Monday, April 29, 2024

Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted PresentPeople Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dara Horn’s book is much praised, and deservedly so. She goes through the history of antisemitism in a novel and personal way. She doesn’t explain the causes of anti-Jewish hatred or do a detailed history. On one hand, this is an intensely personal journey; a memoir of sorts. On the other hand, it is an analysis of the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish hatred. Even in places where people seem to be sympathetic to the injustice befallen Jews, there is a sense of an underlying, if implicit, rejection of Jews. As Horn lays it out this is because this sympathy only seems to be there for dead Jews. Once Jews are dead, they are loved or celebrated. Living Jews are criticized, rejected, expected to conform.

This idea is part of what lies behind her trenchant criticism of the Holocaust Museum movement (if we can call it that). Counterintuitively, she suggests this might be causing or allowing greater anti-Jewishness. By detailing the horrors of the Holocaust, anything less mass murder of millions of Jews seems to be able to dismissed or downplayed as “Well, it’s not the Holocaust.” There is a kind of worship of the dead Jew that can be seen in so much Holocaust and antisemitism education: it seems at first to come from a place of sympathy and justice, but Horn picks out ways it which it is actually ugly and deep down a love of dead Jews.

Another element of her thesis is that people seem to prefer to tell stories about dead Jews rather than ones about actual, living Jews. A troubling question she asks is, which is easier to name: three Nazi death camps or three Yiddish writers. The positive call in Horn’s book is to celebrate Jewish life and thriving, not just our tragedies but our triumphs.

The reader, Xe Sands, was wonderful; she really seemed to capture the author’s voice. Not literally, I have no idea what Horn sounds like; I mean more in the sense of matching the tone and feel of the text. Horn’s sardonic wit can be biting and maybe off putting to some. I had several, “oh damn!,” moments while listening to the book. Sands carries this off perfectly.

I think this is an immensely important book, all Jews should read it. I don’t agree with everything, but it does help to make some sense of the recent rise of antisemitism.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Review: Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East ConflictPalestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict by Oren Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thorough, well-documented journalistic history of the Great Revolt of 1936. Kessler provides voices from all the key players: Jewish, Arab, and English. And within each of these groups, he brings forwards the continuum of the views. There are a range of more strident and more moderate voices an all sides, and Kessler is able to reconstruct the contemporaneous dialogue between these different factions and how they led up to the revolt, evolved through the revolt, and how the revolt impacted these viewpoints. Kessler does a good job of presenting these views without bias or sentiment, such that one can understand why they thought the way they did. Each is, in their own way, sympathetic.

The main thesis is that this Great Revolt of 1936 was decisive for future of Israel/Palestine. It left the British exasperated and unsure how to proceed: setting the stage for their abandonment of the Mandate. It left the Arab Palestinians in disarray. Many of the Arab elites left during these hostilities, and the long-standing boycott had serious economic consequences for these communities. In putting down the revolt, the British were able to take out much of the fighting capability of the Arab communities. By the time the civil wars and war of independence comes a decade later, they still had not recovered.

On the other hand, the Yishuv (the Jewish community) comes out of the revolt stronger and better able to move forward. The Arab boycott meant the Yishuv had to hasten the construction of much of the economic infrastructure, such as ports and industries, that would be essential in the state building that was to come. The official policy of restraint by the Yishuv (holding back from offensive reprisals against Arab attacks) led the British more and more to rely on and train the Yishuv forces to help keep the peace. This helped to lay the ground work for the ability of the Yishuv to fight the civil war and war of independence that would come in 1947-48.

One of the most striking things about this book is paradoxically that it shows so many points of missed opportunities that might have avoided the decades of conflict that was to come but also how inevitable the conflict was. So many of the statements from the Jews, Arabs, and Brits of the 30s could be slightly edited for timeliness (and swapping out the Brits for the US) and be indistinguishable for statements issued today.

The book is indispensable for anyone wanting to get a much deeper understanding of the roots of the current conflict.

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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review: Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman

Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman (2016-05-31)Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a unique memoir. Friedman tells the history of a hill, called Pumpkin, in the Israel security zone within southern Lebanon. This is where Friedman himself served with the IDF, though he doesn’t start with his service. The first focus is on Avi, a soldier serving at the Pumpkin before Friedman. Then Friedman gets into his service, which was in the late 90s ending with the Israeli pull out of the Lebanon security zone. Then Friedman tells about his fascinating clandestine trip back to the area only a few years later.

The story is intensely personal and poignant. It also gives hints of the world that was to come: IEDs, video taping of terror attacks, the challenges of asymmetric warfare against a civilian embedded enemy. The memoir also gives us glimpses into the debate within Israel about the security zone and how this zone eventually unraveled.

The book is decidedly not political: it’s not about analyzing the arguments for or against the security zone or any other aspect of the conflict. It’s about the soldiers, their families, and their lives: how war impacts and shapes their lives. Though at times brutally honest about the soldier’s experience it is free from hyperbole or dramatics. It doesn’t demonize the enemy and it doesn’t glorify his own side. Like the soldiers on the hill, it just lives in the complexity of the conflict; just tries to survive it.

This is the third Friedman book I’ve read; they have all been amazing. I recommend all of them: Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai and Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.

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Sunday, April 07, 2024

Review: Convergence

Convergence (Star Wars: The High Republic)Convergence by Zoraida Córdova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the end, I enjoyed Star Wars: Convergence. It moves along fairly well, the world building is very good, it has some good action, and some of the characters are compelling. Still, the High Republic remains overall a disappointment to me. Partly, I just don’t get the point. The stories can be fun, but overall it doesn’t really add that much to Star Wars. There is little adding to the lore or fleshing out of the Jedi or the Republic.

The Jedi, Gella Nattai, has promise. One of the main problems with the High Republic era is that most of the Jedi are caricatures, too good, too perfect. It’s very hard to get a feel for them, or make a connection. Gella is younger, not flawed as such, but still developing as a Jedi and her finding her way in the Force. I found it easier to connect to her character.

Axel Greylark is a fun character; in some ways he’s a caricature of the rich playboy type, but there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Xiri and Phan-Tu are more mixed as characters. There are interesting things about them, but their romance doesn’t work for me: too forced and too quick. As the book goes on, they seem to be there more for the story to happen then as drivers of the story.

Most of the other characters are pretty flat, indistinguishable, and not very memorable.
The Mother and the Path could be an interesting adversary; we’ll see how it goes as it develops in Phase 2.

The plot itself is kind of far-fetched: one never figures out why the two worlds are fighting, and then they come together far too quickly after what is termed a forever war. It’s very simplistic: as if war just happens and all that is needed for peace is for two people to stand up and declare it.
But once that is put aside and the story moves along, it does become more compelling and entertaining.

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