Israel past and present

Ellenson is a journalist who received the National Jewish Book Award for editing the anthology "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt."

Israel Is Real

An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History

Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 384 pp., $27


If you have an inclination to be a rabble-rouser and find yourself bored at a dinner party with American Jews, bring up Israel. You might not get invited back, but in the meantime you’ll have fun throwing down a choice apple of discord. Just for kicks, ask people how they feel about Noam Chomsky, the Jewish American linguist who’s famously critical of Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians, and let the games begin.

There are those American Jews who believe Israel’s security and autonomy are the best guarantors Jews have in a world where they are besieged by enemies. Others are offended by the idea of immediate association with a country deemed their “homeland,” which they’ve never visited, and voice deep ambivalence at the assumption of their support of Israel simply because they are Jewish. But most lack enough connection to or knowledge of the modern country to feel empowered to speak, and will simply keep their mouths shut. For them Jerusalem exists as much as an idea as it did for their forefathers who were lost in exile.

For American Jews, Israel looms large in the imagination. Few are truly neutral, and many are perplexed. It’s a sticky wicket -- how do you make sense of Israel in the 21st century when the idea of a Jewish state and a Middle Eastern democracy practically seem to be at odds, given shifting populations, religious and cultural affiliations?


To this fracturing question, journalist Rich Cohen, the author of books such as “Sweet and Low,” has brought his considerable talents as a writer in his new book “Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History.” By offering a narrative of Israel’s history as if it were an extension of the biblical story of the Jews, Cohen attempts to offer a cohesive and compulsively readable account of Jewish history and the Jewish state. If it’s not a justification for Israel, it’s an explanation.

Forgive the ridiculous title, which sounds like the slogan from a tourist T-shirt sold on the streets of Tel Aviv. The book is actually a serious attempt by a gifted storyteller to enliven and elucidate Jewish religious, cultural and political history -- all culminating in the establishment of Israel.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, declared, “If you will it, it is no dream,” to which Cohen writes in reply: “History is an argument recounted as a story.” But he seems to be haunted by his own conclusion: “[M]odern Israel, meant to protect the Jews, may have put them in greater danger than they have known for two thousand years.”

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. and the expulsion of Jews from ancient Israel, Cohen argues, Judaism survived because it transformed the reality of Jerusalem into an ideal. Jerusalem as a concept could be carried anywhere and into any culture because it existed in the hearts and minds of Jews wherever they were. Once Zionism took hold and the state of Israel was established, Jews found their longing for Jerusalem had been much easier to manage than governance of the actual city: “[Jerusalem] exists in the past, as the capital of a lost civilization. It exists in the future as the portal to the next world. It exists everywhere but in the present. It’s where the past and the future overwhelm the present.”

In the narration Cohen offers, there are lots of fun facts, testament to the breadth of scope and research in the book: Did you know that when Moscow was laid out in the 7th century, one proposal called for it to be based on a depiction of Jerusalem in the book of Ezekiel? How about a San Francisco congregation in 1904 that so resented Zionism that they created a stained glass window of Moses descending the peaks of the Sierra Madre instead of Mount Sinai?

The writer is also unafraid of offering an irreverent opinion or two. For those who wonder when Judaism’s Third Temple will be rebuilt on what is currently the site of Islam’s Dome of the Rock (they happen to be in the same location -- ah, the joys of Jerusalem geography), Cohen states that the temple has already been rebuilt, but in an entirely different section of Jerusalem: It’s at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. “It’s the center of the modern nation as the Temple was the center of the ancient nation. It’s where Jews go to weep and pray.”


In building the arc of a narrative that links the present and the past, one of the Israeli figures Cohen attempts to cast in a biblical light is Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister who was a general in the 1967 war that led to the reunification of Jerusalem under Israel’s control.

In the days after the Six Day War, he was hailed in the streets with euphoric cries of “Arik, king of the Jews!” and his 10-year-old son was given an ancient rifle that someone found in the Judean hills as a souvenir of his father’s victory.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year that October, Sharon’s son accidentally shot and killed himself in front of his younger brothers while playing with the memento of his father’s triumph. He died in his father’s arms on the way to the hospital.

“This was a personal tragedy for Sharon and his family, but it’s also the story of Israel and the Jews . . . ,” Cohen writes. “Here is the bullet that comes from the past and kills the boy who was to inherit the kingdom.”

To love Israel, and to love Jerusalem in particular, is to love what is complicated, nuanced, beautiful and tragic about religious identity. It’s clearly hard for Cohen, who romanticized Jewish gangsters in his book “Tough Jews,” not to be moved by what the Israelis have adopted as a credo: “Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees.”

Cohen sits between generations of American Jews that grew up with an idyllic image of Israel’s miracle as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, to a generation that grew up with charges of Israel as a human-rights abuser. Cohen offers no solutions, just a powerful narrative that can make the reader more equipped to have an informed and thoughtful discussion about the reality of Israel and able to relate a few interesting anecdotes along the way.