Israel: A History
by Anita Shapira
Brandeis University Press, 528 pp., $35
One-volume histories of Israel aren't what they used to be. I have been reading them since the 1960s, and I can remember well enough when they were just histories of Zionism with postscripts summarizing the state's fledgling years tacked onto them. As time has marched on, however, too often to the beat of war drums, the proportions have been largely reversed. The typical history of Israel now devotes roughly a third of its pages to the pre-independence period. This was already the case with Howard Sachar's revision and expansion in 1996 of a book he first published in the 1970s, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. It is likewise true of a book that Martin Gilbert published in the very same year, Israel: A History, and also of Anita Shapira's new book bearing precisely the same title.
It is something of a surprise to see Shapira join the ranks of these and other chroniclers. Although she has written numerous important articles and edited several valuable volumes dealing with post-1948 Israel, her own research and writing have focused mostly on developments in British Palestine in the first half of the 20th century. Her very first book, based on her doctoral dissertation, was a history of the struggle over what was called "Hebrew labor," the employment in the Palestinian Jewish economy of an exclusively Jewish labor force, between 1929 and 1939. Shapira's most popular book was a two-volume biography (abridged to one volume in English) of Berl Katznelson, the Zionist labor leader who died in 1944. Her Land and Power, an account of "the Zionist resort to force," ends in 1948. And even her biography of Yigal Allon, a leading figure in the political history of Israel's first decades, deals entirely with his earlier military career and does not go beyond an account of his role in Israel's War of Independence.
These and Shapira's other books about the life and culture of the Yishuv are replete with penetrating insight into the complex processes that culminated in the establishment of the Jewish state. She has succeeded in portraying many of the strong and colorful figures of Israel's founding generations in full. In her pages, their ideological and tactical debates come alive again—and so do the poets of the day, whom she strategically cites to capture something of the spirit of the times that might otherwise elude her own more prosaic efforts.
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