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Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century

Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century


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Most Americans are ill-prepared to engage thoughtfully in the increasingly serious debate about Israel, its place in the Middle East, and its relations with the United States. Essential Israel examines a wide variety of complex issues and current concerns in historical and contemporary contexts to provide readers with an intimate sense of the dynamic society and culture that is Israel today. The expert contributors to this volume address the Arab-Israeli conflict, the state of diplomatic efforts to bring about peace, Zionism and the impact of the Holocaust, the status of the Jewish state and Israeli democracy, foreign relations, immigration and Israeli identity, as well as literature, film, and the other arts. This unique and innovative volume provides solid grounding to understandings of Israel's history, politics, culture, and possibilities for the future.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253027115
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/27/2017
Series: Perspectives on Israel Studies
Pages: 436
Sales rank: 935,741
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Rachel Fish is Associate Director of the Schusterman Center.

S. Ilan Troen is the Karl, Harry, and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies and founding Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He is founding editor of Israel Studies. His publications include Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement and (with Jacob Lassner) Jews and Muslims in the Arab World: Haunted by Pasts Real and Imagined.

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Essential Israel

Essays for the 21st Century

By S. Ilan Troen, Rachel Fish

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02711-5


An Invitation to Israel Literacy


What does it mean to be literate about Israel, and what does this have to do with you?

American academics, educators, community and religious leaders, students, laypeople, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are regularly confronted with conflicting reports on Israel in newspaper, radio, TV, or online news. Often complex situations are reduced to oversimplified sound bites, and even longer accounts focus on the immediacy of events and invite us to form opinions and take sides on issues we actually know very little about.

One important reason for this is that Israel was not a significant area of study in university curricula until very recently; only within the last decade have courses on Israel been offered on American campuses. As a result, most Americans are ill-prepared to engage seriously in the increasingly serious public debates about Israel as a beleaguered democratic state in the Middle East and its relation to the United States. Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century examines a wide variety of complex issues and current concerns in an essential historical context, and it does so in a single volume that highlights their interconnectedness.

This unique collection of voices develops a grounded, multifaceted mosaic of Israel's dynamic society and culture and addresses both Israel's struggle to be a Jewish and democratic state with a place in the Middle East, and US ties to Israel. A highly readable and maximally informative volume, it includes a series of autonomous essays that range from the Arab/Israeli conflict and the role of American diplomacy in peace negotiations to Israeli cinema and literature, questions of personal status, religion and state, and relations with American Christian and Jewish communities.

The essays in Essential Israel are not meant to be a typical chronological history. Although you will find it a useful introduction to the study of Israel, this collection is not a conventional text, and the essays were not written as opinion pieces or policy papers. Rather the essays are meant to be maximally engaging, informative, accessible, and usable for American audiences who have questions about Israel — its history, society, culture, and people — and their relationship to it.

The essays were invited in response to what our research revealed contemporary readers wanted to know more about:

• What is the Arab/Israeli conflict and why hasn't it been resolved?

• What explains the failure of American diplomatic efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East?

• What is Zionism, and why are people saying such terrible things about it?

• Can Israel be both a Jewish and a democratic state?

• What are the relationships of different groups of American Jews and Christians with Israel?

• How is Israel dealing with questions of personal status and non-Jewish citizens in the Jewish state?

• What are Muslim and Christian views and concerns about a sovereign Jewish state in the land all consider holy?

• What accounts for the changing perceptions of Israel in world public opinion?

• What are the facts concerning Israeli identity including tensions among Israeli Jews and Arabs, immigrant groups, Sephardi and Ashkenazi and secular and religious Jews?

• What can we learn about Israel and Israelis (and many of the preceding questions) from Israeli literature, music, dance, and film?

As should be clear, our approach in this project is not advocacy. Rather we intend the informed and nuanced analyses of Israel's internal and external conflicts to enable you to interrogate the issues in their complexity and to engage in grounded and more fruitful deliberations about them.

Israel Studies and the Design of the Volume

The academic staff of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University is probably the most significant agent in the rapid spread of Israel studies in the academy worldwide. Formally established in 2007 to advance the newly emerging field of Israel studies in the university, the center runs an annual Summer Institute for Israel Studies that has been attended by 270 academics from two hundred universities, largely from the United States — including the Ivy League, state universities, US military academies, denominational schools, and so forth — but extending to China, India, Eastern and Western Europe, and South America. To date, the Summer Institute alone has resulted in six hundred new courses on Israel ranging from political science to film and anthropology, which have attracted more than twenty thousand students in the United States and worldwide. Brandeis itself is an important laboratory that offers graduate and postgraduate programs and courses designed for professionals in the Jewish community. Its publications program produced Anita Shapira's 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner, Israel: A History, and publishes the most widely read journal in the new field, Israel Studies (Indiana University Press). This experience includes detailed yearly evaluations and has provided us with extensive and invaluable data on what diverse populations know, do not know, and want to know about Israel.

Ongoing systematic research into levels of knowledge about Israel among young adults conducted by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, both at Brandeis University, further confirmed this need. Unlike other surveys, these have not focused on what people say they feel about Israel but on what they know. Even highly educated university students often lack substantial background knowledge and base their opinions on misinformation. In other words, when it comes to Israel, they tend to be illiterate.

As you will see when you consult the brief biographical notes, the authors of the essays for Essential Israel are outstanding scholars and acknowledged experts. Except for one, they do not live in Israel, although they have extensive relations with the country and its peoples. We selected "outsiders" to ensure that the questions that animate their curiosity and thinking come from viewing Israel from the outside. They do not assume American readers are privy to the codes of the initiated. A popular Israeli saying, based on a line from a song by Yaakov Rotblit, is that "what you can see from here can not be seen (i.e., understood) from there" Perspective makes a difference. The essays are meant to illuminate differences between American perspectives and those of Israel, and to help readers recognize how their own assumptions, for example, about the individual and society or religion and state, may differ substantially from those of Israeli "Others."

By design, then, the essays in Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century are accessible and readable narratives with few footnotes. They can serve as the intellectual anchor for personal and professional development and for educational forums and are not intended to provide a "final" word. Rather, they allow readers to explore current debates on key issues embedded in a richly evoked sociohistorical context. For interested readers, we provide suggestions for further reading.


Essential Israel examines fourteen topics critical to being literate about the State of Israel. They were developed through a yearlong series of conversations with scholars engaged in the study of Israel and teachers and community leaders who regularly use and transmit such information in a variety of settings. The essays may be read singly or in clusters according to interest or purpose, and the volume does not have to be read in any necessary sequence or even in its entirety.

Nevertheless, the ordering of the essays is not random. The opening essay, by S. Ilan Troen, Maoz Azaryahu, and Arnon Golan, is an overview of Israel: its geography, who lives there, when they came, what they did, and what the country produces (chapter 2). For example, some readers will be surprised to discover that the country's population was only five hundred thousand in 1900. It increased about twenty times to ten million just in the twentieth century as Palestine under the Ottomans and British became Israel, and the population is continuing to grow at a rapid rate. This information prepares the way for Michael Brenner's essay on the history of Zionism (chapter 3). His account of sometimes conflicting, powerful, and motivating ideas and how they developed into an ideological movement makes clear that the land that loomed large in the collective imagination of Jews was an underdeveloped entity on the margins of contemporary history. Zionism utterly transformed it into a successful modern state, a player in the world economy, and the focus of international attention.

From the history of Zionism and ideological theory, the third essay moves to praxis, as S. Ilan Troen analyzes Jewish settlement of Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine and then Israel (chapter 4). Many decisions were made in the tension between what settlers imagined and wanted and the realities they encountered. The Zionists' successful efforts to return and reclaim the land and make the desert bloom have been appreciated and even celebrated. They have also been met with increasingly bitter opposition and a century-old conflict with neighboring Arab nations and local Palestinians that feature regularly in the headlines and are topics of ongoing debate.

Three essays deal with the Arab/Israeli conflict. Alan Dowty traces the history of the conflict over the course of the past century, detailing both Jewish and Arab perspectives and delineating four distinct stages in the evolution of the conflict (chapter 5). In the first stage, he examines the origins of a conflict between two peoples from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1947 UN decision for partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The second stage moves from Israeli independence in 1948 through the late 1980s, when the conflict was largely one between the Jewish state and neighboring Arab states. The final two stages involve a conflict with Palestinian Arabs and, more recently, with external interventions rooted in ideological rejection.

The international community invested considerable efforts to enable the establishment of a Jewish state in the Arab and largely Muslim Middle East, and the search for peace has involved sustained and frequent US diplomatic interventions in recent decades. David Makovsky charts the role of the United States in negotiations between Israel and neighboring Arab states and between Israel and the Palestinians (chapter 6). He interrogates both the success and failures of this complicated and ongoing process primarily in the aftermath of the 1973 October/Yom Kippur War through the 1993 Oslo Accords and up to Secretary of State Kerry's efforts in the recent past. In the last essay in this set, Gil Troy covers much the same period but focuses on when and how the establishment and existence of Israel became an object of heated controversy in the United Nations and the international community (chapter 7). The essay traces changes in Israel's image in largely Western public opinion from general favor through the 1967 War, to increasingly negative criticism and hostility from the 1970s to the present. By covering the topic from three distinct angles, the three essays provide an invaluably rich and nuanced account of the conflict on the ground, in diplomatic efforts to resolve it, in the United Nations, and in public opinion.

The United Nations and supporters worldwide celebrated the establishment of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Yet working out what a Jewish state means in practice, and in the context of the Middle East, has created frictions among the Jewish citizens of Israel, between the State and its non-Jewish citizens, and between the State and both Jews and non-Jews living abroad.

Four interrelated but distinct essays expose the dilemmas inherent in creating a Jewish society that is also democratic. Yedidia Stern explores the complexities of identifying a shared vision among divergent groups of secular and religious Israeli Jews, including ultra-Orthodox Jews who reject Zionism, and the daunting challenges of organizing public space to accommodate these groups with very diverse beliefs as well as Arab citizens (chapter 8). During a hiatus of two millennia, Jews were not sovereign and had no territory. Thus, the establishment of Israel poses an unexpected and as yet unresolved challenge to national cohesion. The secular, democratic state must find and maintain the uneasy balance between the particular yet highly diverse Jewish aspects of the nation-state and its universal, democratic values.

From the perspective of political science, Donna Robinson Divine juxtaposes the hard realities of praxis and what has actually emerged (chapter 9). She examines Israel's political system with particular attention to degrees of inclusion — and inequalities — among Arabs, Jewish immigrant groups and women, and inequalities regarding access to land, and elaborates on the competing demands of the obligations of citizenship and the personal rights of individuals. Both Stern and Divine highlight tensions inherent in the novel challenges posed by territorial sovereignty and the complexity of negotiating conflicting demands on the State, a dilemma that increasingly confronts other multicultural democratic states today.

However, the question of identity raised by Israel's establishment as a sovereign Jewish state is not limited to citizens of Israel but engages Jews and others from outside. Steven Bayme examines the notion of Jewish "peoplehood" now that there is a Jewish state and delineates how questions it raises about Jewish identity impact relations between Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States (chapter 10). Given Israel's identity as the Jewish homeland, Bayme asks how the American Diaspora and Israel interact for mutual benefit, what happens when they disagree, and how close or "distant" these communities are from one another. In a complementary essay, David Ellenson highlights the impact of the Jewish state on Judaism itself, as distinct from ethnicity or "peoplehood" (chapter 11). He contextualizes and explains the basis of state support for Jewish religious institutions and inquires into the institution of the Chief Rabbinate and the State's relationship to Jewish law: Who supervises conversion? Who has authority over the rites of passage in general? Who determines the right to be identified as a Jew? What limits the right to express Judaism in ways other than state-sanctioned orthodoxy? Conflicts generated by such issues are regularly headline news. The essay reveals their complexity and cautions against the simple assumption that the American system that separates church/ synagogue from state can and should be imposed in Israel. These essays amply illustrate the complex demands of creating a multiethnic and multicultural "Jewish" democracy.

The attitudes of different Christian denominations and Muslims toward the Holy Land must also be appreciated as diverse rather than imagined as monolithic. Two essays, valuable for non-Jewish readers as well as for Diaspora Jews, investigate the evolution of attitudes among Christians and Muslims and correct a tendency to imagine that "Others" have a monochrome attitude to the Jewish state by demonstrating their enormous internal divergence. Christians and Muslims were unprepared for the unexpected emergence of Jewish sovereignty in the land each considers sacred. Yaakov Ariel traces differences among Christian denominations in their attitudes and relationships to Israel — both support and antagonism — that have continued to evolve, and touches on repercussions for American politics and policies in the Middle East (chapter 12). Norman A. Stillman examines the relations between Jews and Muslims in historical perspective and explores the reasons Islam has found it so difficult politically and ideologically to come to terms with a Jewish state (chapter 13). He points out that while it is true that Islam has found it difficult to accommodate Jewish sovereignty theologically, it is also true that the independent Jewish State of Israel was established on Islamic lands. One cannot be literate about Israel without such basic knowledge of the views of Christians and Muslims in the United States and the Middle East and their impact on Israel.

The last two essays in the volume deal with culture as written and performed in Hebrew. Each provides a window through which to view the main tensions and currents in Israeli society that are examined from different perspectives in the preceding essays. The artistic works they describe add an essential personal and individual dimension to the complexity of Israeli society. At the same time, the reviews provide an invaluable context for readers who encounter the many works of Hebrew culture available in translation and widely distributed.


Excerpted from Essential Israel by S. Ilan Troen, Rachel Fish. Copyright © 2017 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. An Invitation to Israel Literacy / Ilan Troen and Rachel Fish
2. Israel: Geography, Demography and Economy / Ilan Troen, Maoz Azaryahu, and Arnon Golan
3. From Zionism to Zion / Michael Brenner
4. Zionist Settlement in the Land of Israel/Palestine / Ilan Troen
5. The Arab-Israeli Conflict / Alan Dowty
6. History of the Peace Process / David Makovsky
7. Israel in World Opinion / Gil Troy
8. Israel: A Jewish Democracy / Yedidia Stern
9. Citizenship and Democracy in Israel / Donna Robinson Divine
10. Israel, American Jews and Jewish Peoplehood / Steven Bayme
11. "Jewishness" in Israel: Israel as a Jewish State / David Ellenson
12. Contemporary Christianity and Israel / Yaakov Ariel
13. Perceptions and Understandings of Israel within Islam / Norman Stillman
14. "Hebrewism" and Israeli Culture / Rachel Harris
15. Israeli and Hebrew Literature: from the Yishuv to the 21st Century / Ranen Omer-Sherman
Timeline: A Century of Wars and Conflict and Peace Negotiations and Agreements

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