5 Must-Read Books To Understand Israel

Ever since I bought myself a Kindle, I’ve been ripping through books as I did back in elementary and middle school. This time, though, I’m not doing it to ignore my teachers and get away from boring classes (sorry teachers, whose names I don’t think I can remember).

Instead, I’ve been feeding my obsession with Israel and everything history/journalism related in the pursuit of understanding this magical, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying place. Having been a pro-Israel campus advocate, I never felt like I knew enough about the Jewish State I was defending. And as Diaspora Jewry and Israel continue in their fights and disagreements, it feels even more pressing to understand as much as possible about the country Jews everywhere are connected to but don’t necessarily live in.

So, here are the five books – in the order I think they should be read – that I recommend to any Jew about to hit college, or anyone, really, who wants to dive into Israel.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman

Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press reporter living in Jerusalem, chases after the story of the Aleppo Codex, the most famous copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence. Once lauded by Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and rabbi, the Codex found itself a victim of the violence in Syria that came after the 1947 UN vote to partition the British Mandate of Palestine. For a period of time, it was thought to have been destroyed, until miraculously recovered by Israel.

But, and I think far more crucial, is that the journey of the Aleppo Codex provides a Mizrachi (Middle Eastern Jewish) perspective into the founding of the state of Israel. In following the story of the Aleppo Jewish community as they are chased out of Syria, Friedman shows the early struggles and complexities of how the Israeli government interacted with the Jewish diaspora and took ownership – in this case, unwillingly – of diaspora history and artifacts.

A primer for the founding of Israel, in context of the violent reaction of the Arab world against the Jewish state, Matti Friedman leaves behind the philosophy of Zionism to focus on the reality of people caught in history.

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronan Bergman

Rise and Kill First is refreshing in that you understand, right from the beginning, what the book is about. Ronan Bergman, a well-known Israeli journalist and author, lays out the story of how Israel evaluated threats to its existence and did the utmost best to kill and destroy those threats.

But here, context is crucial. As the Western World obsesses over political machinations of Two-State solutions, One-State solutions, and peace treaties between Israel and the Palestinians (or the Middle East as a whole), most people fail to understand how Israel’s actions are shaped directly by military and security considerations that go back decades.

Sure, we all know about the Israeli Defense Forces, in which almost all Jewish Israelis have to serve in. But Bergman brings the reader into the hearts, minds, and strategy of the people who decided who to kill, why to kill them, and how to pull it off, based on the understanding that Israeli is always under threat. An understanding well documented by Bergman.

Don’t get it? When you read this book, you will. The writing is concise and clear, and best of all, Bergman’s book spans the entire history of the state of Israel, so you’ll walk away understanding the region and the Jewish state like you never could have before.

The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by Gershon Baskin

I still remember being taught about Gilad Schalit at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis and seeing the abducted soldier’s face plastered across signs, banners, and bumper stickers. I also remember the uproar around Schalit’s release in 2011 by Hamas from the Gaza strip, where he had been held since 2006. Over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for one Israeli in a deal that brought home the son of a nation at an almost unfathomable cost.

So it felt familiar, in a way, to read The Negotiator by Gershon Baskin. While the title is a little too Arnold Schwarzenegger-ish, the story is gripping. Somehow, a lefty, peace-loving, Palestinian-friendly activist created a secret communications channel to Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules Gaza, in the wake of his own brother-in-law’s murder by Hamas in the West Bank…and the hawkish government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trusted him to help bring Schalit home.

Baskin turns all perceptions on its head, as he alternately encourages Hamas to agree to a prisoner exchange while berating them for greed and toying with Schalit’s life. Based around the thousands of text messages, emails, letters, and calls that Baskin made over the course of five years, his book is a sobering read. It shows the inadequacy of the Israeli government that could have had Schalit home in just a few months, along with the incredibly painful process of negotiating with Hamas, an organization that has taken countless Israeli and Jewish lives.

With the background of Rise and Kill First, Baskin’s book brings into sharp focus the past decade of Hamas-Israel relations and the complexities of the region. Even if, as you read, you’ll be wondering, as I did, how anyone can really be “pro-Peace.”

The Revolt by Menachem Begin

In case you haven’t noticed a theme in this book list, The Revolt hits home what I’m trying to get across. I grew up with the philosophy of why we need Israel, what David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, did to build the state, and some of the history of Zionism centered around Theodore Herzl.

But it’s one thing to be digging through Zionism; it’s another to see how things play out on the ground. Here, Menachem Begin combines the two in his autobiography and history of the Irgun, a Jewish guerrilla force operating before and during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. First, they fought against the British, and later against Palestinian militias and invading Arab armies. Throughout their time, the Irgun were dismissed as terrorists and extremists, helped in no small part by the bombing of the King David Hotel – meant to attack the British, but ultimately killing a host of civilians.

But whatever your view, it’s undeniable that the Irgun is a crucial part of Israel’s early history, crafting an ideology and perspective that elected Begin as Prime Minister in 1977 and even driving current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To understand Israel, particularly the modern state that tends to lean more rightward politically than left, you have to understand the underlying militarism that birthed a nation.

The Revolt is not always a comfortable read. Begin’s militant attitudes are difficult for readers used to American liberalism, and the descriptions of violence, along with their justification, take time to process. But to dismiss this book is to dismiss a critical part of the Israeli narrative, one that became easily overshadowed in the 1990s with promises of peace. A peace that, ultimately, is still very much out of reach.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Read on its own, A Tale of Love and Darkness is a beautiful, cathartic, dark, and emotional well of childhood in early Israel. Amos Oz paints a picture of his life surrounded by European Jewish immigrants who never quite know how to make an uncivilized and grimy land their home.

But if read in order of this list, it will cap off a complex view of the Jewish state. In contrast with Begin, Oz was a lifelong peace activist. But Oz does not shy away from describing, in sharp detail, the brutality of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. In vein with Baskin, readers might come to question what it means to be a “lefty” or “peace activist” in Israel and the Middle East.

More broadly, I spent my time fascinated at the contrast of Oz’s childhood with the other books I had read. As he describes the life of pre-state Jerusalem and his mother’s descent into depression and eventual death, the events of The Aleppo Codex are unfolding. Israelis are beginning to sharpen violence as a targeted tool of defense, as depicted in Rise and Kill First.

His attitudes reflect on a man who, later in life, saw the saga of Gilad Schalit’s abduction and return (and, somehow, remained a believer in peace). And the softness of his parents happened in the same vicinity of the violent struggle of Menachem Begin and the young Jews who died to free Israel from the British.

Of course, there are countless books on what Israel is, what Israel means, the history of Israel, so on and so forth. I’m in the process of getting to as many of the ones that seem interesting (looking at you, Yossi Klein Halevi), but there are always so many books to read and not enough time to read them.

Still, this list of books has been life changing for me, providing new perspectives on, and understanding of, Israel. So if you’re anything like me, and want to know as much as you can about the Jewish state, give it a go, and feel free to tell me what you think of the books as you get to them.