Category Archives: Israel

About Time I Read It: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.

As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.

Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.

Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective StoryI hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.

For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.

Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.

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Pan-European Lives: Jabotinsky and Limonov

JabotinskyLimonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in RussiaA Jewish novelist puts his successful literary career behind him to lead a Zionist movement that almost a hundred years later still influences Israeli politics. A Russian dissident, after allowed to leave the USSR and spending half a decade in New York City living as a vagrant, sexual libertine and finally butler to the rich and glamorous moves to Paris where he flourishes as a radical chic journalist. And if that’s not enough our adventurous Russian friend will trade the City of Light for the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia to fight with Serbian paramilitaries (and be accused of committing crimes against humanity). Upon returning to his native Russia, the new political party he helps create first attracts the attention, then wrath of Russia’s new authoritarian leadership which earns him a brief stint in prison, but also major political street cred.

Recently, I read two biographies of two very different men. Understandably, it’s easy to look at their respective lives and pick out all the things that are different. The funny thing is the more I reflected on those lives, the more similarities I saw.

Some might ask why a Gentile like me would want to read Hillel Halkin’s 2014 biography Jabotinsky: A Life. I would answer after seeing Jabotinsky’s name pop up time and time again in books on Jewish history and Israeli politics I could not resist reading it when I found an available copy through my public library. In spite of it’s relatively slim size, I’m embarrassed to say it took me forever to read it, but only because I kept getting distracted by everything else I was trying to read. That of course is a shame because Halkin has written a pretty good book. It’s detailed but not dry. I have to commend the author for producing a readable biography of what some might consider an obscure historical figure but an influential one nevertheless. (Jabotinsky’s legacy isn’t just political. Since his historical novel Sampson was adapted for the silver screen years ago, he’s probably the only founding Zionist to have an IMDB listing.)

If you’re me, and you’re lazily wandering along the shelves at the public library and you find a book titled Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia my goodness why would you NOT want to read it? Emmanuel Carrère’s “pseudobiography” (even after reading this book I’m not exactly sure what this term means) did not disappoint. Reading Carrère’s account of Limonov everything feels outrageous and larger than life, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Born 60 years apart, one a Jew and the other a Gentile, both men could not be more different in political views, personal behavior and overall character. With that in mind you might be asking how are these two men alike? Both men grew up in the Ukraine but left to following their dreams elsewhere, with both mens’ travels taking them across Europe (Italy and Switzerland for Jabotinsky and France for Limonov) as well as across the Atlantic to New York (where Jabotinsky died in 1940 and was subsequently buried and only recently was his body reburied in Israel). Perhaps foremost, both started out as journalists and later transitioned to writing books of fiction and nonfiction. Both men briefly spent time as soldiers. Lastly, both men founded political organizations that harkened back to an imagined glorious past. (Jabotinsky looked to the ancient kingdom of Israel as a model for his modern version. He was also inspired by Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and Ireland’s breakaway from the British Empire. Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, should it ever take power would love to bring back to glory days of Stalin and dominate Eurasia. One could also argue the group has significant fascist overtones.)

There you have it, two good biographies of two very different men. Except maybe, just maybe, they’re really not that different after all.

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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright’s best-seller Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief completely blew me away back when I read it back in 2013. So impressed I was with his book that it easily made my year-end list of Best Nonfiction and came very, very close to being chosen by me as the best overall nonfiction book of that year. (That singular distinction would go Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 which beat out Wright’s Going Clear by such a narrow margin it can only be described as a photo finish.) Like any superb book, I’ve recommended Going Clear to countless people. Of course, I was thrilled to learn that HBO had made a hard-hitting documentary of the same name based on Wright’s book. With all the buzz the documentary has generated, I’ve found myself recommending Wright’s book Going Clear even more.

Imagine my excitement, when in the later part of 2014 I learned that Wright had written a book about the 1978 Camp David Accords. Feeling optimistic that Wright would do a fantastic job writing about one of the late 20th century’s most important peace agreements I kept a sharp eye out for his book should I ever find a copy at my local public library. Then one day as luck would have it, I spotted a copy sitting on the shelf. And with no hesitation whatsoever I grabbed it.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is not just the story of the Camp David Accords. Wisely, in telling this story Wright vividly serves up an in-depth account and analysis of the three leaders who were the Accords’ signatories: President Carter of the United States, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and their respective entourages. Wisely also, Wright provides no small amount of historical backstory which helps put everything within the larger context.

Reading Wright’s book, it was fascinating to see how the peace process evolved. Carter’s original idea was to simply bring Begin and Sadat together long enough for the two leaders to trust each other, find common ground and hammer out an agreement. Then, nearly halfway into the summit it become apparent to Carter that he would have to lean hard on both men, especially Begin in order to reach some sort of deal. And speaking of deal, Carter’s perhaps naive dream of a comprehensive deal involving not just a peace between Egypt and Israel and the return of the Sinai Peninsula but also permanent and equitable solution to the plight of the Palestinians as well as the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite his best efforts would not come to fruition. But in the end a deal would be struck, resulting in peace between Egypt and Israel. And that peace has held for over 30 years.

I was also fascinating not just by Wright’s depictions of Carter, Begin and Sadat, but also by the men (and since this was 1978 they were all men) of their respective entourages. Sadat brought not only future United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali but also his Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy, who besides being a Sufi mystic was also an astrologer. (Calling him an eccentric would be too kind.) Besides larger than life Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan (even though by this time his sterling reputation had been tarnished considerably by the fiasco of the 1973 Yom Kippur War), Begin also brought Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, whose friendly relationship with Sadat stemming from his meeting with the Egyptian President the year before came in handy during the summit. Carter was blessed with having National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (like Begin also of Polish extraction) and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance by his side.

This is an excellent book. It flows extremely well and reads darn near effortlessly. Thirteen Days in September is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understand of today’s Middle East and should be read alongside books like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle EastSaul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. With all that in mindI’m quite confident come December Thirteen Days in September will be on my Best Nonfiction of 2015 List.

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