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"Complicating Israel" reading list

If I were to assemble a reading list, or book discussion group curriculum, on the Middle East, what would I choose? That's the question which prompted this post. This is a list of 20 nonfiction titles: some by Israelis, some by Palestinians, some by outsiders; some more historical, some more personal. I think it's valuable (both spiritually and intellectually) to juxtapose disparate voices and to open ourselves to stories we might not otherwise hear.

I welcome thoughts / responses/ suggestions. I've pondered using this as the curriculum for an in-person discussion group at my shul -- or for an online discussion group (different bloggers claiming different titles and hosting conversations about them?) -- but for now, it's just a curated reading list.

City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor

I read this book while living in Jerusalem; my review is here at Velveteen Rabbi. Here's an excerpt from my review:

The book tells the history of Jaffa (and to some extent also Tel Aviv, its neighbor) through the histories of six families: three Arab (Christian and Muslim), and three Jewish. Through letters and diaries and interviews with the current generation of these families, LeBor paints a picture of what life was like in Jaffa ninety years ago...and how it has changed, repeatedly, between then and now.

LeBor has chosen a fabulous way to make history clear. It's one thing to say "Muslims and Jews and Christians used to interact in a mode of genuine respect and friendship," but it's another thing entirely to tell the story of an Arab family attending a Jewish wedding, or how Jews and Arabs both used to gather at a Jewish-owned spice shop or an Arab-owned bakery. The stories of real families make the history engaging and meaningful...

LeBor doesn't take sides, and he doesn't editorialize -- though I come away with the sense that he loves Jaffa a great deal, and that he respects and admires all of the families he interviewed over the course of writing the book. In the end, it seems to me that Jaffa serves as a microcosm... The narratives of these interwoven families stand in for all of the narratives of every family who's inhabited this land in reality or in memory, through arrival and departure and return.

The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker by Sami al Jundi and Jen Marlowe

I reviewed this recently; I think it's excellent. Here's a taste of my review:

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones... Ultimately he joins two of his teenaged friends in making a pipe bomb which they intend to plant at a fruit and vegetable market -- a story which is not easy for me to face by any stretch of the imagination. But even as he's treading this ground, he's also working at an Israeli sandwich shop and developing a crush on a young Argentine Jewish woman who's in the process of making aliyah. His relationship with Israel and Israelis is always already complicated.

Once he enters Israeli prison -- colloquially known as "university," because of the system of self-improvement and education developed there by Palestinians -- the book becomes doubly fascinating to me... Probably the most moving part of the book, for me, begins once Sami is out of prison and slowly beginning to form relationships with Israelis despite the tremendous difficulty involved in finding common ground. ami becomes involved with the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, where he meets co-author Jen Marlowe. They write beautifully about that journey. That part of the book brings me both joy (watching Sami's trust and hope grow) and also inevitably sorrow (because I know, reading this now, that the changes for which he hopes have not yet come to pass.)

There's a brief excerpt from the book at Spirituality & Practice, and the co-authors are interviewed on GRITtv.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Amazon says: "Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this extraordinary memoir is at once a great family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history.

It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. His mother and father, both wonderful people, were ill-suited to each other. When Oz was twelve and a half years old, his mother committed suicide, a tragedy that was to change his life. He leaves the constraints of the family and the community of dreamers, scholars, and failed businessmen and joins a kibbutz, changes his name, marries, has children, and finally becomes a writer as well as an active participant in the political life of Israel.

A story of clashing cultures and lives, of suffering and perseverance, of love and darkness."

You can read an excerpt at the NPR website.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan

Amazon says: "In 1967, Bashir Al-Khayri, a Palestinian twenty-five-year-old, journeyed to Israel, with the goal of seeing the beloved old stone house, with the lemon tree behind it, that he and his family had fled nineteen years earlier. To his surprise, when he found the house he was greeted by Dalia Ashkenazi Landau, a nineteen-year-old Israeli college student, whose family fled Europe for Israel following the Holocaust. On the stoop of their shared home, Dalia and Bashir began a rare friendship, forged in the aftermath of war and tested over the next thirty-five years in ways that neither could imagine on that summer day in 1967. Based on extensive research, and springing from his enormously resonant documentary that aired on NPR's Fresh Air in 1998, Sandy Tolan brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to its most human level, suggesting that even amid the bleakest political realities there exist stories of hope and reconciliation."

The author offers excerpts -- two chapters -- on the book's website.

The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine by Miko Peled (also available from Amazon)

Amazon says: "In 1997, a tragedy struck the family of Israeli-American Miko Peled: His beloved niece Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem. That tragedy propelled Peled onto a journey of discovery. It pushed him to re-examine many of the beliefs he had grown up with, as the son and grandson of leading figures in Israel's political-military elite, and transformed him into a courageous and visionary activist in the struggle for human rights and a hopeful, lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians...

The journey that Peled traces in this groundbreaking memoir echoed the trajectory taken 40 years earlier by his father, renowned Israeli general Matti Peled. In The General's Son, Miko Peled tells us about growing up in Jerusalem in the heart of the group that ruled the then-young country, Israel. He takes us with him through his service in the country's military and his subsequent global travels... and then, after his niece's killing, back into the heart of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. The book provides a compelling and intimate window into the fears that haunt both peoples-- but also into the real courage of all those who, like Miko Peled, have been pursuing a steadfast grassroots struggle for equality for all the residents of the Holy Land."

You can read an excerpt -- the introduction, and chapter seven -- here at Mondoweiss.

A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr

This book collects the annotated letters of Martin Buber's, spanning 60 years of his thinking about Zionism. One of my rabbinic colleagues notes, "Many of us know and admire Buber's I and Thou but generally do not know the history of his whole and complicated relationship with Zionism. His is a Zionist perspective, but one which is fundamentally different from the path which history ultimately followed."

The book description on Amazon reads, in part: "Theologian, philosopher, and political radical, Martin Buber (1878–1965) was actively committed to a fundamental economic and political reconstruction of society as well as the pursuit of international peace. In his voluminous writings on Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine, Buber united his religious and philosophical teachings with his politics, which he felt were essential to a life of public dialogue and service to God.

Collected in A Land of Two Peoples are the private and open letters, addresses, and essays in which Buber advocated binationalism as a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. A committed Zionist, Buber steadfastly articulated the moral necessity for reconciliation and accommodation between the Arabs and Jews."

The Jewish State, by Theodore Herzl

This little pamphlet, written by the father of political Zionism, articulated his vision of a homeland for the Jews. (It's also available as a free downloadable e-book at MidEastWeb.) Amazon says: "Theodor Herzl was born in 1860 in Budapest, Hungary, and raised by an Orthodox Jewish father and an unobservant Jewish mother. It was quite a journey from there to becoming the founder of the World Zionist Organization and an influential figure in the establishment of the state of Israel. Fueled by anti-Semitic attitudes of late-nineteenth-century Europe, Herzl promoted the concept of an entirely Jewish state, a homeland for Jewish people, in Palestine. He published "The Jewish State" in 1896, in which he outlined a theory to employ diplomacy to get other powerful nations to support the foundation of such a nation, and thereby liberate the Jews from a constant state of poverty and repression."

The Question of Palestine by Edward Said

Amazon says: "Still a basic and indespensible account of the Palestinian question, updated to include the most recent developments in the Middle East- from the intifada to the Gulf war to the historic peace conference in Madrid."

I think these two would make fascinating reading together.

I Shall Not Hate by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

I've mentioned Dr. Abuelaish on this blog before -- see The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed. Here's how Amazon describes his book:

"A Palestinian doctor who was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Izzeldin Abuelaish is an infertility specialist who lives in Gaza but works in Israel. The Gaza doctor has been crossing the lines in the sand that divide Israelis and Palestinians for most of his life--as a physician who treats patients on both sides of the line, as a humanitarian who sees the need for improved health and education for women as the way forward in the Middle East. And, most recently, as the father whose daughters were killed by Israeli soldiers on January 16, 2009, during Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip.

It was Izzeldin's response to this tragedy that made news and won him humanitarian awards around the world. Instead of seeking revenge or sinking into hatred, he called for the people in the region to start talking to each other. His deepest hope is that his daughters will be 'the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.'"

There's an eight-page excerpt from this book available online.

Jobnik! by Miriam Libicki

This is an autobiographical graphic novel, which I thought might give an interesting perspective on the experience of a Diaspora Jew joining the IDF, as well as an interesting viewpoint on the second intifada.

Amazon says: "Miriam Libicki, an American Jewish girl from a religious home, enlists in the Israeli Army one summer against everyone's better judgment. Many qualities seem to make her unsuited for IDF life: her Hebrew isn't great, she is shy and passive, and she has a tendency to fall in love with anything that moves. If that weren't enough, the Al Aqsa uprising, a.k.a the second Palestinian Intifada, erupts a few weeks after she is stationed as a secretary in a remote Negev base. Will Miriam survive threats of terrorism, the rough IDF culture, and not least, her horrible taste in men?"

Also, this book looks like it might lighten things up a bit, which could be a good thing.

Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel and Palestine by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh

I bought this book as soon as I read the excellent review at Jewschool, which explains:

This book's simple yet ingenious innovation is a layout common to every English-Hebrew siddur: the right facing page is the Israeli narrative and the left facing page is the Palestinian side, each describing the same events. As Sari Nusseibeh's back cover blurb says, it's a "pioneering effort not only in the context of Israeli-Palestinian politics, but in the writing of history."

I don't recommend trying to read both narratives at once, since parallel chapters are real, full histories with footnotes, photos and stories. Trying to do so will give you a headache. But for the first time, opening a chapter to, say, the Balfour Declaration immediately makes both sides' claims and reactions easy to find. No skipping around, flipping to the next chapter, or trying to keep it all in your head...

Those of us versed in both narratives may be quite familiar with the different traumas important to both sides. But to see them so vividly and loyally portrayed side by side reminds me of how important efforts like this remain. For avid consumers of Middle East histories, this is an innovative quick reference guide. And for those entirely new to this issue, I highly recommend any book that is simple, clear and fair to both sides — for which this approach is uniquely, brilliantly qualified.

Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks by Jean Zaru

One of my rabbinic colleagues describes this as "A beautiful, short and very personal book."

Amazon says, "Jean Zaru, the longtime activist and Quaker leader from Ramallah, here brings home the pain and central convictions that animate Christian nonviolence and activity today. Zaru vividly paints the complex realities faced by all parties in Palestine - Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians, women and men. Yet even as Zaru eloquently names the common misunderstandings of the history, present situation, and current policies of the parties there, she vividly articulates an alternative: a religiously motivated nonviolent path to peace and justice in the world's most troubled region."

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris

Amazon says: "At a time when the Middle East has come closer to achieving peace than ever before, eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris explodes the myths cherished by both sides to present an epic history of Zionist-Arab relations over the past 120 years. Tracing the roots of political Zionism back to the pogroms of Russia and the Dreyfus Affair, Morris describes the gradual influx of Jewish settlers into Palestine and the impact they had on the Arab population. Following the Holocaust, the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel, but it also shattered Palestinian Arab society and gave rise to a massive refugee problem.

Morris offers distinctive accounts of each of the subsequent Israeli-Arab wars and details the sporadic peace efforts in between, culminating in the peace process initiated by the Rabin Government. In a new afterword to the Vintage edition, he examines Ehud Barak’s leadership, the death of President Assad of Syria, and Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and the recent renewed conflict with the Palestinians. Studded with illuminating portraits of the major protagonists, Righteous Victims provides an authoritative record of the middle east and its continuing struggle toward peace."

One of my Israeli rabbinic colleagues says, "If you are going to read one book about the Israel-Palestine conflict, read this one."

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh

One of my rabbinic colleagues calls this book "very informative and formative for me."

Amazon says, "A teacher, a scholar, a philosopher, and an eyewitness to history, Sari Nusseibeh is one of our most urgent and articulate authorities on the conflict in the Middle East. From his time teaching side by side with Israelis at the Hebrew University through his appointment by Yasir Arafat to administer the Arab Jerusalem, he has held fast to the principles of freedom and equality for all, and his story dramatizes the consequences of war, partition, and terrorism as few other books have done. This autobiography brings rare depth and compassion to the story of his country."

An excerpt from the book is available at the NPR website.

Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, ed. Paul Scham, Walid Salem

Amazon says: "There is no single history of the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli historical narrative speaks of Zionism as the Jewish national movement, of building a refuge from persecution, and of national regeneration. The Palestinian narrative speaks of invasion, expulsion, and oppression. It's no wonder peace remains elusive. This volume attempts to present both histories with parallel narratives of key points in the 19th and 20th centuries to 1948. The histories are presented by fourteen Israeli and Palestinian experts, joined by other historians, journalists, and activists, who then discuss the differences and similarities between their accounts. By creating an appreciation, understanding, and respect for the 'other,' the first steps can be made to foster a shared history of a shared land. The reader has the opportunity to witness first hand a respectful confrontation between the competing versions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

My Israeli rabbinic colleague says, "The leaders and participants of this project have managed to produce a serious and constructive dialogue between working historians that really does present major facets of the history of Palestinian Arabs and the Zionist movement. Regardless of whether or not you agree with every word, this book is a joy to read and offers interest and information on every page for both beginners and professional historians."

My Father Was a Freedom Fighter by Ramzy Baroud

Amazon says: "The frontline in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Gaza is constantly reported as a place of violence and terror. Ramzy Baroud's memoir explores the daily lives of the people in that turbulent region: the complex human beings -- revolutionaries, mothers and fathers, lovers, and comedians -- who make Gaza so much more than just a disputed territory. At the heart of Baroud's tale is the story of his father who, driven out of his village to a refugee camp, took up arms to fight the occupation while trying to raise a family."

One of my rabbinic colleagues says "Devastating book about the history of Gazans through the eyes of one mans' son."

Heres an excerpt.

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren

Amazon says, "Though it lasted for only six tense days in June, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war never really ended. Every crisis that has ripped through this region in the ensuing decades, from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to the ongoing intifada, is a direct consequence of those six days of fighting. Michael B. Oren’s magnificent Six Days of War, an internationally acclaimed bestseller, is the first comprehensive account of this epoch-making event.

Writing with a novelist’s command of narrative and a historian’s grasp of fact and motive, Oren reconstructs both the lightning-fast action on the battlefields and the political shocks that electrified the world. Extraordinary personalities—Moshe Dayan and Gamal Abdul Nasser, Lyndon Johnson and Alexei Kosygin—rose and toppled from power as a result of this war; borders were redrawn; daring strategies brilliantly succeeded or disastrously failed in a matter of hours. And the balance of power changed—in the Middle East and in the world. A towering work of history and an enthralling human narrative, Six Days of War is the most important book on the Middle East conflict to appear in a generation."

One of my Israeli rabbinic colleagues says, "This book has won praise from both friends and foes of Israel, and is probably the best history of the war to date."

In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story by Ghada Karmi

Publisher's Weekly says: "Karmi, a doctor and founding member of the British political group Palestine Action, relates her quest for cultural identity after her 'fragile... and misfit Arab family' leaves Jerusalem for England during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Ironically, they resettle in a Jewish neighborhood in London; Karmi, aged nine, quickly begins to assimilate--becoming an avid reader of English literature and befriending Jewish neighbors--despite her mother's insistence on traditional Palestinian culinary customs, dating mores and family codes. Over the next two decades, events in the Middle East make their non-Arab neighbors increasingly hostile and her Jewish friends' pro-Israel fervor grows; after the Palestinian terrorist hijackings of the 1970s, some acquaintances refuse to speak to her. Karmi becomes an impassioned pro-Palestinian activist, and in 1977 she begins practicing medicine in a Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon--and finds that her Western upbringing and habits make her even less welcome there than she was in England. Karmi writes engagingly, weaving Palestinian political and social history through her personal recollections and giving the age-old emigré dilemmas a timely twist."

One of my rabbinic colleagues says: "The first half of the book, that describes her experiences in Jerusalem as a child during the Nakba, is riveting."

Home to Stay: One American Family's Chronicle of Miracles and Struggles in Contemporary Israel by R' Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis is well to the right of Gershom Gorenberg (whose book appears below), so the two might make interesting juxtapositions -- two Americans who made aliyah (lit. "ascent" -- which is to say, they immigrated to Israel), but whose viewpoints and politics differ substantially.

Amazon says: "In the summer of 1998, Daniel Gordis and his family moved to Israel from Los Angeles. They planned to be there for a year, but a few months into their stay, Gordis and his wife decided to remain in Jerusalem permanently, confident that their children would be among the first generation of Israelis to grow up in peace.

Immediately after arriving in Israel, Daniel had started sending out e-mails about his life to friends and family abroad. These missives—passionate, thoughtful, beautifully written, and informative—began reaching a much broader readership than he’d ever envisioned, eventually being excerpted in The New York Times Magazine to much acclaim. An edited and finely crafted collection of his original e-mails, Home to Stay is a first-person, immediate account of Israel’s post-Oslo meltdown that cuts through the rhetoric and stridency of most dispatches from that country or from the international media. This is must reading for anyone who wants to get a firsthand, personal view of what it’s like for a family on the front lines of war."

The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg

I'm a longtime fan of Gershom's writings at his blog South Jerusalem. Here's Amazon's description:

"In this penetrating and provocative look at the state of contemporary Israel, acclaimed Israeli historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg reveals how the nation’s policies are undermining its democracy and existence as a Jewish state, and explains what must be done to bring it back from the brink. Refuting shrill defenses of Israel and equally strident attacks, Gorenberg shows that the Jewish state is, in fact, unique among countries born in the postcolonial era: It began as a parliamentary democracy and has remained one. An activist judiciary has established civil rights. Despite discrimination against its Arab minority, Israel has given a political voice to everyone within its borders.

Yet shortsighted policies, unintended consequences, and the refusal to heed warnings now threaten those accomplishments. By keeping the territories it occupied in the Six-Day War, Israel has crippled its democracy and the rule of law. The unholy ties between state, settlement, and synagogue have promoted a new brand of extremism, transforming Judaism from a humanistic to a militant faith. And the religious right is rapidly gaining power within the Israeli army, with possibly catastrophic consequences.

In order to save itself, Gorenberg argues, Israel must end the occupation, separate state from religion, and create a new civil Israeli identity that can be shared by Jews and Arabs. Based on groundbreaking historical research—including documents released through the author’s Israeli Supreme Court challenge to military secrecy—and on a quarter century of experience reporting in the region, The Unmaking of Israel is a brilliant, deeply personal critique by a progressive Israeli, and a plea for realizing the nation’s potential."

You can read excerpts from Gorenberg's book at Slate: The Mystery of 1948, Israel's Old-Time Religion.

I should also mention Emily L. Hauser's excellent reading list Reading the Conflict: An Israel/Palestine reading list, and the Middle East Books Bibliography, from which some of these recommendations were drawn.