Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.
Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.
David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.
Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.
But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.
We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95), tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.
Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.
In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.
Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99). It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)
It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.
Finally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.