Finding New Ways to Write About and Grapple With Israel – The New York Times

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The Shortlist

CAN WE TALK ABOUT ISRAEL?
A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted
By Daniel Sokatch
376 pp. Bloomsbury. $27.
Few issues arouse as much passion and fury as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (even its designation as a conflict between two sides is now hotly contested). Supporters of each side battle it out, insisting on the innocence of their side and the guilt of the other. Amid this often angry exchange, it can be difficult and daunting for anyone who isn’t a partisan to ask an innocent question, let alone voice a personal opinion. If you fall into the camp of the “curious, confused, and conflicted,” then this book is for you. Its author, Sokatch, the C.E.O. of the New Israel Fund (a U.S.-based organization that supports progressive causes in Israel), promises the reader that “after you’ve read it, you’ll be able to hold your own in any Israel conversation, at any dinner party.”
He delivers on this promise, providing an engaging and evenhanded, if cursory, history of the conflict, from its 19th-century origins to the most recent mini-war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. He also addresses some common and contentious questions such as whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy and if its rule over the Palestinians is akin to apartheid. Sokatch’s answers to all these questions can be summed up in two words: It’s complicated.
While this may disappoint readers seeking clear, definitive answers, and might seem evasive to some, Sokatch stresses the need for nuance and casts both Israelis and Palestinians as “righteous victims,” a phrase he borrows from the Israeli historian Benny Morris. Throughout the book, Sokatch interweaves the story of his own evolving, sometimes agonizing, relationship with Israel, recounting his adolescent adoration and then his heady optimism living in Israel during the Oslo peace process.
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Nevertheless, Sokatch hasn’t given up his hope for a two-state solution, though he acknowledges the obstacles. He just believes that with enough political will they can be surmounted. He also believes that Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state, in which its Palestinian-Arab citizens enjoy full equality. Nowadays, both of these beliefs are being increasingly challenged. Besides hope, Sokatch offers little in response to these challenges.
HAIFA REPUBLIC
A Democratic Future for Israel
By Omri Boehm
186 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $14.95.
Boehm, an Israeli political philosopher who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York, is also hopeful. Like Sokatch, he is also a liberal Zionist. But he doesn’t cling to the dream of a two-state solution and the belief that Israel is, or at least can become, a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. “At some point,” he writes in the introduction of “Haifa Republic,” “one must admit that the two-state dream has faded into a two-state illusion. Ignoring this fact is akin to denying global warming.”
But Boehm does not despair. Instead, he attempts to revitalize and redefine liberal Zionism, which he thinks is far from dead. In fact, he claims that with Israel’s flawed democracy under sustained assault, with Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank resembling apartheid, and with ethnic cleansing becoming a growing risk, a “truly liberal Zionism” is more necessary than ever before.
What does this entail? Not what you might think. Boehm argues that Zionism only necessitates Jewish national self-determination and not national sovereignty. Drawing on recent scholarship suggesting that the Zionist movement was not always committed to establishing a Jewish state and that Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky all supported the idea of a binational Jewish-Arab state at one point or another, Boehm proposes transforming Israel into a “federal, binational republic.” Not only is a binational state compatible with Zionism, he argues, but it is also the only way that Israel can be a genuine liberal democracy, securing the individual and collective rights of both Jews and Palestinians.
Whether such a democratic binational state is at all feasible — let alone likely — is debatable, to say the least. Skeptics are unlikely to be convinced by the book’s presentation of the “mixed” city of Haifa as a model. But though “Haifa Republic” doesn’t provide a blueprint for a binational state or a road map for how to get there, it offers an alternative vision for Israel’s future that recognizes the national rights of both Jews and Palestinians. Such a vision is sorely needed today as the two-state solution loses its appeal to Israelis and Palestinians and now seems to many observers more like a delusion.
TWELVE TRIBES
Promise and Peril in the New Israel
By Ethan Michaeli
440 pp. Custom House. $29.99.
In “Twelve Tribes,” Michaeli isn’t preoccupied with the political future of Israel and Palestine. In over 400 pages, he barely touches upon it. His interest lies in the lives and backgrounds of the diverse people living in Israel today, their personal stories, struggles and aspirations. During the course of four visits to Israel between 2014 and 2018, he traveled across the country and seems to have interviewed almost everyone he met, drawing on his journalistic skills, his Hebrew fluency and his own family connections — Michaeli was raised in Rochester, N.Y., by Israeli parents, who later returned to Israel.
These illuminating conversations with a wide variety of ordinary people — ultra-Orthodox Jews, Holocaust survivors, aging kibbutzniks, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Arab citizens of Israel, Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank — fill the pages of this richly descriptive book. Michaeli allows his subjects to speak for themselves and largely eschews editorializing. He touches on many of the hot-button issues in Israeli politics, but never weighs in on them. This restraint — so rare when it comes to writing about Israel — is born out of a recognition that when Americans discuss Israel, they are, as he puts it, “talking very often about a country that no longer exists, proposing solutions that have long since been discarded to problems that have as likely multiplied as evaporated altogether.”
Viewed from afar, Israel is often seen in simplistic, even caricatured ways, whether good or bad, its complex history, society and politics reduced to talking points and slogans. It is refreshing, therefore, to read a book about the lives of actual Israelis, which brings their cacophonous voices, rather than the author’s opinions, to the fore. By documenting the dizzying diversity of Israeli society, “Twelve Tribes” demonstrates that the country’s future, and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, will not be determined by politicians and diplomats in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, but by the ability of Israelis and Palestinians, secular and religious Jews, natives and immigrants, to live and work together, however uneasily.
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