Pop culture writer finds the Real Israel in controversial book

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In writing his book “Israel is Real,” Rich Cohen had a simple goal. He says he “wanted to make Jewish history weird again.”

Maybe that’s why Cohen’s quirky history of Zionism is peopled with some of the oddest Jewish zealots of the last 2,000 years — from the 17th century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi to Sam “Banana Man” Zemurray, the guy who in the late 1940s donated to stateless Palestine-bound Jews the floating tub known as the Exodus.

Making Jewish history weird again wasn’t Cohen’s only reason for writing the book. He admits to an obsession with modern Israel and its place in the world. Working on the book was his pathway to understanding.

“Israel and what it means has occupied an inordinate amount of my mental space,” Cohen says from his home in Bridgefield, Conn. “I saw the writing of the book as a journey, a quest, [through which] I would confront head-on the scariest things I allow myself to deal with.”

As for those scary things, Cohen refers to the inherent contradictions that play out in modern Israel: religious vs. secular, left vs. right, peace vs. perpetual war.

Cohen will speak 12:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at the JCC of San Francisco’s BookFest, as part of the “For the Love of Zion” panel with Charles London (“Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community”), Rabbi Ian Pear (“The Accidental Zionist”) and moderator Aaron Hahn Tapper, co-executive director of Abraham’s Vision.

With his previous books, “Sweet and Low” (about his family’s fortune, which was made from the little pink packets of sweetener) and “Tough Jews” (about Jewish gangsters), Cohen established himself as a wry observer of the margins of American Jewish society. He brought the same humor and pop culture expertise to the telling of a story that goes back to biblical days.

It’s the story of Jews’ eternal attachment to the land of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular.

“In each crucial era, there are pivot points of Jewish history,” he says. “And in each era there tended to be representative figures who were in themselves incredibly interesting but stood for something larger.”

That’s why he tells the story through personalities like Jochanan ben Zakkai, who reshaped Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rav Hillel and Ariel Sharon.

Cohen admittedly stakes out a provocative posture in the book. Some critics have accused him of Israel bashing, especially when he writes lines like “Israel is not a nation — it’s a landfill, a garbage dump, where Europeans heaped the ashes after the war.”

But Cohen insists that he loves Israel deeply. He has visited the country annually for years, and has many family Israeli members.

So he feels confident rebuffing his critics.

“I’m a very strong supporter of Israel, but I sense sometimes something went wrong with Israel,” he adds. “It’s much easier to say ‘I’m behind Israel, I don’t want to hear more about it.’ It takes too much energy to be too open all the time. I decided for this book I would be completely open and see things from the other sides, not only what the Arabs thought, but also the Jews who thought Zionism was a mistake.”

He also feels that Zionist idealism became diluted once Israelis began facing the day-to-day problems of running a country.

“Once you have a nation to defend, you’re part of the world and involved in sinful reality,” he says of modern Israel. “Jews were prophets, outsiders, mystics, all the things disconnected from worldly power. Now they exercise worldly power.  They are mixed up in the world, in a sinful place.”

At the same time, he agrees that Israel is held to a different standard when it comes to defense. But he also believes the current situation — with Israel enmeshed in the Palestinian-populated territories and facing a demographic time bomb — is unsustainable.

According to his argument, either Israel makes permanent its de facto annexation of the West Bank, in which case Arabs would someday outnumber Jews, or Israel withdraws and sustains Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper.

“I’m not left wing,” he says. “This is a realist’s view. Everyone who becomes a leader of Israel said this [occupation] is not to our advantage, and we’ve got to change this. Rabin said it, Sharon said it and Olmert said it. Netanyahu will too.”

For Cohen, who was raised in a Reform home in Chicago, wrestling with the contradictions of modern Israel is akin to the ancient Jewish concept of wrestling with God (the term “Israel” means exactly that in Hebrew).

“I feel it’s something bigger than history that Jews are part of,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to figure out what I believe.”

“Israel is Real”
by Rich Cohen (400 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27)

Rich Cohen will speak as part of BookFest’s  “For the Love of Zion” panel, 12:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at Kanbar Hall in the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. A book signing will follow at 1:45 p.m. Information: www.jccsf.org/bookfest.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.