Forget Frommer, Fodor or Lonely Planet. If you’re planning a trip to Israel in the near or distant future, get a copy of Israel: An Introduction by Barry Rubin, just released by Yale University Press.
Yes, you will still need guides to specific archaeological sites like the City of David, but Rubin’s book, written with numerous co-writer/experts in various fields, is the best overview of the Jewish state I have read and the best preparation for a trip. It is also the best book for the armchair traveler and the best general purpose resource on Israel yet published.
(OBVIOUS FULL DISCLOSURE: Rubin is the Middle East editor for this site and a friend. Does this disqualify me as a reviewer? Possibly, but that would similarly disqualify a fair percentage of reviews written in many publications.)
Rubin’s book excels in two areas: historical overview and Israeli sociology.
The eighty-some pages devoted to the history of the state are a useful review of the Israel story even, I would imagine, for those who consider themselves relatively knowledgable about the subject. This survey takes us through the early days of the “yishuv” — literally “the settlement,” but actually a kind of ur-Jewish state — the often violent struggle for independence with its militant factions from the Irgun to Lehi through the UN declaration of a state of Israel and the subsequent unceasing battle to survive.
Following this narrative, remembering some events better than others, I was most struck by the depressing ironies of the post-Oslo period. Like many of my generation, although apprehensive, I was deeply moved and hopeful in 1993 watching Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shake hands on the White House lawn under the beaming paternal gaze of Bill Clinton. That moment of optimism seems centuries ago now and, by tracing the post-Oslo steps carefully, Rubin shows how the Palestinians have yet to demonstrate a genuine interest in a two-state solution despite the good will of significant portions of the Israeli populace. The Palestinians could have had a state of their own decades ago if they had really wanted it.
But it is Rubin’s greater interest to show Israel not just as a beleaguered fortress but as a functioning, complex nation. The sociologically-oriented chapters explain in great detail the changing make-up of the country from the early period dominated by the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, the conflict with the seemingly less-educated and relatively-impoverished Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews and the subsequent intermarriage and blending of the two cultures. The book also gives us a breakdown of the extraordinary number of ethnic and national groups that make up modern Israel — Moroccans, Russians, Ethiopians, Circassians, Arabs, Druze, “Yekkes” (the Yiddish word for jackets that has been applied to German Jews) and on and on.
Particularly valuable in the light of recent news events is Rubin’s analysis of the religious-secular divide in Israel. Hillary Clinton, among others, has accused Israel of discrimination against women because of actions taken by the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community. Rubin sees this as less significant and it is clear that Israeli secular community may be among the most secular extant. One group just named Tel Aviv as the number one city in the world for gay tourism.
Whatever the case, Rubin makes an excellent case for the complexity of Israeli society, a culture in which supposedly-atheist, socialist kibbutzniks still devotedly celebrate Passover. And despite the legendary perpetual griping and hand-wringing of the Jewish people, Rubin’s book describes a surprisingly optimistic country. An interesting statistic cited by the author shows the vast majority of Israelis happy with their lives, although their nation is under continued existential threat. That is something we Americans can learn from.
You can purchase Israel: An Introduction here.