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On the Bookshelf

Pluralists, pragmatists, and polemicists

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(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

A parodist noted a few years ago that if you would like to write your very own Thomas Friedman op-ed column, you have three choices for the “little-known Middle East authority” from whom you must quote at least once: Stephen P. Cohen, Stephen P. Cohen, or Stephen P. Cohen. (This was presumably not a reference to the confusion caused this Cohen, founder and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, sharing his name with a  South Asia expert, a Sovietologist, and a sociologist of America’s Jews.) With Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East (FSG, November), Cohen offers those who have often enjoyed the milk of his diplomatic wisdom, doled out for free in Friedman’s columns and books, a chance to buy the cow. His message? As he tells Vox Tablet this week, the United States’ approach to the Middle East has been confused since at least World War I, and more thoughtfulness and imagination will be necessary to broker a lasting peace.


Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism

Those looking for less confusion on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians can find it on the bookshelf—if they zealously seek out ideological polemics that reinforce their existing prejudices. Adherents of the anti-Zionist left, for example, can choose from many books that support their predictable vitriol: in M. Shahid Alam’s Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, November) and Yitzhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism (Verso, November), those so inclined can enjoy condemnations of Zionist colonialism, as well as the dubious, disturbing claim that Israel thrives on, and thus should be held responsible for, Arab anti-Semitism.

Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine

More nuanced studies analyze Israel’s many challenges without oversimplifying the problems, or blaming them exclusively on Zionists and Jews. Indeed, in Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine (Texas, November), Donna Robinson Divine examines memoirs, letters, and news report by and about immigrants to British-controlled Palestine and insists that Zionism never took as monolithic a form as its critics claim. Dan Avnon and Yotam Benziman, two Hebrew University scholars, present essays in Plurality and Citizenship in Israel: Moving Beyond the Jewish/Palestinian Civil Divide (Routledge, November) that grapple with the legal and civil challenges that currently bedevil Israeli society, and As’ad Ghanem’s Ethnic Politics in Israel: The Margins and the Ashkenazi Centre (Routledge, December) addresses not only the social marginalization of the Arab population, but also the struggles of Mizrahi and Russian immigrants. In The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism (Routledge, December), meanwhile, Dani Filc, an Argentina-born doctor who has written on Israeli healthcare, explains the rise to prominence of Likud, Shas, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu as a result of their powerful appeal to the electoral masses. Such authors write from particular ideological positions, too, but at least their critiques of Israeli policy do not ignore the Israelis’ humanity while advocating for Palestinians, or flaunt rhetorical bitterness as if it, and not peace, were their main goal.


The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner

The Hebrew poet Abba Kovner once remarked on the way that Jewish history influenced his writing: “As a Jew, you love your people. You can’t love and be objective at the same time.” Born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Kovner lived a fascinating life: he organized the Jewish resistance in the Vilna ghetto, sought to murder Nazis in revenge killings after the war, served in the Givati Brigade during Israel’s War of Independence, and designed the permanent collection of Israel’s Diaspora Museum. Dina Porat surveys Kovner’s experiences and poetry in her 2000 biography The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (Stanford, November), newly translated into English by Elizabeth Yuval.

Like Kovner, most Israeli writers can’t help but reflect on the matsav, whether directly or obliquely. The fifth and latest annual issue of Modern Hebrew Literature (Toby, November), which includes stories, novel excerpts, poems, and interviews translated from Hebrew on the ever-so-slightly dated theme of “Israel at 60: Retrospective and Renewal,” offers a range of responses on this theme by a diverse group of Israeli authors and journalists that includes Ronit Matalon, Ruth Almog, and Benny Barbash.

Dai (Enough)

Covering a wide swath of Israeli culture single-handedly, Iris Bahr, a young Israeli-American actress and memoirist, serves up a gallery of Israeli caricatures in her one-woman show Dai (Enough), now published as a slim paperback (Northwestern, November). Previously known as the Orthodox girl stuck on a ski lift on Curb Your Enthusiasm and for the memoir Dork Whore, Bahr sets her play at a Tel Aviv café, performing as a kibbutznik, a Palestinian intellectual, a Russian prostitute, an Evangelical American, a bourgeois yoredet, and more, to dramatize how a strange mix of people can have their lives yoked together by terrorist violence in contemporary Israel.

The Other Zions: The Lost Histories of Jewish Nations

Popular music is one forum in which Israeli Jews and Arabs have lately managed to overcome their political differences: as UC Berkeley music professor Benjamin Brinner describes in Playing Across a Divide: Musical Border Crossings in Israel and the West Bank (Oxford, December), bands like Bustan Abraham and Alei Hazayit include Jewish and Arab musicians drawing upon global music traditions in their compositions. It remains a question, however, as to how such instances of audiotopia—defined by Josh Kun as “the space within and produced by a musical element that offers the listener and/or the musician new maps for re-imagining the present social world”—might translate into rapprochement in a situation as tense and violent as today’s Middle East.


Can we imagine a different Jewish state, beset less intensely by seemingly inexorable internal and external pressures? Eric Maroney’s The Other Zions: The Lost Histories of Jewish Nations (Rowman & Littlefield, November) gathers the scant and at times unreliable data on the rare places throughout history in which Jews reigned, either because those in power converted (as in Himyar, Adiabene, and Khazaria) or because a government designated an area for Jewish self-government (as in Soviet Birobidzhan). Do these historical oddities have anything to contribute to contemporary debates about Middle Eastern politics? Maybe, maybe not. But at least we know Michael Chabon has material for half a dozen more adventure novels in the spirit of Gentlemen of the Road.

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On the Bookshelf

Pluralists, pragmatists, and polemicists

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