Commentary Magazine


Nine Books on Israel

Israel Omnibus

Young Hearts.
by David Maletz.
Schocken Books. 237 pp. $3.00.

I Saw the Battle of Jerusalem.
by Harry Levin.
Schocken Books. 288 pp. $3.00.

The Struggle for Palestine.
by J. C. Hurewitz.
Norton. 404 pp. $6.00.

The Republic of Israel.
by Joseph Dunner.
Whittlesey House. 219 pp. $4.75.

Seven Fallen Pillars.
by Jon Kimche.
Secker and Warburg. 326 pp. 15s.

The Army of Israel.
by Moshe Pearlman.
Philosophical Library. 256 pp. $5.00.

Watch for the Morning.
by Thomas Sugrue.
Harper. 301 pp. $3.50.

Report on Israel.
by Irwin Shaw:
With photographs by Robert Capa. Simon and Schuster. 144 pp. Paper, $1.50; cloth, $3.00.

Israel Revisited.
by Ralph McGill.
Tupper and Love. 116 pp. $2.00.

 

The exact statistical data may not be available, but there is little reason to doubt that, per capita, more books continue to be written about the Jews than about any other comparable group. All the more is this true of Zionism, Palestine, and now the State of Israel and the Israeli war of independence. There is no sign that the flood of books pouring off the presses will abate soon.

In the sample before us, only one work is fictional, unconcerned with high politics, war, and strategy, and dating from well before Israel’s independence—Maletz’s novel, Young Hearts, about life in a kvutzah. Yet this work of fiction is ultimately more instructive than the histories and analyses.

The number of Israelis living and working in the various communitarian settlements, the kibbutzim and the kvutzot, formed a relatively small part of the total Jewish population even before the recent massive wave of immigration. The kibbutzniks, however, are the recognized elite in Israel, and their way of life is the Israeli mystique. If in the United States the small boy wants to be a fireman or a cowboy when he grows up, in Israel he wants to be a kibbutznik; the difference is that in Israel he rarely outgrows his veneration for his childhood hero. In the war for independence, the accomplishments and leadership of these people were out of all proportion to their numbers; they provided most of the soldiers for the celebrated Palmach, as well as most of the commanders who led their country to victory against greatly superior might.

The doctrines and attitudes that constitute the communitarian ideology in Israel may be described as a combination of Zionism, Marxism, Utopian socialism, and the teachings of Rousseau and Tolstoy. In Thieves in the Night, Arthur Koestler attempted in part to describe what life is like in an agricultural commune committed to this ideology. Maletz lacks Koestler’s cleverness, and he is not a particularly good novelist. However, Young Hearts gives the reader a truer and more deeply felt sense of the lives of men and women than Koestler’s gaudy tract. When his novel was published, several years ago, Maletz had himself been a kibbutznik for more than twenty years. He knows what he is writing about in a manner that Koestler, with all his quick intelligence, can never know.

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In Israel Young Hearts (Maagalot—“Circles”—in Hebrew) was something of a succès de scandale. It showed that the kibbutznik!’s life, however far from being corrupt or cynical, was also far from being the uniformly noble and exalted thing that its idealizers had painted. The serpent of human nature had not been completely excluded from the communal paradise. Competition, it was found, could not be wholly left behind when bourgeois society was abandoned; it insinuated itself into the life of the collective in covert striving for status and prestige, and even the collective did not have enough status and prestige to go around. Unrequited love remained, sad and sometimes tragic. (This is Malraux’s painful discovery, that socialism cannot solve the problem of the ugly woman or the automobile accident.) Above all, doctrinaire collectivism was the enemy of privacy, and the need for privacy, whether to rear children or simply to refresh the spirit in occasional solitude, was found to be more urgent than had been imagined. Nevertheless, like Ecclesiastes, Maletz ends on a note of affirmation: “ ‘You know,’ Hannah said to Menahem, ‘I think that in spite of everything it is good.’ And Menahem turned to look back at the fields spreading beneath them. ‘Yes, Hannah,’ he whispered, ‘perhaps it is so. It is good.’ ”

Young Hearts, therefore, is a moving account of the pathos of Utopia. Aldous Huxley prefaced Brave New World with a quotation from an author who proclaimed that the frightening thing about Utopias is that they are attainable. We need not go so far, but we should remember what the medieval historians tell us, that when the burghers of the Middle Ages had wrested or bought from the lords and prelates the right to elect mayors in their towns, they thought they had established the reign of peace and goodness forever. The kibbutzim and kvutzot, impressive proof of man’s search for righteousness and wholeness in a corrupt world, have recently gone a considerable distance toward removing some of the irritants Maletz complains of, and there seems to be a good prospect for the continued retreat of doctrinaire logic before simple human needs. Still, Young Hearts teaches us again that society, at its most honest and most nearly perfect, cannot fully assuage the anguish of a man and his soul in the world, that even in Zion there can be no ease.

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Next in interest is the diary of a South African journalist now with the Israeli embassy in Washington, Levin’s I Saw the Battle of Jerusalem. Like the man who was asked what he did during the Terror, Levin can say: “I survived.” He and his wife were in Jerusalem during its months of bitter trial in 1948, and his diary is the story of what happened to them and to thousands like them, and what they did and thought. People who have won independence at such cost and with such sacrifice will not lightly surrender it; and the Jews who defended Jerusalem with their bodies will not cede to others the governing of their city. So much becomes obvious when one reads this book.

It is hard to avoid sharing the Jerusalemites’ indignant and contemptuous revulsion from the anxieties now being voiced in various ecclesiastical quarters for the sanctity of the city. When the Arab armies were methodically shelling Jerusalem and killing its inhabitants, and venerable synagogues were being destroyed by incendiary bombs, the Christian churches were silent, seemingly unaware of peril to holy places. It was only when the warfare had ended with an unexpected partial victory for Israel in Jerusalem that the churches became agitated. The pious phrasing of their tardy concern is probably more offensive to the Israelis than anything else.

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The rest of these books are a mixed bag of scholarship and journalism.

Hurewitz’s The Struggle for Palestine is a work of solid, sober, and impartial scholarship, likely to remain an authoritative work on the period 1936-1947. These were the years of the breakdown of the Mandate, inquiries, insurrection, White Papers, “illegal” immigration, and all the rest of the well-known chain of events that finally led to the United Nations recommendation, the war in Palestine, and Israeli independence. Dr. Hurewitz records and analyzes meticulously; refraining from stating his own preferences, he seemingly shares Reinhold Niebuhr’s conviction that the Palestine case was an acute instance of the always painful clash of right with right. He does not say so, but the reader will feel justified in inferring from this book that Oxenstierna’s lament about the stupidity of rulers applied with particular vigor to the British and to Arab leadership.

Professor Dunner’s The Republic of Israel is less substantial than it looks. The historical section is smoothly written and makes easy reading, but it does not say anything that has not been said before by any number of Zionist writers. A very considerable part of the book consists of a detailed exposition and criticism, mostly favorable, of a draft constitution for Israel. That document itself, however, is realistically not much more than the interesting recommendations of Dr. Leo Kohn, a political theorist. The odds against the adoption of any constitution in the near future are many, because the responsible leadership in Israel wishes to avoid a Kulturkampf between the religious and secular elements, or at least to postpone it.

Kimche’s Seven Fallen Pillars (Lawrence of Arabia’s pillars) is a journalistic history of the Near East from 1915 to 1950. Kimche knows : the area well, and some of the individual chapters are very good. The whole, however, is inferior to its parts. Sometimes he seems to urge an end to British domination in any form, and sometimes only a more benign and enlightened domination. There are several inconsistencies of this kind. In addition, while it is true that behind-the-scenes reporting (which sometimes reads almost like hiding-in-the-closet reporting) can be very interesting, doubts arise; does a man hiding in the closet always hear clearly?

Colonel Pearlman was the chief press officer of the Israeli armed forces during the war of independence. He is an experienced writer, and he was in a position to know many things not generally known. It is therefore all the more surprising that his The Army of Israel should be so essentially uninformative about the things that really count. For example, Kimche would attribute decisive importance to Ben Gurion’s victory in the debate over the professionalization of Haganah. Ben Gurion wanted it to be an army like all other armies, with all their distinctions of rank and their other inequalities; he felt that only by paying this price could planning and discipline be achieved, and through them victory. Those whom Kimche calls the left-wing romantics said no; they wanted Haganah to remain the egalitarian militia it had been in its underground days. Is this true? If it is true, how much did Ben Gurion’s policy contribute to the ultimate victory? This is only one of the questions Pearlman fails to discuss.

Sugrue’s Watch for the Morning is for the most part competent if not especially noteworthy human-interest reporting on Israel by a liberal American Catholic; but it also has an elusive and oddly appealing strain of mystical expectation, a feeling that Israeli independence, and indeed the fact and being of Israel, are a portent that the Great Days either have come or are about to come. Shaw’s Report on Israel consists primarily of articles he wrote on assignment for American magazines. It is well written and interesting, dealing more with relatively anonymous citizens than with celebrities or statesmen, and is illustrated with photographs by Capa. McGill’s Israel Revisited is another one of those ephemeral little documents that seem to be produced by a kind of spontaneous generation.

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