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Interview with Daniel Gordis, Author of "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn"

Interview with Daniel Gordis, Author of "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn"

Headshot of Daniel Gordis in blue shirt

Rabbi Daniel Gordis says he wrote Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (Ecco Press, 2016) because he couldn’t find a history of Israel that captured its “extraordinary human drama” in a book of “reasonable length, intellectually serious, yet readable.” I caught up with Gordis, who is senior vice president and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, to talk about the book. Why write this book now?

Rabbi Daniel Gordis: The vitriol concerning Israel has become so ridiculous that it has to be countered by knowledge. I wanted to approach the history of Israel from a centrist political perspective so that both a left-winger and a right-winger could read it and say, “I don’t agree with everything, but it is fair.”

What distinguishes this book from those written by historians?

I am not an historian, though I based my book on the work of other historians. What I brought to the table is a familiarity with Israeli literature, song, poetry. I start the book with the writing of poet Hayim Nahman Bialik because I wanted to stress the fact that with the founding of the Jewish state came a restoration of the soul of Israel. Too many American kids – if they know anything at all about Israel – think in terms of the wars of ’48, ’56, ’67, ’73, the first Intifada, second Intifada, Lebanon War, etc. For me, that is not the story of Israel. When someone says, “Tell me about America,” I don’t I begin with the wars America has fought. It is true that those wars happened, but to truly understand America, you have to read the Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” You’ve got to read the poetry and the literature.

The spine of my book is the way the Jewish people reconstituted themselves in the process of building a homeland: The Jewish people rebuilt the state, and the state rebuilt the Jewish people.

I think it’s fair to say that every book of history has a bias. What’s yours?

My first bias is the ideological view that the Zionist impulse of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland and establish a sovereign life is fundamentally legitimate. That does not mean I deny or ignore the Palestinian claim to a homeland. I favor dividing territory so that both peoples can live side by side.

My second bias is against a militaristic read of Jewish history. There are missions to Israel that insist on visiting military installations. I think that is obscene. I acknowledge the role that military conflict has played in Israel’s story, but that is not the essence of the story.

So what is the essence of Israel’s story as reflected in your book?

It’s the revitalization of the Jewish people. Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, wrote that in the West the Jews are the only people that live in the same place, practice the same religion, and speak the same language as they did 3000 years ago. That’s pretty amazing. That’s why the book is more about the poets Hayim Nahman Bialik and Natan Alterman than about Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan. The book tells the story of Jews creating a Jewish state – a state that gives new life to the Jewish people.

What is the significance of Women of the Wall’s struggle to allow for religious pluralism at the Western Wall?

They are right to insist that Prime Minister Netanyau honor his compromise to allow for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. I think Women of the Wall should bring more Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) there under increased police protection. Israel needs to be a country in which public spaces are open to everyone.

What do you hope your book will achieve?

I will consider the book to be a success if readers come to understand what Jews were actually trying to create, and what led to the incredible story I am trying to tell. I want them to understand the heartbreak in Europe that gave rise to Zionism. I want them to understand that Zionism has always been a chorus of voices, and not a singular political ideology.

Let’s talk about what it would look like if Israel were to live up to its potential, going beyond peace – a place of big ideas and great accomplishments.

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn was named the 2016 Everett Family Foundation Book of the Year.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is a past chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Robert Orkand
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