Review: My Mission in Israel by James McDonald

mcdonald-my-mission-in-israelI recently finished reading a memoir by the United States’ first ambassador to Israel, James G. McDonald. In My Mission in Israel, the former ambassador shares his personal experiences and reflections on the founding of the Jewish state, its early statesmen (and stateswomen), the international politics surrounding its establishment, war and diplomacy in the Middle East in the late 1940s, and the future of the region.

Published in 1951, McDonald hardly enjoys the benefit of hindsight in his assessment of the future of the region, but as a commentary on the turbulent politics of the period, his account is invaluable. Appointed first as the US Representative to the newly declared State of Israel on July 23, 1948, he had the distinction of being one of the first international diplomats to interface on an official government-to-government level with Israel’s early leadership.

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Brief Review: Yugoslavia’s Ruin by Cvijeto Job

On Monday, I read Yugoslavia’s Ruin by Cvijeto Job. Job was a fighter in Tito’s Partisans and a former Yugoslav diplomat.

The book tells the story of the rise and demise of Yugoslavia through the eyes of a man who experienced it first-hand. Interspersing historical narrative and personal accounts, Job makes a serious attempt to be even-handed. Although he was clearly a committed member of Tito’s regime, he does offer some criticism of the excesses of the Partisans. He is also quite critical of the social and institutional engineering which characterized Tito’s attempts to bury competing nationalisms in the Balkans.

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Brief Review: Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State


First published in 1961 and rereleased in a second edition in 1969, Ben Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State should be included in whole or part on the syllabus of any university course which examines this subject. Indeed, it should be considered required reading for any serious scholar of Israeli history.

However dated regarding contemporary regional developments, one would be hard pressed to find a study of the birth and development of the Zionist idea and Israeli state as complex, detailed, and historically thorough as Halpern’s. This work follows a broad historical arc from Jewish responses to Emancipation in Europe and its effects on the emergence of Zionism in the 1800s to the political aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. At over 441 pages, Halpern volume leaves virtually no ideological variation on Zionism, anti-Zionism, or non-Zionism unexplored and no major political or diplomatic development relating to the area which became the State of Israel unexamined.

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Brief Review: Tom Segev’s 1949: The First Israelis

1949-tom-segevTaking some time between interviews, today I finished reading Tom Segev’s first encyclopedic historical work: 1949: The First Israelis. The book explores the rich and complex history of Israel in the year which followed the Israeli War of Independence.

Primarily, it emphasizes 4 themes: the relationships which developed between Jews and Arabs, veteran Israeli citizens and new immigrants, the secular and orthodox, and the new vision of Israeli national identity juxtaposed to the political and economic turmoil of the time. Segev has never been shy to challenge the classical Zionist narrative, and 1949 is no exception. As with his much later work, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, the author presents the internal Israeli political and social context of the period, warts and all.

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Quick Update: Reading and Interviews

In this 10 day period between the first of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one is meant to reflect on the previous year, do teshuva (make amends) for past mistakes, and make new commitments to contribute to the betterment of one’s family, community, and world. Between these activities of personal renewal, I, of course, have remained quite busy.

After returning from Yeshivat HaMivtar, where I spent a truly wonderful Rosh Hashana and Shabbat with my cousins, I got right back to work. Over the last week, I have finished up Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, for which I hope to post a review in the coming week. I also finished a book put out by the World Zionist Organization in the late 1970s entitled Whose Homeland? a collection of essays on Jewish biblical and halakhic connections and obligations with regard to the Land of Israel and the political consequences of these factors. I plan to write a short piece here summarizing these perspectives in the next week or so. Finally, I have begun reading a famous Israeli collection of reflections by soldiers on the 1967 Six Day War, entitled The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War.

Aside from reading, I have also been pushing forward with more interviews. Today, I spoke with Pinchas Wallerstein, one of the early founders of Gush Emunim and, until quite recently, the director of the Yesha Council. This interview was particularly interesting and engaging not only because of the subject matter but because it was the first which I conducted almost entirely in Hebrew. It was a challenge but I got a lot out of it. Expect a full post on our conversation soon. Tomorrow, I will be meeting with Yoram Ettinger, a former consul general to the United States who now is deeply engaged in the demographic debate in Israel.

Friday afternoon, Yom Kippur begins and I will be off the grid for a short while. Then, on Sunday evening, I will be heading back to Tel Aviv for a conference put on by the Geneva Initiative at which the former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, will be the keynote speaker. Other speakers include Dr. Matti Steinberg, a former senior government security advisor, Dr. Tal Becker, a former member of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, and Professor Tamar Hermann, co-director of the “Peace Index”. No rest for the weary. Happy New Year indeed! 🙂

Calm Before the Story: Reading Mostly

nested-identities The past two days, I have not been doing a lot of obviously active research. Rather, I have been sending emails and making phone calls to contacts old and new across the country in an attempt to jump-start the interview portion of my research. So far, I have a few meetings scheduled for the coming week and a number of tentative engagements.

Aside from this, which actually has taken a considerable chunk of time, I have been catching up a bit on my reading and background research. Today, sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from my apartment in Rehavia, I finished up the collected volume Nested Identities, edited by Guntram Herb and David Kaplan and published in 1999. In some ways, the volume is a bit dated in terms of its case studies, but overall it provides a number of interesting examples of how national identity can become intertwined with territorial claims.

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Ulpan, Tests, and Presentations

homesick Today had to potentially to be a particularly tough day. Coupled with the typical massive amounts of learning we do daily in ulpan, we had a test and I had to give my presentation on Eshkol Nevo.

On top of it all, I was tired enough yesterday in class that I misheard the teacher when she said that the exam started at 9:30. I thought she said that class would begin at 9:30, not the usual 8:30. When tired, overworked, and dealing in a foreign language, it can be easy to hear what you want to hear. As a result, I was about a half hour late to class.

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Ulpan and Ga’agu’a


Consistently in ulpan, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that much of the source material from which we study forces us to engage with issues in the real world. Today was no different.

Right off the bat, we read an article in Hebrew detailing a conflict currently brewing in Israeli domestic politics over the division of pupils in haredi schools between those of Ashkenazic and Sephardic descent. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that this segregation is illegal and must be rescinded.

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Review: Morris’s One State, Two States

Benny Morris’s newest book, One State, Two States, is a bold and unapologetic attempt to summarize the historical ideological contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and propose some semblance of a solution amidst the deadlock. Most of the volume is dedicated to cataloguing the history of the Israeli Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements. Particularly highlighted are the respective movements’ acceptance and rejection of the “other” and the principle of territorial partition along the lines of a one or two-state solution.

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Review: Hassner’s War on Sacred Grounds

Ron Hassner’s new book, War on Sacred Grounds, is an important step forward in the scholarly exploration of religion in the shaping of domestic politics. This work is particularly valuable to this effort in that it introduces two key testable propositions: that religious claims to sacred spaces are significantly less divisible than other territorial disputes and that religious leaders play a unique and powerful role in the construction, mediation, and resolution of these disputes.

Drawing from interpretivist, materialist, and constructivist traditions, Hassner constructs a coherent interdisciplinary approach to this problem of religious conflict and its rootedness in physical space. This diverse theoretical underpinning allows him to appreciate the transcendent spiritual value ascribed to these sites which defy simple material partition, how the social construction of the centrality of these sites becomes self-enforcing over time, and why the perceived indivisibility of these spaces incentivizes their manipulation by political elites seeking power over religious groups. By providing “believers” with concrete spaces through which they believe access to the divine is possible and political elites access to physical focal points by which they may manipulate religious groups and beliefs, sacred sites supply convenient resources to spark and sustain political mobilization.[1]

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