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An Imagined Nation

By Stephen Reiss
Sunday, August 30, 2009

ISRAEL IS REAL

By Rich Cohen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 383 pp. $27

When the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there was no such thing as the Geneva Conventions. Thousands of prisoners were crucified. So many trees had been cut down to make battering rams and other wall-busting weapons that the hills around the city were denuded. The Second Temple, the center of a nation and a religion, was destroyed by fire.

Sixty-odd years later, there was another Jewish revolt. This time, the Roman effort at obliteration was even more thorough. One account estimated that 90 percent of the Judean population died. Jews were banned from Jerusalem and its environs. The city was renamed after the Emperor Hadrian, and a shrine to Jupiter was built on the Temple Mount.

Miraculously, this was not the end of the Jewish nation. It survived, in part, by redefining Jerusalem. Led by their rabbis, the Jewish people substituted an ideal, the city on a hill, for the physical city. The rituals and animal sacrifices practiced in the Temple were replaced by prayer and study. "They turned the Temple into a book," writes Rich Cohen in his fascinating but flawed new book, "Israel Is Real." "You can burn a city, but you cannot sack an idea, or kill a book."

After two millennia, Jerusalem is once more the capital of a Jewish nation. The idea has taken on concrete form and is beset by a host of real-world problems. Once again, a Jewish nation is vulnerable to its enemies and its own internal weaknesses. Is the future of the religion, too, now hostage to the foibles of people like Benjamin Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?

It's an interesting thesis, but a curious book. While "Israel is Real" aims for historical sweep, starting in the first century CE and ending with the 2004 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, it's much too idiosyncratic in its choice of subjects to be a definitive account. It feels almost like a child's field trip through the local art museum, stopping here to look at an oil painting, there to make faces at a marble bust.

Despite the cover's promise that the book will be "an obsessive quest," it's not a memoir, either. The author gives us only the barest sketch of his life and travels to the Mideast.

And despite the main title, nor is it a book about the "real" Israel. It's too preoccupied with fanatics, politicians and generals -- especially Ariel Sharon, whose life Cohen sees as a metaphor for the nation. We hear almost nothing from ordinary people. In addition, this is an Israel seen through a distinctly American lens. There's no sign of the Sephardim, the Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world and who have been skeptical of peace deals. There's no mention of Russian Jews and their battle to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

Cohen approvingly quotes historian Yuri Slezkine on how Zionism was an effort to make Jews "normal," to take a holy language -- Hebrew -- and a holy land and make them both part of "everyday life." Yet there's little sense of the quotidian here: commuting to work, raising the kids, going to the movies or out for a meal. Instead, we spend a lot of time with fanatics on West Bank hilltops. True, those handfuls of people wield outsized political influence, but they don't define the daily life of the nation.

While he writes with undeniable energy, Cohen has a weakness for weird and distracting cultural references. The Zealots of the First Century "carried little knives, which they wielded in the manner of the Tongs, the Chinese gangs of New York." An influential rabbi's escape from Jerusalem is compared to the last scene in "Star Wars" in which Darth Vader escapes the explosion of the Death Star. To early Jewish mystics, "Heaven is structured like a video game." At first, I thought this was an attempt at popularization, but the references are so random that it feels more like a game of free association.

But the main flaw of "Israel is Real" is that it treats religious faith as a form of madness. Cohen calls the 1967 capture of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount "the moment the Jews went batty." Religious Zionists or others who favor a unified Jerusalem suffer from a "syndrome."

It might be argued that the long-term viability of Israel lies in the triumph of secular Enlightenment values. Perhaps only a nation that has stopped mourning the destruction of the Second Temple can make the compromises necessary to achieve peace with the Palestinians and the nations of the Muslim world. But that's not the reality on the ground today. And that line of reasoning seems oddly dismissive of the faith that sustained a people for 2,000 years. Believe it or not, that's real, too.

Stephen Reiss is a Washington Post editor for social issues and education.

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