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“It’s a great irony that Israel was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army.”
In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a handful of visionaries saved Judaism by reinventing it—by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular place, and turning it into an idea. Jews no longer needed Jerusalem to be Jews. Whenever a Jew studied—wherever he was—he would be in the holy city. In this way, a few rabbis turned a real city into a city of the mind; in this way, they turned the Temple into a book and preserved their faith. Though you can burn a city, you cannot sack an idea or kill a book. But in our own time, Zionists have turned the book back into a temple. And unlike an idea, a temple can be destroyed. The creation of Israel has made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been for two thousand years.
In Israel Is Real, Rich Cohen’s new history of the Zionist idea and the Jewish state—the history of a nation chronicled as if it were the biography of a person—he brings to life dozens of fascinating figures, each driven by the same impulse: to reach Jerusalem. From false messiahs such as David Alroy (Cohen calls him the first superhero, with his tallis as a cape) and Sabbatai Zevi, who led thousands on a mad spiritual journey, to the early Zionists (many of them failed journalists), to the iconic figures of modern Jewish Sparta, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Cohen shows how all these lives together form a single story, a single life. In this unique book, Cohen examines the myth of the wandering Jew, the paradox of Jewish power (how can you be both holy and nuclear?), and the triumph and tragedy of the Jewish state—how the creation of modern Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew anywhere.
"For American Jews, Israel looms large in the imagination. Few are truly neutral, and many are perplexed. It's a sticky wicket—how do you make sense of Israel in the 21st century when the idea of a Jewish state and a Middle Eastern democracy practically seem to be at odds, given shifting populations, religious and cultural affiliations? To this fracturing question, journalist Rich Cohen, the author of books such as Sweet and Low, has brought his considerable talents as a writer in his new book Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History. By offering a narrative of Israel's history as if it were an extension of the biblical story of the Jews, Cohen offer[s] a cohesive and compulsively readable account of Jewish history and the Jewish state. If it's not a justification for Israel, it's an explanation . . . The book is actually a serious attempt by a gifted storyteller to enliven and elucidate Jewish religious, cultural and political history—all culminating in the establishment of Israel. Cohen sits between generations of American Jews that grew up with an idyllic image of Israel's miracle as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, to a generation that grew up with charges of Israel as a human-rights abuser. Cohen offers no solutions, just a powerful narrative that can make the reader more equipped to have an informed and thoughtful discussion about the reality of Israel and able to relate a few interesting anecdotes along the way."—Los Angeles Times
“Cohen is a masterful and slyly provocative writer who marches boldly into the most controversial issues posed by the existence of Israel. Blending historical narrative with contemporary reportage, Israel Is Real makes an argument that cannot be ignored. Along the way, Cohen establishes himself as being among the most talented essayists of his generation.”—Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill
"Rich Cohen claims his new book is about his 'obsessive quest to understand the Jewish nation and its history,' but it seems far more complex and personal than that. Beneath his perceptive and provocative prose about Jewish history, religion, identity and memory is his own heartfelt struggle to become a good Jew, something he clearly has trouble defining . . . Cohen beings his book with a vivid description of Israel's victory in June 1967 . . . Cohen is a fearless time-traveler, an acrobat of sorts, who is equally at commenting on ancient Jewish history and biblical stories as he is about the contemporary appeal of Larry David or Woody Allen, and he often draws breathtaking comparisons between past and present Jewish life that are wild-eyed and thoughtful."—Elaine Margolin, The Jerusalem Post
"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 . . . 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."—Samuel G. Freedman, Newsday
“In the struggle to understand the Middle East, we are mostly presented with policy papers and talking heads, but Rich Cohen gives us something better: a story, with Roman military intrigue, Kabbalist mystics, and F-14 fighters, with betrayals, and battles, and heroes and women on the verge of breakdown. Israel Is Real is the story of how a place became an idea, and how, after years of displacement, of horror, of struggle, the idea comes alive again, an imagined Israel becomes actual. It’s an expertly-crafted, passionately told page-turning mystery, taking place at a crucial intersection of culture, faith, and history.”—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants
“Rich Cohen’s book creates a vibrant portrait that offers reasons Israel—surrounded by those who want to exterminate it—deserves to survive.”—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars
“Rich Cohen’s passionate, engaged, thoroughly modern book is—dare I say—a revelation.”—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine
“A fascinating big-picture account of Israel from its distant past to what happened last week. Rich Cohen tells this story central to mankind with skill, passion, common sense and wit.”—Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains
“The best book I’ve ever read about Israel (that troubled state), and the last word on it: all the stories, all the figures, all the fires, all the battles, the exiles, all the personalities, all the strikes, and all the gutters. Rich Cohen has delivered the full big thing, a monumental book, the best I've read and expect to read for a long time. As the priests in the old city would say, It has hava: it's full of life.”—David Lipsky, author of Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point
“Nobody has yet written about our Middle East heartbreak with such range and lucidity. Rich Cohen has kept an account of the wanderings; he’s kept a record of the tears. Israel Is Real is the definitive book on Israel.”—Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng
"A ferverishly wrought, passionate and riveting history of Jerusalem . . . Cohen devours history like a zayde (Jewish grandfather) tears into a pastrami on rye."—Aaron Gell, Hemispheres
"An accessible primer on a complex nation and its faith. Many of the facts about Israel are well-known. It's a Jewish state in the middle of an Islamic region of the world; its enemies question its right to exist; many European Jews have emigrated there in the decades following World War II; and its status in relation to Palestine and the rest of the region is complicated, controversial and often violent. Rolling Stone contributing editor Cohen takes a long, idiosyncratic view, explaining the history of a people and its religion from the time Zealots revolted against their Roman occupiers to the rise of the Zionists, who helped build the current republic. 'If this book is working the way it's supposed to,' writes Cohen, 'then each individual story will read like the history of Israel, and the history of Israel will read like the life of a single man.' Along the way, the author brilliantly illustrates how Israel, once among the most powerful nations in the world, would likely have been destroyed if not for the efforts of a few forward-looking rabbis. While the smoke still rose from the remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the nation was transformed into an idea, which gave way to a centuries-long diaspora. Cohen soars as a storyteller, using a captivating cast of characters—including Josephus, the traitorous first-century historian; Theodor Herzl, the slightly crazed Zionist visionary; Ariel Sharon, the soldier and statesmen—to explain the mishmash of politics, ideology and psychology that have gone into the reification of Israel. Now, writes the author, Israel is under threat of destruction once again. A must-read for those who want to understand the context of the modern Jewish state."—Kirkus Reviews
"[Cohen] does a marvelous job of getting the highlights of the actions of dozens of characters over a few thousand years of Jewish and Zionist history into a few hundred pages, while exposing the reader to points of view other than those of the author. More than a hundred books and articles are cited in footnotes or listed in the bibliography . . .While Cohen clearly identifies with 'the Jewish Nation,' this is not just a defense of Israel like Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel and other books that set out to answer Israel's many critics. In a very personal effort to understand the how and why of Israel's history, Cohen helps the reader toward that understanding. Recommended."—Library Journal
"Reading the Bible and Jewish history 'both literally and symbolically,' this eclectic and passionate, wide-ranging history of Israel and Zionism by the author of Tough Jews decodes the story of Jonah in the whale's belly as the Diaspora Jew in Nazi concentration camps. Cohen catalogues the accomplishments of first-century Jewish scholar Jonathan ben Zakkai in the way Willie Dixon catalogues a man's deeds in a blues song, and summons Kierkegaard and Allen Ginsberg as he muses about Abraham, a crazy old man willing to murder his son to earn God's blessing: 'Everything in Judaism is a repetition of this scene,' Cohen asserts. Of Herzl, he says it was his career writing whimsical newspaper essays that made his mind fluid and open to the vision of Zionism. He sees Ariel Sharon as a tragic Shakespearean character who was driven to dismantle the settlements in Gaza out of a great love for Israel. Finally, Cohen does not believe that the Holocaust justifies the state of Israel—or that Israel needs to be justified. Cohen's idiosyncratic yet often lyrical take on Israel is sometimes exasperating but always deeply felt and refreshing."—Publishers Weekly
Most great cities have a reason for being where they are, and doing what they do. Either they sit at the confluence of great rivers, at the head of a mountain pass, on the shore of a canal, on a trade route or a railroad crossing or a superhighway, but Jerusalem, as far as anyone can tell, has no reason for being where it is—at the edge of the desert, on a hill surrounded by identical hills, guarding nothing but itself, doing nothing but being Jerusalem.
Is it the oldest city in the world?
No. Jericho is older. But it’s in that same league, from
Rich Cohen, contributing editor at both Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, talks about why celebrities matter.
On why you have to take writing head-on.
The author's favorite books of all time.