Commentary Magazine


Rich Cohen’s “Israel Is Real”

Adam Kirsch dismantles Rich Cohen’s new book, Israel Is Real, in a devastating review in Tablet.

The book is a slanted history of Zionism, from the destruction of the Second Temple to the present. Cohen likes the idea of Israel but not so much the actually existing state. For him, Israel Is Too Real (as he titles one of his concluding chapters), having substituted the moral ambiguities of a state, in a particular time and place, for the more morally pure situation of a religion divorced from power.  It may not, in his view, be good for the Jews.  He begins the book arguing that “modern Israel, meant to protect Jews, may have put them in greater danger than they have known in two thousand years,” and ends it with a vision of the destruction of Israel (which he calls the Third Temple), with Jews thereafter remembering it by wearing replicas of an F-16 around their necks.

Kirsch writes that the book is replete with factual errors, frequently substitutes style for substance, and is marred by its faux hip attitude. He concludes that “neither the facts nor the ideas in Israel Is Real, then, deserve much attention” and that the “best way to take the measure of Cohen’s book is to look at his language”:

I know that Cohen’s hyped-up style depends on a certain swagger and exaggeration. Still, when I read that “according to the critics” the early Zionists had “the same goal as the Nazis: a world without Jews”; that Rishon le Zion, the first modern Zionist settlement, was “the punk corpuscle that herald[s] the disease, the lonely pimple that portends the general outbreak, the tiny bud that suggests the sea of wildflowers,” followed by the invitation to “pick your metaphor”; that “Israel is not a nation — it’s a landfill, a garbage dump, where Europeans heaped the ashes after the war”; or worst of all, that “No one hates a Jew like a Zionist” — I cannot help feeling that Cohen’s desire to make an impression on the reader comes at too high a price, and that cleverness without taste, knowledge or wisdom is a poor foundation for a book — about Israel or anything else.

The book comes with a four-page bibliography at the end. Readers interested in a different view of the history and intellectual debate about the issue of Jewish power should read Ruth Wisse’s career-capping book, Jews and Power (2007), Kenneth Levin’s monumental The Oslo Syndrome (2005), and Martin Gilbert’s exhaustive Israel: A History (2008) — none of which is in Cohen’s bibliography.