I've already reviewed a half-dozen books published to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, but this oral history by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober -- titled Israel at 60 and published by John Wiley & Sons -- has become an instant favorite. It's not just the number of different people the authors spoke to that makes this book distinctive (and let me make it clear that I'm not automatically a fan of the oral-history format, as I tend to think it lets a lot of important material slip through the cracks). What is special about this book is the scope of the discussion and the wide range of time that's covered -- not just a depiction of the euphoria at the establishment of the state and then the subsequent struggles, but descriptions of what came before that ecstatic moment and, toward the end, some serious speculation about what the future may bring.
The book begins with eyewitness accounts of the Nazi period and postwar efforts to establish the state, then moves on to the War of Independence and what it took to fortify the fragile infrastructure that the yishuv had heroically managed to construct under difficult circumstances. The ingatherings of the various exilic communities are detailed in all their variety, as are the subsequent wars -- whether of defense, attrition or pre-emption. The seismic changes that occurred in Israeli politics and society after 1967's Six-Day War are all commented upon. The Oslo accords are debated, in addition to the new challenges that have come with Palestinian self-rule, as well as the continuing threat of terrorism, from within and without. The final section of the book asks perhaps the central Jewish question of our times -- "Can Israel Survive?" -- and provides a number of possible scenarios for the future of the Jewish state.
The authors have thrown a wide net in terms of their "cast of characters," and the voices and their stories are generally compelling. Here is journalist Dan Pattir on the atmosphere during the British occupation.
"Life was stressful. There were two prongs, so to say, in the way the British conducted themselves: one was separating the Arabs from the Jews. That was the main thing. We saw a lot of British army garrisons here in our area, going down to the western desert, to Libya. And vice versa, we had a good many garrisons of POWs, about 3,000 Italians. They were nice people; they taught us how to sing, how to sculpt, how to paint -- a good life. But the British were there -- they weren't in every village, but it was British rule."
And here is Revisionist follower Joshua Matza, who fought with the Irgun in the underground against the British:
"I was thrown out of secondary school -- this was a school that belonged to the Labor Party -- after Ben-Gurion called on the teachers to throw out members of the Stern Group; I finished secondary school through external exams because they drove me away when they knew that I was a member of the underground.
"When the British Mandate was terminated, in 1947, I also participated in operations in Jerusalem against a command car of the British, throwing grenades on them and operating a bomb against this car. Today, when I'm in a car with my wife or my children, I explain to them, 'That is the place where the car was driving.' In those days, cars didn't have the power of cars of today, of course; when you came to the top of the hill, you had to change drives [gears] there. When you changed the drive, you stopped for a second, so that was the time when you operated the bomb, and you threw the grenades."
And here is Pattir again, talking to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after his historic visit to Jerusalem and the signing of the Camp David accords:
"I asked Sadat, two years later, sitting in his home in Alexandria, 'How come, Mr. President, you overlapped with Golda for five years and you went through a bloody war; you overlapped with Rabin as prime minister for three years and hardly made an interim agreement in 1975; you come to Begin! He said to me, 'You know, I'm not a historian, but I'll ask you a question: who made the détente with the Soviets, the agreement with the Chinese? Nixon, didn't he? Who made the withdrawal of the French from Algeria? De Gaulle, didn't he?' I said, 'Mr. President, what do you mean by that?' He said, 'Look, I learned that it's better to do business with the right-of-center people rather than the left-of-center people because they have more power and more authority to make concessions."
In addition to this flow of vivid words, the book also includes more than 50 photos, a majority of them never published before. There are many unusual images dating from the 1920s, especially showing early scenes of Tel Aviv. But, no matter the locale, all of these photographs help add to the authenticity of the graphic testimony gathered here.