Book Review: Michael Brenner’s Israel
Is Israel a state like any other? This is the controversial question that the famous German historian of Jewish history, Michael Brenner, has set out to answer in his latest book Israel. As you would expect, the history of Israel is highly contentious – prone to excessive politicisation, polemical debate and uniquely resistant to constructivist arguments. This history is also extremely wide-ranging, requiring a grasp of issues ranging from Jewish tradition to modern geopolitics. This is not an easy task. Yet in just under 300 pages, Brenner offers a concise overview reaching from the inception of the idea of a Jewish state to the reality on the ground today. Well informed yet highly readable, this is a book that anyone who needs an introduction to the subject should go out and get. Beyond this, I believe it can serve as a model for a new kind of national history writing.
Brenner tackles the contentious issues straight on. The subtitle reads Dream and Reality and indeed, throughout the book he pursues the thesis of Israel’s tension between normality and abnormality; idealism and pragmatism. He argues these do not need to be seen as exclusive, but on the contrary are constitutive of what Israel is and has become: Israel has a Sonderweg (a special path) as does any other nation. By making this claim in this way, the Sonderweg theory is both asserted and effectively neutralised. With this Brenner is able to highlight the particularities of Israel’s history but opens up this case to wider comparison and contextualisation within global history.
The first half of the book concerns the history of the idea of a Jewish state – its diverse proponents, opponents and theoretical incarnations. From Brenner’s perspective, the history of Israel does not start in 1948 in the Middle East when Israel was founded, but in 1897 in Europe: in Vienna, Basel, Odessa, Wilna (Vilnius) and Berlin. Much room is given to the figure of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Yet for Brenner, this is mainly the history of an idea which needs to be placed in the context of the rise of nationalist thinking, Jewish responses to modernity and increasing anti-Semitism. Here already, therefore, Brenner introduces the reader to the tension between efforts to normalise the situation of the Jews and their unique circumstances in 19th and 20th-century Europe.
This part of the book outlines in some detail the various plans to resolve the ‘Jewish question’ and demonstrates that Israel in its current form was by no means the only option considered. The one-state solution, the use of Hebrew and even the choice of the Middle East were all subject to debate. Weaving together ideas, politics and individual biographies, the book gives insight into the complex negotiations that went on behind the scenes for decades. It shows how parallels were constantly drawn to other nations and national projects and yet at the same time, the specificity of the Jewish case was often emphasised. What sets Jews incontestably apart, of course, is the Second World War and the Holocaust. Yet Brenner does not deal with this in detail. Perhaps because this is the best known chapter of this history, or maybe because this is precisely where there is the biggest risk of anachronism and teleology.
The second half of the book covers the period from 1947 to the present. Brenner acknowledges the importance of the Holocaust for the creation of Israel but does not overstate it either. It could, on the contrary, have discredited Zionism and the viability of a Jewish state altogether. The years after 1945 were therefore decisive for the shape Israel took.
Brenner for example shows how, in the first decade after the creation of Israel, founding figures such as David Ben-Gurion continued to negotiate between normalisation and exceptionalism. For instance he gives a lot of space to the development of Israeli citizenship law and the tension between definitions of ‘who is a Jew’ and ‘who is an Israeli’. This question is still highly contentious today insofar as these terms may be used to create different classes of citizens and the exclusion of Arabs. By pointing to the debate, Brenner shows that the history of Israel is the history of compromise between very different groups and negotiation among proponents of different views. Here too, he underscores that the eventual outcome was not a foregone conclusion.
Brenner supports the thesis that 1967 was the real founding of the country. It was by demonstrating its power in the Six-Day War that Israel acquired its position in the region, and in the world, and secured the uncompromising support of the diaspora and America. With this Israel adopted a combative, defensive stance and became a state that is far more important than its size and economic significance would warrant. This is also when the ideological diversity of Israel became not simply a distinctive feature, but also a liability. Since then, its politics have consisted of a dangerous mixture of fantasy and Realpolitik and the past in particular is often instrumentalized.
In a sense, the history of Israel ends here because this is still true today. But Brenner then plunges into a description of Israeli society as a highly heterogeneous and constantly evolving unit. Indeed, while the book follows a logical chronology, it also adopts at times a quasi-sociological approach. Brenner analyses the impact on the face of Israel and Israeli society of different traditions, definitions of who belongs, waves of in- and out-migration, the memory of the Holocaust, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, generational changes and globalisation. He thereby produces the kind of narrative that we need today if we are to convince of the relevance of history to the present: a history which is political, social and cultural; multimedia and ‘multidirectional’; engaged and ultimately entertaining too.
Many of the themes addressed in this book have been dealt with elsewhere in more depth. In effect, Israel constitutes an overview with threads to be explored further. But the range of material quoted, pictured and drawn on is nevertheless impressive. And the argument of normality and abnormality is pursued with convincing force. Indeed, this account skillfully zooms in and out, and weaves information together in a narrative of cause and effect that offers a new framework for understanding known trends and events and the relationship between them. This is a national history that deconstructs the nation while at the same time explaining its power and attractiveness. In this sense, it is a model of good national history writing. Israel is a good example, but it is by no means the only one possible.