The ProsenPeople

Israel, A Story of Survival

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eric Gartman posited how and why history can and should be both informational and interesting. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In the summer of 1997 I had the good fortune to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One day several students rushed out between classes, spreading the news that a terror bombing had hit the city. Sixteen people were killed and a hundred wounded in two suicide bomb attacks at Mahane Yehuda, a popular fruit and vegetable market. I was horrified. But to my surprise, our teachers took the news in stride, saying in effect, Life must go on. We returned to our studies.

A couple days later I rode the bus past Mahane Yehuda. The market had been cleared of debris and was packed once again. I expressed my surprise to a young Israeli woman sitting next to me. “This is how it needs to be,” she told me. “Life needs to go on, we have to prove to the terrorists that they can’t beat us.” I was impressed by her fortitude. A few minutes later I got off at Jerusalem's central bus station. Another bus pulled up and its passengers disembarked. With the two busses emptied, the station platform was densely packed. I suddenly realized that it would be the perfect opportunity for a suicide bomber to attack. If there were two suicide attacks like those at the fruit market, the damage would be enormous. I panicked, realizing that my life might be in jeopardy. When I regained my composure, it occurred to me that this was the fear that Israelis lived with every day. It was a lesson I never forgot. I never experienced fear like that in America, even after the September 11th attacks.

Unfortunately, this is hardly an unusual story. It is a mere microcosm for what life is like for Israelis. They have to contend with fear and violence on a daily basis. Yet they survive. Indeed, at its heart, the story of Israel is a story of survival. Throughout its first decades of existence, the Jewish state faced numerous attempts at its destruction. The wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 all brought Israel to the brink of annihilation. Surrounded by more numerous Arab states, Israel’s survival seemed very unlikely to contemporary observers during these decades. Yet the Jewish state survived and prospered.

How it survived in the face of steep odds is the topic of my new book, Return to Zion. It is a story that needs to be told, for the courage and perseverance of those pioneers is a tale for the ages. And while there is no lack of books on Israel’s history, most of those books do not give any idea of what it was like for the people who experienced these momentous events. Have you ever wondered how the first settlers from Europe coped with their strange new environment? Or how it felt to witness the liberation of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall? What was it like to be involved in Israel’s numerous wars?

These were the questions I wanted to know about. And since I could find no books addressing these issues, I collected eyewitness accounts of all the major events in the history of modern Israel in order to give the reader a sense of what it was like to live through those momentous times. I also wanted to explain that history in easy non-academic language. It is my hope through my book young people and non-specialists will learn the history of Israel’s survival in an engaging and entertaining manner and gain a new appreciation for all that they endured, and continue to endure to this day.

Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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History and Historians

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Eric Gartman is the author of Return from Zion: The History of Modern Israel. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

History is a source of continued fascination for all peoples. History tells us where we came from, who we are, and offers answers to how we should live and what may happen in the future. It is therefore no surprise that as “the People of the Book,” Jews are enamored by history at least as much as any other people, and probably more so. Despite this interest in our past, and the myriad of books that come out annually, too many histories are stolid and laborious, lacking the emotions and atmosphere that dominated the lives of those who came before us. Why is this so? The biggest single reason is that those who are professionally tasked with writing history are tied to a system that deliberately discourages making those books easy and interesting to read. Academia demands professors write heavily-footnoted, dispassionate analyses intended to move the field forward. These works are required for every historian who seeks tenure in an educational institution. While these are necessary and important, they are not intended for the general reader, nor are they suitable for the non-specialist seeking to learn more about a particular topic. To address this issue, academia issues textbooks. We are all familiar with these-large, hardcover bound tomes that cover large topics and come complete with maps, tables, charts, and photographs. While they are written in simple language for the general audience, they are never intended to be anything but informative. You will not learn what it was like to be a soldier in the trenches, a farmer in the fields, a witness to a riot. Textbooks will not explain the hopes and dreams of those who make history, who drive the process. While they are important, in my opinion, they are not enough.

Take a look at the best-sellers in history on any book list. You will not find academic treatises or textbooks. What you will find are well-written, stimulating tales that are both important and interesting. Authors like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, or Jay Winik, to name a few, manage to tell us the stories of the past that are so important to our understanding of our world, and in a lively manner. These authors prove that history books can (and should) be both informative and interesting.

That was the approach I took in writing my forthcoming history of Israel, Return to Zion. It’s written in easy language, like I’m talking to the reader in a casual conversation. I’ve included eye-witness accounts of key events to give the reader a visual and visceral picture of what happened. There is some analysis as well, but it is not heavy-handed or laden with jargon. I’ve also included some information from newly-declassified documents not published elsewhere. It’s my hope that readers will find this style of writing engaging. We are the People of the Book, and I hope to have written a history worthy of our name.

Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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