Hi everyone! I wanted to take this time to discuss some of the must- read book list concerning Israel and the Middle East. A recommended book list can help out. Sometimes the situations, histories, peoples, etc. can seem very complicated. And sometimes all the information can be overwhelming. We don’t always know where to start when we want to learn more. And books are a wonderful answer. Books are a really great way to start learning about what is going on here, even if it’s fiction. Those very books can give us enough background, so that when we do come to Israel, we will know more, and be able to dig deeper to fully understand Israel and the region.
Now, non- fiction books are pretty clear in how they are helpful in the learning process. The book presents facts in a chronological order in order to explain the events or issues the book addresses. Memoirs help us understand the person it is about. But what about fiction? Why would I suggest that fiction helps? It provides us with an alternative to what could happen, what could have happened. And that offers a different way to think about the world. So it’s important to read, and a lot!
And so here is my recommendation list for Israel and Middle Eastern related books:
#1: A Brief History of the Middle East (Christopher Catherwood)
Our first book in our book list is A Brief History of the Middle East. As by its title, the book covers a history of the Middle East. And in a way, of course it has to brief. The human being has been living in the Middle East have been living here for thousands of years. It makes sense why. It connects three landmasses together: Europe, Asia, and Africa. You can read plenty of books if you want to learn more in- depth about one specific time period. However, before diving into learning about such a complex region it is essential to read a brief history of the region. This way you are not completely lost when you begin reading other books with more specific topics; you’ll have a baseline. And from that you can truly move forward to learn more.
#2: Son of Hamas (Mosab Hassan Yousef)
AMany of you may have heard of this book. It is a New York Times bestseller, and basis of the movie “The Green Prince.” A link to the movie’s trailer is here. Yousef is the son of one of the founding members of the organization Hamas. Through the book Yousef describes the journey he goes through as the son of such a figure, how his views toward Israel, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and the world in general changes as he grows up. He writes very fairly to both sides, which is incredibly important. When we read to learn, it is essential to read balanced, unbiased works.
This is one of those works. But he also brings forth a perspective from the Palestinian world that we don’t hear. He explains articulately this side of the issue. In today’s western world, the Arab/ Muslim world is often gravely misunderstood. But Son of Hamas provides a look into that world in a way the western world can grasp and understand. It is a must read for anyone who really wants to understand the situation here with the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict. And it happens to be a book you just can’t put down.
#3: Beaufort (Ron Leshem)
The story of Beaufort is based on a true one, the real experience of an Israeli during the First Lebanon War. It tells the story of the battles and challenges the soldiers stationed at the Beaufort Fortress in southern Lebanon. In some moments it is a truly heartbreaking story, for throughout the book Ron Leshem questions the purpose of war. But then again is there always another option? Shouldn’t there always be? The book also addresses the issue of psychological affects of serving militarily in a war. What does it mean to go through such a violent event? And what purpose does it serve?
What is important the book Beaufort is that it gives a perspective of the Israeli soldier. Just like it is important to read the perspective of the Palestinians through Son of Hamas, it is important to read the perspective of the Israeli soldier. The more different perspectives we read, the more balance perspective we have. Now I must mention at this time, that while the perspective of the Israeli soldier is important and most Israelis serve in the military, it doesn’t mean that it represents all Israeli perspectives. However, it is still important perspective to gain when learning about the issues and events of the state of Israel.
#4: Exodus (Leon Uris)
Now I know the book Exodus is an old book. Some would even say it’s outdated and irrelevant. But I would argue those who say that, and that is why it made it onto to my book list. First off, because it is a classic. Enough so that a movie version of it with Paul Newman. The book tells the story of a boat named Exodus that attempted to bring Jewish WWII refugees to Palestine but wasn’t allowed. It gained international attention when everyone on the boat, including children, began a hunger strike to force the British to allow them to set sail to Palestine. Eventually the boat was allowed to sail, and dock on the shores of Palestine.
Parallel to this story, the book tells the history of European Jews beginning in the 1800’s. Leon Uris, the author of the book, was known for studying the material of his book in- depth before writing the book itself. And this is why I recommend this book. It provides a chronological outline of what happens in the first half of the 20th century.
#5: How My Grandmother Prevented A Civil War (Haggai Segal)
Number five on my book list is How My Grandmother Prevented a Civil War by Haggai Segal. I think this book is really incredible. The story explores the relations between different Jewish military groups leading up to the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel. Specifically, it explores these relations through the story of the author, Haggai Segal’s uncle, Yedidya. This is a book for those who are ready to get into detail. Basic history books won’t get into the details distinguishing the groups of the Haganah, Lechi, Etzel, etc. How My Grandmother Prevented A Civil War does, and it also discusses some important early figures both on the local Haifa level, and the national level within Israel. So if you’re looking for a good story and more detail on relations between these groups, this is the book for you.
#6: The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
I would argue that ‘The Red Tent’ is an essential book to read for a general audience. But within the context of our discussion, it is an important to read on several levels. First off, Diamant wrote it a woman’s perspective. And as mentioned before, if you want to have a well-rounded understanding of Israel and the Middle East, you have to get as many perspectives as possible. The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, the forefather Jacob’s sole daughter. Diamant explores all the aspects of Dinah’s life.
So it provides a perspective of the woman and a perspective of the third and forth generational Jew. This is before the First Temple. What did it mean to be Jewish at that time? Well Anita Diamant doesn’t actually know- she wasn’t there. But based on research she provides us with an alternative to a story many of us know through the perspective of the woman.
#7: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Sandy Tolan)
‘The Lemon Tree’ is another MUST read. While ‘The Red Tent’ is a fictional book, ‘The Lemon Tree’ is a true story. It tells the story of a Jewish family who moves into an abandoned house of an Arab family who fleed during the War of 1948, and the forgiveness between the children of these families. It was not an easy journey for these children as they grow up. But as they do, they come closer together and consistently work toward forgiveness and peace. It is an important story for it offers us an example and a shred of hope for moving forward toward forgiveness, peace, and coexistence in the region.
#8: Start-up: Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Dan Senor)
Dan Senor has written this wonderful book called Start- up Nation. The book discusses how and why the State of Israel produces such a high number of start- up companies. How can it happen that all these start- ups and high- techs work in such a small country? Dan Senor traveled around the world and researched what allowed that to happen. You can’t put the book down! It’s funny, interesting, and incredibly informative. What is great about this book is that it explains modern Israel and an issue that doesn’t have to deal with violence and conflict, but rather something positive and exciting.
#9: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
Now The Yiddish Policemen’s Union doesn’t directly deal with neither the Middle East nor Israel. It is a fictional book that portrays what it may be like if the Jewish State wasn’t in Israel, but rather… in Alaska! This isn’t such farfetched idea because the British offered Uganda as a Jewish state in the late 1800’s. And what would it be like if the Jewish State didn’t speak Hebrew, but rather Yiddish? The Yiddish Policemen’s Union offers an alternative to what a Jewish state could look like if it wasn’t the State of Israel. It is an incredibly thought- provoking book with an interesting alternative.
#10: Three Days (Zeev Sharef)
Number ten on my book list is Three Days by Zeev Sharef. Three Days is a great book to read for a better understanding of an event that changes both Israeli/ Jewish and world history. The Declaration of Independence of Israel! The author of the book, Zeev Sharef, was there at the ceremony! In the book, Sharef describes the three days leading up to the ceremony of declaring independence of the modern state of Israel. It was not a simple process. The War of 1948 had already started on November 30, 1947.
The Jewish forces are not winning and with regional politics of the time, it doesn’t look promising. There was a great debate over whether not to even declare independence at all! Three Days describes the process of what it took to get that ceremony going. And with the author present at the events, it provides a first hand account of what happened, a first- hand account of an internationally historical moment.
#11: First Thirty- Two Minutes (Pinchas Yourman)
First Thirty- Two Minutes relates to Three Days in addressing the ceremony of the Declaration of Independence in Israel. But in this book author, Pinchas Yourman, describes the thirty- two minutes it took to actually declare independence. It’s a relatively short period of time to declare independence of a new state, but as I mentioned above the War has already started, so they don’t have a lot of time. First Thirty- Two Minutes describes the first thirty- two minutes of Israel as a free, independent, and modern state, and the story of the Declaration of Independence. It is an important moment in Israel and in Middle Eastern history, so it is important to understand what happened in that half an hour.
#12: The Case For Israel (Alan Dershowitz)
It is essential to read Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel, with anti- Israel sentiment rising. He is an acclaimed lawyer and professor at Harvard Law School, earning my trust he has an understanding of the law.. You can check his resume online. With his understanding of the law, Dershowitz explains why it is important to support the State of Israel, in a legal sense. He followed with the book The Case for Peace. I am a huge advocate for the State of Israel, which is why I picked this book to be on my top fifteen book list.
#13: Jerusalem: The Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore)
You can’t have a book list about Israel without a book about Jerusalem. Jerusalem is 3,000 years old. That is really old. It is also a very complex city that millions of people consider holy, and hold close to their hearts. It is a political mess, it is full of every kind of person you can imagine. Everything in Jerusalem is complicated. That’s part of what makes the city so beautiful. But if you really want to understand the city, and it’s role in the Middle East, and the world at large, you must read this book about the city’s history.
#14: One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (Tom Segev)
The British Mandate over Palestine was an important part of the land’s history. The mandate was a bridge from old times into the modern era. Many things that happened during that period effect Israel until today. Want an example? When you walk around Jerusalem, you will see that every building on at least one wall has a style called ‘Jerusalem Stone.’ It was law in the Mandate that every building be built with it, and that law has stayed until today. There are tens and tens of other examples.
But the British Mandate of Palestine was also a tense time for the people living here: the British, the Jews, and the Arabs. No one seemed to get along. Now obviously there were plenty of examples of coexistence, friendship, and peace. But the overall feeling was tense. Segev’s book explores all of that and then some in his book. And that is why this book has made onto my book list.
#15: Someone to Run With (David Grossman)
The last book for my book list is Someone to Run With. David Grossman is a popular Israeli writer, and his book Someone to Run With doesn’t have to do with history, or religion, or anything like that. The book tells the story of the child performers of Jerusalem. It is yet another heartbreaking story about friendship, and the relations between siblings.
I recommend this book not just because it is a great book, but because I truly believe that reading the literature of a country helps us understand the culture and mentality of that country. I can’t understand Israel, Israelis, and more if I don’t read what they read. So you can read this book, you can read another book by David Grossman, you can read Etger Keret, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, Orly Castel- Bloom, and the many other Israeli authors we have. It is important to read what Israelis read. After, you can understand a little of bit more about the average Israeli and what happens in their country.
These are only 15 books that relate to Middle Eastern and Israeli history. There are many, many more. Go make your own book list, and enjoy doing it. Take the time to read from these, and let them lead you to more books. Don’t forget some of the most important books in human civilization: the TaNaKh (Torah, Writings, and Prophets), the New Testament, and the Quran. Without reading and understanding these works, we cannot understand anything about what goes on in the Middle East.
Let me know what your book list is for the region! I look forward to hearing from you!