- - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

By Sarah Honig
Gefen, $19.95, 24O pages

A reader who wants to learn about Israel’s history has a choice. For simple dates, events and dry facts, there are any number of texts that would fit the bill. However, if he seeks a truthful exploration of the roller-coaster ride of Israel’s history, then Sarah Honig’s book, “Debunking the Bull,” is an appropriate choice. Born in Tel Aviv, and raised in Tel Aviv and New York City, she became a political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, where she has worked since 1968, when Levi Eshkol was Israel’s prime minister. “Debunking the Bull” is a selection of some of the many articles she has written for her column, “Another Tack.” The book highlights the various attitudes, emotions and perilous events that make up the zeitgeist of Israel’s existence. The columns selected for the book take on such diverse topics as American foreign policy, conditions in Tel Aviv on the first day of Israel’s existence, and the most recent configurations of European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism.

For a deeper understanding of the nature of present-day anti-Semitism and how it hides behind the anti-Israel mask, there is “The Good Cop Goes to Auschwitz.” In that column, Ms. Honig illustrates how Yasser Arafat wasn’t going to honor the fallen heroes of the Warsaw ghetto, when in 1983, he proposed laying a wreath at the Warsaw ghetto monument. Rather, she argues, in a bizarre way, Arafat mocked Israelis, in an effort to “dissociate the Jew from Zion, and portray himself as the spiritual successor to the ghetto heroes doing battle with latter-day Nazis.”

For a deeper understanding of anti-Semitism among the literary elite, there is “The German Robbed Cossack.” In it, the author explains how, in the wake of the devastating Kishinev pogrom, Leo Tolstoy reacted to a request from Sholom Aleichem, asking him for some written moral support for Russia’s embattled Jewish community. Tolstoy not only didn’t bother to reply, he resented the request. Ms. Honig reveals how Tolstoy’s condescension and indifference to Jewish suffering was merely a prelude to the modern-day distortions peddled by German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass.

For insight about “intifadas” in so-called response to Israeli “occupation,” consider her insightful article, “The May Day Massacre.” In it, Ms. Honig explains that there was no occupation when a pre-Arafat intifada erupted in Jaffa on May 1, 1921. While British police abdicated their duty, looking the other way, thousands of armed Arabs gathered in nearby Jaffa, chanting hysterically, “Itbach el-Yahud!” (“Kill the Jews!”) They began shooting and stabbing Jews, and Jaffa’s Arab police force led the attacks. Well-known author Yosef Haim Brenner and 48 other Jews were brutally murdered. Soon afterward, the British abandoned their Balfour Declaration promises. As the author says, Jaffa’s Jews were slaughtered, “for no other reason than being Jewish.”

In “First Peacenik, Forgotten Founder,” Ms. Honig discusses one of Tel Aviv’s founders, Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, a scion of an Algerian Jewish family who had come to Israel in 1839. Tel Aviv, known first as Ahuzat Bayit, began life in 1909, on 12 acres atop a “sea of sand where jackals howled,” as Chelouche later described it. But the sandy wastes didn’t stop him: He saw opportunity where others saw only desolation. He became a builder, constructing 32 of Tel Aviv’s first 60 homes. Despite the fact that many sand dunes were unsuitable for construction, and despite the fact that as a child, Chelouche had been kidnapped and dragged through the sandy wastes, he was not deterred. In 1913, to counter already widespread Judeophobia, Chelouche cultivated contacts with the local Arab community and co-founded an organization that promoted peace between Arabs and Jews. He continued these efforts for many years, though they achieved little lasting good.

The articles that comprise “Debunking the Bull” are not chronologically connected, a weakness in an otherwise compelling work. “Debunking the Bull,” with its voluminous and illuminating attention to detail, should be required reading for any serious study of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Steven Bernstein is the author of “The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley, and the Raid on Washington” (McFarland, 2011).

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