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Israel Is Real

Israel Is Real

by Rich Cohen

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“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


“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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

Product Details

Cape, Jonathan Limited
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What People are Saying About This

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

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

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

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.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
July 30, 1968
Place of Birth:
Lake Forest, Illinois
B.A., Tulane University, 1990

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