The Israelis: Fathers and Sons, by Amos Elon, is one of those books that I felt I should have read, but never did. I recently came across the book on someone else’s bookshelf, and knew it was perfect for my summer reading.
The Israelis, written in 1971, begins by describing the post 1967 sense of euphoria in Israel. It then moves back in time, with the book divided into two parts. The first is about Israel’s founders, starting with the first Aliyah in 1881, and moving through each subsequent aliyah until the founding of the state. Each group, along with some of its key members, receives a chronological, social and intellectual history. This provides a richness, breadth and excitement to the story of the creation of the State of Israel. Elon does a wonderful job of describing the Eastern European intellectual and social milieu that the State’s founders came from, and the impact this has had on the state that these founders both imagined, and what it became. I found this the most exciting and enjoyable part of the book, even as a good part of it was familiar to me. Elon is an excellent writer (he was an accomplished journalist), and a great story teller. He combines both talents here in describing how the State of Israel came to be.
The second part of the book tells the story of the ‘Sons,’ the generation of Israelis that followed the creation of the State of Israel. This is to say, it’s about the state of the State in 1971. I found some of these descriptions interesting, others out of date, and still others a bit self-indulgent. What Elon most keenly picks up on is the challenge presented by the territorial gains, and the Palestinian populations in the newly conquered land, post 1967. What he most powerfully mis-reads is what he assumes will be the long-term impact of the Israeli secular left. Little does he know that in a few short years after his book, Menachem Begin would come to power, following which the entire country would begin a shift to the ‘right,’ and away from many of the values of the Founders, let alone the Sons that he describes. I’d be very curious what an updated version of this book would look like. Elon mostly does a good job of painting a sympathetic portrait of contemporary Israelis, offering their strengths and flaws of generosity and warmth, though at times one feels the bite of his own leftist politics.
Notably absent in the book, and a reflection of Elon being a classic ‘Son,’ is almost any mention of Sefardim or religious Jews (forget about Haredim, even Dati Leumi Jews). And while these were certainly smaller populations in 1971, it is telling that they barely made it onto Elon’s screen of consciousness, and is part of what makes the second half of the book limited to its time.
So, while I’d certainly recommend the first half of the book over the second, I found it overall enjoyable, even as I read the second as more of a period piece in the Israeli story.
Just Because I Liked It:
- Noah Feldman and Michael Helfand are both scholars of American constitutional law whose work I admire tremendously. In the last issue of the Jewish Review of Books they engage on the question of the separation of church and state as it impacts funding religious institutions. This, of course, has profound implications for the funding of Jewish religious activity in the United States. It was a fascinating discussion.
- A second article from that same issue of the Jewish Review of Books was by Prof. Mark Shapiro about the ‘banned’ book, Making of a Gadol about Rav Ya’akov Kamentsky, twenty years later. The episode was revealing about Haredi culture, and I found Prof. Shapiro’s analysis of the issues at stake insightful.
- The most recent theme on the 18forty podcast was about Teshuva. I’ve only listened to one so far, with Kayla Haber-Goldstein, though the others look very interesting. The intro to this interview was particularly fascinating!