Sometimes we visualise history as it is presented in many textbooks: a single, straight timeline marked by various significant events. In reality, the course of human history more closely resembles raindrops on a windowpane: a complex web of individual streams attracting and reacting against each other, producing consequences that can be counterintuitive and unexpected to those present at the time.

Anita Shapira brings this home to us in her book, Israel: a History. Shapira, Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, was born in Warsaw and immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1947. She has been present in Israel for many of the events that she covers and I believe this is evident in her refusal to settle for comfortable generalizations. She is constantly teasing apart the uniform narrative to expose the many varied perspectives and experiences that were interplaying at the time.

Covering the period from the rise of Theodore Hertzl until the early 2000s, Shapira spreads out before us the intricacies of history that have led to the nation of Israel as we know it. We accompany Israel as it develops from small groups of impov­erished European activists determined to conquer the harsh landscape, to a sophisticated, multicultural nation playing a pivotal role in international affairs.

But Shapira does not guide us down a linier path. Chapters overlay each other as developments over a particular time period are considered from a political, social, ideological, economic or military perspective. Geographically the scope of the book swings around the world to consider how circum­stances in other regions impact upon the develop­ment of the fledgling nation.


Is this book suitable for those who are new to the topic?

Before reading this book my appreciation of the history of Israel did not really extend far beyond that presented to us in our lectures and seminars. Theodore Hertzl, the Holocaust, 1948 and 1967 danced disconnectedly in my very vague under­standing of the history of the last century or so. Yet, despite my deficiencies, this was a readable book. Shapira does not presume a detailed prior knowledge of her subject. She takes the time to succinctly introduce the various players in the history of Israel as they arise and to position them in their broader contemporary context.

The multitude of differing Jewish approaches to the establishment of a homeland (or even the wisdom of seeking one) was fascinating. Before reading this book I had a vague understanding that all Jews were Zionists, united in their effort to obtain a homeland. But, of course, the truth of the situation is far more complex. The Zionists believed statehood could only be legitimately achieved through international diplomacy. Socialist, eastern European groups believed in the power of the worker, heading to Palestine to till the soil. Wealthy American Jewry poured money into purchasing land and establishing closely managed agricultural communities. Ultra-orthodox Jews, on the other hand, opposed the whole idea of the creation of a homeland, believing that they would return to Israel with the coming of the Messiah and that pursuit of a homeland now was tantamount to forcing God’s hand.

I had no idea that conditions experienced by Holocaust survivors and other refugees who arrived in Israel in the years immediately following the UN Resolution were so horrific. The story had always been a bit of a fairytale of triumph to me: persecuted Jews now able to flee the anti-Semitism of Europe to a safe, secure, home amongst their own people in their own land. Instead these fragile individuals were locked away in overfilled camps eerily simi­lar to those that they had left, guarded by armed police. They were left there to live in impoverished conditions without basic necessities for years. The country just did not have the resources to absorb them into the general population. Any care that the established Israelis may have felt for these people seems to have been overwhelmed by concern about the negative effect such lowly members of the hu­man race would have on their carefully nurtured, homogeneous, Zionist culture. Even Ben-Gurion refers to them as ‘human dust’.

The tension between the ideology of secular and religious Jews is a major theme of the book. Until the 1970s, the leaders of Israel believed it of high importance to instill a uniform Jewish culture – pre­dominantly a secular one. One of the most effective ways of achieving this was through the classroom. The incredible influence wielded by the educational system is worthy of serious contemplation. Many of the religious Jews were new immigrants, who were quite alien to the existing culture. At times, values were so successfully instilled through the schools that there was a fundamental disconnect between the ideals of the parents and the children.

How easy is the book to read?

Whilst very readable for its genre, this book is not one to be skipped through on a lazy after­noon. Israel: a History, is a BIG book containing a mindboggling amount of detailed information. Finishing this book has required real discipline but it has left me with an enriched understanding of how the nation of Israel has become what it is today. Now when I read prophetic sections of Scripture, listen to talks or even just read my Jewish novels, I will be able to fit what I learn into a sound overview of Israel’s history and it will be so much more meaningful as a result.

It is probably also worth noting that most of the events covered by Israel: a History, were old news by the time I arrived on the scene. It was not until I reached the section on the Gulf War that adrenalin rushed through my veins and I was transported back to the excitement and expectation we shared at the 1991 Melbourne Conference, dashing off to check news updates between studies. It reminded me that readers who have personal memories of the events recounted will no doubt have quite a different read­ing experience to me!

Shapira has rare talent for presenting a broad swathe of history in a succinct and accessible man­ner. In addition to this, she concludes each chapter with a bibliography and recommended further reading and there is an extensive index. This book will remain on my bookshelf as a valuable resource.

How does this fit into God’s plan for the earth?

Of course, Israel: a History is written from a secular perspec­tive so it is necessary to pause regularly and review the material from a perspective that recognises the existence of our powerful and active heavenly Father. Then we cannot help but marvel at the complex and intricate work of the angels as they fulfil His plan for this earth. Coincidences and unexpected circumstances (such as the USSR’s vote for the establishment of Israel) are no longer products of a raging sea of chance but evidence of the steadfast love of an eternal Heavenly Father in Whom we can place our trust: “Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa 14:24).

For Bible students, the return of the Jews to Israel is an exciting and momentous develop­ment. It validates the authority of the Scriptures and sets the scene for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, for the Jewish people it has only highlighted their rejection of their heavenly Father and their trust in the ‘idols’ of human leadership, economic policy and military strength.

A nation in need

Shapira provides an objective perspective on the development of Israel. She does not exalt in the indomitability of the Jewish spirit or glorify Israel’s astonishing military achievements. She tells the story of an endless struggle: initially the struggle for a homeland, and since 1948, the pursuit of peace. Jews of the Diaspora are persecuted and their very existence placed under threat. The na­tion struggles to gain international support and is surrounded by hostile and aggressive neighbours. Internally, groups supporting various ideological positions battle for dominance. As again and again we read of Jewish suffering and flawed human effort to resolve these issues, it brings to mind the words of God through Isaiah (1:5-6 ESV):

“Why will you be struck down?

Why will you continue to rebel?

The whole head is sick,

And the whole heart faint.

From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it,

But bruises and sores

And raw wounds;

They are not pressed out or bound up

Or softened with oil.”

Reading this book has deepened my desire for that day when God will reveal His Son to His people Israel with great power and majesty, when their faith in their own capabilities will be exposed as futile, and they will finally humble themselves and allow their heavenly Father to bind and salve those raw and festering wounds that have lain open for so long:

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord

Though your sins are like scarlet,

They shall be white as snow;

Though they are red like crimson,

They shall become like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,

You shall eat the good of the land.

(Isa 1:18-19)