Return to Zion: The His­to­ry of Mod­ern Israel

By – November 9, 2015

This title cov­ers a mul­ti-faceted sub­ject pre­vi­ous­ly explored from many per­spec­tives: mod­ern Israel’s strug­gle for sur­vival in a hos­tile envi­ron­ment, from its found­ing in 1948 into the ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Eric Gart­man, a Unit­ed States Depart­ment of Defense intel­li­gence ana­lyst, has lived and worked in Israel dur­ing sev­er­al stages of his life and career. He begins by briefly chron­i­cling the rise and fall of the ancient Jew­ish state, the long exile in the Euro­pean Dias­po­ra, and the emer­gence of mod­ern Zion­ism. Sec­tions on the British Man­date and World War II peri­ods are espe­cial­ly strong In the back­ground is the bur­den­some and uni­fy­ing task of in gath­er­ing the exiles and the need to con­firm a con­nec­tion to the Jew­ish past. Mil­i­tary, diplo­mat­ic, and polit­i­cal chal­lenges are pre­sent­ed in detail. Read­ers inter­est­ed in Israel’s mil­i­tary chal­lenges from the War for Inde­pen­dence to the most recent Gaza incur­sion will appre­ci­ate the maps and dis­cus­sion of tac­tics. The role of diplo­ma­cy in attempt­ing to effect an agree­ment between Israelis and Arabs is probed in top­ics such as the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, cease­fires, treaties with Egypt and Jor­dan, Camp David, and the Oslo Accords. Events are viewed in the con­text of domes­tic occur­rences and inter­na­tion­al relationships.

Israel is described as depen­dent on the designs and poli­cies of com­pet­ing larg­er pow­ers, as dur­ing the Suez Cri­sis and the Cold War. Israeli heroes and Arab adver­saries are pro­filed. Although clear­ly pro-Israel, Gart­man treats most Arab lead­ers with respect and makes an effort to under­stand Arab griev­ances. He avoids polem­i­cal rhetoric. He cred­its the sur­vival of Israel, which he metaphor­i­cal­ly calls The Third Tem­ple,” to the more advanced socioe­co­nom­ic devel­op­ment of its out­num­bered peo­ple and to their cohe­sion.” He argues that Israel is no longer at risk of destruc­tion by its neigh­bors in a con­ven­tion­al war, although the state remains the tar­get of ter­ror­ism. This 2015 pub­li­ca­tion presents only a lim­it­ed dis­cus­sion of the Iran­ian nuclear threat. In an eval­u­a­tion of Israeli con­duct, past and present, the author does not hes­i­tate to crit­i­cize both poli­cies which may have encour­aged Pales­tini­ans to flee their homes dur­ing the War for Inde­pen­dence as well as Jew­ish terrorism.

This book is writ­ten in a pop­u­lar style and based on impres­sive research. The work suc­ceeds as both an overview and as a ref­er­ence source.

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety and Eric Gartman

    • The author claims that an unlike­ly series of events made the cre­ation of Israel pos­si­ble, includ­ing the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, the British Man­date, the Arab Revolt, and the Holo­caust, among oth­ers. Why does the author con­sid­er these events unusu­al? Do you agree?

    • In addi­tion to the well-known events of Israel’s pre-his­to­ry (the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, UN Par­ti­tion Plan) some less­er-known episodes are empha­sized, includ­ing the assas­si­na­tion Alexan­der II, Churchill’s 1922 White Paper, and the Trans­fer Agree­ment with Nazi Ger­many. Why are these also important?

    • It is often assert­ed that the Holo­caust led to the cre­ation of the Jew­ish State, as the UN vot­ed for state­hood par­tial­ly on the basis of the geno­cide as proof of need for Jew­ish safe haven.While the author agrees that the Holo­caust led to the cre­ation of the State of Israel, he does not accept that the UN vote was deci­sive. Why does the author dis­agree, and what does he claim was the main role(s) of the Holo­caust in cre­at­ing Israel?

    • Israel was heav­i­ly out­num­bered in all of its wars with the Arab states, yet man­aged to win nonethe­less. How does the book explain these victories?

    • The author claims that Israel’s cre­ation and sur­vival would not have been pos­si­ble with­out out­side help. What were some of these inter­ven­tions and how did they change the course of Israel’s history?

    • At what points was Israel clos­est to be being defeat­ed? How could his­to­ry have turned out differently?