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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 145-147

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Ronnie Gilbert

Here are two books that I've found have shed some light on Arab-Israeli conflict: by looking back and looking ahead.

Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Grove Press, 2003. 378 pages, paperback, $12.95.

In this anthology of diverse voices, 54 American Jewish thinkers, Zionist, anti-Zionist, ambivalent, secular, and religious, offer their varied perspectives on the history and politics of the Middle East—including less well-aired considerations such as the special relationships between the United States and Israeli governments, between Israel and American Jews, and between spiritual Judaism and militant Zionism.

We learn that Ahad Ha'am, considered a father of Zionism, predicts in 1891: "We . . . are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. . . . If the time comes that our [End Page 145] people's life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily. . . ." We read that in the late 1940s (Israel's independence was declared in 1948) prominent Zionist thinkers such as Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Judah Magnes, as well as Albert Einstein, argued against statehood, concerned with the fate of treasured Jewish ethics and values under the pressure of nationalism.

Wrestling with Zion, in seven sections, is packed with new information and alternative political solutions. There are also poems, two blessings, and some wonderful nonpolitical essays such as Grace Paley's "Afraid" and Meg and Brad Landers's "To Our Son on the Occasion of His Naming." There is a forum on Israel's Law of Return, the regulation that confers Israeli citizenship on anyone who wishes it whose mother is Jewish, and a lively roundtable among activists in the resistance and peace movements. The question of anti-Semitism is also explored in three penetrating essays.

This is an exciting book for anyone, Jewish or not, who has an abiding interest in the Middle East. One hopes, with the editors, that it will open up questions that have gone unexamined and help liberate voices of negotiation for justice, peace, and security for both nations.

One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, by Tom Segev. Henry Holt and Company, 1999 (translation by Haim Watzman, 2000). 612 pages, cloth, $35.00.

This exciting book by Israeli historian/journalist Tom Segev is about the three fateful decades of Britain's jurisdiction over Palestine and the roots of the struggle between the Palestinian Arabs and the Zionist settler movement. Segev writes: "The Palestine conflict was more than a struggle for land. It was also a battle for myths, religious faith, national honor, and history. Jews and Arabs fought it out with a primal fervor that led inevitably to violence . . ."

Plumbing untapped archival materials and primary sources, the author concludes that racism and anti-Semitism toward both Jews and Arabs among the British governing elite dictated such disastrous policies as the Balfour Declaration, which served to enflame the existing sparks between the two competing nationalist movements. He writes: "The British entered Palestine to defeat the Turks; they stayed there to keep it from the French; then they gave it to the Zionists because they loved 'the Jews' . . . and above all feared them." [End Page 146]

Anyone interested in the background of the present-day Middle East conflict, from whatever point of view, will of course find in this history a wealth of illuminating, thought-provoking material. Segev seems to be sensitive to all perspectives. To this lover of epic historical novels, One Palestine, Complete reads like one, with its incredible but absolutely authentic pioneers, immigrants, secret agents, diplomats, and fanatics, well known and lesser known, tracked by the author throughout...


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