On American college campuses, students are all too often given a two-dimensional view of the Jewish state. This writer speaks as someone with a baccalaureate degree in Near Eastern Studies: In American academia, Israel is largely presented as a place where wars are fought, and where Arabs are oppressed. Only in a university’s Judaic Studies Department (if one has the good fortune to be attending a university endowed with one) is one likely to find a less cartoonish depiction of “the Zionist entity,” to compete with the more nuanced understanding of the other diverse cultures of the Middle East. Yet alas, even they are likely to teach Israeli history through the lens of war and geopolitics. Rubin’s Israel is therefore filling a very real need.
In Israel: An Introduction, Rubin and his colleagues shine light on a country that is enigmatic to so many here in the United States and elsewhere. While it does cover Israeli history in broad strokes, including the War of Independence, the Six-Day War, the Lebanon Wars, the Intifadas, and so on, it also discusses everything from Israeli economics to sports and popular culture.
Perhaps most fascinating for this writer was Rubin’s broad-sweeping examination of the various cultural dynamics at play among Israel’s many cultures (Jewish and non-Jewish), not to mention the diversity within Israel’s Jewish population, and how these dynamics are manifested culturally and politically. The book’s glimpse at Israel’s political party system makes a handy primer, be it for a student of Israeli history, or for a journalist covering the ins-and-outs of the politics of the Jewish state. I say “broad-sweeping” because the book doesn’t go into a great deal of depth in any of these subjects. Of course, it isn’t meant to – rather Rubin prefaces his work by expressing the hope that his book will be seen as “a place to begin, not an endpoint,” encouraging the reader to follow up with further research.
It is indeed just a starting point, but Israel: An Introduction, if disseminated among our universities to the extent it deserves, will at least allow students of the Middle East and of Jewish history to start off on the right foot. A glimpse into the real Israel may do more for the future of U.S.-Israeli relations than any amount of rhetoric ever could.