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
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