“You and your crew of 34, Daniel. You are the last Israelis. You are all that is left. But you have no home. You must go somewhere else,” Gabriel Cohen, an IDF emergency contact officer stranded in Greece, informs the captain of Israel’s Dolphin submarine in Noah Beck’s latest novel, The Last Israelis.
Israel has been destroyed in a nuclear attack, and now Daniel and his crew must choose their course. Do they still fulfill their mission of retaliation and deliver a lethal strike to the enemy, or do they abandon ship?
For Israelis, a new era is dawning. Beyond the menace of constant terror and conventional warfare, there is the looming threat of total annihilation. The Last Israelis, imagines the ultimate catastrophe of failed Middle East diplomacy, should Iran’s nuclear program be allowed to continue unchecked.
Sensing the historical moment of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran that took place in Baghdad in May of 2012, Beck submits his novel as a narrative summary of the crisis, highlighting the unique and important Jewish culture that is endangered by Iran’s increasingly menacing nuclear capability.
The novel borrows themes from traditional Cold War literature. By replacing the Soviet adversary with Iran’s fundamentalist theocracy, however, Beck suggests that in the Middle East, MAD, the concept of mutually assured destruction, may not be enough to prevent either side from pulling the trigger.
When Israel’s fictional prime minister in the novel receives confirmation that Iran has reached a critical stage in their weapons program, and that Israel no longer has the capability to attack their nuclear facilities, an irreversible chain of events is set in motion. The prime minister immediately puts Israel on high alert and warns the president of the United States that Israel will launch a preemptive attack. The crisis further intensifies when the prime minister succumbs to an acute neurological disease and is rushed to a hospital in Germany. Now the defense of Israel falls upon an inexperienced deputy prime minister and the crew of the Dolphin.
Although readers may find some of the subplots aboard the Dolphin submarine superfluous, this extremely well-researched book mines the depths of history and will be an important resource. Beck has skillfully populated his vessel with sailors representative of nearly every element of Israeli society. There are Ethiopians aboard ship, second-generation refugees from Vietnam, Iran, Russia, and Christian Arabs. In their close quarters and under extreme stress, these men rally despite their differences. They are predators, enduring torturous pressures deep below the sea, yet prey to hostile enemy submarines.
Between action sequences, Beck fleshes out competing contemporary opinions about Israel. The sailors grumble that Israel is perceived as an aggressor, even when the country provides humanitarian aid. Likewise, many are frustrated that the country’s most accomplished professionals are snubbed when boycotted by certain western institutions in response to Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian territories. What is most telling of the real political and emotional climate in Israel, however, is a haunting sense of fear that unites the crew.
“Remember when the Iranians organized an international ‘World Without Zionism Conference?’” one sailor remembers his father asking during a brief picnic the crew enjoyed with their families prior to shipping out for the Strait of Hormuz. The Ayatollahs have “been preparing the Iranian public, and the Muslim world at large, for the idea that the world will be a better place if Israel is destroyed,” the sailor adds.
Decades of Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric are examined, but contradicting backgrounds and emotions prevent consensus amongst the crew. Through serious debate, many of the seamen conclude that a nuclear Iran is a brainwashed society on an unstoppable path to war with Israel, a modern Armageddon.
“How has the world not seen this for what it is?” one sailor, Eitan, asks after listening to his comrade list outrageous instances of Iranian propaganda. Beck’s sonar has detected a growing sense of abandonment in Israel and his characters echo the country’s malaise of constant terror and chronic despair.
Nevertheless, the notion of nuclear deterrence provides little comfort to the men tasked with delivering the missiles. On the contrary, the sailors back away from the power they possess, concerned either that they don’t have the authority to attack, or that they will violate the laws of the Torah by killing so many innocent civilians.
This debate charts the crew’s descent toward anarchy. “The point is that everything about this boat—from who commands it to what we can do with the weapons on it—was determined by a society that apparently no longer exists any more,” argues Yisrael, the Dolphin’s second-ranking officer. “Things become somewhat arbitrary at that point.”
The Last Israelis contemplates a frighteningly realistic and rapidly unfolding nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. Beck is very forward in his preface and epilogue to the book, indicting the western powers for wasting the last opportunities to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program, yet his characters are somewhat less pessimistic. “At some point, you just have to operate the sub on faith and a prayer,” Daniel, the Dolphin’s captain, thinks as he gives orders to dive through thrilling suspense and steers his vessel ever closer to confrontation.
Noah Beck’s “The Last Israelis” is available in ebook, audiobook, or paperback format, and from various retailers here.
Jeffrey F. Barken frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing, he is the author of “This Year in Jerusalem,” a collection of stories based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.