Israel is Real

  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

Rich Cohen knows how to tell a sto­ry. His ambi­tious new book, sub­ti­tled An Obses­sive Quest to Under­stand the Jew­ish Nation and its His­to­ry,” car­ries the read­er along with crisp sen­tences and evoca­tive descrip­tions, infus­ing his­to­ry with sus­pense and dra­ma. He has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, and a raconteur’s gift for the illu­mi­nat­ing anal­o­gy. And he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.

Cohen begins the tale not with God’s Bib­li­cal promise to Abra­ham, nor with the uni­fied king­dom under David and Solomon, but with the Romans’ destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. (“If you are a Jew in mod­ern Amer­i­ca,” he observes, you are prob­a­bly less of a Judean than a Roman.”) He sees the piv­otal trans­for­ma­tion of Judaism as a rejec­tion of sac­ri­fices and Bib­li­cal law, a change from the stony and phys­i­cal to the lofty and abstract.” His hero is Yohanan ben Zakkai, who he believes cre­at­ed a new order that freed Jews from the hohum life of nations” by tak­ing Jew­ish prac­tice beyond Jerusalem and cen­ter­ing it on learning.

Cohen skips the sub­se­quent evo­lu­tion of Jew­ish thought through the Tal­mud, Mai­monides, and their suc­ces­sors, and instead looks at mys­tics and false mes­si­ahs. He intro­duces col­or­ful fig­ures like Jacob Frank and David Alroy before turn­ing to medieval ghet­tos and the future chart­ed by Her­zl. The sec­ond half of Israel is Real is packed with thrilling sto­ries about the Zion­ist set­tlers of Pales­tine, their attack­ers and defend­ers, includ­ing the major fig­ures as well as off­beat char­ac­ters like Sam the Banana Man.

After Inde­pen­dence, how­ev­er — par­tic­u­lar­ly after the Six-Day War — Cohen feels pes­simism and regret. Judaism,” he writes, sur­vived the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple only because a few genius­es turned the tem­ple into a book. But in our time the book was turned back into a tem­ple,” and mod­ern Israel may have put [Jews] in greater dan­ger than they have known in two thou­sand years.”

Cohen, in oth­er words, sug­gests that a Jew­ish home­land is a step back­ward, a retreat from the spir­i­tu­al to the mate­r­i­al. As his very selec­tive his­to­ry sug­gests, what he calls the uni­ver­sal ideals of the Enlight­en­ment” — not dis­tinc­tive­ly Jew­ish val­ues— are para­mount to him. He doesn’t sus­pect that the notion of Judaism hav­ing been inten­tion­al­ly rein­vent­ed after the Sec­ond Tem­ple is a nar­ra­tive cre­at­ed only in the last cen­tu­ry, nor that belief in the even­tu­al return to the Land of Israel and the rebuild­ing of the Tem­ple were inte­gral to all Judaism until the advent of Reform. In oth­er words, Zion­ism is not the atavis­tic throw­back Rich Cohen imagines.

Albert Ein­stein had sim­i­lar reser­va­tions to Cohen’s about Jews exer­cis­ing state pow­er, fear­ing that such pow­er would be cor­rupt­ing and a turn away from the spir­i­tu­al. Although he was an inde­fati­ga­ble defend­er of a home­land for the Jew­ish peo­ple, Ein­stein favored Aham HaAm’s vision of Israel as the cen­ter of an inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish cul­ture over Herzl’s Juden­staat. Fred Jerome believes that this infor­ma­tion has been obscured behind a New York Times-orig­i­nat­ed myth’ that Ein­stein sup­port­ed a Jew­ish state, and he has assem­bled hun­dreds of pages of doc­u­ments to shat­ter that myth.’

As Jerome’s own doc­u­ments attest, Ein­stein was one of many intel­lec­tu­als, includ­ing Judah Magnes and Mar­tin Buber, who favored a bina­tion­al state for Jews and Arabs alike. None of this is new, though Jerome writes as if it were a shat­ter­ing rev­e­la­tion. His ded­i­ca­tion of the book to the mar­tyred pro-Pales­tin­ian activist Rachel Cor­rie, and a translator’s note” that blasts con­tem­po­rary Israel for sup­posed car­nage and colo­nial­ism, make it clear that he is not a dis­pas­sion­ate researcher in this mat­ter. No won­der he takes pains to argue that Ein­stein did not con­sid­er him­self a Zion­ist, even while repro­duc­ing Einstein’s own arti­cle titled How I Became a Zionist.”

Discussion Questions