Category Archives: Israel

“Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” by Derek Penslar— A New Biography

Penslar, Derek. “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader”, (Jewish Lives),  Yale University Press, 2020.

A New Biography

Amos Lassen

Derek Penslar’s “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” could not have arrived at a more opportune time. I am busy preparing a course on philosophical approaches to Zionism and even though I am not using Herzl, his thoughts resound everywhere and with every word I read it seems. The five philosophers I am using are Arendt, Benjamin, Scholem, Buber and Chomsky might claim to be far and politically removed from Herzl but they cannot deny the influence that Herzl’s thoughts had on them.

Herzl’s life has always been something of an enigma and it takes Derek Penslar, an esteemed and eminent historian of Zionism to delve into the life of the man and give us some of the answers we seek. Herzl lived a short life (1860-1904) that was filled with mystery and puzzlement. Perhaps the most puzzling questions we have are how did a man who was so assimilated into his daily life become a founder of the Zionist movement and how was it that a man who had so much diplomacy, intellectualism and morality live with some of the dark passions that were part of his life?

Through exploring Herzl’s personal, literary, and political writings, Penslar shows that Herzl’s involvement with Zionism had as much to do with personal crises as it did with antisemitism. It took his devotion to a cause and in his case that cause was Zionism that caused him to become the great leader that he was. His leadership provided him with strong energy, organizational ability, and outstanding charisma. He quickly “became a screen onto which Jews of his era could project their deepest needs and longings.” Penslar probes the deep character of the man who was the catalyst of the Zionist movement even though it had actually begun to develop independently of him and continued long after his death.

Herzl was a paradox in every sense of the word. His complexities may never be solved by here is a window into the man who did so much in a very short period of time. The fact that Herzl was able to change the course of Zionism from an ideological movement into a political shows the tremendous influence he had on those who embraced him and followed him. He changed the course of history by redefining Zionism and launching it and setting it on a new course. There is a lot of new information here and it is eloquently stated and wonderfully readable— so much so, that I read it in one sitting and then went back and read it again. This will become an indispensable text to today’s Zionist movement and its thinkers.

“About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.”


“Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel” by Shalom Goldman— Stars in Israel

Goldman, Shalom. “Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel”, University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Stars in Israel

Amos Lassen

The relationship between the United States and the Holy Land has become one of the world’s most consequential international alliances. While the political side of U.S.-Israeli relations has long played out on the world stage, the relationship and as Shalom Goldman shows us here, it has also played out on actual stages. He shares the stories of the American superstars of pop and high culture who have traveled to Israel to perform, lecture, and see fans. We see how the creative class has both expressed and influenced the American relationship with Israel.

Many stars who have made headlines for their trips including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Scarlett Johansson. Even though they are diverse socially and politically, they have all served as ways to see the evolution of U.S.-Israeli relations, as Israel, “the darling of the political and cultural Left in the 1950s and early 1960s” and how it turned into “the darling of the political Right from the late 1970s.” Today, as relations between the two nations have only intensified, stars now must consider highly controversial issues, such as cultural boycotts when they plan their itineraries.

We get a different look at the special relationship that the United States has developed with Israel. This volume is a terrific accomplishment and new insights into cultural diplomacy and “soft power” between the United States and Israel in this perspective on the role that celebrity pop culture has played in U.S.-Israeli relations. We can now begin to understand how and why the two nations have developed a special, close, almost codependent relationship. Godman looks at the American obsession with Israel through the lens of celebrity artists and intellectuals.

“Shuk: The Heart of Israeli Cooking” by Einat Admony and Janna Gur— Making the Mouth Water

Admony, Einat and Janna Gur. “Shuk: The Heart of Israeli Cooking”, Artisan Books. 2019,

Making the Mouth Water

Amos Lassen

Many of you know that I spent many years living in Israel but I have never really publicly said what I thought about the food there. If there was one thing that I really missed, it was American food. I was not at all excited by the food options I had but then again, I get there during the first 15 years of the state and we were not concerned about food; we were building a country. Over the years, the food got better but I was from New Orleans and I missed restaurants like Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and Tujague’s. Then something happened in this country. Israeli food became the “IT” cuisine and Israeli restaurants opened all over the country and the best restaurant award in New Orleans went to “Shaya”, an Israeli restaurant. Restaurants in Israel also upped their game Suddenly I realized how much I missed Israeli food.

What is it that makes Israeli food so special?  Could it be that “Israel is a culinary crossroads, a mishmash of foods best represented in its shuks, or markets, where foods from Yemen, Morocco, Bulgaria, Libya, Turkey, Russia, the Levant, and dozens more sit side by side to create a food culture unlike anywhere else in the world.” Israel is still one of the countries where supermarkets have not caught on and grocery shopping often consists of going to the neighborhood market, the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer or going to the shuk where all of these places can be found.

In “Shuk”, two leading female Israeli food mavens give us 140 home-cook-friendly recipes  that are inspired by Israel’s singular cuisine. We can almost “inhale the fragrances and taste the flavors of the vivacious culinary mash-up that is today’s Israel.” We go deeply into the nature of Israeli food and learn about “long-simmered stews, herb-dominant rice pilafs, toasted-nut-studded grain salads, and of course loads of vegetable dishes” that are either served raw or roasted in every way possible.

That is not all that is here. We also get all kinds of information about the cuisine including necessary spices, where to shop in Israel and the authors’ favorite places. There are beautiful photo essays of “nine celebrated shuks” allowing us to actually feel that we are there.

As for the recipes, the Jewish dishes have their roots in Persia, Yemen, Libya, the Balkans, the Levant, and all the regions that contribute to the evolving food scene in Israel. While the ingredients are familiar, the ways they are combined and used are fascinating. The book is beautifully written and photographed and filled with stories.  You will be struck by the gorgeous photography and warm colors and you will probably find that your mouth is watering as you read.

“THE DIVE’ (“Hatzlila”)— A Family Saga

“THE DIVE’ (“Hatzlila”)

A Family Saga

Amos Lassen

 A family sees massive fighting when they reunite to bury their in writer-director Yona Rozenkier’s semi-autobiographical feature, “The Dive.” Avishai (Micha Rozenkier) is preparing for his mandatory IDF training, he’s reunited with his older brothers who readies him for the harsh realities of war.  Itai (Yona Rozenkier) is the first of the older brothers who we meet.  As the family, including their mom, Franca (Claudia Dulitchi), comes together, Yoav (Yoel Rozenkier) shows up and is killed because Israel is more or less in a state of war. They’re back on the Israeli kibitz where they grew up but it is not what it was when they were growing up.  It is practically empty by now with almost no one living there.

Their father had a final request and that was to be buried in an underwater cave by the sea.  He never could have understood his sons fighting among each other while saying goodbye to him. As they prepare to do so by burying according to his wishes, the two older brothers prepare Avishai for his future in the army. They teach him how they were taught and this includes a very violent paintball game serving as a stand-in for a war zone.  It’s almost as if their training is handed down from generation to generation.  Yoav and Itai opposite views and we see that Yoav’s own trauma informs his way of thinking.  On the other hand, Itai feels very strongly about IDF service.  Avishai can only watch this.

Things get toxic and violent at times but we see and understand that family is. The film is ostensibly about the death of a family’s patriarch, the return home by one of its three sons, and funeral rites  to be done.

Yoav is clearly struggling with PTSD in the wake of his military service. Upon his return, he’s confronted by Itai who lives by an intense macho code, and Avishai  who does not. The film alludes to a growing conflict elsewhere (of course) which will conscript the younger brother into that same crushing ordeal, setting the three off in opposition. Itai wants Avishai to man up and survive; Yoav wants to get his gentle brother out entirely. Owing to their real life status as family, the fraternal interplay feels natural.

“The Dive” is ultimately urging someone to take the plunge towards something truly courageous. We see what happens when one comes from such a kibbutz and a close family, but then something breaks. What happens when brothers are sent to war, but you do not know if you doubt the need for that war because you are afraid for doubting that need to begin with. This is what happens when the world in which one grows up is no longer the place it was.

“INCITEMENT”— Radicalization



Amos Lassen

Yigal Amir becomes increasingly concerned about the prospect of peace in Israel and subsequently prepares to take drastic action. Filmmaker Yaron Zilberman brings us a slow-moving narrative that details Amir’s growing radicalization, with the single-minded focus on Amir’s crumbling mental state  that pave the way for several impressively gripping sequences. Zilberman effectively weaves in the real-life elements of the story that builds to a tremendously tense finale.

Yehuda Nahari portrays Yigal Amir in this movie about the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as viewed through the eyes of his killer. “Incitement” won Best Picture at the 2019 Ophir Awards on Sunday night and  drew immediate criticism from Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev who said it libeled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I Understand that the Best Picture winner at the Ophir Awards is traditionally sent on to compete as Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars. Regev stated that there was “no place” in Israel for such a film and charging that it maligned Netanyahu, who has been accused of incitement in the lead-up to the November 4, 1995, murder. “There is no place for a film that tries to understand [Amir] or his motivations, or to hint or accuse others of being behind his heinous act.” Regev took umbrage at the way that Netanyahu was portrayed.

Netanyahu has repeatedly been accused of whipping up hatred in the run-up to the killing. Rabin was murdered  by Amir, an extremist, ultra-nationalist Jew who was opposed to the Oslo Accords and the handing over of control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians as part of the landmark peace agreement.

In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Netanyahu, then head of the opposition, and other senior Likud members attended a right-wing political rally in Jerusalem where protesters branded Rabin a “traitor,” “murderer” and “Nazi” for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians earlier that year.

This film is the first time that the events play out in a narrative feature.  This is a psychological thriller that asks questions including how did this society push one man down this path?  Yigal Amir was an ultra-nationalist.  In the film, we get an idea that he believes writings in the Talmud give him the right to murder the Prime Minister.  Amir views Rabin as a traitor because of the Oslo Accords.  The Accords were controversial given that it meant Israel would be withdrawing from land.  One can understand as to why this didn’t sit well with some of the population.  We see people calling for Rabin’s head during the protests.

Amir seeks counsel from various Orthodox rabbis but what really drives him over the top is when religious extremist Baruch Goldstein committed the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.  There were 29 people killed and another 125 wounded.

Director Yaron Zilberman uses archival footage wisely and is not afraid to blame Israeli society.  Most notably, there are clips featuring Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and it is no secret that Netanyahu opposed the peace process.  We see that over the following two-plus decades since the assassination,  Israel is nowhere closer to peace.  The society around Amir drove him down a path that is seemingly unfathomable for any Orthodox Jew. A turning point comes following the massacre in Hebron.  Amir wants to start his own militia that will take over when the IDF abandons checkpoints under the Oslo Accords.  Basically, his actions drive his own loved ones away from him. “Incitement” seeks to examine why Amir acted as he did.

“A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion” by Tom Segev— The Founder of the State

Segev, Tom. “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion”, Farrar, Straus& Giroux, 2019.

A Founder of the State

Amos Lassen

David Ben-Gurion secured his reputation as a leading figure of the twentieth century and founder of the State of Israel. Determined from an early age to create a Jewish state, he took control of the Zionist movement, declared Israel’s independence, and then navigated his country through wars, controversies and remarkable achievements. What is so interesting is that Ben-Gurion enigmatic. He was a man who could be driven and imperious, or quizzical and confounding. 

Tom Segev is Israel’s leading journalist-historian and in this, the definitive biography of the founder of the Jewish state uses large amounts of previously unreleased archival material and gives an original, nuanced account and that transcend the myths and legends that have surrounded the man. Segev goes back to the villages of Poland and to Manhattan libraries, to London hotels, to Palestine, showing us Ben-Gurion’s relentless activity across six decades. As we read, Segev reveals for the first time Ben-Gurion’s secret negotiations with the British on the eve of Israel’s independence, his willingness to countenance the forced transfer of Arab neighbors, his relative indifference to Jerusalem, and his occasional “crazy moments” including UFO sightings to plans for Israel to acquire territory in South America. Segev shares that Ben-Gurion first heard about the Holocaust from a Palestinian Arab acquaintance, and explores his tempestuous private life, including the testimony of four former lovers.

Ben Gurion sought a state “at any cost” and used such means as risk-taking, violence, and unpredictability as well as at compromise, moderation, and reason. The man that Segev writes about “is neither a saint nor a villain but rather a historical actor who belongs in the company of Lenin or Churchill―a twentieth-century leader whose iron will and complex temperament left a complex and contentious legacy that we still reckon with today.” The portrait he gives is one of conflicts whose private and political personalities are both presented here. Ben-Gurion was a visionary leader, an efficient organizer determination and persuasiveness were responsible for the creation of the State of Israel as an independent and sovereign state. Without them, we might not have had Israel. To study Ben-Gurion is to study power and how lonely that is. Segev gives us a leader “fraught with dramatic contrasts . . . the author has come up with significant historical revelations.” 

“We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel” by Daniel Gordis— A Reevaluation

Gordis, Daniel. “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel”, Ecco,  2019.

A Reevaluation

Amos Lassen

I believe that we can all agree that relations between the American Jewish community and Israel are at an all-time low. We are all aware of this and often see and feel it in daily conversations. Having spent a good part of my life in Israel, I am not surprised but I will tell you that it hurts to hear Jews being vocally negative about Israel. “Since Israel’s founding seventy years ago, particularly as memory of the Holocaust and of Israel’s early vulnerability has receded, the divide has grown only wider.” Most explain this on the way that Israel handles its conflict with the Palestinians, her attitude toward non-Orthodox Judaism, and her “dismissive attitude” toward American Jews. Daniel Gordis in “We Stand Divided” shows that the cause such division comes from “not what Israel is; it’s what Israel does.” Gordis reevaluates the tensions between the community in Israel and our community here and he does so by reimagining the past, present, and future of Jewish life.

We see that from the very beginning the founders of both Jewish communities had to deal with “different threats and opportunities, and had very different ideas of how to guarantee a Jewish future.” Israel and America have fundamentally different ideas about issues ranging from democracy and history to religion and identity.  We must try to heal this division but in order to do so, both communities must acknowledge and discuss their deep differences and their moral commitments. Otherwise there is really no hope for them to move forward together.

I often feel personally hurt when I hear people speaking against Israel especially after having served in the Israel Defense Forces during dangerous times. I am worried about the future of both Jewish communities and I often wake up with a sense of fear that is not easy to shake. The relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews has always held a sense of foreboding except perhaps during the jubilation after the Six-Day War in 1967. I do find it interesting how that jubilation has soured and how we forget how we publicly danced the hora in celebration.

Gordis writes with intelligence about the ongoing ideological tensions and how they might be resolved and he does so with great passion. This is a book we have needed for a quite a while if we really want to understand  American Jewish-Israel relations. Perhaps the most surprising fact we learn here is that this division is not new and has always been there but never so widely spoken of as it is today. Gordis shows us how and where the disconnect began and then looks to the future where he imagines “deepened mutual appreciation aimed at sustaining one unified Jewish people.”

What I find so hard to understand are those American Jews who claim to take on the progressive values of this country and then become sympathetic to the enemies of the Jewish state above their sympathy for Israel. Gordis shows that this and other explanations for the division are so much deeper and that, in actuality, “the two communities’ dreams for a Jewish future had little in common.”

American Jews and Israelis see different opportunities and over time, two radically diverging visions of Jewish life came forward. As noted earlier, the two communities must acknowledge and  then talk about “their profoundly different purposes and moral commitments. Only then can they forge a path forward, together.”

Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client” by Alan M. Dershowitz

Dershowitz, Alan M. “Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client”,  All Points Books, 2019.

Defense and Criticism

Amos Lassen

Alan Dershowitz, the world famous lawyer, shares stories from his many years of defending the state of Israel who he says has been his “most challenging client”―the state of Israel. Dershowitz has had both publicly and in private meetings with high level international figures, including every US president and Israeli leader of the past 40 years. In “Defending Israel”, he shares personal insights and unreported details. He gives us a comprehensive history of modern Israel from his perspective as, he says, one of the country’s most important supporters. We read of the high profile controversies and debates that Dershowitz was involved in over the years as we see the political tides changing and the liberal community becoming increasingly critical of Israeli policies.

We can also see this as an updated defense of the Jewish homeland on numerous points. and Dershowitz’s criticisms of Israeli decisions and policies that he believes to be unwise. Today, many Jewish Americans are increasingly uncertain as to who supports Israel and who doesn’t. Dershowitz maintains that this book has answers and is a pragmatic look toward the future. However, it is to be read as his opinions.

“When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History” by Massoud Hayoun— Reclaiming Identity

Hayoun, Massoud. “When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History”, The New Press , 2019.

Reclaiming Identity

Amos Lassen

“When We Were Arabs” is Hayoun Massoud’s account of his grandparents’ lives in Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Los Angeles and in it he reclaims his family’s Jewish Arab identity. I have often wondered why we consider all Arabs to be Muslims when they are not. We confuse ethnicity with religion and we must remember that there

was a time when being an “Arab” didn’t mean someone was necessarily Muslim. There was a time when Oscar Hayoun, a Jewish Arab, walked along the Nile in a fashionable suit, long before he and his father came to Haifa to join the Zionist state but to find themselves hosed down with DDT and then left unemployed on the margins of society. Then to be an Arab was a mark of cosmopolitanism, of intellectualism. Today, in the age of the Likud and ISIS, Oscar’s son, the Jewish Arab journalist Massoud Hayoun whom Oscar raised in Los Angeles, tells his family’s story in order to find his voice.

Hayoun wanted to reclaim his Arab identity as, part of a larger project to recall a time before ethnic identity was used for political ends. It is also a personal journey into a lost age of sophisticated innocence in the Arab world; an age that is now almost lost. He brings the words of his grandparents back to life by eschewing today’s contemporary understanding of what makes an Arab, what makes a Jew, and how battle lines over this have been drawn. He brings together his family history and politics that shaped their lives and presents further understanding of complex identities and mixed cultural heritages. To do this, he uses family lore, journals, and photographs to tell his grandparents’ story and shows a lost multicultural era in the Arab world.  This is a story of survival and success and an intriguing one at that. It is his goal “to obliterate our brittle understandings of what is Jewish, Arab, and radically loving.” We become very aware of the postcolonial foundations of contemporary Arab American identity.
We do not often hear the term Arab Jew without propaganda or prejudice. The book chronicles how the nuance that had been there in “Jewish Arab political identities disappeared under the onslaught of Zionism.” I would have preferred a different word to “onslaught” or even an explanation why Hayoun chose to use that term.

“When We Were Arabs” revolves around Hayoun’s own family’s painful experience of having to leave their homeland and it certainly is not a nostalgic look back at a better time.  Arabs/Muslims and Jews have not been at each other’s throats for thousands of years. Arab Jews were an integral and integrated part of their communities whose lives that were enmeshed with those of their Christian and Moslem neighbors. Arab Jews were at times oppressed by the mightier and more corrupt, but no more so than other poor, non-Jewish Arabs. Hayoun also exposes how the colonial powers, in partnership with European Jews, forced the Arab Jewish community to cuts its millennial old religious and cultural traditions. Traditional divide and conquer strategies were used to separate Arab Jews from their neighbors. The methods used were, so the writer says, first by the Zionist movement and then by a nascent Israel, to force mass migration of Arab Jews to Israel. There were strategies used to drive the mass emigration of Iraqis to Israel letting us see that this is not a new idea.

However, between the beautiful prose and the author’s ideas is his problem with the State of Israel. We cannot help but sense his very strong feelings against the country and it builds page by page. Some of his claims against Israel are unfounded (or it they are found, then the programs are totally secretive). I cannot believe that Zionists brought about attacks against Jews in the Middle East in order to frighten them into moving to Israel. Hayoun also writes about what he calls “peaceful protests in Gaza,” without writing about the flaming kites, condoms with IEDs, and Palestinian children sent to the front with weapons. The author’s biases are exaggerated to the point of disbelief. I say wanted to like this book but some of the statements make it impossible to do so. But then I am an Israeli/American and, of course, that colors my way of thinking.

I do, on the other hand, like the way that preconceived notions of what Arabness and Jewishness means is handled. This is a well-documented history of Arab Jews, and colonialism in the Arab world but I wanted to know more about Hayoun’s actual background, with his family.

“DOUZE POINTS”— “Fiction Flirts With Reality”


“Fiction Flirts With Reality”

 In “Douze Points”, the Islamic State plans for a French contestant to carry  out a spectacular terror attack on the air.  Mossad agents do their best to foil it. This  is a crazy Israeli film on Eurovision in Israel.

Rasoul Abu-Marzuk and Tarik Jihad were childhood best friends who grew up together in the Muslim quarter of Paris until Tarik decided to come out of  the closet at the age of 15. It was at that moment that Rasoul turned his back on his best friend and Tarik was excommunicated from his community.

10 years later Tarik is now TJ, a proud, gay singer that has left his past behind and lives like there is no tomorrow, fulfilling his dream to represent France in Europe’s biggest song contest. Rasoul has taken a different path. He followed his extremist, Islamic father, Abbas, and is now part of an ISIS terror cell in Paris. ISIS decides that the 2019 Europe song contest, set to take place in Israel, is a great opportunity for their biggest terror attack ever!!! They plan to plant one of their operatives into the French delegation at the contest in order to set off an explosion under the stage during the final performance of the event.

 The ISIS cell will make sure that TJ represents France at the European song contest and that one of their members will be under-cover, acting as TJ’s boyfriend. What TJ doesn’t know is that ISIS is planning to carry out the lethal attack, and that his “boyfriend” is none other than Rasoul.

The Israeli Mossad does know about the planned attack and they put their toughest, most experienced team into the contest in order to prevent a major catastrophe.