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Archive for June, 2011

Today, I am giving another talk about Israel. This time, it is at Eton College. I will be speaking to the Jewish Class. It’s nice to be doing a talk at such a prestigious venue – and one that is just a 10-minute walk from my front door.

Afterwards, I am attending the annual Eton Faiths party, in the Headmaster’s garden. Then, I shall stroll home and continue my newfound tradition of an afternoon nap. Nice.

Number 2: Israel: A History by Sir Martin Gilbert

I’ve lost count of the number of Sir Martin’s books I have read. For many of them, to say I ‘enjoyed’ them would be the wrong word to use. One doesn’t ‘enjoy’ books about the Shoah, but they are powerful, moving and important works.

This book is the most definitive history of Israel of which I am aware. More than any, this is the book that turned me from a quietly committed supporter of Israel into whatever I am today. I remember not so much reading this as cherishing every moment with it. It made me fully realise what an inspiring people the Israelis are.

It also convinced me to visit Israel. Now, five years, several visits and countless new friendships with Israelis later I feel the issue is personal. I’m not Jewish, but when people lie about Israel they are lying about my favourite country. When people lie about Israelis they are lying about my friends.

Anyway, this book is the history of Israel. It’s as simple as that. I love the cover, too. That photograph of Zionist pioneers dancing in a circle is what it’s all about. The optimism, ideology and hope that built Israel form a flame that must be kept alive. Times and circumstances change, but the need for that flame will never diminish.

I was honoured when Sir Martin, who sometimes reads this blog, sent me a signed copy of one of his books. He is, after all, a national treasure and an unrivalled historian. Israel: A History is, for me, his finest hour.

Tomorrow, I’ll post number one in this series. There was only ever going to be one contender.

Number 3: The Rebbe’s Army: Inside The World of Chabad-Lubavitch, by Sue Fishkoff

This is the only title in my ‘Top 5 Israeli/Jewish books’ that is not about Israel. If you want a nuanced, balanced and informed account of the miraculous way one group kept faith alive in modern times and spread its light across the globe,  this is an unbeatable read. Fishkoff gained access to Chabad and wrote a book that neither damned nor over-lauded this inspiring, but at times polarising organisation.

Fishkoff puts Chabad’s work in context and shows what a beautifully moral force it is. Still, I imagine that some in Chabad circles will have reservations about her book. Although it is respectfully and sensitively written, it is no hagiography and it unflinchingly tackles the ‘Messianic’ controversy. However, it is a stunningly-written page-turner and filled me with wonder at the power and reach of Chabad, as well as the magnificence of its final Rebbe. The chapter about his life is worth the ‘entry money’ alone: be inspired, be very inspired.

Come back tomorrow for number two.

To Win Or To Die: A Personal Portrait of Menachem Begin, by Ned Temko

Temko’s biography sweeps you right through the life of a remarkable man. Born in Poland, imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Begin avoided the impending claws of the Holocaust (which claimed many of his family) and moved to Palestine, where he fought in the underground. That, as they say, would have been enough for a great biography in itself.

The fact that Begin then rose from being a stubborn and polarising outsider to become Prime Minister of Israel only ups the story’s ante. The way he brought the Sephardim more into the mainstream is fascinatingly related. Then, this hard-line disciple of Jabotinsky made peace with Egypt, earning the admiration of people the world over for his statesmanship. He inspires me, and this meticulously-researched book does too. On a lighter-hearted note, the passages about how he ‘played’ Jimmy Carter are hilarious.

The book is hard to get hold of, but worth the effort. If you fancy an easier to obtain book in which Begin stars, then check out The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner.

Number three of my top five Israel/Jewish books will be posted tomorrow!

I’m a bookworm, a bit of a geek and a lot of an Israel supporter. So I thought I would unite these three facets into a mini-series: my Top 5 Israel/Jewish books. I will countdown each day for the next five days, starting now.

Number 5: The Israelis, by Donna Rosenthal

So, at number five is The Israelis, by Donna Rosenthal. First published in 2003, it is subtitled Ordinary People In An Extraordinary Land. This intimately-researched and colourfully-written book certainly captures the Israel I know. It includes chapters on everyone from the Haredim to homosexuals, the IDF to Israeli Arabs. It also covers issues like dating, drug-use and divorce, Israeli-style.

I well remember reading this on the plane as I flew to Israel for the first time in 2006. I was so excited. I actually read it on a plane again, as I flew home from my fourth visit to Israel, last summer. It was just as much of a joy to read a second time, and I nodded away as I re-read it, in recognition of its accuracy. You really feel like you’re there when you read this.

My list continues tomorrow with number four.

(A note on the qualification criteria: to make it more manageable, my list will exclude fiction, plus any books of an officially religious nature, including Hasidic folk tale books.)

The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land, Updated in 2008 for the 60th Anniversary of Israel

Sometimes, the one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine issue is presented as a new, 21st-century idea. But it is actually decades old. Noam Chomsky was advocating it back in the early 1970s. As proof it could work he pointed to two examples of complicated populations living in harmonious co-existence: Lebanon and Yugoslavia. Seriously! Then, bloody civil war and ethnic conflicts tore both countries to pieces, with Yugoslavia exploding into five nation states.

Good one, Noam. It was as if he had suggested that a good way of extinguishing smouldering flames was to pour fire over them. When it became clear what a wretched, explosively-flawed idea it was, the one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine question was rightly shelved by its embarrassed proponents.

Then, about seven years ago, the anti-Israel movement suddenly thought: ‘Hey, whatever happened to that petrol over flames idea?’ and out it came again.

Continue Reading

This is my latest column for the Jewish Chronicle:

The Hasidim might not be much interested in the mainstream media but that does not stop the mainstream media from being fascinated with the Hasidim. The BBC’s Stamford Hill documentary Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride has ignited new, negative headlines about the community. Many of the locals are outraged at the “unrepresentative” nature of the programme that featured at its heart a Hasid who had served time for money-laundering related to drugs.

A new movie, Holy Rollers, starring Jessie Eisenberg (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) is about a young Hasid lured into corruption and crime – and once again drugs feature prominently.

Continue Reading

Congratulations to the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) for its Aim Higher event which was a successful and interesting and inspiring experience. An early highlight came when Rabbi Rowe spoke to us about Zionism using the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts as springboards for discussion. I could have listened to him all day.

Following that, I gave my presentation. It was about my love of Israel, effective online advocacy, and the campaign for Gilad Shalit. The question-and-answer section was good fun, including banter about Aroma Ice Coffee, a question about my ‘Bamba Republic’ t-shirt, and one audience member taking me to task on my latest Jewish Chronicle column.

I got great feedback about my talk, which is always nice. Thanks to everyone who came. (I’m doing a similar speech at a very special venue next Sunday – details to follow.)

Then Gilad Shalit’s cousin Hemda and grandfather Zvi spoke about their experiences. As you might expect, it was an emotional session, but also an inspiring one. Did you know that Gilad’s great grandfather was killed in the Shoah, and that his uncle was killed in IDF service in the Golan? All of that tragedy in the family’s heritage, and now Gilad’s ongoing incarceration.

In the face of this, the family’s dignity, strength and determination are admirable. As I’ve written before, I support their call for the Israeli government to make a deal for Gilad. I explained my thinking here. I had a lovely chat with Hemda and Zvi after their talk . Hemda is fantastic fun. She told me: ‘Oy Va Goy – you’re an honorary Jew.’ Good luck to them.

There followed further discussions, an aliyah fair and the singing of Hatikvah, before the Aim Higher day came to an end. A few of us popped up the road for shawarma and the like. Jews have got to eat, so have honorary Jews. Over our food we discussed good old Simon Cowell: one-by-one the ingredients of a perfect day were being ticked.

Kol hakovod once again to the FZY for an inspiring day. The UK’s Zionist movement has a bright future with young people like these in our midst. Keep going!

I thought I’d remind you of two forthcoming events of interest. On Monday, StandWithUs UK’s fascinating Voices from the Middle East series continues. Hasan Afzal and Houriya Ahmed will speak about The Politicised Voices on UK Campuses. Hasan is the inspiring director of British Muslims For Israel. You can read more about the Voices… series here.

On Sunday, I will be speaking at the FZY’s Aim Higher event. More importantly, so will two members of Gilad Shalit’s family. So come along, listen to their story and show them you care.

Speaking of Gilad, I am interested to learn that Israel’s Homeland Security Minister Vilna’i has argued that ‘a big price must be paid, involving the release of major murderers, to retrieve him’. A panel of former chiefs of Mossad, Shin Bet and the IDF made the same call in April. In every survey I have read, the majority of the Israeli public also support a deal for Gilad.

For what it’s worth, I agree with them, for the reasons I outlined here. You might also like to read of an interesting initiative to raise awareness of Gilad’s plight here.

Anyway, I hope to see you at one – or both! – of the aforementioned events. Also, see this weekend’s Jewish Chronicle for another column from yours truly.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.