If you think of beach reading as fluffy romance novels with a margarita on the side, these books are not for you. But if you think of beach reading as an opportunity to slow down, learn something, and examine your beliefs without social media interruptions, you’re in luck. Here are four books for your vacation suitcase:
• What Justice Demands: Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Elan Journo
• Jews Make the Best Demons: “Palestine” and the Jewish Question by Eric Rozenman
• Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change by Charles Freilich
• Armies of Sand: The Past, Present and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness by Kenneth Pollak
The first two turn the prism on material you probably know, and thus are good for self-examination – and examining community leaders, politicians, and pundits. The third is both descriptive and proscriptive. The fourth offers a deeper understanding of Israel’s wars and its enemies.
What Justice Demands
Libertarian author and director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute, Elan Journo frames the conversation about American policy in the Middle East as a question of justice. Or many questions of justice. In a book less about Israelis and Palestinians than about Americans, Journo posits that America has been unable to be the honest broker it would like to be because politicians – regardless of party – chose one of three (useless) positions: 1) Finding the Middle Ground; 2) Doing Right by Israel; or 3) Doing Right by the Palestinians. This, he says, misses the point.
Rather, we need a secular, moral framework “concerned not with collectives, but with the lives of individual, irreplaceable human beings; and it holds certain values – human life, freedom, progress – as objective: Values for everyone, at all times, in all places.”
How does that work?
Journo’s assessment of forms of government – democracy, dictatorship, monarchy – gives Israel an edge for offering individuals freedom and progress, though it clearly isn’t perfect. His assessment of what he calls “Palestinian grievances,” to which he is sympathetic, castigates Palestinian leadership for operating as a collective and ignoring the actual lives of real Palestinian people. For decades. And generations. He is very specific about the origins of the Palestinian “refugee” problem, and about its resolution. The chapter on “The Palestinian Cause” is a carefully built history of the movement and its allies, and the effects it has had on its own people.
In the end, Journo believes the United States should stand for freedom and justice for as many people as possible. That inclines us toward Israel and away from the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement as Palestinian leadership. Toward the Palestinian people and – oddly – against elections, which, in his view, have empowered not only Palestinian dictators, but jihadists across the region.
As the Trump administration wades into Middle East peace brokerage, he and the managers of administration policy would do themselves, the regional players, and the American people a service to read this very American, and very wise, book.
Time: A couple of hours to read; several more to assimilate a pro-American Middle East policy.
Jews Make the Best Demons
This book is irritating. And important. Irritating because you wanted to think that anti-Semitism – especially in Europe – isn’t a problem, but in fact you know better. Important because Eric Rozenman, a journalist and columnist for a wide range of newspapers and organizations, [Disclosure: he is a consultant to the Jewish Policy Center] makes you look where you didn’t want to.
He starts with “the dilution of content but intensification of form,” that has resulted in the increasing “delegitimization” of Israel. The heart of the book is the observation by a progressive political thinker that, “In general, truth is a relative thing, and if you state something which is factually untrue, it may, nevertheless, in fact, be considered to be true if it ought to be true.”
Anyone who has spent time on social media knows that’s true, and it is especially true of anti-Semitism and the Palestinian “narrative.”
Rozenman applies the principle to Europeans, Palestinians, supporters of Palestinians, the American left – and its subset of intersectionality advocates – who “selectively demonize Israel and celebrate the Jews’ terrorist enemies, the Palestinians, as poor, suffering victims in the name of ‘social justice.’”
Are you ready to throw the book down in dismay? Don’t. Really, don’t. But get ready for a broad, deeply disconcerting intellectual ride.
Rozenman skips around through Jewish, American, European and Israeli history, Nazis, Islamists, collaborators, Palestinians, and more. Nowhere else will you find buzkashi, Paul DeMan, Aunt Frieda, Khalid al-Wazir, the International Criminal Court, Rue Copernic, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, and the Holy Roman Empire sharing space with Bataclan, Samuel Johnson, Kimberle Crenshaw, Ilan Halimi, Rwanda, Ilan Pappe, and the Peace of Westphalia.
In a key theme, it took only a few decades before the Holocaust, a singularly Jewish experience, was appropriated by non-Jews (and some Jews), well-meaning and not, who changed the debasement, dislocation and horrific torture and murder of Jews into political fodder. Jews as metaphor: Jews are the “new Nazis” and Palestinians the “new Jews.” Or Jews want “too much” compassion for their history and a “dispensation” for “crimes” they commit. “Je suis Charlie” – no one else is really Charlie Hebdo and the French magazine’s staff massacred by jihadists – but appropriating him, or the Holocaust, scores political points.
The conclusion will not surprise you: anti-Semitism is, indeed, the world’s oldest hatred. And dressing it as anti-Zionism doesn’t change it.
Time: A half hour for the first chapter; a day to get over it; and several days to assimilate the content and the excellent footnotes.
Israeli National Security
Pick and choose carefully in this book. Charles Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a profound believer in a “peace process” resulting in a “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians. It heavily influences his strategy for Israel in certain areas – including, in Chapter 10, the “Special Relationship” between the United States and Israel.
In the section on Foreign Policy Responses (Chapter 9), Freilich describes the Oslo and post-Oslo search for “peace.”
It is certainly fair to say that Israel went to great lengths to achieve peace… based on major territorial withdrawal, accompanied by security guarantees… unfortunately, as the peace process floundered, Israel’s goals have narrowed from conflict resolution and peace, to conflict management, military deterrence, and war avoidance, with a focus on stability.
The obvious question is “why?” Without an answer, it is hard to understand the observation at the end of the section that: “Israel’s West Bank policies have eroded its international image, and it has come to be viewed as a pariah state. Israel has ceded the battle for ‘soft power.’”
Actually, it is Freilich, and others who refuse to mount a defense of Israel’s defense, who are ceding Israel’s position in the international arena.
The “peace process” also informs his recommendation in Chapter 12 for “Separat(ion) from the Palestinians as foremost national objective… Unilaterally if necessary… on the basis of demography and security.” Such unilateral border drawing would necessarily include territory east of the Green Line – which would certainly add to the “pariah” narrative. And the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn’t do much for security, either.
His belief that Israel is too dependent on the United States – a fair point – also leads him to see “a resolution of the Palestinian issue would be one of the most effective means possible of reducing Israel’s dependence on the United States…” OK, yes. But how? With whom? Under what circumstances?
This line of political thinking winds through the chapters, but don’t be discouraged. Freilich is a great writer and his broader understanding of Israel’s classic defense doctrine, new strategic environment, changing military threat, nuclear and regional arms control policy, the military response today, and more are definitely worth the price.
Time: How much do you have? You don’t have to read from one end to the other. Skipping around is more worthwhile.
Armies of Sand
The old joke about Jewish holidays is, “They tried to kill us; they failed. Let’s eat.” The old axiom about Arab-Israeli wars is, “They had Russian equipment and tactics; Israel had Western/American equipment and tactics. We won; let’s eat.”
Not so, according to this fascinating study of not only Arab armies and tactics, but also the relationship between cultures and the militaries they produce.
Starting with an excellent overview of the 1967 Six-Day War, former CIA military analyst and current resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Kenneth Pollack, notes that not all of the Arab armies in the war – or in the 1973 Yom Kippur War – were actually Russian-armed and trained. To make the differences clear, he takes the reader carefully through those countries and on a detailed dive into Russian military operational and tactical constructs in World War II. He notes the effectiveness of the Russian Army against the Nazis, although at a horrendous price in lives lost – but the Russians knew that was coming and had accounted for it.
The chapter on culture and the “dominant mode of war” is a stopper.
The Mongols did not become great horse archers purposely so that they could conquer Eurasia. The Mongols became great horse archers because those were the skills they needed to survive on the twelfth-century Eurasian steppe. However, once their society developed this skill and Mongol culture began to produce large numbers of skilled horse archers, it gave Mongol warlords such as Genghis Khan a military tool that enabled him to conquer Eurasia.
There is more.
The advantages that culture may grant to warfare does not mean that that culture or its society are somehow superior in any way except in war making at a particular moment of time… (a society can be) badly hamstrung because its culture is not producing sufficient numbers of people with the traits best suited to the dominant mode of warfare at the time. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that was exactly what happened to the Arabs.
Pollack’s examination of Arab culture and its variants is interesting, but what emerges as truly useful in assessing military capabilities are the trends across the region: conformity, centralization of and deference to authority, passivity, group loyalty, manipulation of information, atomization of knowledge, personal courage, and ambivalence toward manual labor and technical work.
Pollack presents no judgment – just expert information well-organized and accessible to the non-militarily inclined. With that in mind, skip to Chapter 18 to begin to understand how that affects military organizations and fighting operations, including some exceptional Arab fighting organizations.
And, finally, a very useful chapter on non-state militaries including Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
Time: Forever. You will come back to this one often and it will be time well-spent.
Shoshana Bryen is Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.