(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Two themes underlie Martin Gilbert’s ISRAEL: A HISTORY: the challenges that Israel has faced from outsiders and those presented by Jews themselves. These conflicts go back to the very beginnings of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century and have continued throughout the period of statehood. As immigrants came to what was Turkish Palestine before World War I, Arabs sometimes attacked settlements. In the Diaspora orthodox Jews opposed a secular Jewish state, while many non-observant Jews argued for assimilation within their European homelands and so did not support the founding of a Jewish state.

Zionists who hoped that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which claimed that Britain favored a Jewish National Home, would result in better conditions in Palestine under the British Mandate in the inter-war period were disappointed, as England repeatedly restricted immigration. In 1939 Britain issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to 100,000 over the next five years, at the end of which period Palestine would become an Arab country. Within Palestine during this period, militants led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and Avraham Stern opposed the more moderate views of David Ben-Gurion and his followers.

Even wars threatening Israel’s very survival have failed to bring unity within the country. The same arguments between secular and Orthodox Jews, between militants and those seeking accommodation with the outside world, that raged before Israel became independent persist. Perhaps such debate is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication that the country has in fifty years become a dynamic democracy.

Gilbert tells his story well. The chronological approach allows the reader to encounter diverse events as they unfold, though a thematic organization would be easier to follow. While concentrating on major figures, Gilbert also mentions many individuals who would not ordinarily appear in history books, making the volume a memorial to those ordinary citizens who have fought and died for their dream of a Jewish state.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, February 1, 1998, p. 875.

The Economist. CCCXLVII, April 18, 1998, p. S3.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, July, 1998, p. 90.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 1, 1998, p. 329.

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 81.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, p. 71.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 26, 1998, p. REV1.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1998, p. 26.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, May 3, 1998, p. 1.