Israel Is Real

Overview

“It’s a great irony that Israel was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army.”

In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a handful of visionaries saved Judaism by reinventing it—by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular place, and turning it into an idea. Jews no longer needed Jerusalem to be Jews. Whenever a Jew studied—wherever he was—he would be in the holy city. In this way, a few rabbis turned a real city into a city of the mind; in this way, ...

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Overview

“It’s a great irony that Israel was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army.”

In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a handful of visionaries saved Judaism by reinventing it—by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular place, and turning it into an idea. Jews no longer needed Jerusalem to be Jews. Whenever a Jew studied—wherever he was—he would be in the holy city. In this way, a few rabbis turned a real city into a city of the mind; in this way, they turned the Temple into a book and preserved their faith. Though you can burn a city, you cannot sack an idea or kill a book. But in our own time, Zionists have turned the book back into a

temple. And unlike an idea, a temple can be destroyed. The creation of Israel has made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been for two thousand years.

In Israel Is Real, Rich Cohen’s superb new history of the Zionist idea and the Jewish state—the history of a nation chronicled as if it were the biography of a person—he brings to life dozens of fascinating figures, each driven by the same impulse: to reach Jerusalem. From false messiahs such as David Alroy (Cohen calls him the first superhero, with his tallis as a cape) and Sabbatai Zevi, who led thousands on a mad spiritual journey, to the early Zionists (many of them failed journalists), to the iconic figures of modern Jewish Sparta, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Cohen shows how all these lives together form a single story, a single life. In this unique book, Cohen examines the myth of the wandering Jew, the paradox of Jewish power (how can you be both holy and nuclear?), and the triumph and tragedy of the Jewish state—how the creation of modern Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew anywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Israel Is Real

“[Israel Is Real] accomplishes the miraculous. It made a subject that has vexed me since early childhood into a riveting story . . . by narrating the oft-told saga of the Jews in a fresh and engaging fashion. Provocative and entertaining … Cohen brings tough love to Judaism and modern Israel.”—Tony Horowitz, The New York Times Book Review

“A sweeping and impressionistic saga . . . [which] also happens to be a page-turning delight to read. What other book about Zionist history has ever included references to “Howl,” “Goodfellas,” Joseph Mitchell, and Willie Dixon? I commend and admire this book.” —Samuel G Freedman, Chicago Tribune

“Cohen is a masterful and slyly provocative writer who marches boldly into the most controversial issues posed by the existence of Israel. Blending historical narrative with contemporary reportage, Israel Is Real makes an argument that cannot be ignored. Along the way, Cohen establishes himself as being among the most talented essayists of his generation.”—Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill

“A fascinating big-picture account of Israel from its distant past to what happened last week. Rich Cohen tells this story central to mankind with skill, passion, common sense, and wit.”—Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains

“Rich Cohen’s passionate, engaged, thoroughly modern book is—dare I say—a revelation.”—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

“The best book I’ve ever read about Israel (that troubled state), and the last word on it: all the stories, all the figures, all the fires, all the battles, all the exiles, all the personalities, all the strikes, and all the gutters. Rich Cohen has delivered the full big thing, a monumental book, the best I’ve read and expect to read for a long time. As the priests in the old city would say, it has hava: it’s full of life.”—David Lipsky, author of Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

“Nobody has yet written about our Middle East heartbreak with such range and lucidity. Rich Cohen has kept an account of the wanderings; he’s kept a record of the tears. Israel Is Real is the definitive book on Israel.”—Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng

“Rich Cohen’s book creates a vibrant portrait that offers reasons Israel—surrounded by those who want to exterminate it—deserves to survive.”—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler

Tony Horwitz
Rich Cohen's book accomplished the miraculous. It made a subject that has vexed me since early childhood into a riveting story. Not by breaking new ground or advancing a bold peace plan, but by narrating the oft-told saga of the Jews in a fresh and engaging fashion.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Reading the Bible and Jewish history "both literally and symbolically," this eclectic and passionate, wide-ranging history of Israel and Zionism by the author of Tough Jews decodes the story of Jonah in the whale's belly as the Diaspora Jew in Nazi concentration camps. Cohen catalogues the accomplishments of first-century Jewish scholar Jonathan ben Zakkai in the way Willie Dixon catalogues a man's deeds in a blues song, and summons Kierkegaard and Allen Ginsberg as he muses about Abraham, a crazy old man willing to murder his son to earn God's blessing: "Everything in Judaism is a repetition of this scene," Cohen asserts. Of Herzl, he says it was his career writing whimsical newspaper essays that made his mind fluid and open to the vision of Zionism. He sees Ariel Sharon as a tragic Shakespearean character who was driven to dismantle the settlements in Gaza out of a great love for Israel. Finally, Cohen does not believe that the Holocaust justifies the state of Israel-or that Israel needs to be justified. Cohen's idiosyncratic yet often lyrical take on Israel is sometimes exasperating but always deeply felt and refreshing. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Cohen (contributing editor, Rolling Stone) produces journalism on many subjects, but his books are all about Jews: Jewish gangsters (Tough Jews); Holocaust survivors taking revenge on Nazis (The Avengers); his own family (Sweet and Low); and now the entire Jewish nation. He does a marvelous job of getting the highlights of the actions of dozens of characters over a few thousand years of Jewish and Zionist history into a few hundred pages, while exposing the reader to points of view other than those of the author. More than a hundred books and articles are cited in footnotes or listed in the bibliography. VERDICT While Cohen clearly identifies with "the Jewish Nation," this is not just a defense of Israel like Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel and other books that set out to answer Israel's many critics. In a very personal effort to understand the how and why of Israel's history, Cohen helps the reader toward that understanding. Recommended for all interested readers.—Joel Neuberg, Santa Rosa Junior Coll., CA
Kirkus Reviews
An accessible primer on a complex nation and its faith. Many of the facts about Israel are well-known. It's a Jewish state in the middle of an Islamic region of the world; its enemies question its right to exist; many European Jews have emigrated there in the decades following World War II; and its status in relation to Palestine and the rest of the region is complicated, controversial and often violent. Rolling Stone contributing editor Cohen (Sweet and Low: A Family Story, 2006, etc.) takes a long, idiosyncratic view, explaining the history of a people and its religion from the time Zealots revolted against their Roman occupiers to the rise of the Zionists, who helped build the current republic. "If this book is working the way it's supposed to," writes Cohen, "then each individual story will read like the history of Israel, and the history of Israel will read like the life of a single man." Along the way, the author brilliantly illustrates how Israel, once among the most powerful nations in the world, would likely have been destroyed if not for the efforts of a few forward-looking rabbis. While the smoke still rose from the remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the nation was transformed into an idea, which gave way to a centuries-long diaspora. Cohen soars as a storyteller, using a captivating cast of characters-including Josephus, the traitorous first-century historian; Theodor Herzl, the slightly crazed Zionist visionary; Ariel Sharon, the soldier and statesmen-to explain the mishmash of politics, ideology and psychology that have gone into the reification of Israel. Now, writes the author, Israel is under threat of destruction once again. A must-read for those who want tounderstand the context of the modern Jewish state.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374177782
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/21/2009
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. How did Rich Cohen change your perception of Israel? What historical facts surprised you as you read Israel Is Real? What conventional wisdoms does Cohen overturn?

2. Chapter one describes the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, raising the questions, “Accommodation or war? What if the Zealots had lost this argument? What if the Temple had survived? Would people still speak of ‘the Jewish character’?” Speculate about Rich Cohen’s “what ifs.”

3. Discuss Jonathan ben Zakkai’s school (which, according to lore, was built in a vineyard). What ideas did he preserve, despite the Diaspora? What image of Judaism was “harvested” as a result?

4. The book’s title was inspired by a T-shirt Cohen’s best friend was wearing when he returned from a trip to Tel Aviv in 1977 (described in chapter ten). Beyond political and geographical boundaries, what does the phrase “Israel Is Real” mean throughout the book, from mysticism to the rise of Jewish ghettos?

5. What role have sacred texts played in shaping the idea of Israel? What gives a book—or an inscribed scroll—such power?

6. When Cohen describes the conversion of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi to Islam in the seventeenth century, he captures an event that led to mass apostasy in Constantinople. What is the price of such assimilation? How was Jewish culture affected by the fact that other populations were not forced (or even encouraged) to convert to Judaism in order to survive?

7. Cohen concludes chapter five by stating that the failures of prophecy meant that “if return was ever to be accomplished . . . it would have to wait for secularism, in fact, for engineers and scientists, for Jews who could make their own miracles.” What does this mean for religious Jews? What does it even mean to be a religious Jew in the twenty-first century?

8. A footnote in chapter two presents the analogy of what would happen if America were destroyed and Americans felt compelled to perpetuate the idea of America while in exile. What would that exercise look like for you? What ideals does America stand for? What ideals does Israel stand for?

9. At the end of chapter six, Cohen turns to the story of Jonah to summarize Jewish history in Europe, from the Diaspora and the ghettos to the finality of Hitler’s camps. Discuss the paradox of Jews’ “feeding themselves to the beast” for survival, and returning to history for freedom.

10. What aspects of Jewish identity are represented in the Zionists described by Cohen, from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan? How would Benjamin Disraeli have fared as Britain’s prime minister if he had served during the fall of the Ottoman Empire?

11. Cohen reiterates the fact that the Holocaust provided the ultimate justification for Israel. In what ways has Israel been, as Cohen puts it, the “happy ending” in a world of anti-Semitism?

12. How did the Six-Day War redefine what it means to support Israel? Is military might the best way to avoid being kept on the margins of society?

13. In contemporary conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, do both sides have it wrong in any way? How could Cohen’s perception of history foster peace?

14. “No one hates a Jew like a Zionist,” Cohen writes in the last line of his chapter on the new Jew (chapter twelve). What is the impact of stereotypes of Jews, even among Jews (such as Europe’s elite, who funded repatriation of eastern Jews to Palestine to ensure their distance)?

15. How does the storytelling approach in Israel Is Real compare with that of other books you’ve read by Rich Cohen? What makes his approach to research (especially biographical research) unique?

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Israel, Larger Than Life

    Dense but thoroughly enjoyable! The irony is in the title: Israel is Real. This is a whole history of Israel as told through the characters that made it, each one painted in four or five pages like a legend, hero, mental patient, cowboy, you name it - thus, Israel being more than real. Cohen does an excellent job of narrating like a man telling stories around a campfire (and you wonder where he gets some of the information). It took me a while to get through, but my knowledge base of eleventh century Jewish poets, fifteenth century Messiahs, twentieth century heroes, and Ariel Sharon, is so much broader. A well-written history/current affairs book with a unique narrative approach. (Watch for his subtle political critique, though, of current Israel.)

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  • Posted November 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Decent Read

    I found the book to be entertaining, and interesting, but it falls short of good history, due to some factual mistakes. I enjoyed the book, and how the author ties it to his own personnel story, but I also thought it could have been told better.

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  • Posted November 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    MONUMENTAL!

    The history of the Jewish people and the state of Israel is of value to everyone. Rich Cohen guides the reader through this long and imposing time in a superior manner. I love his style. He puts the facts out there and makes peronal comments in a, at times, conversational manner. He tells the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly on both sides--the Jews and their opponents throughout 2000 years plus. I am a Christian who believes and feels that I am part of this history. Whether Jews embrace Christianity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy or not is beside the, my, point. I love them, their history and heritage, and believe that they are the Closen People. Rich Cohen informs and answers many questions about events of the Diaspora. The most exciting chapter is about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was literally on the edge of my seat as Sharon and others rallied and saved the young state of Israel. Throughout, there is an underpinning of fear about next time and the time after that. Will Israel survive? As it grows toward a middle age, will the determination prevail? What a sad existence! Being the chosen people should automatically elevate the Jews above all others. Unfortunately, it has, as the name of my little striped plant I have remaining in my mid-autumn garden, created an almost eternal "Wandering Jew," or an equally bad situation of being walled in, century after century--first in ghettos and now in the state of Israel. The danger is high as now many Jews are collected in one place where it would be easier for those who vow to "wipe the Jews off the map," or "push them into the sea," to carry out these horrible threats. I don't get it. Why are so many groups bent on destroying the smartest, most productive group of people alive. It must be founded in jealousy and competition. They are special. They want to be normal. They want to live and create and be secure and eternally viable in Israel. Yet the risks to Jews all over the world who decide to live in this small piece of the world are deadly and could lead to a near exctinction of this holy remnant. My next plan is to read all other books by this amazing journalist/author.

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  • Posted October 4, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Judgment of Israel.

    Concise history of Israel and as such, very well done. Fast reading.

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