Friday, July 27, 2012

Introducing Israel


The country’s basic story is a success story, says Barry Rubin.

Barry Rubin
Photo by: Courtesy
So you think you know Israel? Barry Rubin thinks otherwise.

Dr. Rubin, a prolific blogger, author and columnist for this newspaper, is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. If you read his latest book, Israel: An Introduction, published by Yale University Press, you will quickly discover that no matter how much you know about Israel, you really don’t know much at all.

While Israel has been the topic of innumerable books, newspaper articles and television specials, he believes there has heretofore not been any book, produced according to academic standards but written in an easily accessible format for the layman, that has covered Israel in all of its facets.

“There isn’t a comprehensive book on the country,” Rubin asserts. “There are also increasing numbers of Israel Studies courses and there is nothing for them to use. It really is a sort of ridiculous situation that a country so controversial and talked and written about doesn’t have a basic book written about it.”

Dealing with topics as diverse as Israel’s cinema and music industry, the role of religion in public life, technology and the move away from socialism to becoming the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, Rubin decided to fill that void and has created a volume from which anyone, even those who grew up as Zionists, learning about Israel in school and visiting on vacations, can glean new and novel tidbits.

The focus on Israel, Rubin says, as he sits back and sips a milkshake on a corner cafe on Tel Aviv’s busy Sheinkin Street, has been limited for the most part to the Arab-Israeli conflict and, more recently, to Israel’s technological innovations.

However, he believes, while important, this focus on external conflict obscures Israel’s unique success story.

“The basic story of Israel,” he says, “is that the country is a big success story and that this is something that is forgotten or neglected or pushed aside....

Here’s a country that had to deal with decades of war, a territory of limited resources,” and thrived.

DISCUSSING THE achievement of integrating successive waves of immigration during times of intense military conflict and forging a largely peaceful and unified democracy in the despotic Middle East isn’t exactly new. You can find plenty of books like that on the shelves in Jewish book stores from New York to Tel Aviv. But the comprehensive look Rubin takes at everything from the political to the social, religious and cultural (the changing role of women in literature comes to mind) stands out as introducing Israel anew to even those who thought they understood the country.

Many people, Rubin laments, don’t really understand that Israel has formed a new and vibrant culture and that Israel is a real place, with both good and bad aplenty. People around the world, he thinks, see Israel as more of an abstraction and less as a real country, something that he hopes to correct with his book.

He aims to show Israel as it really is, the warts, the beauty and everything else.

As he wrote in the first paragraph of Chapter 1, “conflicts and negotiations, though the stuff of daily headlines, are only a small part of the story. This book addresses a broader, ultimately more important question: What is the reality of this country and its people?” “Now, one aspect of this is that I wanted to deal with the country not just as the location of the Arab-Israeli, or Israeli- Palestinian, conflict; I wanted to deal with the country on its own terms,” he says.

Part of this is dispelling myths about Israel and the Jewish people, although not in the manner of books such as Myths and Facts which are known to have been written from a pro-Israel viewpoint.

While Rubin is certainly a Zionist, his book hews to an overriding value of academic objectivity.

One of his doctoral professors, he elaborates, was a Palestinian nationalist who nevertheless took the young academic under his wing and showed him that academic standards and pure scholarship should trump one’s personal political views.

This type of scholarship, he mourns, no longer exists in the increasingly politicized discipline of Middle Eastern studies. While his book is written for use in academic courses as well as for the mass market, the hope is that it will help to inform American Jews about realities on the ground.

People, the author asserts, think that because they are Jewish they are automatically experts on Israel. However, he continues, this just isn’t the case. One of the myths that Rubin dispels is that Israel is a sectarian country divided sharply between the Orthodox and secular.

Just as in America, he explains, there is a spectrum and there are many varieties of religious practice and worship.

As Israel grew over the decades, the face of the country began to change. The Jewish state moved away from socialism, the Revisionist-Zionist movement embodied in the Likud took over, empowered both the Zionist Right and the growing community of Mizrahi Jews, those from Arab lands, and Israel developed its own unique culture embodied by new forms of music, dance and theater.

Hebrew literature came into its own and a society composed of radically different cultures and nationalities, from Yemenites to Australians, began to coalesce into a vibrant and dynamic society.

However, the cultural aspects of Israel are far from the only ones with which Rubin deals. Seeking contributions from a wide variety of experts, he has included enjoyable and easily readable selections on local politics, diplomacy, security issues, economics and demography and geography.

Rubin largely succeeds in his mission to educate people about Israel’s many facets and to put a human face on the country without being pedantic or giving short shrift to the topics included in the book.

“One of the things that we are trying to do in the book obviously is explain things to a non-Jewish audience, and it’s very difficult when you are writing a book to strike the proper tone between the different audiences,” he says. “The thing that’s pleased me is that a lot of people who said that they knew a lot about Israel said that they learned a lot.”

This will certainly hold true for the many people, both supporters and detractors, who are interested in Israel but don’t really understand, on one level or another, that they are dealing with a real nation, with a long history and complex internal life, rather than a abstract notion. Introducing Israel, its culture, people and society in a wider context than people usually see, stands as a great accomplishment.

I’ve certainly learned a lot – and I live here.

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