[‘And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel‘ by Rick Richman will be available on Feb 12, 2023.]
Israel, like the Jewish people, is both incredibly complex and simple. Everyone thinks that they know the story, but no one really does. The complexity and simplicity of a story that happened in the lifetime of many still living today is what obligates Rick Richman to break down the story of the rebirth of a biblical nation into eight smaller stories of key figures in that drama.
In the parable of the elephant, a group of blind men grope around the beast. Each finds a body part that seems to resemble something else, a snake, a wall, a rope. But this metaphor is true of Israel which represents a unity and also many things that are complex in and of themselves.
Eight ways of looking at Israel is at once too many and too few, but Rick Richman’s book delivers a satisfying survey of a few human beings who account for the complexity and conflicts of advocating for a Jewish State.
And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel is made up of both contrasting and complementary portraits. History introduces a sense of distance from the urgent conflicts that go into the founding of any nation. The Founding Fathers have receded into a single unity although at times some were willing to fight each other to the death. Not enough history has passed that the figures in this book, Weizmann and Jabotinsky, Golda Meir and Ben Hecht, can sit comfortably together. Richman, a lifelong pro-Israel activist and journalist, begins with Herzl and concludes with Ron Dermer who served as ambassador under Netanyahu.
But what Richman is after isn’t a founding story so much as it’s a story of what people found in the cause. There are plenty of stories of what individuals did for Israel, And None Shall Make Them Afraid is in many ways more the story of how advocating for a Jewish State changed the lives of some disparate figures: a couple of journalists from different countries, Ben Hecht, a Hollywood screenwriter, Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president and a biochemist, Golda Meir, a Milwaukee librarian and Ron Dermer, a kid from Miami studying philosophy.
Richman wanted to tell the story of the interconnection between “Zionism and Americanism from 1895 to the present” in his collection of essays and of the eight central figures in its narrative, four are Americans, one a Brit and still another spent a good deal of time in the UK. “I believe in England,” he quotes Jabotinsky as saying, “just as I believed in England twenty years ago.”
That belief ultimately fell apart. Most of the stories, beginning with Herzl, are also the stories of a loss of faith in the alternatives that initially seemed so promising and so right to secular Jews.
And in losing faith in everything else, they found a touchstone and discovered themselves.
It was not a catastrophe alone that could occasion such a loss of faith. Even after the Holocaust, many American and European Jews recommitted themselves to the same beliefs and institutions that had failed. Some German Jews returned to Germany. Others continued to believe that Israel was not necessary because the Holocaust could not happen again. But Israel was not a response to the Holocaust, it was a response to the loss of meaning among Jews.
Especially among those who had achieved so much and yet felt that they had missed what truly mattered.
For the ordinary mass of Jewish refugees flowing in from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the need for Israel was no more philosophical than America was for New England farmers. But for the figures profiled in And None Shall Make Them Afraid, it was not survival, religion or anything so clear and simple that made them look up from the ‘fleshpots of Egypt.’
There were inciting incidents. For Herzl, it was the Dreyfus case, but for others it was the undignified lack of a meaningful identity that is still at the heart of the dysfunction of liberal Jews. Jews had won enough rights and professional success to feel the hollowness of it even well before the Nazis came rushing through Europe, and then Communists and Islamists, to upend the liberal experiment. The Holocaust did not create Israel, it marked the closing of Jewish life under liberalism in Europe. Jews who were already restless with the incompleteness of the material comforts and poverty of purpose found their ‘red pill’ moment and became Zionists.
The rebirth of Israel can be viewed through the lens of prophecy, as an exercise in military tactics, political gamesmanship and human striving. It is this latter region that And None Shall Make Them Afraid occupies. It is not telling new stories, but it is telling them from a new human perspective. The personalities who comprise the book are as unlikely a group of people as the return of Israel. They are not ideals of Zionism, but rather individuals from around the world whose lives altered dramatically because they came to believe that there was something that was fundamentally missing in the world and among the Jewish people.
Zionism occasioned as much passionate debate from its beginning as it does now. Western Jews had reacted to the liberalization of society by abandoning their religion and heritage. The familiar liberal Jew, disdainful of seriousness in religion, nationalism or any particularist idea, was born then and spread to overtake the Jewish communities of North America and Europe.
Rather than welcoming Zionism, the Jewish establishment fought it tooth and nail. The rebirth of Israel forced the establishment to make a limited peace with it, but it has never accepted it. The hostility to the Jewish State is not a new phenomenon. And defending Israel was as much of a thankless cause then as it is today. When Ben Hecht tried to rally a group of Jewish writers and journalists, the forgotten novelist Edna Ferber turned on him, “Who is paying you to do this wretched propaganda: Mister Hitler? Or is it Mister Goebbels?”
Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of a conservative nationalist Zionism, who warned that a Holocaust was coming, was denounced by leftists as “Vladimir Hitler.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that a moderate government allowed his remains to be buried in Israel. The history of Israel may have been decisively written in the spirit or determined on battlefields, but in the political realm it emerged out of bitter arguments and divisions over the question of whether Israel should exist.
And what it should look like if it did exist.
As leftist editorials and protesters inveigh against judicial reform in Israel, And None Shall Make Them Afraid reminds us that this is not a new problem. There is a long chronological gap in Rickman’s book between the last and the penultimate figures, Abba Eban and Ron Dermer, because the internal conflict is part of an ongoing story. Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, had served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary. Behind the street protests and elections, the old battle continues to play out between the Left and what has become the Zionist movement.
There are echoes of “Mister Goebbels” and “Vladimir Hitler” in the current op-eds comparing Netanyahu to Orban. The tension between liberalism and Zionism that was there at its rebirth has only worsened as the former has been swallowed by the Left. Israel has taken many of the arguments over Zionism out of the realm of philosophy and into pragmatic everyday realities.
At least for Israelis. American Jews continue to debate abstractions. And None Shall Make Them Afraid chronicles the transformation of abstractions into realities against all odds, and the transformation of intellectuals, writers, activists and thinkers, into heroes and leaders.
There are many miracles in Israel. Rick Richman’s book honorably chronicles the miracles of the mind and heart that made seemingly random figures sacrifice so much for a dream.