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The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel, by Martin van Creveld. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010. 350 pp. $26.99.
Martin van Creveld, a prominent Israeli military historian, has written a general history of modern Israel, which is not intended for experts, Israelis, or academics. As he indicates in his brief Prologue, he does not intend to shatter any myths or reveal any secrets, but instead he wants to counter the “endless and often highly unfair criticism that is directed against Israel from all over the world” and to demonstrate that Israel is “perhaps the greatest success story of the twentieth century” (p. xii). To a considerable extent, the author achieves his stated goals.
This book is readable, provocative, and very opinionated. It is not based on any archival research, and its quotes are often derived from the internet, including Wikipedia. Its author makes absolutely no attempt to be “politically correct.” From the outset, he avoids using the words “Palestine” and “Palestinian”; instead, he consistently refers to “the Land” or “the Land of Israel.” He is clearly not fond of Arabs, “Orientals,” Orthodox Jews, left-wingers, single mothers, or feminists, all of whom he discusses disparagingly and stereotypically. If various groups find themselves discriminated against, van Creveld usually considers this to be their own fault.
This book is organized into five chronological chapters: “Forged in Fury” (1897–1949); “Full Steam Ahead” (1949–1967); “The Nightmare Years” (1967–1980); “New Challenges” (1981–1995); and “Tragedy, Triumph, and Struggle” (1995–Present). Van Creveld traces the ups and downs of each era in terms of its politics, economics, social conditions, and culture, as well as the military situation, and illustrates his points with colorful stories and anecdotes. He denigrates most Israeli politicians and activists, including prime ministers and other cabinet ministers, and frequently uses quotes from their enemies to describe them. Interestingly enough, he considers Levi Eshkol to have been the best prime minister of Israel to date.
A retired professor from the Hebrew University, van Creveld writes as a knowledgeable insider, based on his own personal experiences as an Israeli. The book is not autobiographical, but it certainly reflects the author’s own strongly held views and opinions. Although informative about the daily life and struggles of Israelis and the difficulties they encounter living in an inhospitable environment in the Middle East, this book tends to downplay the negatives and emphasize the positive aspects of Israeli society and culture as much as possible. The writing style is fairly casual and at times seemed to me to be somewhat crass and offensive.
The major drawback of using this book as a basic text for understanding Israeli politics and society, both past and present, lies is in its biased treatment of important segments of Israeli society, including Orthodox Jews and Jews of Middle Eastern origin, as well as women and Palestinians. Van Creveld is convinced that married women in the labor market exploit other women who help look after their children and their homes. He also believes that both Orthodox and “Arab” women with large families are responsible for their own poverty, as are single mothers and divorcees. He does not really care about the lives, aspirations, or deaths of Palestinians, whether they are citizens of Israel or residents of the West Bank and Gaza. However, since he is concerned about the difficulties in controlling popular uprisings, such as the two intifadas, his solution is to dismantle most settlements in the West Bank and build a wall “so massive that even birds cannot fly over it” (p. 318).
If I were to recommend a short history for the general reader and for classroom use, it would not be The Land of Blood and Honey. Instead, I would suggest A History of Israel by Ahron Bregman, another Israeli military historian, but one who provides a more balanced and less tendentious introduction to the history of the State of Israel.
Harriet Pass Freidenreich