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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality-Based Journalism, July 14, 2008
This review is from: The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last (Hardcover)
Bernard Avishai has written an important book about present realities in Israel, not by delivering yet another partisan tract but by interviewing leading figures among the warring parties and ethnic groupings within Israel. He poses to them the question of what "nationality" and nationalism should mean in Israel. He explains that Israeli law assigns to everyone a nationality, and as in Jim Crow America this assignment is not voluntary. Citizenship is a separate status, and only those assigned to the vaguely defined category "Yehudim" (Jewish nationals), like whites in Jim Crow America, have full citizenship. The result has been that the state and the principal institutions of civil society are dominated by a primitive sort of nationalism which powerfully unites an idealized version of common ancestry, common religion, and ancient claims to the land: "The nation, in this view, is a kind of biological fact, but also a territory, a common experience, like a family." (Quoting A.B. Yehoshua.) In truth, such nationality is only fully shared by a minority, but it is taken as the ideal for the nation as a whole. With such a definition of nationality, it is plainly impossible for non-Jews to be equal citizens. This kind of organic nationalism feeds on its mirror opposites, pan-Arabism and Palestinian Islamism.

The best parts of the book are AVishai's long interviews with leaders of rival nationalisms within Israel, exploring the question of how much they would surrender their claims to control of the state, and retire into private observance and celebration. He poses to them the hope that a secular state, albeit one rooted in European Jewish history and traditions - a "Hebrew Republic" - would allow room for religious and ethnic diversity, while granting genuine equality of rights. The reward for surrendering control of the state will be peace, equality, and the prosperity that follows entry into the global economy, now blocked by constant warfare. It is notable t hat none of his interlocutors seem to share his optimism about this vision of a secular state.

The model of a secular state, with strict separation of church and state, yet resting on the traditions of the dominant culture, is modeled much more on the United States than Avishai notes and perhaps more than he realizes. If the book has defects, they seem to me to be two. He is excessively optimistic that shared economic interests will trump the passionate nationalisms that he describes. He is touchingly devoted to the rational dialogues he describes in this book. A related defect is the failure to discuss the manner in which the Bush Administration for this last seven years has fed and encouraged and allied itself with just the evangelical Iraeli nationalism that Avishai decries. In both respects, his book resembles arguments being made in this country. Perhaps he is right, but recent history seems to suggest otherwise: Kansas continues to vote Republican, against its economic self interest. But Avishai's saving virtue is that he presents the arguments against his own position, and leaves the reader to form her conclusion.

Those readers interested in an equally realistic and fact-based (and hence important) account of the situation across the border in Egypt might want to read Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution.
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