Israel Finds a New Storyteller

These profiles of the Jewish state’s leaders come at a turbulent time for Jerusalem.

Wikicommons.
Theodore Herzl on the balcony of the Three Kings Hotel at Basel during the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901. Wikicommons.

‘And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel’
By Rick Richman
Encounter Books, 388 pages

There is a new government at Jerusalem, full of clerics and hard-right provocateurs. Changes to the judiciary are on the way. Plenty of people are afraid for Israel these days, which makes the timing of Rick Richman’s “And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel” all the more fortuitous. A Zionist “Profiles in Courage,” it is a briskly written reminder that giving up on the Jewish state is a bad bet. 

Mr. Richman, author of “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler,” here aims to give “full due” to eight drivers of what he names as the two most successful ideologies of the last century: Zionism and Americanism. The former is the “movement to create a free and democratic Jewish state,” the latter the “civil religion of freedom and democracy.” In the lives of this near minyan of luminaries he detects a “collective narrative” that bent history toward freedom. 

These seven men and one woman — Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Abba Eban, Louis Brandeis, Ben Hecht, Ron Dermer, and Golda Meir — are eagerly split between American and European origins, and they all played (and, in Mr. Dermer’s case, play) starring roles in the long-deferred return to Zion. Mr. Richman is not after esoterica. He aims to “do some work in the world.” In other words, to make us a little less afraid.

Mr. Richman begins, as necessary, with Herzl. “Not since Moses,” he writes, has “anyone transformed Jewish history as fundamentally” as the Viennese journalist. He admits that the “mystery of Herzl may be insoluble,” meaning that no readymade reason can explain how a writer of feuilletons and belle epoque plays who entertained baptism became a prophet who saved what Prime Minister Ben Gurion called a “pulverized people.”

At a time when much ink is being spilled over the drift of American Jews away from Israel, Mr. Richman builds the case for a fruitful and durable connection between the Land of the Free and the Jewish homeland. He profiles Justice Louis Brandeis, who like Herzl was far from a Maccabee from central casting; he was a “secular Jew, born and raised in Kentucky” whose Zionism was picked up late in life and grafted onto his American commitments.

A less familiar name to contemporary readers was once the toast of Hollywood. Ben Hecht was a screenwriter, novelist, and movie impresario who won the first Academy Award for story writing and then followed that up by writing “Scarface.” He became a passionate supporter of the Irgun militia fighting the British in Palestine. His efforts were so strenuous that a ship to support Holocaust survivors to Palestine was named the Steamship Ben Hecht

While Hecht was what Mr. Richman calls a “one man multimedia operation” for surfacing the reality of the Holocaust and arguing for a Jewish state, the leader of the Irgun was Vladimir Jabotinsky. Like Herzl, whose grave is his neighbor, Jabotinsky was a man of the pen, not the sword. At least, not initially. He was a journalist and author who translated Edgar Allan Poe into Hebrew and Jewish longing into militias and legions. 

Jabotinsky’s legacy, which Ben-Gurion sought to blot out, has come into only sharper focus over time. His aide de camp, Menachem Begin, spent 30 years as a backbencher before acceding to the premiership in 1977. Another Jabotinsky aide, Benzion Netanyahu, was the father of Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose long tenure atop Israeli politics has gained a fresh lease on life. He describes his policy vision as an effort to “implement Jabotinsky’s teachings.”

The most surprising inclusion in Mr. Richman’s pantheon is also the only one still living: Mr. Dermer, a scion of Miami Beach, where both his father and brother served as mayors. The man known as “Bibi’s Brain” has taken a different path, proving himself indispensable to Mr. Netanyahu, who appointed him first as an economic attache and then as Israel’s ambassador to America. He currently serves as Israel’s minister of strategic affairs. 

Mr. Richman concludes his book with Mr. Dermer’s rise, an arc where Israeliness and Americanness seamlessly overlap. It is nice to have Mr. Dermer placed along these long-acknowledged giants. It is a reminder that each generation hands up its heroes and that the cause of Zion is pressing rather than passé. Speaking of old-new echoes: The book’s title is lifted from the Book of Exodus, which promises peace in the land — sometime.


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