Bias, good prose butt heads in tale of Israels Manhattan Project

Sharona Muir had a hidden agenda for her trip from Ohio to Israel in 1995, the subject of her memoir, “The Book of Telling: Tracing the Secrets of My Father’s Lives.”

Her father, Itzhak Bentov, who invented Israel’s first rocket in 1948, had died years earlier. She hoped that by going back to Israel she might revive her own creativity, which had dried up after her publication of “During Ceasefire,” a volume of poetry, in 1985.

Her book was also meant to fulfill the ancient rule of the “telling” — that each generation of Jews tell the Passover story as though it were its own. However, her interpretation of Israel’s War of Independence are dangerously biased.

An American professor who studied at Princeton and Stanford and teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Muir tries to impose a poetic sensibility on a small, beleaguered nation, and to rewrite Mideast history in line with the anti-Zionist, anti-war ideology of modern American academia.

She interviewed the surviving members of Hemmed (which she calls “the Manhattan Project of the Jews”), a small group of Holocaust refugees that included Bentov. They loved her because she and her father were “as like as two drops of water.” None of them resembled Dr. Strangelove and none expressed remorse for “killing people.” Instead, they spoke of working frantically, day and night, in a rooftop shed in Tel Aviv, creating weaponry from virtually nothing, while under constant attack by the Arabs.

In her “acknowledgments,” Muir thanks the ex-Hemmed members, “who so generously shared their story and helped me to tell it” — after de-legitimizing their story and their nation.

She contends that the Arabs never meant to drive the Jews into the sea in 1948; the threat was just rhetoric! She blames the Israelis — her father, included — for killing innocent Arab civilians. In support of her opinions, she cites modern historians and recently opened archives. She admits, however, that much of the Hemmed experience was withheld from her for security reasons. But if the whole story were known, it might lead Muir to quite different conclusions.

I prefer the passages the author writes about herself. She was born in Massachusetts in 1957, and her parents were divorced two years later. She sketches the family vividly: Her mother “brayed like a horse,” and her stepmother “screamed like a peahen.” She was loyal to her eccentric, brilliant, exasperating and loving father, the most fully realized character in the book.

In America, he’d turned his fertile brain to medical inventions, and then to a study of Eastern religions that led to his becoming a celebrated guru. But secretly, he told his anguished teenaged daughter that evil beings were attacking him during his out-of-body trips. She believes that meditation opened his mind to memories of the Holocaust — the monsters in his delusions symbolized Nazis — and thereby to madness.

She is, naturally, concerned about her own mental balance. “If I don’t get to the bottom of what makes the difference between a true vision and an illusion,” she writes, “I will have no peace.” But she offers little to anyone seriously interested in making these distinctions.

“The Book of Telling: Tracing the Secrets of My Father’s Lives” by Sharona Muir (277 pages, Schocken Books, $24).