Balfour, Mossad, Peres

Mosaic has asked its regular contributors to recommend three books: two new ones published in 2020, and a classic. Below is my contribution. For all of them, go here.

Just when we think we know all there is to know about the modern history of Zionism and Israel, a new book deflates our confidence. Here are two new ones that did just that in 2020, and a classic that did that long ago.

Shimon Peres remains one of the great enigmas of Israel’s history. He was a high-flying statesman of international caliber who kept falling to earth. Israelis saw in him the glimmer of a visionary à la Herzl, so they kept him in public life. But this indulgence came with a condition: he would always be “number two” to someone else, and he would have to propitiate this “number one” to get his work done.

Avi Gil, trained as a diplomat, ended up as an adviser to Peres for 28 years. His Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 264pp., $26.95) caused a stir when it appeared in Hebrew in 2018. Other advisers had written reverential memoirs about their political bosses. Gil, by contrast, is admiring of Peres’s strengths, but unsparing when it comes to his faults, above all his preening ego. It wasn’t always clear what drove him: vision or vanity.

Whatever one thinks of the Oslo Accords (Gil thinks more of them than you probably do), they represented a double triumph for Peres. To maneuver Yasir Arafat into an agreement, he first had to outmaneuver his nemesis, Yitzḥak Rabin. The backstory of how Oslo got made isn’t pretty, replete as it is with lies and betrayals. But it’s also riveting.

This year was the 60th anniversary of Israel’s 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann. (I wrote about an aspect of it for Mosaic back in June.) But that wasn’t the end of Israel’s hunt for Nazis. In 1965, Herbert Cukurs, a Latvian collaborator involved in the murder of 30,000 Jews, turned up dead in Uruguay. A statement attached to his body, stuffed in a trunk, denounced him for his crimes against Jews. Years later, the Israeli who lured him to his death revealed that it had been a Mossad assassination.

The journalist Stephan Talty has retold the story with verve in The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp., $28). The chief Israeli agent, Jacob (“Mio”) Medad, whose parents perished in the camps, first revealed the details in a memoir published over twenty years ago. But Talty greatly enriches the context of the Mossad operation. We learn in depth about the Holocaust in Latvia, the inspiring life story of a key witness, and the strange personality of Cukurs. A famed long-distance aviator before the war, he descended into unspeakable cruelty. Suffice it to say, he was no desk murderer. So he got what Talty calls “a certain kind of killing. . . . [T]here would be no trial, no lawyers or judges, no legal niceties, no essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker.” The deception involved in the operation was ingenious, but the denouement wasn’t very tidy. No more spoilers.

And something classic? The Balfour Declaration by Leonard Stein appeared in 1961. (Simon and Schuster published the American edition.) I still find its 700 pages invaluable, despite the appearance of later studies based on archives that weren’t open to Stein in the 1950s.

This was meticulous history, written by an amateur. Stein, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and a veteran of World War I service in Palestine, became a tax lawyer and a Zionist activist. Yet he deftly uncovered and untangled the interests that converged in the declaration. His main discovery, obvious today but not realized 60 years ago: British interests, not pro-Jewish sentiment, underpinned the declaration. Indeed, some of the Balfour Declaration’s chief British proponents were (shall we say?) less than enamored of Jews.

Stein died in 1973, at the age of eighty-five. The Balfour Declaration is a sturdy monument.

Choice books on Israel, 2019

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 Israels 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.

The War on Error is underway…

The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East is my new collection of twenty-five essays and articles, some of them published for the first time. Order the book from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

In connection with publication, please watch or read the following:

• View my opening remarks at my book launch, held at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, here. That’ll take only thirteen minutes. If you have an hour and a half, you might watch the entire event, featuring responses from Benny Morris and Hussein Ibish. There’s also a rapporteur’s summary of the event.

• Read the first review of the book by Jonathan Marks, written for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in The Algemeiner, here.

• Read a profile of me and my work by Shepard Barbash in The Federalist, here.

• Lee Smith interviewed me for the blog of The Weekly Standard, here.

I welcome comments, criticisms, and compliments. I invite you to post them here on Facebook, or (even better) at Amazon.com.

Description:

In The War on Error, historian and political analyst Martin Kramer presents a series of case studies, some based on pathfinding research and others on provocative analysis, that correct misinformation clouding the public’s understanding of the Middle East. He also offers a forensic exploration of how misinformation arises and becomes “fact.”

The book is divided into five themes: Orientalism and Middle Eastern studies, a prime casualty of the culture wars; Islamism, massively misrepresented by apologists; Arab politics, a generator of disappointing surprises; Israeli history, manipulated by reckless revisionists; and American Jews and Israel, the subject of irrational fantasies. Kramer shows how error permeates the debate over each of these themes, creating distorted images that cause policy failures.

Kramer approaches questions in the spirit of a relentless fact-checker. Did Israeli troops massacre Palestinian Arabs in Lydda in July 1948? Was the bestseller Exodus hatched by an advertising executive? Did Martin Luther King, Jr., describe anti-Zionism as antisemitism? Did a major post-9/11 documentary film deliberately distort the history of Islam? Did Israel push the United States into the Iraq War? Kramer also questions paradigms—the “Arab Spring,” the map of the Middle East, and linkage. Along the way, he amasses new evidence, exposes carelessness, and provides definitive answers.

Advance Praise:

• Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations:

The best antidote to academic assaults on Israel and false versions of Zionist history is Martin Kramer. These essays on Israel and on current Arab and Islamic politics show him at his best: a sharp, wise, and very funny guide. If you’ve read this all before, read it again; time has only made his analyses more telling. If you don’t know Kramer, you’re in for an intellectual feast.”

• Josef Joffe, fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University:

“What is the Talmudic spirit? It is to poke, probe and provoke, never to let received notions stand. Today’s Middle East harbors more half-truths and willful misrepresentations than oil under its sands. Concepts like ‘Orientalism’ are ideologies posing as dispassionate scholarship. Islamism is a magnet for apologists blind to the region’s cultural pathologies. Terrorism is transfigured into legitimate anti-colonialism, even though the Arab world has been independent for two, three generations. Martin Kramer has done the ‘Talmudic’ thing, exposing sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”

• Gilles Kepel, professor at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and member of the Institut universitaire de France:

“Martin Kramer is a major scholarly contributor to the worldwide political debate about the contemporary Middle East. Not all will agree with his strong views, but they are always stimulating and challenging, and it is worth taking up such a challenge in the unprecedented chaos that the region has witnessed since 9/11, both within its ever-changing borders and in its complex relations with Europe and America.”

• Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

“In The War on Error, Martin Kramer, an eminent scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, fearlessly and eloquently exposes the myths, half-truths, and outright lies that pervade the public discussion, and so inhibit public understanding, of the region he knows so well.”

• Michael Oren, member of Knesset and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:

Martin Kramer, a preeminent and prolific scholar of the Middle East, provides expert and singularly clear-sighted insights into this crucial region. Whether writing about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the West’s relations with Islam, or the global struggle against terror, Kramer is at once deeply informed, courageous, and engaging.”

• Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:

“Martin Kramer spans an unusual range. He is a first-rate historian of the modern Middle East who is as masterful with social media as he is with the traditional archive. This new collection of essays and papers deals with the most current issues in Middle Eastern politics and policies from a perspective that only a profound historian possesses. But Kramer is not encumbered by his academic baggage; he writes well and vividly. I sometimes disagree with him but I always read carefully and learn something new or different. I strongly recommend the book for the professional and the lay reader.”

• Ruth R. Wisse, former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, Harvard University:

“Correcting error is the indispensable first step in stopping terror. No one writes better on the Middle East, its distorters and misinterpreters than Martin Kramer. He must be read—to be believed.”