant  anecdotes and terse utterances that epitomize an Israeli leader’s relation to his (or her) historical moment.

For example:  Chaim Weizmann’s ,  Jewry’s  greatest diplomat,  answered Lloyd George’s question about what His Majesty’s government could do to reward the Anglo-Jewish chemist for his “great service” to Britain during WWI by saying “I would like you to do something for my people.” (Can one imagine Henry Kissinger, who appears prominently in Schwartzwald’s “Golda” and “Begin” chapters, saying this, in that voice dipped in sludge, to Richard Nixon?)  That “something” turned out to be the Balfour Declaration of British commitment to a National Home for the Jews in Palestine.  Later, In 1936, Weizmann  tried to persuade Britain’s Peel Commission that  “the Jewish problem” was the problem of the homelessness of the Jews of Eastern Europe facing Nazism’s war against them: “there are six million people doomed to be pent up where they are not wanted, and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live, and places into which they cannot enter.”  The Peel Commission subsequently recommended the partition of Palestine. (After the war, and the destruction of European Jewry,  Weizmann conciliated the support of Britain, America, and the UN for the establishment of Israel in 1948.)

Schwartzwald writes with deep respect for the resourcefulness and courage of his nine protagonists who created and  then preserved a state that has lived under constant siege; but he is by no means their uncritical cheerleader, and (since a critic need not be an enemy) he is far from silent about their personal shortcomings and political mistakes. David Ben-Gurion, the premier political figure of Israel’s early history, was a Polish Jew of almost superhuman versatility: engineer, farmer, lawyer, soldier, labor organizer. But he could also be (as in the fratricidal quarrels with Begin over the Altalena and over accepting German reparations)  stubborn and dictatorial.  Schwartzwald’s capacity for  balanced judgment of his subjects is elegantly exemplified in his summary estimate of Ariel Sharon’s uneasy relation with his  military superiors: “His new commanders [in 1961] found his approach to be innovative to the point of genius, and daring to the point of recklessness.” (As this sentence indicates, Schwartzwald is the best physician-writer on Zionism since Leo Pinsker, whose  pamphlet Auto-Emancipation anteceded Herzl’s The Jewish State by fifteen years.)

If, as Ruth Wisse once observed, American Jews are divided between those who judge Judaism by the standards of the New York Times and those who judge  the New York Times by the standards of Judaism,  Schwartzwald  is definitely a member of the latter group.  This means not merely that he dissects such scandalous distortions of fact as the Times’ infamous  mislabelling of photos  to insinuate  that  Sharon’s stroll on the Temple Mount “caused” the Al-Aksa Intifada. More importantly, it means that he does not, like so many Jewish authors  of books about  Israel that are trumpeted (and sometimes actually published) by the Times,  blush for the existence of a Jewish state and seek to advertise his own virtue by blackening its reputation. His book is not merely a welcome antidote to their  poisonous mixtures of bile, vitriol, and  ignorance . Despite its brevity and modesty, it is, for the general reader, probably the best introduction to Israel’s short yet tumultuous history.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews:  A Critical Appraisal  (2012).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.