What Israel Means to Me

  • Review
October 24, 2011

Col­lec­tions of per­son­al essays by famous peo­ple can often be a lit­tle like meringue pie — sweet, but ulti­mate­ly weight­less. At first glance, this new col­lec­tion of essays about Israel by 80 most­ly Jew­ish lumi­nar­ies from all walks of pub­lic life, edit­ed and intro­duced by Alan Der­showitz, may appear to fall into the same nutri­ent-free cat­e­go­ry; after all, what depth could a book have when it choos­es to bind togeth­er the med­i­ta­tions of Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Norm Cole­man along­side those of Stan Lee, the father of Spi­der- Man and the Incred­i­ble Hulk? 

Yet, it is pre­cise­ly this diver­si­ty that endows this col­lec­tion with a hefti­ness uncom­mon in the genre. By giv­ing a podi­um to a remark­able array of voic­es, the book comes close to tran­scend­ing the per­son­al nature of each essay, pro­vid­ing, when tak­en as a whole, a por­trait of Israel’s place in the col­lec­tive heart, mind and soul of Jew­ish America’s intelligentsia. 

And what a por­trait it is. While near­ly all essays begin with the author recount­ing how he or she embarked on their life­long engage­ment with Israel — diverse sto­ries about an Ortho­dox home, a Labor Zion­ist sum­mer camp, or even an acci­den­tal vis­it— most tend to end, almost uni­form­ly, in dis­cussing the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict. The tem­pera­ments here are diverse as well. While some, like play­wright David Mamet, use the podi­um to lam­baste ide­o­log­i­cal oppo­nents, oth­ers, like jour­nal­ist Mil­ton Viorst, make broad efforts at redefin­ing the conflict’s polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal roots. 

With most fac­tions in the con­tem­po­rary debate about Israel’s poli­cies and its place in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life rea­son­ably rep­re­sent­ed, this vol­ume might serve, to para­phrase one of its con­trib­u­tors, author and intel­lec­tu­al Dou­glas Rushkoff, to open up the con­stant con­ver­sa­tion that is Judaism.

Discussion Questions