The historical illiteracy surrounding Israel in the media and in my social media feed is, to say the least, frustrating. Though, perhaps “historical illiteracy” is being too generous. Oftentimes it is just moral illiteracy, or, more probably, pro-Hamas propaganda or degenerate both-sideism. Whatever the case — and for whatever it’s worth — I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the topic. This list isn’t in any particular order and it is by no means exhaustive.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael Oren:
A fast-moving, accessible overview of the history of the war that shaped the conflict. Though it did occur to me while flipping through it recently, that there is no longer an “Arab-Israel conflict.” The Arab world, with the help of the Soviets, created the “occupied territories” myth as a political cudgel against the Jewish state. Today, however, most of the Arab nations have not only come to terms with Israel’s existence, they are in open peace. This is a war of Islamic-Palestinian terror funded by Iran (and, sadly, by the West.) Still, this book is vital in understanding how we got here.
Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh:
A deeply researched debunking of the myths that calcified around the formation of modern Israel. Karsh meticulously details how, beginning in the 1920s, a corrupt Palestinian leadership ginned up nationalistic and religious backlash to shatter any hope of Arab coexistence with Jews. Tragically, these leaders also initiated an Arab refugee crisis that was “exclusively of their own making.”
Perfidy by Ben Hecht:
This isn’t only one of my favorite books about Israel, it is one of my favorite books, period. Hecht, a Chicagoland reporter, author, playwright (The Front Page), and screenwriter (“Scarface” and “Gone with the Wind”) was also an ardent Zionist. Written in 1961, Perfidy is the true story of Malchiel Gruenwald, a 70-year-old who had lost over 50 of his relatives in Auschwitz. In the early 1950s, Gruenwald published a homemade newsletter in which he accused a well-respected government official, Rudolf Kastner, of collaborating with Eichmann and Nazis in Hungary during the war. The Israeli government sued Gruenwald for defamation. The resulting trial, expected to last only a few days, went on for nearly two years. Gruenwald ended up being acquitted. And Kastner — who, the judge noted, had “sold his soul to the devil” — was ruined. It’s a great true story, but also a meditation on evil, survival, and justice.
Here is the opening line of Perfidy: “In my own time, governments have taken the place of people. They have also taken the place of God. Government speaks for people, dreams for them, and determines, absurdly, their lives and deaths.”
Few books get to the heart of Israel, or the last century, better.
A tiny nation surrounded by enemies, Israel was compelled to adopt a preemption policy from the beginning. The book, its title taken from the Talmud — “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first” — offers fascinating and deeply reported chapters on the incredible successes and lesser-known failures of Israeli secret agencies.
A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad by Robert S. Wistrich:
It’s true that this sprawling history of Jew hatred isn’t technically about Israel. But it is vital for understanding the roots and continuum of that bigotry, from ancient times to the modern “Anti-Zionist” iteration that is so popular in Islamic states and college campuses.
The Anti-Zionist Complex by Jacques Givet:
Written by the Swiss intellectual in 1979, this book is prescient and instructive in detailing the Soviet-sponsored roots of “anti-Zionism” and Western intellectuals’ embrace of antisemitism. I’ve owned this book since I was in my early 20s, and every time I pick it up, it’s still germane (sadly).
Widely praised by historians upon its release in 1984, Peters argues that the “Palestinian” people in the late 19th and early 20th century largely consisted of immigrants from elsewhere in the Arab world. The book also debunks the myth that Muslims lived harmoniously with Jews and Christians before the formation of a Jewish state and details the massive number of Jewish refugees banished from the Arab world. Anti-Israel activists have spent decades pelting the work with pedantic concerns to discredit it. Wikipedia, for instance, falsely claims that “[r]eputable scholars and reviewers from across the political spectrum have since discredited the central claims of Peters’s book.” The “reputable scholars” are namely the antisemites Norman Finkelstein (who this very week wrote the Hamas murders of Jews “warms every fiber of my soul”) and Rashid Khalidi. Their work, in turn, was spread by the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. The central claim of her book has never been refuted. It is just an uncomfortable truth.
The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz:
The famous lawyer offers a straightforward and handy answer to some of the most popular anti-Israel talking points.
Jabotinsky: A Life by Hillel Halkin:
The often-maligned Ze’ev Jabotinsky is not only one of the great heroes of the Jewish people, but one of the great intellectuals of his century. A novelist, essayist, translator, founder of the Jewish Legion in World War I, and head of the Revisionist Zionist movement, Jabotinsky’s influence and significance in the founding of Israel had been belittled by the Israeli left for years. In this short book, Halkin does a fine job spelling out his significance. (Though, if I’m being honest, I prefer Shmuel Katz’s two-volume biography, Lone Wolf. That one, however, runs around 3,000 glorious pages.)
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot:
While antisemitic tropes regarding Jews were the norm in European literature in the 19th century, Eliot’s last novel helped champion the idea of a restored Jewish homeland before it became fashionable. It wouldn’t normally be my cup of Yorkshire tea, but it is a fascinating read.