Off the shelf | Books provide fuller picture of Israels complexities, past and present

The unexpected success of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land,” published at the end of 2013, has been heartening; the Haaretz journalist’s deeply felt book has stimulated widespread dialogue about some of the tougher events and questions in Israeli history. As the year 2014 has come to a close, I want to spotlight several other Israel-related books that came out this past year, all of which lead to a better understanding of the nation’s complex past and present.Assaf Gavron’s “The Hilltop,” which won Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize for Hebrew fiction in 2013, has been released in a fine English translation. The sprawling novel is set in an illegally settled Jewish outpost in the West Bank in which residents fend off threats from government ministries and the army, while maintaining an uneasy relationship with the neighboring Arab village. Gavron presents an often-humorous portrait of the contested area as a sort of Wild West in which the ineptitude and conflicting agendas of Israeli bureaucracies enable the unplanned development to grow, and with significant implications.

Far from mere political satire, the book offers an endearing portrait of the ragtag band of settlers, who reflect a wide range of backgrounds and ideologies. Much of the novel is devoted to an intimate look at the lives of two young men, orphans raised on a kibbutz, who have come to live in the settlement. For Gabi, now an adherent of the Hassidic Breslover sect, life in the outpost is part of his spiritual project after his life has been thrown off course by a succession of violent outbursts. His brother Roni appears at Gabi’s door seeking refuge from creditors whose money he has lost in a disastrous financial gamble, but he immediately sinks himself into another financial gamble as he enlists a neighboring Arab olive grower in a scheme to sell his oil as an organic boutique product to Tel Aviv foodies. Things don’t turn out as envisioned, but both men grow in the process.

The year has seen a bumper crop of biographies of prominent figures in Israeli history, including two new releases from Yale’s excellent Jewish Lives series. In “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” Israeli historian Anita Shapira draws on newly released documents to present an intimate picture of Israel’s first prime minister. And Hillel Halkin’s “Jabotinsky: A Life” offers a full-fledged exploration of the fiery leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement, focusing not only on his political career, but his undervalued legacy as a journalist and novelist.At times I felt the two biographies were nearly in conversation with each other, with Ben-Gurion serving as the slightly older Jabotinsky’s nemesis. The two leaders differed dramatically, particularly on the issue of territory. Where David Ben-Gurion accepted partition of the land of Israel as a pragmatic necessity, Ze’ev Jabotinsky remained fixed to a vision that included the entirety of British Mandate Palestine as the basis of a Jewish majority state. Ultimately, Jabotinsky, though a tremendous orator, had little success in gaining political strength, and he remained an oppositional figure until his death in 1940 at the age of 59.

It was Jabotinsky’s successor, Menachem Begin, who would bring the Zionist right wing into the mainstream, but it would take decades. Daniel Gordis’ “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” follows Begin from his years as a Zionist activist in Europe through his leadership of the renegade paramilitary group the Irgun, and then through his political career. This lengthy career was spent chiefly at the margins, with his Herut Party too far to the right to achieve a meaningful impact. It was only in the 1970s that Begin’s star unexpectedly rose, with his newly founded Likud Party appealing to an increasingly disillusioned populace and, in particular, to Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews whose concerns had often escaped the notice of the dominant Labor Party.


Gordis, a prolific author who before making aliyah was the founding dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism, is clearly enamored of Begin. One dimension he explores is Begin’s deep lifelong connection to traditional Judaism, formed during his childhood in Poland, which distinguished him from other Israeli leaders. Also essential to understanding Begin is the murder of his parents and siblings in the Holocaust.

One of the reasons that Begin was able to form a right-leaning government in what was then a decidedly left-leaning country was his solicitation of support from the religious parties. Today, these parties have achieved much greater power — and it is the use of this power that is at the center of Elana Maryles Sztokman’s powerful “The War on Women in Israel.” The book is subtitled “A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.” Sztokman, an Orthodox Jew herself, serves as a tour guide exploring the distressing developments in Israel at the behest of the religious right. These include the rise of segregated buses, which had not existed at all before 1997, and segregated sidewalks.

Sztokman is highly critical of the capitulation of politicians and institutions to religious parties’ demands for political purposes, but she points out that it is not only government entities that have given in. Most chillingly, there has been an increasing erasure of women in the public sphere, for example, with images of women eliminated from ads on buses in many communities and women’s singing absent from some radio stations. Sztokman calls for change, and points out current efforts in Israel to reverse this course.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


“The Hilltop” by Assaf Gavron (464 pages, Scribner, $26)

“Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” by Daniel Gordis (320 pages, Schocken, $27.95)

“Jabotinsky: A Life” by Hillel Halkin (256 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

“Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” by Anita Shapira (288 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

“The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women

Fighting for Freedom” by Elana Maryles Sztokman (384 pages, Sourcebooks, $24.99)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.