History of Palestine/Israel recommendations?

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History of Palestine/Israel recommendations?

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Edited: Oct 17, 2010, 3:11 pm

Hi everyone,

I would love to read a good history of how Israel was established, perhaps beginning with the British colonial period. I have The Indestructible Jews, which was given to me as a gift, but I want something, perhaps, may I say, more objective? Not a book from the perspective of this being Jewish/religious destiny and not a book (from the other perspective) that frames this as a disaster. I want something with all the good, bad and the ugly. Just the facts, ma'am etc. etc.

I appreciate any helpful suggestions you can give me! Thank you,


Oct 19, 2010, 7:31 pm

I think Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote such a book, The Siege, 20 or more years ago. I've looked at it but not read it.

Edited: Oct 20, 2010, 8:16 pm

Thank you, weisbardaj! I appreciate the recommendation. Since you have 2 of Max Dimont's books, I am wondering what you think of them. I read them both more than 20 years ago, so my impressions may not be accurate.


Oct 28, 2010, 2:24 pm

I read Dimont's books some thirty or more years ago, early in my adult Jewish self-education project. I remember liking them quite a bit at the time--enjoying their drama and sweep, but was then a much less knowledgeable, sophisticated, and critical reader of Jewish history. I'm not sure how I would react to them at this point. So perhaps we are in the same boat. Maybe there are some more recent critical readers out there to comment...

Nov 25, 2010, 2:49 am

I'm intrigued. My grandfather wrote a book about it - but it was definitely more on the political side than the historical side, as far as I know, and probably more towards the disaster side. I haven't read the whole thing myself so can't say for certain but its Heaven at Bay by Emile Marmorstein for anyone interested. Not light reading though.

Edited: Nov 25, 2010, 1:59 pm

Thank you lydiasbooks! I will look for it. k4k

Nov 25, 2010, 9:02 pm

I read Dawn of the Promised Land some years ago. I found it quite interesting as I knew nothing about the history of Israel. Can't say that I remember any particular slant to the book.

Nov 27, 2010, 11:59 am

Thank you, bernsad. I will look up that one also.


Edited: Feb 6, 2011, 7:42 pm

Of the several books I've read covering the establishment of Israel, the best all-round text I've read concerning the British Mandate period is Tom Segev's excellent 'One Palestine Complete'.

Feb 6, 2011, 4:17 pm

Segev is regarded by many Israelis and self-professed pro-Israel American Jews as unduly critical, but as one who generally shares his perspective, I think his various books have hit the mark. He is also a good writer and story-teller. I've looked at this book in particular and find it promising, but I haven't read it thoroughly. It does build on the work of Israel's "New Historians", making use of archival materials that have come to light in the past decade or so. Sadly, comparable materials from the various neighboring Arab countries (and Palestinian sources) are generally less available.New work is also coming out of the British archives, including a recent work on the Balfour Declaration and the complex WWI machinations (many focused on Ottoman Turkey) of which it was a part.

Apr 6, 2014, 2:13 pm

Street People by Helga Dudman
(Published in English 1982.)

Despite the many historic and biblical connections with the geographical Holy Land, the State of Israel is of course still a young country. An independent republic since 1948, it's three biggest cities: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, are full of streets, boulevards, squares and alleyways named after some historic figure or other. Tel Aviv itself was only founded in 1909 (developed initially on uninhabited sand dunes as an overspill neighbourhood of the ancient port town of Jaffa) and the residential expansion beyond Jerusalem's medieval city walls only began in earnest with the rise of applied Zionism in the latter half of the 19th century. Helga Dudman - an American-born journalist residing in Israel for some 20+ years at the time of publication - has compiled a book which explores the backgrounds and biographical histories of some of those individuals behind the names - the familiar as well as the not-so-familiar.

Some names, almost ubiquitous in the Jewish state, such as Rothschild, Nordau (an early Zionist leader) or King George V, are honoured in all three of the featured cities, but to be honest the locations in Haifa barely get a mention, and Jerusalem only figures in a minority of chapters (one chapter in particular covering the history of the so-called 'American Colony'). Principally though, this is a book about those 'Street People' of what is arguably Zionism's greatest achievement: the city of Tel Aviv.

A fair few of the individuals covered in this informative book are either in Soskin's iconic photo of the first Tel Aviv plot-holders on the empty dunes in 1909, or related to people who are:

'...A natty-looking figure, wearing what appear to be white flannel trousers, a dark blazer and a white hat, stands apart from the crowd and seems to be addressing them...They were middle-class merchants, teachers and professionals. There was not one open shirt in the crowd.

I long assumed that the natty figure was Dizengoff, (Tel Aviv's charismatic first mayor) in charge of this memorable occasion. But I was wrong. The man with all the trappings of leadership was merely a Jew from Jaffa named Feingold, whose parents had converted to Christianity, and who had come to mock the group of demented dreamers and their mad project.

"What are you crazy people trying to do here? There's no water, nothing but sand, sand, sand! You are all mad!" Feingold shouted at the group.'

Ensuing chapters cover such diverse figures as Moshe Lillienblum, Moses Montefiore, the aforementioned Meir Dizengoff, George Eliot, Bronislaw Huberman (founding musical director of the Israel Philharmonic) and Arturo Toscanini (it's inaugural guest conductor when it was the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1936). A chapter behind the history of the busy King George Street (Tel Aviv's. Nearly every Israeli town large and small honours the British Mandate & Balfour Declaration era monarch) includes a grisly murder mystery from the late 1940s.

I learnt about important people in Israel's history. Not just Zionists, but also Jewish classicists and philosophers - the medieval poets Ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi; philanthropists like Baron de Hirsch, and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature: Selma Lagerlöf from Sweden. The book is an interesting assortment of artists, writers, politicians and even the odd religious sage or two. I even learnt about the man whose name is given to my favourite beach in Tel Aviv. There are many great quotes scattered throughout. While not necessarily agreeing with every word - this passage from the discussion on the poet Saul Tchernichowsky caught my eye:

'When a house is built by and for the man who will live in it, it will have beauty, Tchernichowsky wrote nearly 40 years ago; but when contractors build blocks for profit, the dream is gone.

In that forgotten essay on premature nostalgia, Tchernichowsky also wrote that, in spite of the ravages of progress, "it is nevertheless impossible not to love crowded Tel Aviv, because this is after all the only spot on earth where a Jew can be simply a human being called a Jew...without any feeling that he is a Jew, and without even being aware of it."'

My favourite chapter though was entitled 'The Chelouche Saga'. Dudman tells the fantastic tale of how a young boy, with his family en route from war-torn Algiers to the Holy Land, is one of the few survivors of an horrendous shipwreck off the Palestine coast in 1838. Eventually, what remained of the boy's family settled in Jaffa, where his father opened a small shop in an alleyway behind the famous little clocktower. The Chelouche family go on to become extremely successful merchants before the waves of later Zionist immigration.

There is a lovely legend (told to the author by an elderly grand-daughter of that little boy) of a by-then elderly Aharon Chelouche helping a distressed Arab boy, far from his home village, whose camel and money had been stolen. Some years and events pass and during the First World War the Turkish authorities evicted non-Turkish citizens from Tel Aviv, and the Chelouche family become refugees - soon finding themselves quite destitute. Eventually, in a small Arab village where they took shelter, a sheikh arrived with a small caravan asking -

'"Is there a man called Chelouche?" Old Aharon, now a venerable 89, presented himself, and the stranger said, "You don't remember me. My name is Hadj Ibrahim Samara, and I am the boy to whom you once gave a mejida {very valuable coin} in Jaffa. I will never forget that kindness as long as I live. Now I have heard that you are refugees here..."'

The sheikh proceeds to bring Aharon's son Yosef Eliahu to his home, and after retrieving a hidden stash, presents him with 500 gold sovereigns -

'...insisting that he himself had no need for them at the moment. When, Allah willing, the war ended, the family could repay him.

The details, as Yosef Eliahu recalled them, are marvellous. "But what if we should die before the war ends?" he asked the Arab. The man replied, "Well, then neither of us will need the money."'

Dudman goes on to tell of several further uplifting encounters between the two families from one generation to the next. It really is wonderful material and perhaps worthy of a book in its own right.

This is a concise and original approach for a book which should be of interest to both tourists in Israel and students of Zionism and Jewish history alike. Recommended.

Edited: Apr 6, 2014, 11:17 pm

>11 Polaris-: Thank you for this.

By the way, I happened to be sitting with 2 New York Jews, a Boston Irish Catholic and a Lebanese Muslim one day (no joke!) and they all recommended From Beirut to Jerusalem as a reasonably unbiased history of the Middle East.

Apr 7, 2014, 3:58 am

>12 krazy4katz: You're very welcome, and thank you! I've often been recommended From Beirut to Jerusalem - by a wide variety of reader sources as well - but as of yet have not read it. It's probably time I rectify that, so I'm going to wishlist it. It does crop up here and there in various used bookshops so shouldn't be too hard to find.

Edited: Sep 25, 2014, 10:40 pm

I recently finished From Beirut to Jerusalem. I haven't found the time to write a review yet, but it was definitely a 5-star book for me. Friedman doesn't hide anything and spares no one's feelings. He just tells the story as he sees it as dispassionately as possible. I hope to write a review someday.

Meanwhile, I have been given 2 other recommendations -- I was at a wedding. ;-)

The Secret War against the Jews
Making David into Goliath

Sep 26, 2014, 4:27 pm

>14 krazy4katz: I'm glad you found From Beirut to Jerusalem so good. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for a nice copy now. I look forward to your review when the time comes. Thanks also for your extra recommendations - I think I'll give Making David into Goliath a miss for the time being as I have a pretty well-formed idea of how and why that process has occurred - but The Secret War Against the Jews looks fascinating so it joins the wishlist!

Sep 26, 2014, 4:50 pm

> 14
Our Rabbi at Rosh Hashanah made an interesting comment in his sermon. "where would David have been without Goliath"

Sep 26, 2014, 5:26 pm

>1 krazy4katz: - In history as much as in mathematics there are problems which don't have an answer / solution - Whatever problem concerns, us, Jews, has a high probability to belong to this type.
I'm 84 and read lots of books on the history of Jews in general and Israel and I'm afraid you can only start by reading half a dozen books on the matter and forming your own image of it. Anyway, I can also add that the highly unorganized "Street People" (above >11 Polaris-:) is a nice read and could be a positive beginning - specially if you don't forget that street names were given by (Zionist) Jews rather than by Arabs.
Shana Tova

Sep 26, 2014, 8:42 pm

>15 Polaris-: The Secret War Against the Jews does sound interesting. I wonder why it is "hugely controversial" according to the Amazon review. I hope it will come out in kindle version, as I do my best reading that way. If not, I will have to break down and buy a real book.

>16 bergs47: That is an interesting comment. Did he have an answer? You could think of this several ways. One would be that "Davids" want to be heroes so they find "Goliaths" to make them famous. The other is that proof of success against the enemy gives you more strength to tackle other evils. Depends how altruistic David was.

>17 nisgolsand: Thank you for the additional recommendation for Street People. I have gotten so many great suggestions from this thread.


Sep 26, 2014, 8:58 pm

I recently read My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. It one of the best non-fiction, if not one of the best books I have ever read. The reviews here on LT are mostly positive and highly recommended.

Sep 27, 2014, 12:15 pm

>19 MsMaryAnn: Thanks! It goes on my list.

Oct 14, 2014, 1:10 am

>19 MsMaryAnn: I'm in the middle of it too. I can't regard it as an objective history at all, but it is a wonderful painful account of the author's personal journey to make sense of the Israel-Palestianian relationship. It has caused some shift in my views. The Audible version is read by the author, which extends the sense of its personal character.

Apr 9, 2015, 12:25 pm

Looking at this thread, it seems to me that all of the recommended books are "personal histories" by journalists or others, and many of them have a specific point of view. The point of view may not even be detectable unless you're already familiar with the subject. What about some academic histories, or what I would call "historical histories", like Howard Sachar's "A History of Israel"; Leslie Stein's book whose title I can't recall at the moment; or Walter Laqueur's "A History of Zionism". And once you have a solid footing, if you're interested you can move into the Zionist/post-Zionist debate, with people like Benny Morris or (though I'm somewhat reluctant to recommend him) Avi Shlaim, whose historical facts are usually sound but whose interpretations are colored by his politics and his pose as one of the "enfants terribles" among Israeli historians, or Efraim Karsh whose facts are usually sound but whose heavy-handedness about the post-Zionists can be annoying. I don't know if there are good histories following the Arab narrative because there is relatively little archival material available, in contrast to the situation with Israel. I'm told that Mark Tessler's book (again I'm blanking on the title) is worth reading, as he presents both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. I haven't read Shavit's book yet but have had a number of positive recommendations, although none so far from students of Israeli history.

Apr 9, 2015, 7:38 pm

Thinking of reading Thieves in the Night by Arthur Koestler. I know that doesn't qualify as nonpartisan history but it sounds interesting.