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Review of: Barry Rubin, Israel: An Introduction
(Yale University Press, 2012)

There is no country in the world that people think they know more about than Israel. The Jewish state is far more in the news and more present in politics than its size or population would seem to warrant. And yet as important as the country is and despite the almost obsessive focus on it, Israel is often not seriously studied or well understood.

There is now a book intended to fill this glaring gap. Israel: An Introduction, authored by Barry Rubin and published by Yale University Press, comprehensively presents, analyzes and explains what Israel is really like.

Rubin, the author of many other books on the Middle East and on U.S. foreign policy, heads the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. He set out to deal with Israel as an actually existing country, not just as the locale of international conflict or religious imagery but as a real place with real people. And in this effort the book succeeds.

Aside from this framework, the book suggests that Israel should be comprehended most basically as a success in both nation-building and socio-economic development. In recent years, these achievements have often been ignored because of political issues.

Furthermore, of all the countries created since World War Two, this book shows, Israel arguably has the best record both for maintaining democratic norms (under great external pressure no less), raising living standards, and playing a world-level role in the development of science, medicine, and technology.

As the book explains:

“Since the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, examinations of its history have usually emphasized its wars, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and diplomatic negotiations. That focus is misleading. Israel has fought wars, been a target of more terrorist attacks than any other country, and a constant participant in peacemaking efforts over decades. Yet conflicts and negotiations, though the stuff of daily headlines, are only a small part of the story. This book addresses a broader, ultimately more important, question: What is the reality of this country and its people?

“The basic answer is that modern Israel has built a fully realized—though not perfect or completed—political system, economy, society, and culture. It is thus a normal country although a very unique one with many distinctive features.”

Another often missing element that is generally left out of media, academic, and even policy debates about Israel is how the mainstream Israeli viewpoint has developed over the last twenty years in reaction to events and experiences. The 1990s’ peace process was, in effect, an experiment in which Israel took great risks and made major concessions to see if it was possible to negotiate a compromise peace agreement resulting in two states and ending the conflict with the Palestinians and Syria.

Yet even when offered big Israeli concessions as merely the starting point for final negotiations, both Syria and, at the 2000 Camp David meeting, the Palestinian Authority rejected such an effort. Israelis drew negative conclusions about the nature of the other side and the benefits of further risks and concessions.

This result, reinforced by the experiences of withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, has never been absorbed or factored into policy in the West, where there are often denials that Israel has tried to obtain peace and demands for precisely the approach that has failed before. By documenting and explaining this history from the standpoint of the Israeli debate, Israel: An Introduction provides a great service.

But, as noted above, the book’s main theme is to present Israel as a country in full, a place with real people living in a unique society and culture. From a disparate immigrant population, Israel has taken Jewish religious and historic, European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern influences and melded them into something both new and reflecting continuity with those sources.

As the book notes:

“For the most part, Israel goes about its business, developing a society, culture, economy, and other aspects of life that do not revolve around war or international diplomacy. It has become a Mediterranean–Middle Eastern country with modern and traditionalist features side by side, unique aspects and significant American and European overtones. Above all, though a country imperiled and sometimes reviled, a nation facing real threats and forced to rely largely on its own resources, Israel is not only surviving but flourishing.”

Israel: An Introduction is the most up-to-date guide available to this fascinating and vibrant country. And while very useful for students or beginners, it is packed with information and analysis that can inform even those who follow Israel closely and have often visited it.