Alan Der­showitz and his work of ‘dross’

With this col­lec­tion of per­sonal es­says on Is­rael, the law pro­fes­sor had the op­por­tu­nity to start an in­ter­est­ing de­bate. He blew it

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS - GE­OF­FREY PAUL

What Is­rael Means to Me Edited and with an in­tro­duc­tion by Alan Der­showitz Wi­ley, £16.99

It is dif­fi­cult to guess for whom this book is in­tended. The bar­mitz­vah mar­ket, maybe. But which bar­mitz­vah — or bat mitz­vah for that mat­ter — will give up surf­ing long enough to plough through 80 ex­tracts, es­says, con­den­sa­tions and ar­ti­cles in­tended to con­vey per­sonal re­ac­tions to the ex­is­tence of the State of Is­rael? Many of the con­tri­bu­tions, par­tic­u­larly the pre­pon­der­ance of pos­i­tive ones, are repet­i­tive in their ex­pres­sions of un­crit­i­cal af­fec­tion. Even those deeply in love with Is­rael will quickly tire of the pan­e­gyrics.

The con­trib­u­tors are listed as “prom­i­nent writ­ers, per­form­ers, schol­ars, politi­cians and jour­nal­ists”. Vir­tu­ally all are Amer­i­can and Jewish. Half of them I have never come across be­fore and, frankly, I can think of no rea­son to be in­ter­ested in their opin­ions. (I tried a few and I wasn’t.) Most of the re­main­der — in­clud­ing seven rab­bis, Shmuley Boteach among them — say much of what you would ex­pect of them. But then there are a hand­ful of oth­ers.

It is th­ese which prompt the thought that law pro­fes­sor, ed­i­tor and global cham­pion of Is­rael, Alan Der­showitz, could have per­formed a bet­ter ser­vice. He has largely missed out on the op­por­tu­nity of bro­ker­ing a re­ally thought-pro­vok­ing col­lec­tion of spe­cially com­mis­sioned es­says. Th­ese he could have used to chal­lenge read­ers to let him have their own thoughts for a sub­se­quent pa­per­back edi­tion. (He ex­pects this to fol­low the hard­back and pro­vides an email ad­dress for con­tri­bu­tions.)

Among the rar­i­ties, there is a piece from Mer o n B e n v e n i s t i , an au­thor and for­mer deputy mayor of Jerusalem, which is heavy with in­tel­lec­tual gold. Ben­venisti was born in Jerusalem “in the Old Roth­schild Hospi­tal on Prophets Street and my burial plot is ready be­side my an­ces­tors in the old Sephardic ceme­tery on the Mount of Olives. The dis­tance be­tween th­ese two sites is about a kilo­me­tre as the crow flies.” In that space, says Ben­venisti, his iden­tity is rooted.

He feels no need for the “ide­o­log­i­cal su­per­struc­ture, the in­doc­tri­na­tion or the self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” of those whose iden­tity is post-State. He has some harsh words — well worth a good ar­gu­ment — for those who re­gard his kind of “na­tive” or “neoCanaan­ite at­tach­ment” to Eretz Is­rael/Pales­tine as a be­trayal of Zion­ist val­ues and as un­der­min­ing the “priv­i­leged po­si­tion granted by the Zion­ist es­tab­lish­ment to those who act as if noth­ing has changed since the days of Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weiz­mann and the pi­o­neers of the sec­ond and third aliyot”.

There is an in­ter­est­ing con­tri­bu­tion, too, from ex- New York Times correspondent, and now pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, Les­lie Gelb, who has had sev­eral stints in se­nior US gov­ern­ment po­si­tions. He con­fesses that his deep feel­ings for Is­rael were oc­ca­sion­ally tested by at­tacks on him by Is­raelis. He ad­vises them to “not try to de­stroy Jews or oth­ers in the US gov­ern­ment who don’t see eye-to-eye with them. Yes, they should ar­gue and be tough, but de­cency and re­straint are called for. Not ev­ery bu­reau­crat or leg­is­la­tor will be a knight wield­ing a sword for Is­rael, but many of them can and want to be friends of Is­rael. Is­raelis need to be bet­ter aware of this.”

Theodore Bikel, ac­tor, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and writer, will raise a few hack­les with his case for al­low­ing dif­fer­ences of opin­ion in re­la­tions be­tween the di­as­pora and the Jewish state. He also ar­gues that Jewish strength lies in di­ver­sity. “What kept us alive was the sharp dis­cus­sion, mind pit­ted against mind and man wrestling with God. Di­a­logue keeps one alive; ac­qui­es­cence, on the other hand, leads to ap­a­thy.” So, yes, to be fair, there are worth­while, chal­leng­ing nuggets in this 360-page vol­ume, but you have to mine through a lot of dross to get there.

Ge­of­frey Paul is a for­mer JC ed­i­tor

Der­showitz: pre­sent­ing a less-than-chal­leng­ing col­lec­tion of ex­tracts and es­says

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