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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.3 (2001) 148-151
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Israel's First Fifty Years
Robert O. Freedman, Editor: Israel's First Fifty Years. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2000. 290 pages. ISBN 0-8130-1819-6. $29.95 (paper).
Israel is a unique country with characteristics, challenges, successes, and failures of interesting and complex dimensions. Much of its first fifty years was marked by special experiments and achievements in politics and history, economics and society, and security and defense. The growth of a small, poor, and essentially defenseless Jewish state into a regional and international player of consequence with a strong economy is an important story. Many lessons have been learned and gems have been gleaned from its experiences. Its accomplishments have been many, even as it has failed to achieve security and stability in its region and has not yet established peace with all of its neighbors.
The fiftieth anniversary of Israel's independence in 1998 generated a veritable flood of works on virtually every aspect of the country. Scholars, journalists, protagonists, and critics created a library while seeking to assess, evaluate, praise, or condemn the Jewish state. This book is based on a conference held in May 1998 and consists of amended papers and some specially commissioned works. It has taken more than two years for the volume to appear, and that delay has contributed to the book's failure to provide a useful summing up of the first fifty years and to serve as a basis for understanding [End Page 148] and analyzing the next fifty. While the book is readable, a comprehensive picture, promised on the book's cover, does not emerge. As with all edited volumes, this one is uneven in coverage and in approach; the overlaps are minimized, the gaps are more substantial.
On Israel's foreign policy we are treated to a detailed look at Israel and the former Soviet Union and Russia, as one might expect given that the editor, Robert O. Freedman, is a noted specialist on both. The chapter provides an interesting brief overview of the theme, well documented and highly readable.
A rather cursory and skimpy chapter on the relationship between the United States and Israel is complemented by a chapter on the relationship of Israel and the American Jewish community. Both provide part of the picture of the unusual and central relationship between these unequal partners. The special relationship, well acknowledged and documented in the substantial literature on U.S. foreign policy and Israeli policy, is not illuminated in the chapters herein included, nor in the cited references. Given the centrality of the relations, especially over the past decade, and the extensive interactions between the leaderships of the two countries, the chapters are especially disappointing. What the relationship is, and especially why it exists, is not explicated. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the chapter on the American Jewish community is a welcome addition, although it seems to focus on a few events rather than detail the nature and evolution of the links between the world's two largest, and arguably most influential, Jewish communities. The ideological, political, economic, and religious links are crucial, and one would have wished more on the theme. Although Israel has been for several decades a major recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance, which has proved of great importance and value to the country, there is no tabulation of the aid; indeed, there is bare reference to it.
Similar observations might be made about the two chapters focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was struck by the concept of surveying the evolution of Israeli thinking about the Palestinians and a second chapter about the "normalization" of the relationship between Israel and the Arab states. Unfortunately, neither includes the latest twists culminating in the Al-Aksa intifada and the Israeli election of February 2001, in which the Israelis ousted Ehud Barak and, by electing Ariel Sharon, demonstrated a major shift in their perspective of the Palestinians and the other Arabs that belies the (limited) enthusiasm of the Israeli polity in recent years. The section on Israel...