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Anyone interested in Israel owes a debt of gratitude to Sir Martin Gilbert.
To say that the British historian is prolific is like saying the Israel Defense Forces is a really good fighting force. Gilbert’s 80 books, including a virtual library chronicling the life of Winston Churchill, ensure that future generations can’t say they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
For in “Israel: A History,” Gilbert is simply brilliant. It’s the sexiest 800-page book you’ll ever read: epic in scope, but running over with detail, plot and attention to critical figures, both known and unknown.
Gilbert, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, has written about both world wars and the Holocaust, developed a “pioneering series of historical atlases,” and lives in London (where he was knighted in 1995). A Jew living in the Diaspora, Gilbert, it could be argued, is a defender of Zion in a political and cultural climate that is decidedly anti-Israel.
“Israel: A History” opens like a David Lean movie, racing over an historical landscape that is host to the black smoke curling over a destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, and then moves to befuddled Jews 2,000 years later, still wondering why their host countries hate them.
Gilbert provides just the right amount of detail as he moves the reader into the early years of the work to re-establish a Jewish commonwealth in the ancestral land known for centuries as Palestine (included in this geography was what would become known as Syria and Jordan).
As the Austrian mover Theodor Herzl began to shovel coal into the engine of Jewish national aspirations, the reader begins to understand the foundations of the modern state of Israel. Herzl, as Gilbert succinctly points out, recognized that European Jewry was doomed, save for a wholesale move to a national homeland. In a fascinating, almost inexplicable turn near the premature end of his life in 1904, Herzl finally agreed to accept a Jewish state from Great Britain in … Uganda!
With the Zionist icon’s death, that odd scheme died a quick death (and it is ironic that Uganda was the scene of a great Israeli victory 70-odd years later, when elite commandos rescued 100 hijacked hostages at Entebbe).
From there, the book moves through the Balfour Declaration into that critical period between the world wars, during which Jewish immigration was limited by the western powers, notably Britain.
Gilbert also unearths obscure-but-important detail, such as the creation at the very end of World War II in Europe of the Arab League, committed to establishing a “United Islam” in the Middle East, dedicated to eliminating the Jewish presence in Palestine.
This is an important detail, for it allows the reader to see just how old is the Arab hatred of the Jews as a sovereign political entity in the region. The Arab League existed, the reader will understand, long before the Israelis’ allegedly usurped the Palestinian Arabs’ position in Palestine. That shows without doubt that it is the fact of Israel’s existence, not what Israel does, that so inflames the Palestinians and their cousins today.
For many readers, Gilbert’s approach can be seen as nothing more than even-handed. His treatment of the incident at Deir Yassin, a battle between Jewish forces and Arab villagers just west of Jerusalem in 1948, does not follow a right-wing train of thought. For 60 years, pro-Israel activists have insisted that Deir Yassin has been used as propaganda by the Arabs; Gilbert, though, acknowledges that “mistakes were made.”
Still, this huge history, compiled by an unparalleled historian, makes it alarmingly clear that Israel has made Herculean efforts to dwell in peace.
A key feature of the book, besides a batch of historical photos, is an extensive map section, helpful for giving perspective. Not only are the maps provided, but context as well, such as the map showing the route of the security barrier in Jerusalem, which put a stop to the carnage of 2001-2004, in which 157 Jews were murdered by homicide bombers in the city.
Oddly enough, Gilbert concludes his masterwork not as an historian, but as just another observer presenting his bias, decidedly not the job of the historian. In the last paragraph of the book, he reveals that he believes peace in the region requires the establishment of a Palestinian state. But for this and a few other objectionable passages for pro-Israel activists, the reader is still treated to a masterful effort.