Review: My Mission in Israel by James McDonald

June 9, 2011

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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June 8, 2011


Okay, so it’s only a book review, but I am very very happy to finally have something out there in the public domain aside from conference papers and this blog. 🙂

It’s a review of Nadav Shelef’s new book, Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel and you can read it here in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. If you don’t have direct access to informaworld, you can access the review through most university library sites with a student or faculty ID and password. Unfortunately copyright laws keep me from simply posting the entire review here. For those of you with access, enjoy!

Now back to work on publishing a full refereed academic paper…

Reviews: Malcolm and Judah on Kosovo

May 15, 2011

In addition to the interviews, focus groups, and surveys I have been conducting since I arrived here in Serbia, I have also been catching up on my Balkan politics-related reading. Two books of note I have recently completed are Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History and Tim Judah’s Kosovo: War and Revenge.

Although Malcolm’s Short History is anything but short, for a region with as complex and contentious a history as Kosovo, that he managed to present a readable and seemingly balanced account in only 492 pages is laudable. As I am not a historian, I admit that I am in no position to judge the historical accuracy of the intricate details of Malcolm’s account. Indeed, the book has been subject to considerable criticism by Serbian academia and his account of recent history (published in 1999 before the end of the Kosovo war) is quite truncated. It moreover is obviously unsympathetic to the contemporary Serbian narrative in Kosovo and almost entirely uncritical of the Albanian one.

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Brief Review: Yugoslavia’s Ruin by Cvijeto Job

May 5, 2011

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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Review: Shelef’s Evolving Nationalism

March 30, 2011

I am happy to announce a small publication which will appear this summer in the quarterly journal, Nationalism & Ethnic Politics: a review of Nadav Shelef’s new book, Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel. Copyright laws prevent me from posting the review here as well, but I will provide a link to the review once the journal is released. 

I can say, however, that this is a book very much worth the read if you have any interest in Israeli politics or the study of nationalism. Thanks to Professor Dani Miodownik in the Political Science Department at Hebrew University who encouraged me to do the review and connected me with the journal’s editor. More often than not, a good kick in the pants coupled with a useful connection is a great incentive to finally get writing. In the meantime, I have a more substantial article in the works and am planning a research trip back to Serbia in the near future. The fieldwork progresses apace. Stay tuned for more “adventures.”

On Facts and Theory: A Hassidic Tale

February 5, 2011


This week, during Shabbat, I took a few hours to read Maurice Samuel’s The Professor And the Fossil, a critique of Professor Arnold Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History. Toynbee was a renowned British historian who rose to particular prominence while at the Chatham House.

His sweeping A Study of History was welcomed by many for its synthesis of world history and macro-examination of the rise and fall of human civilizations and critiqued by others for its historical inaccuracies, strong religious overtones, and underlying political agendas. Jewish scholars in particular took exception to Toynbee’s characterization of the Jews as a “fossilized people” of an “extinct civilization.” Samuel’s book is an extended critique of this element of Toynbee’s study and the apparent anti-Semitism which colors his conclusions.

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

November 8, 2010


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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Review: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel

November 1, 2010


Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, is billed as a “thorough assessment of fundamentalism in modern Israel.” The book’s stated objective is to demonstrate the similarities which exist between Jewish fundamentalism and fundamentalism well-studied in other religious cultures, how such Jewish fundamentalism threatens Israel’s democracy.

Shahak and Mezvinsky’s relatively slim volume does an admirable job of providing an overview of the political contours and basic ideological affinities of Israel’s various orthodox religious movements. They delineate in basic terms the pre-Israeli-state history of the haredim (elsewhere the “ultraorthodox”), the internal fracturing of the movement between hasidim and mitnagdim, and the social and religious mores to which they adhere. The authors describe the conflicts which emerged between the Ashkenazi hasidim and mitnagdim in Israeli politics represented by the Agudath Israel and Degel HaTorah factions of the sometimes united Yahadut HaTorah HaMeukhedet (United Torah Judaism)  and the rise of Shas as the vanguard of the Sephardi haredim.

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Review: The Seventh Day

October 28, 2010

the-seventh-dayOver the past few days, I have been working on scheduling meetings with members of Knesset in an effort to wrap up the interview portion of my research here in Israel. Of course, one can only spend so much time on the phone. In my downtime, I have been catching up on my reading.

Today’s book was The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War. Compiled soon after the end of the 1967 Six Day War, The Seventh Day is a collection of interviews, letters, and personal reflections by kibbutzniks who either served in the army during the war or otherwise lived close to the battlefront. It was the intent of the project’s initiators, among them Avraham Shapira and Amos Oz, to counter the widespread public enthusiasm and general euphoria which followed the Israeli victory.

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

October 27, 2010

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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