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Israel Is Real

By Bill Beuttler | September 28, 2009

Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History
By Rich Cohen,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $27, 383 pages

Journalist Rich Cohen has built an impressive career writing nonfiction books about “Tough Jews,’’ beginning with one of that title (a history of Jewish mobsters) and on through such works as “The Avengers’’ (the story of three Jewish resistance fighters during World War II) and “Sweet and Low’’(an insider’s look at the family that invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low - and later disinherited Cohen’s mother “and her issue’’ from the resulting fortune).

It was probably only a matter of time, then, until Cohen, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair magazines, tackled Israel. The result is “Israel Is Real,’’ a smart, energetic overview of the history of the place and its relation to the Jewish people, from biblical times to the present.

Cohen’s narrative is propelled by muscular prose and an irreverent wit at times reminiscent of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show.’’ It is peopled with everyone from Flavius Josephus (“the first writer of the Exile -- the first to realize that for a stateless Jew, power comes only by making yourself useful to the goyim’’) and King Herod (who in rebuilding the Second Temple “followed the plan described in the Book of Kings - God was the architect, Herod his contractor’’) through various familiar leaders of the state of Israel, with pauses en route for pivotal but lesser-known figures such as Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism), Samuel Zemurray (the banana peddler-turned-business magnate whom Cohen suggests resigned his job running United Fruit for a year to play key backstage roles in the creation of Israel), and “the perfectly named Rabbi Abraham Kook’’ (founder of the settler movement).

Ariel Sharon gets more attention than most: His heroism in the 1948, Six-Day, and Yom Kippur wars; his role in the deaths of scores of Palestinian civilians at Kibbya in 1953 and the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982; his loss of a young son in a 1967 gun accident; and his decision in 2005 as prime minister to relinquish the Gaza and West Bank settlements he had once considered crucial for Israel’s defense. (“A stunning moment of recognition,’’ writes Cohen of this latter. “It was the old man realizing the dream had to be reimagined, Israel had to get smaller to survive.’’)

Two recurring themes also get special emphasis. One is that the rise of Israel transformed Jews physically and psychologically. Israeli soldiers, in particular, were strong, tanned, and tough - much unlike the stereotypes Cohen describes having become associated with the Jews of the European ghettos. That meant Israeli Jews could and would defend themselves. But it also brought power that could be abused. “After Lebanon,’’ notes Cohen, “there was no more pretending that Israel, because of its faith and its history, was immune, different, better. Like every other nation, it’s capable of both the best and the worst.’’

The second theme involves the genius of Judaism surviving its long exile from Jerusalem by turning the temple into a book, the most sacred of places into an idea. Writes Cohen: “In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a group of rabbis saved Judaism by reinventing it - by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular territory, as most religions were in the ancient world, and, amazingly, detaching it from its nation. The Temple and the sacrifices and practices associated with it were replaced by prayer. The capital, Jerusalem, was replaced by the image of an ideal or heavenly city, where people would gather at the end of time.’’

Here, too, there is a potential downside. Turn the book back into a temple and your enemies have a new fixed target to attack. “It’s a great irony that [Israel] was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army,’’ concludes Cohen, as he ends his narrative perched on a Jerusalem hillside mulling Israel’s prospects for survival. His absorbing, clear-eyed history of the nation will likely leave readers pondering those odds as well, and knowing more deeply what’s at stake.

Bill Beuttler is an Emerson College publisher/writer in residence.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company