Three books recently read (and their contemporary relevance):
1. Benny Morris’ “1948”, published by Yale University Press in 2008 (relevance: Israeli-Hamas War). Benny Morris is an Israeli historian who teaches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. “1948” tells the story of the end of the British Palestine Mandate, the creation of the State of Israel, preparation for war, and the invasion of Israel by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is not an easy read. It’s a long book (the version that I have runs 500 pages and each page is tightly packed), filled with more details than you probably need (or want) to know. And it has been very controversial, largely because of its details, as it doesn’t shy away from blow by blow accounts of confrontations resulting in injury, death, and dispersion of presumably innocent residents of various villages and kibbutzim. Morris was accused by some in Israel of exaggerating the less than friendly treatment of Arabs by Jewish forces during this crucial time period, and of therefore being anti-Zionist. His response was that he is a Zionist, but that he is not trying to make moral judgements in his book, just to report the facts as an objective historian. You have to respect him for that.
So what does the book show? Some things are obvious – after the United Nations, which controlled the area through inheritance from the League of Nations and for whom Britain was acting as an agent mandatory power, voted for partition, the Jews accepted the partition, and the Arabs did not. They claimed, as many continue to do today, that the Jews (now the Israelis) had no right to live in, or to govern, any of the land of Palestine, and that the Israeli state, from day 1, was illegitimate. They did not hide the fact that there would be an invasion to destroy the young state. Prior to the invasion, the Jews prepared for it, and what resulted was an effectual civil war. During this period, the Israelis, using their new army (a combination of various military forces that had been created to act defensively during the mandate period) to try to eliminate what would become an Arab fifth column after the invasion. This meant that, while some Arabs were left alone, other were forced to abandon their homes – these were largely those whose villages lay on what would be potential roads of ingress for Arab armies, or who could obstruct movement on important internal roads (for example, the road connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem). While the Jews were well organized (and had started acquiring weaponry abroad – largely from Europe), the Palestinians were not well organized, and not well supported by the neighboring countries.
This meant that the young State of Israel was better prepared when the Arabs attacked. As to the five separate (and not particularly well coordinated) invasions, the book details each invading army separately. How the Israelis were able to protect West Jerusalem and the road to Tel Aviv, but not East Jerusalem or the Old City (and detailing what happened to the Jewish residents of the Old City, and their homes, business and synagogues. How difficult the fighting was in the Negev with Egypt and how final determination of parts of the south awaited the armistice agreement at the end of the immediate conflict. How fighting in the north (the Galilee) gave Israel more territory than it would have received by the partition itself. And so on.
Throughout all of this, there were individual battles in both Israeli and Arab towns which left many dead and injured. On both sides. There were also significant numbers of Arabs who left the country – some because they were told to by Israeli forces, some because they were told to leave by Arab leaders, some because they were afraid and expected to be able to return after the conflict died down (and, in their thinking, after the Israelis were defeated).
It’s a sad story. How different it would have been had the Arabs simply accepted Israel and the UN partition.
Morris does destroy a number of preconceived theories that many have. First, the Israeli victory was not a miracle. The Israeli army was well trained and well supplied; the Arab armies, although there were five of them, were very unprofessional – poorly trained and led, not coordinated, and not well supplied. Second, the Israelis, while not maintaining a policy of clearing Palestinian Arabs from the land, had selectively determined that, primarily because of location, certain Arab towns had to be cleared and, in several cases, demolished, in order to provide for domestic security during and after the time of active war. In some cases, he finds these actions to have been handled with a remarkable lack of empathy and finesse – people were killed, for example, who certainly did not need to be. On the other hand, there were several attacks on Jewish settlements, which also led to the murder of many, including women and children. It was war, after all. But he does conclude that there were more Arab victims of these attacks than Jewish victims, one of his conclusions that did not sit well with many of his fellow countrymen. But, as he says, facts are what they are.
For those for whom understanding of the context of the current problems in Israel and the Occupied Territories, “1984” is an important book (one of many, of course) to read. But you can’t do it at one sitting.
2. “A Rope and a Prayer” by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvilhill (relevance: the beheading of James Foley). David Rohde is an American journalist, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2008 and held for about 9 months. Kristen Mulvihill is his wife. After his escape in June, 2009, the two of them jointly wrote this book (sort of a diary), alternating chapters, showing the experience of a captive, and the experience of his wife working as hard as she could to procure his release.
Rohde was captured while on his way in Kabul to meet with a Taliban leader (he was writing a book), who it turned out had duped him. He, his driver and his translator were all captured. They were moved from place to place (they didn’t appear to have been physically hurt, although their living conditions were far from acceptable), they were threatened with execution from time to time, he was pressured to convert to Islam, and there were demands made for a large amount of money (starting at $15 million) and the release of Taliban prisoners held elsewhere.
It appears that the Taliban (or at least the guys who held Rohde) were less brutal than the ISIS leaders who were holding Foley. But there was no way for Mulvihill to really know that. There were communications from the captors (email and telephone), there were even a couple of videos and well controlled phone calls from Rohde to show he was still alive, there were threats of execution (first, they were to kill the driver, then the translator, then Rohde – none of this happened), and there were demands for excessive ransom. The American government was not involved in ransom discussions – this was done privately. The family hired a consultant, the New York Times hired a consultant (of course, they were often at odds with each other). The government did have the FBI involved, and presumably overseas intelligence agencies.
Rohde and the others were taken from Afghanistan (then a little calmer than today) and taken to the tribal territories of north west Pakistan, where no government had much in the way of control. This was viewed to be a bad sign. There was never an attempt by the American government to rescue him. And everything was kept out of the press.
Finally, Rohde and his translator escaped. Hard to believe, but they got a rope and used it to scale down a 10 foot wall, and then (obviously not dressed like an American) walked to a small Pakistani military base, where they were taken in and, quickly, flown out of the country. Eventually, the driver was also released.
Well, this one ended well. Are there lessons to be learned from this? Not sure. But probably – techniques of how to deal with those that capture you, what the possibilities for escape are, what might be going on at home while you are a prisoner abroad. All these things might help someone in the future – however different the circumstances and individuals might be.
3. Evan Thomas’ “A Long Time Coming” (relevance: the disappointments of the Obama years). Published in 2009, this is the Newsweek report on the Obama-McCain campaign (and on the Hillary Clinton-Obama primary fight). It is a good retelling of what occurred during those important months, and it appears that the author (and John Meacham, who wrote a fascinating preface) were much more sympathetic to Obama than to McClain (who came across as moody, often distracted, impatient with campaign details, and totally off the wall when he selected Palin as his running mate, and decided to “suspend” his campaign due to the financial crisis).
Obama, on the other hand, came across as someone without a lot of experience, but as someone with great intelligence, extraordinary stability, very good work habits, and a determination not only to move the country ahead during difficult times, but to do it in a bipartisan manner. Clearly, the Newsweek crew did not foresee the Republican “if he’s for it, we’re against it” attitude, nor Obama’s decision to concentrate on health care reform as the hallmark of his first administration above everything else. They really seemed to believe that there would be “change”, all of which would be positive, and that race issues would recede, and bipartisanship carry the day.
How wrong they were.