There have been surprisingly few books written about the history of the Zionist enterprise and about the success story of that enterprise, the State of Israel. Walter Laqueur’s 1972 “A History of Zionism” is magisterial, and Martin Gilbert’s 1998 “Israel: A History” is a frankly admiring portrait of the Jewish state, rich in detail; it reads as if it were the “official” biography of the state.
Not so Martin van Creveld’s “The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel” (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books). While it is deeply supportive of Israel — indeed, every so often van Creveld comes off as an unabashed cheerleader — the book does serve as a useful road-map through the often-treacherous terrain, warts and all, of Israeli history.
Van Creveld’s thesis is basic: Israel “is a country that, while every conceivable obstacle” has been placed in its path, “is the greatest success story in the twentieth century.” And “The Land of Blood and Honey” makes the case very well, often in a highly critical manner. Indeed, van Creveld does not hesitate to highlight the seamy sides of Israeli history, society and policy: the social and economic crises of the 1950s; the bumbling bureaucracy that mishandled the financial crisis of the early 1980s (these splendidly written pages are the best of the book); the often-unsavory hegemony of the Mapai-Histadrut elite.
“The Land of Blood and Honey” is outlined in five chapters, each covering a substantial historical theme. “Forged in Fury” is a brisk narrative of the history of Zionism up to the creation of the state, culminating in the 1948-49 war, a “miracle beyond compare.”
“Full Steam Ahead” carries the story through the rocky early state of the 1950s. “The Nightmare Years” renders an energetic account of the Six-Day War and its aftermath, when Israel became an international pariah; the eponymous “nightmare” was the financial disaster of the early 1980s under a series of finance ministers who were inept and worse. The final two chapters neatly present the two Palestinian intifadas, the promises and pitfalls of the peace process, and — highly important — an intelligent discussion of social and cultural trends in Israel.
Van Creveld has an impressive track record as one of the leading military historians; his recent “The Culture of War” is considered a landmark in the field. So one would reasonably expect that a book on the history of Israel by this author would be strong in its military analysis. After all, one way of looking at the history of the pre-state Yishuv and of Israel is as a history of violence and armed conflict. And indeed, van Creveld does not disappoint the reader, even though, in order to have room to tell the rest of the complex history of Israel, he sometimes short-changes the military analysis.
For example, it would have been useful to have a glimpse at the debate that has been brewing in recent years over the origins of the Six-Day War, a conflict that redefined forever the political and social topography of the region: Was the war the complete — and ultimately happy — surprise, as has been conventional (and government) wisdom? Or was the war cleverly, indeed cynically, planned over a number of years? The reader would have wished for van Creveld to weigh in on that one.
Troubling as well, in a book that will be used as a resource by serious readers, are numerous errors of fact, of omission, and of judgment. Factual inaccuracies, especially in the first section of the book, abound. Most of these are minor, but collectively they move one to wonder about the seriousness of the author and his editors. Rishon Le-Tzion was not the first settlement in the Yishuv in Palestine; it was Petah Tikvah. In van Creveld’s reading of the Israel party structure — crucial to the understanding of Israeli history and society — he fails to note two of its most important elements: the left-wing Mapam and the socialist and territorial-maximalist Achdut Ha-Avodah. In a society that was all about ideology, each of these parties played an important role in the shaping of the body-politic.
Van Creveld’s history of Arab-Jewish tensions in the early 1920s in the Galilee is confused. The conflict was all about the struggle between the French and the British over who would control the region, but one would not know about this important fact from the book. And, what is an “Arab” and what is “Arabic?” These two words are sometimes confused in the book.
And, by the way, Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin died not in 1946 but in 1943. Dates are, after all, the secret weapon of the historian, and this lack of attention to detail is part of a larger flaw in “The Land of Blood and Honey.” Ruppin, largely forgotten today except for some street names in Israeli cities, was more than just another early Zionist leader. Ruppin was the visionary who was the first to articulate the need for a majority of Jews in Eretz Yisrael; was the first to insist that land purchase was crucial to the survival of the Yishuv in Palestine (a “no-brainer” later, but radical when it was first asserted); and was the architect of the socialist-agricultural model that became known as the kibbutz. But Ruppin merits all of 30 words in the book — and his mention is in the context of a side issue, one that has nothing to do with the crafting of the Zionist agenda that informed the Yishuv.
Finally, the word “skewer” comes to mind when van Creveld talks about people he doesn’t care for. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a major rabbinic —and important political — leader whose public pronouncements are often controversial and sometimes perhaps dangerous. Yet the purple-prose excoriation that characterizes the page on Rabbi Yosef sounds a bit off-key in this otherwise serious book. There is a personal intrusiveness that characterizes the book — no Israeli leader escapes unscathed from the author’s flailing sword — strange in a work that is chock full of splendid analysis and fascinating insights.
At bottom, “The Land of Blood and Honey” fills an important gap. It is the first work that provides an insightful analysis of political and social trends in Israel in a readable and concise history. The book is a serious contribution, and Martin van Creveld deserves our thanks.