The Book On Controversy

The Book On Controversy

“Israel and the Bomb.” By Avner Cohen, Columbia University Press, 470 pages, $27.50.

Cohen’s book should properly be labeled “Israel and the Bomb and Israeli-American Diplomacy Concerning the Bomb.”
The bomb, of course, is the nuclear bomb, which the world suspects Israel has, but whose existence Israel has never admitted.
Cohen, a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, writes from the perspective that “Israel has been a nuclear-weapon state” for several decades, fulfilling the vision of David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister.
The book focuses on the period between 1950 and 1970, by which time the Israeli bomb had become an open secret.
“In 1966-67 Israel completed the development stage of its first nuclear weapon, and on the eve of the Six-Day War it already had a rudimentary, but operational, nuclear weapons capability,” writes Cohen, who garnered much publicity by taking the unusual step of posting his sources on the Internet. His book is an effort to make transparent Israel’s “opaque … nuclear posture.”
Levi Eshkol, prime minister during the Six-Day War, often declared that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, a linguistic formula unchanged by subsequent Israeli leaders. This “nuclear opacity,” Cohen writes, “is a situation in which a state’s nuclear capability has not been acknowledged, but is recognized in a way that influences other nations’ perceptions and actions.”
Instead of focusing on rumors about the bomb, Cohen concentrates on its development, the early technological support provided by France, and the more-recent cat-and-mouse game played with the United States, which reluctantly gave up its insistence on regular inspections of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev.
Cohen bases his book on thousands of American and Israeli documents, most of them recently declassified. Vital Israeli records “are still sealed and are likely to remain so for many years,” he writes. Without them, “it is impossible to write a comprehensive history of Israel’s nuclear project.”

“Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight.” By Eli Faber, New York University Press, 366 pages, $27.95.

This groundbreaking work can be easily summarized. Yes, there were Jews who owned and sold African-born slaves, from the 16th to 19th centuries.
No, there weren’t many.
Faber, a professor of history at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, focuses on the British Empire, “because of its preeminent position in the slave trade during the 18th century, when British vessels transported more slaves from Africa to the Western hemisphere than any other European nation.” But one chapter in the short book — 60 percent of the pages are footnotes, appendixes and bibliography — is devoted to the British colonies in North America.
The book, Faber admits, was inspired by claims in some part of the African-American community that Jews played a disproportionate role in perpetuating slavery.
“In recent years interest regarding the extent to which Jews participated in the institution of slavery in the Americas has stemmed from allegations that they predominated in the slave trade and that they owned slaves well in excess of their proportion among the white population,” he writes. “This study argues that they did neither. To the contrary, their participation in the slave trade and in the ownership of slaves was quite small.”
To research the topic, Faber consulted shipping and tax records, stock-transfer ledgers, censuses, slave registers and synagogue records. He also cites the writings of earlier Jewish historians, who “neither overlooked nor denied the fact that members of the Jewish faith participated in the institution of slavery.”
Faber’s findings: Jews owned slave ships and invested in companies engaged in the slave trade. In Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and the colonial United States.

“Murder in the Name of God: The Plot to Kill Yitzchak Rabin.” By Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman, Metropolitan Books, 292 pages, $24.95.

To the authors, both veteran Israeli journalists, the question is not why Yitzchak Rabin was murdered.
Rather, it was why he was not assassinated earlier.
Karpin, former editor of Israeli television’s prime-time news program, and Friedman, a correspondent for several publications in Israel and abroad, cite a list of actions and inactions that made Rabin’s killing, in their opinion, inevitable.
Among the causes: Inflammatory statements by nationalist-minded rabbis. Increasing militancy of West Bank settlers. The army’s failure to recognize the dangerous behavior of Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, when he was a soldier. The campaign by Rabin’s right-wing political opponents to delegitimize him. The media’s inadequate coverage of his opponents’ zeal. Benjamin Netanyahu’s tepid disapproval, as the head of Likud, of rabid anti-Rabin messages at Likud rallies. The lax security at Rabin’s personal appearances in the months before his assassination. And Rabin’s unabashed disdain of those who sought to stop the peace process he began — which further infuriated them.
All this amounted, the authors write, to a “campaign of incitement” that ended in Tel Aviv in November, 1995 — Rabin’s assassination.
The authors make no secret of their own leanings — for Rabin and the peace process, against Netanyahu and his sympathizers — either in the book’s title (murder, instead of a more-neutral word) or in their 10 chapters (racist and fanatic define those on the right).
The book, which also covers the conspiracy theories and political climate of mutual recriminations after Rabin’s death, provides an effective insight into the national climate that influenced Amir — who granted the authors an exclusive interview — and has split Israel into two antagonistic camps. The footnotes that explain several unfamiliar names and terms are particularly helpful.

“The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, A personal exploration.” By W. Michael Blumenthal, Counterpoint, 444 pages, $27.50.

The personal aspect of Blumenthal’s book is not his own interaction with German society — he was born in Oranienburg, and left Germany at 13. Rather, it is his family’s, six generations’ worth.
Blumenthal, secretary of the treasury in the Carter administration and currently president of the Berlin Jewish Museum, describes the changes in German society through the lives of forebears over 350 years.
Each relative’s life — as a “German of the mosaic faith,” as many preferred to be called — reflects a wider history. But the six are hardly typical; four of them, as prominent in their times as Blumenthal is in his, merit profiles in Encyclopaedia Judaica.
His relatives:
Jost Liebmann (1640-1702), an observant Jew, a peddler who “ended his days as … one of Berlin’s richest men.”
Rahel Varnhagen von Ense (1771-1833), a convert to Christianity who ran one of Berlin’s most prominent salons.
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), an opera composer who encountered anti-Semitism but counted himself as a loyal German.
Louis Blumenthal (1818-1901), a small-town banker who “fully absorbed German values and lifestyles.”
Arthur Eloesser (1870-1938), a literary critic who declared “The mezuzah disappeared from the door when I was a child.”
Ewald Blumenthal (1889-1990), the author’s father. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald, fleeing his homeland as “an alien Jew without property or rights.”
“I am not a historian, and this book is not the kind of work meant to break new ground, nor is it directly a study of the Holocaust and what brought it on,” Blumenthal writes. His book doesn’t offer new insights into Jewish-German history, a subject of continual academic study. But the manifestations of anti-Semitism that intruded on his relatives’ lives to varying degrees, causing his family’s emigration, point unerringly to the Final Solution.

“The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations.” By Itamar Rabinovich, Princeton University Press, 283 pages.

Rabinovich, an academician and diplomat, provides a gripping review of the too-often behind-the-scenes political negotiations between two traditional enemies.
His writing is clear, his perspective is relatively objective, but his book is frustrating because its ultimate conclusion is unknown. Will Israel and Syria eventually make peace, meet again on the Golan battlefields, or remain in their 25-year stalemate? Rabinovich, no prophet, cannot attempt a guess.
“Only if Israel, Syria, and the United States draw the lessons offered by three and a half years of negotiations and a year and a half of breakdown in communication will Israel and Syria be able to cross at the decade’s end the brink they failed to cross in the early and mid-1990s,” he writes.
Now a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Rabinovich headed Israel’s negotiations with Syria under Yitzchak Rabin. He fills in the details behind the headlines, showing why mutual misunderstandings have left an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty still a distant goal, illustrating why Israeli-Palestinian negotiations vied with the Syrian “track” talks for the attention of Israel’s leaders, explaining how the United States attempted to play a hands-on/hands-off role in the on-again/off-again negotiations.
Rabinovich achieves a balance between politics and personalities; his portraits of Syrian negotiators, largely unknown outside of diplomatic circles, are particularly interesting. One shortcoming of the book: the author, as far as is known, has never set foot in Syria; his knowledge of Syria, of its geography and its people, is limited to books, and negotiating sessions with diplomats, drawn from the upper crust of Syrian society.
Rabinovich’s book ends in 1997, with Rabin assassinated, Benjamin Netanyahu in office as prime minister, and an Israeli-Syrian peace still far off. Only the ongoing stalemate keeps the book from becoming instantly outdated.

“The Hidden Book in the Bible: The Discovery of the First Prose Masterpiece.” By Richard Elliott Friedman, Harper, 402 pages, $25.

Friedman’s book could appropriately be titled “The Bible Critics Strike Back.” Proponents of the so-called Bible Codes, who take the Torah literally, have gained prominence in recent years. Using computer analyses of the Torah’s Hebrew words, they have presented an impressive array of prophetic messages imbedded throughout the text as words formed by skipping a uniform number of letters.
That’s the fundamentalist approach.
Friedman’s book is a return to the classical, literary approach to Bible studies.
Professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at San Francisco, he subscribes to the school of biblical criticism which holds that the Torah was not directly dictated by God, but is the product of four distinct editors/compilers.
According to Friedman’s thesis, the individual known as “J” compiled a text that runs the virtual length of Hebrew scriptures and is interrupted by the words of later compilers.
“A great work lies embedded in the Bible, a creation that we can trace to a single author,” Friedman writes. “And I believe that we can establish that it is of great antiquity.”
Friedman points to common themes and common phrases — ones, he says, that don’t appear elsewhere in the Torah — to support his theory. “I believe it will become clear that this is a connected group of texts,” he writes, “telling a continuous, coherent story.”
“Is it chance?” he asks. “Given the quantity of cases, that is beyond belief.”
The author makes a good case. But like the claims of the Bible Codes, his claims remain as theories. As much faith is required to accept his account of latter-day biblical editors as is needed to believe the claims of the Codes.

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