Book Summary, “Can We Talk About Israel: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted”

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Can We Talk About Israel: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted by Daniel Sokatch and illustrated by Christopher Noxon (Hard Cover; 384 Pages)

Brief Overview

There are a few “hot button” topics that people basically are expected to have an opinion on, which quite honestly many people do not know much about.  Money was never really my thing.  The intricacies of economic policy can go over my head.  A basic explainer helps a lot.

The Middle East, Israel in particular, is likely one such topic that will arise in conversation, in the news, or in the classroom. A lot of information, opinions, and invective will be tossed around.  

Daniel Sokatch has repeatedly been on the Forward newspaper’s top list of “leading Jewish decision makers and opinion shapers.”  He has for decades been involved in progressive Jewish causes, trying both to inform the public and reach a sane middle ground where one often seems not to exist.  This book is his attempt to provide the reader with the basics about Israel.

The book first provides a summary of the history from the mid-19th Century, the creation of modern day Israel, up until mid-2021. Then, the book examines the many controversial issues that arise in any conversation, including settlements, Israel’s relationship with the United States, and protests against Israel such as the BDS movement.  

The book ends with three perspectives of different people today who are working to improve the situation in Israel. It ends with a bit of optimism that positive change is possible, which might not seem likely after reading the rest of the book.  

Favorite Quote

This book is meant to help you understand Israel, the complex and confusing responses the subject inspires in all kinds of people, and the hundred-plus-year-old conflict between Arabs and Jews on the sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The author wants us to understand this complex and controversial subject while consistently remembering “Israel is all about the grays.”  It’s complicated.

Should I Read It?

This book is a good read for people who want to learn the basics concerning Israel, including its history, the creation of the modern state,  and current controversies.  The book is set out in an easy-to-read format, broken down into easy-to-digest chunks, with charming illustrations.  

There is also a helpful breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, providing descriptions of the various often confusing language used with helpful maps as well. The author is a liberal-minded Jew, who puts his basic positions on the table, while still covering the material fairly so that the reader can judge the issues for themselves.   

The book is appropriate for a newcomer to the topics though it is helpful if you know a few basics.  It sums up the basics; it is not an intense focus on the topics involved.  

It is primarily concerned with Israelis, so some might feel it slights the Palestinian side of the topics covered.  And, if you strongly disagree with the author’s “it’s complicated” liberal point of view (in any direction), you might not like the book.  Or, maybe, welcome reading his perspective.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: GENGHIS KAHAN AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD

Comprehensive Summary

Introduction     

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads to many strong statements (narratives) one way or another.  The author believes each side should have their equal rights and security protected.  The exact place this will be is a conflict with many competing beliefs, sacred texts, and painful histories.  This book will help educate the reader and hopefully inspire them too.  

PART ONE WHAT’S GOING ON?

1: Jews and Israel: Where Do We Start?

The Hebrew Bible is the origin story of the Jewish people and Judaism.  For some, it is a collection of folklore, stories, and wisdom.  For others, it is the literal word of God.  

The biblical account tells of Abraham (the father of the Jewish people), David (the great king of a Jewish kingdom), and the exile of the Jews from biblical Israel.  Afterward, the Romans came (63 BCE), creating Roman Palestine, and later defeated two Jewish rebellions.  

After the rebellions, there was no longer a significant population of Jews in Palestine.  Nonetheless, Jews continued to live in many areas of the Middle East, and large communities also grew up in Europe.  Judaism as a religion grew into its modern form.   

2: The Zionist Idea: Organizing, Immigrating, Building (1860s—1917)

Jews were often discriminated against, even as (and at times because of) they became successful parts of the community.  

In the 19th Century, there began to be a movement (called Zionism, after both a hill in Jerusalem, the ancient capital and holy city of Israel, and the land of Israel itself) to start a new Jewish homeland in Palestine.   There were both religious and secular Zionists as well as some who saw Zionism as more of a cultural movement.  “Zionism” is a touchy and vague term. 

Jews, especially as pogroms (attacks against Jews) took place in Eastern Europe, began to immigrate to Palestine in the 1880s.  The kernel of modern day Jewish Israel had begun.  

3: Wait, There Were People Here: What About the Palestinians?

What about the people already existing in Palestine, now ruled by the Ottomans, while the Jews were starting to immigrate there?  

Some argue there were people from ancient times, including descendants of biblical Philistines (including those King David fought against), so the “Palestinians” were “always there.”  

Modern-day scholarship suggests that the existing Palestinians descended from various waves of people and civilizations who inhabited the area over the centuries.  They were various religions (not all Muslims) and spoke various languages (Arabs mostly now). In the early 20th Century, Palestinians also had their own, often conflicting with Zionism, nationalist ideas.

4: The British Are Coming: World War I, the Balfour Declaration, and the Establishment of the British Mandate (1917—39)

After World War I, the British gained control of Palestine (“the British Mandate”),  During WWI, the British Foreign Secretary (Balfour) wrote a famous “declaration” supporting the Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Meanwhile, Palestinian Arabs had nationalist hopes as well, leading to conflict with the growing Jewish population in the area.   

In 1947, Palestine had about 1.8 million people, one-third Jewish, two-thirds Arab.  The Holocaust during World War II made a Jewish homeland seem particularly essential. The newly formed United Nations agreed to a split (partition) of Palestine into Arab and Jewish nations.  

5: Israel and the Nakba: Independence and Catastrophe (1947—49)

A civil war broke out between the Jewish and Arab populations of Palestine (11/47-05/48).  

The country of Israel, which included a policy welcoming all Jewish exiles back to the country, was officially established in 1948.  This led to the second phase of the fighting, the armies of multiple Middle Eastern countries invading Israel.  This “First Arab-Israeli War” ended in July 1949.  The resulting new border (“Green Line”) led to Israel controlling more land.

The Palestinians called this conflict “Nakba” or the “catastrophe.” 

6: The Dispossessed

The hard fighting, including some on both sides many deemed uncivilized, began the hard feelings and complex (and at times hazy) truths that continue in various ways to exist in this conflict.  This includes the mass exiles of Palestinian Arabs, often out of fear of what would happen from approaching Jewish forces.  The resulting refugee crisis continues to this day.  

7: The Fifties: State Building and Suez

The 1950s was a big time for Israel to build the state and forge a national identity.  

Meanwhile, Nasser in Egypt became the leader of a pan-Arab nationalism movement. There were limited military rumblings over the Sinai Penisula, the land bridge between the two countries.  Fights over control of the Suez Canal also became an international incident.  

8: The Big Bang: The 1967 War and the Reality It Created

In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed.  Israel continued to be an easy target for Arab leaders in the area.  Israel and Syria battled over a strip of land known as the Golan Heights. Nasser’s aggressive tactics in the Suez helped to lead to the Six-Day War (1967), in which Israel won big, and Nasser lost big.  Advantage Israel?  Maybe.  

The result was more occupied territories, which some Israelis began to see as a trap.  How could you handle the situation? You could rule over the Palestinian-majority area in an authoritarian way, losing your democratic ideals, and resulting in terrorist violence.  Or, you could give the residents full citizenship, which threatened the existence of a Jewish state.  

9: Roller Coaster: From the Yom Kippur War to the First Intifada (1968—87)

The next few years involved a series of low-level conflicts, including PLO (growing in power) terrorist attacks.  Sadat became the leader of Egypt.  He planned an attack on Israel with the help of other Arab nations to re-balance power in the region.  Israel was surprised when the attack (during their high holidays in 1973) came, but with U.S. help, won in the end.

The war was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Israel and their leadership (with President Carter serving as a broker) supported a peace treaty (Camp David Accords) with Egypt later on.  The Suez Penisula was returned to Egypt, who now recognized Israel’s right to exist.

But, brutal struggles with the PLO, which lead to conflict with Lebanon continued.  Meanwhile, “Operation Moses” (bringing Ethiopian Jews, their country in the midst of a horrible famine,  to Israel) showed the positive side of Jewish ideals.   

10: Shaking It Off: The First Intifada

Israel moved to tighten control over the occupied territories (tiny but very populated Gaza Strip bordering Egypt, the larger West Bank, once part of Jordan, and the Golan Heights bordering Syria) in the 1980s.  This led to the First Intifada (“shaking off”) mass uprising, which Israel addressed with often violent counterattacks.  Another militant Islamic group, the Hamas, was arising.  The PLO had by this time largely become of minor importance.  

11: Israel Is Waiting for Rabin

The election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 as prime minister appeared to be a sign that there was a possibility of a new beginning.  The world was changing with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, and years of the intifada leading to pressure for change.  

The PLO leadership seemed open to negotiations as well.  But, there was opposition within Israel, and Rabin was assassinated by a radical Israeli nationalist.  Peace might not have been assured before; now, it was clearly not.  The “Oslo Peace Process” had failed.  

12: As the Clever Hopes Expire: The End of Oslo

The new Prime Minister (Shimon Peres) tried to continue the peace process.  But, terrorist attacks continued, and a ceasefire in Southern Lebanon broke down.  Benjamin Netanyahu ran against Peres, taking advantage of the anxieties of the Israeli public.  Ben won, but his first time in office did not go well.  Neither did continual attempts at peace.   

13: The Bulldozer’s Last Surprise

A new intifada and continual conflict helped Ariel Sharon, who had a history of brutal tactics against Israeli enemies, win control in 2001.  Sharon’s response to a new wave of suicide bombings was a full reoccupation of the West Bank.  

Sharon also was a big supporter of settlements, and the permanent settling of Israelis in occupied territories, making it hard to imagine a path out of them.  Sharon eventually announced a new policy of removal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. But, he had a stroke, so ultimately the possibility of a “Nixon goes to China” moment was gone.  Violence continued in the early 2000s.  Then, Netanyahu was back in power.  

14: The Democracy Recession

Netanyahu continued in power until the end of the events covered in this book (mid-2021).

The 2010s was a period of threats to democratic ideals, including an increase in the religious establishment’s control over public life.  His rule reflected the strongmen ideals found in many areas of the world at this time.  It led to a backlash against Israel, with an uncertain future.  

PART TWO WHY IS IT SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT ISRAEL?

15: The Map Is Not the Territory

Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict use maps, place names (Arabic/Hebrew) and supposed archaeological evidence supporting one side or the other to try to promote their side. Reality is more complicated.  Both sides have interconnected connections to the area.  

16: Israel’s Arab Citizens: Shared Society or Segregation?

One-fifth of the citizen population of Israel is non-Jewish.  Israel’s founding document promises full equality, liberty, and justice for all.  In practice, Arab citizens live separate lives and are subject to various inequalities.  The situation got worse in recent years.  

17: A Love Story? Israel and the American Jewish Community

Jewish Americans at first were not very excited about Zionism though there were some leading American Zionists such as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. 

The American Jewish community’s strong support of Israel was much more noticeable after WWII.  Israel also became important to the United States during the Cold War as a regional safe harbor.  In time, however, there were growing disagreements on the proper policy in Israel among American Jews. American Jews strongly opposed Trump and Netanyahu’s policies. 

18: The Settlements

Over six hundred thousand Israelis live in settlements built in occupied territory, which as a matter of international law are supposed to be temporary areas of Israeli control.  Thus, the building of permanent Israeli settlements is widely seen as a violation of international law.  

The settlements were built both for ideological reasons (belief Israel had a right to the area) and because they were nice places to live.  Either way, it makes for a crazy quilt of non-Israeli areas, which are blocked off, with the Palestinian areas broken into small pieces.  

The whole thing makes a two-state solution seem rather unlikely.  

19: What We Talk About When We Talk About BDS

The “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” (BDS) movement was started by Palestinian activists.  The movement was started in 2005, a call to treat Israel like an apartheid state ala South Africa, and pressure change. The movement supports using economic “soft power,” in a non-violent way.  Israel in recent years strongly opposed it as did many in the United States.

The ultimate goals of the BDS movement are somewhat vague.  Some people want to end the occupation of the West Bank. Others want a general allowance for Palestinian refugees to return back to Israel, which would be quite a big deal if truly done.  Many who support BDS in some way are not “anti-Israel” as such.  They oppose certain policies of Israel.   

20: The A-Word

Israel is accused of practicing apartheid.  The author says it’s complicated but ultimately notes that the occupied territories do look like South African apartheid in various ways.  Israel has not formally annexed the occupied territories.  So, it is not as final, but it’s bad enough.   

21: The Other A-Word

Criticism against Israel is at times labeled “anti-semitic.”  Anti-semitism is not mere criticism of Israel and its policies. It is a basic hatred of Jews as such.  

The problem then becomes defining what that means.  It is not antisemitic to merely think certain Israeli policies are “racist.” Doing so unfairly might be.  

22: Red Cows in the Heartland: Israel and Armageddon

In 2014, a red cow was born in the United States, which some evangelical Christians thought was a sign of the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Evangelical Christians make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and as a rule, strongly support Israel.  They do so for various reasons, but many do for religious reasons, including Israel’s supposed place in the end times.  

23: The Case for Hope

The book ends with three people living in Israel today, who the author believes are helping to build bridges, heal wounds, and create a better future.  These people include a feminist and Palestinian Citizen of Israel, a Sudan Political Asylum Seeker, and a Jewish-Israeli human rights activist.  He lets them tell their stories and goals.  They are role models and symbols of hope.      

A Lexicon of the Conflict

This section provides a glossary of the language used by different sides to reference the geography, wars, and parties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a helpful section, especially with the many complexities such as “Areas A, B, and C” in the West Bank. 

Points to Ponder

The goal of this book is to inform the “curious, confused, and conflicted” about Israel.  How much did it fulfill its mission?  Was there something left out that made you want more?  

And, how would a book written by someone with a different point of view have handled this differently?  Did you see any bias in his account that clouded his judgment?  When you are answering these questions, would you feel differently if the book was not about Israel?  

There are a lot of controversies these days about critical race theory and ideological based learning.  How would (if you could)  you apply critical race theory to studying this subject?  

FAQ 

Daniel Sokatch has been the CEO of the New Israel Fund since 2009. The New Israel Fund defines itself as “the leading organization committed to democratic change within Israel.”  

Sokatch holds a MA from the Fletcher School (known for its global affairs studies) and a JD from Boston College of Law.  He has long been involved in progressive-leaning Jewish activism, including being a founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  

Sokatch’s writing has appeared in many leading publications.  This is his only book.  

Christopher Noxon is a journalist and illustrator.  He has written Good Trouble: Lessons from the Civil Rights Playbook.  “Good trouble” is a popular saying made famous by John Lewis.  

Noxon also wrote Plus One: A Novel and Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up.

Is Can We Talk About Israel a Reliable Source?

Can We Talk About Israel covers a lot of ground.  Its first chapter sums up things until the nineteenth century and then we get a tour of things for the last one hundred and sixty years.

The book is not meant to be a comprehensive historical account of all this material.  Nonetheless, it provides a balanced account with over forty pages of sourcing and notes.  

Sokatch is best qualified to discuss events that have occurred in the last few decades, both as an observer and as someone who studied and long discussed the topics at issue.  He still has the skills and put in the effort to accurately cover the rest of the history involved.  

Sokatch upfront in the introduction states his perspective as a product of a liberal American Jewish community. This subject matter has divisive issues that lead to much disagreement.  Granting that my own sentiments (if not my religious background) overlap significantly with his, I think he fairly and accurately puts forth the material found in this book.