Nine Lives of Israel: A Nation’s History through the Lives of Its Foremost Leaders (REVIEW)
by Edward Alexander
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The chapters are not written according to formula; each has a shape that develops organically from its biographical and historical content.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).