Israel/Mideast History Book Bleg

A friend emails:

I am becoming very disturbed seeing otherwise intelligent people that I know and respect starting to succumb to the anti-Israel drumbeat in the mainstream press. What books could I recommend to people like this so that they get a more factual picture of the history and evolution of Israel in general, and the evolution of the Israeli- Palestinian (and other Arabs) conflicts in particular?

Great question. Any recommendations?

UPDATE: My friend provides additional info in a follow-up email:

Sir Martin Gilbert has written several good books but I am looking for others. I especially want to turn younger folks onto some good books because they have mostly been force-fed propaganda if they graduated within the last 10-15 years. I will watch the blog to see what your readers recommend. They are a pretty sharp bunch!

Martin Gilbert’s books are a good start. And I agree about CB readers.

9 thoughts on “Israel/Mideast History Book Bleg”

  1. Just a couple, I will look through my shelves to see if there is anything else. Laquer is a very distinguished historian. Michael Oren was born and raised in the US and was Israel’s Ambassador to the US from 2009 through 2013.

    A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel by Walter Laqueur

    The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur (Editor), Barry Rubin (Editor)

    Six Days of War June 1967 & the Making of the Modern Middle East Hardcover by Michael B. Oren

    Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren

    Jonathan feel free to modify the amazon links so they credit Chicago Boyz.

  2. I highly recommend Paul Johnson’s “History of the Jews” (your link) and Oren’s book. Another that is not read much these days would be “The Source,” by Michener. It was written when the Intelligentsia still was fond of Israel, Socialist and an underdog in those days. Like most of Michener, it is easy reading.

    I just finished The Lion’s Gate by Pressfield. It is excellent and an interesting change as it is almost all written quoting the people who fought the 1967 war. Pressfield calls it “narrative history” and it is very authentic as a result.

    I am certainly no expert on Israel but, as a Catholic in Chicago in the 50s, I was a member of the Young Mens’ Jewish Council, which had a basketball court. The YMCA did not and half the members were Catholic. That was in South Shore and the building, if standing, is probably a Muslim club. The fact that it was there was probably the work of this guy who built some of them.

    “In 1945 I was asked to be a member of the board of the Young Men’s Jewish Council, the same organization that had helped me out when I was a youngster. And I was on that board for nine years and was on the committee that built a youth center in Albany Park. In 1954 my term as a board member ended and I was asked to be a board member of the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago. At that time the JPI was the principal center. Later the Jewish community moved to other parts of the city, West Rogers Park and the South Shore, later Skokie and we built community centers there.

    A long time ago. I was a member about 1954.

  3. The key background in the Mideast today is the post-WWI peace settlement, well covered by Daniel Fromkin in his excellent A Peace to End all Peace.

  4. I don’t think these books will help. Lets see if I can explain why.

    I probably fall into the young-uns from the ‘last 10-15 years’ who’ve been force fed propaganda demographic. The average person in this demographic is woefully uninformed about the history of all peoples in all places, but the millennial (mis?)understanding of history is not the main thing driving anti-Israel feeling. Here is what most people in this group know about or associate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with:

    * The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the default example of a never ending conflict. When people talk about the dream of ‘world peace’ this is the first place that comes to their minds; ending the enmity between these two nations is often listed with other great, inspirational, and impossible dreams (e.g. “find a cure for cancer,” “end racism”, etc.).

    * Even though the geopolitics of the modern Middle East are actually quite new, the conflict seems to have a timeless quality to it. (There is a reason for this–it is the only conflict that has been ‘going on’ for our entire lives). People like to use words like “cycles of violence” to describe why Palestinians bomb Israelis or why Israelis shoot Palestinians. There is a vague sense that back in the past – quite far in the past, it seems – there was a point where actual grievances were committed by one side or the other, but that has been buried by so many years of attacks and reappraisals that it is no longer what the fighting is really “about.” The fighting just is – a reflection of each side’s hatred for the other, not a series of martial means designed to accomplish selected political ends like most other wars studied in school or talked about in the news.

    * The logical corollary to the above is that neither side is really inherently better than the above. They both wage war because they hate and because they fear. There is no ‘moral high ground’ inherent to either side’s cause. The only real difference between the two is the power each holds. Israel is acknowledged by everyone as the stronger of the two sides.

    *”With great power comes great responsibility” is a mantra we’ve heard our entire lives, and it is applied here crudely. If Israel has more power than the Palestinians, then it follows that they have greater responsibility for the outcomes of their wars. America’s decision to enter the Middle East with great force after being attacked (and failing) is seen as an analogy, not always openly acknowledged, but the lessons have been internalized. Strong countries must act with discretion when the gnats bite. A failure to do so is to “let the terrorists win”, perpetuate ‘the cycle,’ and to wield power unwisely.

    * Because the Israeli armed forces are centralized but the Palestinian terrorists are not clearly so, the Israelis are treated as unitary actors who can choose their course, while the Palestinians cannot. If change comes it must be through the Israelis.

    * America has wasted too much blood and treasure in Middle Eastern deserts. Who gives a hell what happens over there. We don’t need to help the Israelis for them to survive. Israel has nuclear weapons after all! There is resentment over how great a hold the Israelis have over American foreign policy and how much we do for them, seeing as we get nothing but grief and bills in return.

    That is the narrative mates. Regardless of how incoherent you find it to be, that is what it is and that is what you have to change. Books about what went down in ’17, or ’48, or ’67 do nothing to pop this narrative. What you need are books that explain why the things Israel did in 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014 were just and appropriate. You need a book that shows the incoherence of the ‘cycles of violence’ explanation for today’s events, one that looks at the Israel they know and addresses all of Israel’s different options Israel faces when people are terrorized or kidnapped and shows how the choices the Israelis end up making are the best ones.

    Any other book will be irrelevant.

  5. I think T. Geer makes an excellent observation of why this is such a difficult topic. If I may, here is a perspective from one who has been “in this” for a long time:

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a misnomer and actually propaganda in itself. This is an Arab conflict with a non-Arab state (happens to be a Jewish state).

    To understand this conflict, one has to recognize how old it really is. Biblical narratives aside, this conflict is ancient, and has its deepest roots in the spread of Islam after the 7th c. and the rules of Islam. The Arabs, most recently the Ottomans, have occupied the region historically called Palestine (it was not a state) since the 7th c. Prior to that it was occupied by Byzantines, Romans, Jews, Philistines.

    International law experts are clear that all of Jerusalem is legally Jewish. Multiple ancient deeds recorded in Biblical narrative show land claims in Hebron and elsewhere. Very interesting clip here:

    The loss of the democratic state of Israel in the current Arab milieu of the Middle East is tantamount to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th c. One would need to read history to understand the impact that had on political, religious and personal freedom in the Western world.

    Peace will come when people are educated about the true nature of this conflict. Most are unaware of how much this matters to them personally and the motivation to move outside their personal worldview and preferred method of education would seem to be a limitation to hopes for understanding and peace.

  6. Apologies for the typo on your name in my earlier post T. Greer.

    There is a blog site that is probably the best source of information on the Internet when it comes to the Arab-Israel conflict. Multiple forms of media are listed there, it is well-indexed by topic, and the content selected by the blog owner reflects the fact that this is a very complex problem with no easy answers.

    Nevet Basker is the site owner. I know her personally and find her to be the most even-handed, cool headed, facilitator in the heat of debates over the Arab-Israel conflict. Highly recommend this source for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics involved in the current war and prospects for the future.

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