Book Review: Israel: A History

By Martin Gilbert

I am always on the lookout for books that are great to read for recreation, which will give me an informed opinion on an aspect of history –especially when that history explains the origins of present day problems. Indeed who knows if it’s captivating enough it may lead to yet another project.  This is what I was looking for in Israel: A history, and unfortunately I came across a book that was somewhat misleading and unbalanced.

Publication Date: 1998 (new edition).
ISBN: 0552774286
Price: £12:50

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Martin Gilbert's synthesis of Israeli history expands upon his previous works Exile and Return: The Emergence of Jewish Statehood (1978), which chronicled the British mandate in Palestine (very well incidentally), and his Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century (1996). Gilbert is also the author of histories of the First and Second World Wars, but this book has a very different leaning. It does examine Israeli military operations essential in writing the history of a country that has fought half a dozen full-scale wars and occupied thousands of square miles of land outside its borders since its creation but its central focus is the political and social history of the nation.
The author's refined and sophisticated style makes for an eloquent read that tends to mask his decidedly one-sided perspective. Israel's history is so interwoven with that of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular that a fair rendering of it demands both a more balanced treatment of the Arabs and a fuller contextualization of events than Gilbert offers here, which is a great pity because that’s what I, and no doubt many others, was looking for.
In discussing the 1921 formation of the Haganah, the Zionist defence organization, for example, Gilbert reports violent Arab protests against Jewish immigration in 1920 and 1921 (p. 47), but fails to mention the numbers of immigrants involved in this initial influx of the mandate era (15,000 entered in those two years) or that their arrival instantly swelled Palestine's Jewish population by a hefty 22 percent. These statistics reveal, as Gilbert's account does not, that the disorders were not simply a knee-jerk reaction against the Jews, but a protest born of frustration with the magnitude of immigration and the Arabs' apparent inability to influence British policy.
Israel: A History also contains sporadic factual errors, to my mind unforgivable in a work by so distinguished a historian. Jimmy Carter was not president of the United States in 1972 (p. 418). Menachem Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, not 1979 (p. 495) and Anwar Sadat, who is not mentioned in this connection, shared it with him. The intifada drew much of its strength from Palestinian refugee camps, but they were not ‘inside Israel’ (p. 525), but in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza a distinction that is considerably important to make.
Perhaps because the book is intended for a general audience, it furnishes no citations for quotations (or anything else) beyond general attributions in the text which do not identify specific sources against which the information might be checked. On a positive note, seventy-two photographs provide images that nicely complement the text, while forty-three maps are particularly helpful in tying the area's history and geography together –something which I certainly needed. Readers of Israel: A History would gain a more balanced perspective on Palestine and Israel in the past century by comparing this book with Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, or Charles Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, both of which provide useful correctives to many of Gilbert's interpretations.

If you’d still like to read this book, it has a nice cover and plenty of pictures, read it on a long winter night, and get some Hob-Nobs.