Near the end of Israel is Real, his sweeping and impressionistic saga of Zionism, Rich Cohen describes army general and amateur archaeologist Moshe Dayan coming upon the shard of a possible artifact at a ruin near Tel Aviv. Dayan digs until he locates the entrance to an underground chamber and pushes his way through the gap. No sooner does he fall onto a major discovery, a preserved mosaic floor, than the earthen ceiling collapses, knocking him unconscious and very nearly killing him.
The scene serves as a metaphor for the effort and effect of Cohen’s exploration of Jewish nationalism upon the author himself. Ardent, intense, ceaseless, driven, he probes Zionism from centuries before the word even existed, back to the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple, events that began two millennia of exile and the landless, rabbinic form of Judaism that defined the Diaspora.
And at the end of his endeavor, Cohen emerges battered and chastened. The author who has repeatedly celebrated “Tough Jews” — in his book of that name about Jewish gangsters, in his account of the anti-Nazi partisans, The Avengers and even in his history of Chess Records, Machers and Rockers — winds up as critic of the same traits in the form of Zionists and Israelis. Starting this book, I never would have guessed that by its end, Cohen would be arguing against Zionism, and leaving it ambiguous whether the Middle East answer he recommends is a two-state solution or a binational state.
“I wonder what Israel might have been like had it had a normal history, if it had not been Sparta but Athens, if all the money and blood and ingenuity it put into the military and war had instead been put into the nation,” Cohen writes in the book’s final pages. “Every problem flows from this single error: the odd notion that Palestine was without a people … The Zionist ideology was beautiful, but for the pioneers to fulfill it, the Arabs could not exist.”
Many times during Israel is Real, Cohen likens the Jewish state to the Third Temple, the one that is supposed to be built in the Messianic age. Many Zionists, both secular and religious, have made the same comparison, but to Cohen the creation of this de facto Third Temple is a major mistake. To him, it reduces all the genius of the Diaspora — rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, Yiddishkeit — to acquiring and aggressively defending land.
Yet Cohen seems to genuinely love and appreciate Israel as well. He writes of friends and relatives there. He refers to numerous visits over decades. He does not diminish the current threats against Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. His gripping retelling of the 1973 war makes it viscerally clear how close Israel came to defeat and a horrifying aftermath.
An aura of melancholy suffuses Israel is Real. Cohen sees national sovereignty as morally justified by the European anti-Semitism that reached its apogee in the Holocaust but also as corrosive of Jewish character. In coming to that conclusion, albeit with a palpable sense of sadness and reluctance, Cohen places himself in the tradition of Israeli dissidents like Amos Elon and Avraham Burg and the pre-state “cultural Zionists” such as Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber.
Unlike those intellectuals, Cohen also happens to be a page-turning delight to read. I cannot recall ever having taken such pleasure from a book whose premise I kept simultaneously fighting against. While Israel is Real follows a general chronology, within any given chapter Cohen will loop back and forth through time, make the sort of smart-alecky asides one associates with Junot Diaz and throw in knowing references to fine art and pop culture alike.
What other book about Zionist history has ever included references to Howl, Goodfellas, Joseph Mitchell and Willie Dixon? These passages made me feel like I’d just heard an improbable and brilliant jazz solo, the kind that makes me whisper to a companion, “That was so out.”
Much as I resist its conclusions, I commend and admire this book. And committed Zionists, like me, may have the greatest reason to read it. I’m tempted to say that if the Israeli cause has lost Cohen, born and raised to be a true believer, then it has more to worry about than rockets from Gaza.