Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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The chapters are not written according to formula; each has a shape that develops organically from its biographical and historical content.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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →