Essential Israel

Essays for the 21st Century

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
S. Ilan Troen, Rachel Fish
Perspectives on Israel Studies
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     436 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Often times the study of Israel elicits negative or positive emotions in the researcher. Similarly, in the media there is an obsession with Israel which is not always commensurate with the strategic importance of this tiny country. That is why “Israel literacy” is of the utmost importance when analyzing Israeli politics and society. Raising awareness of “Israel literacy” is exactly what Ilan Troen and Rachel Fish purport to do in their book Essential Israel, which covers a wide range of topics from Zionism, Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Middle East Peace Process, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, American Jews, religion and the state, Christian and Islamic approaches to the Jewish state and Jews, and Israeli literature. 

Written by scholars who are experts on different aspects of Israel, Essential Israel provides a teaching tool for newcomers to the field as well as for those better acquainted with the subject who want to have a holistic approach to Israeli society, culture, and politics. One of the fascinating topics in Israeli society is the dichotomy between the Law of Return, which is mostly secular, and the definition of Jewishness according to Jewish law (halacha) by the Chief Rabbinate. While a person might be considered a Jew as far as the Law of Return is concerned, hence eligible to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen, she or he would not necessarily be identified as a Jew according to the strict criteria of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. 

As a consequence, around 300,000 Russian Jews, who don’t have a Jewish mother as required by the Orthodox definition of Jewishness but rather a Jewish father, are being excluded from marriage or burial in a Jewish cemetery. Furthermore, there is no civil marriage in Israel. Going back to the 1947 Status Quo agreement signed between the future prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, and the leaders of Ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel, certain aspects of religion such as kashrut, keeping the Shabbat, and marriage were relegated to the religious elements in society. While Ben Gurion believed the religious groups to be a passing phenomenon, he did not calculate the fact that their numbers and influence over Israeli society and politics would exponentially rise in the coming decades. These topics are discussed in detail in the chapter written by David Ellenson.

Moreover, the contradictions and challenges between a Jewish and a democratic state are astutely discussed by Yedidia Stern, who calls for balance and compatibility between the two concepts for modern Israel. He argues that major challenges come from the Arab citizens and the special place of Judaism in the country, begging the question as to how to reconcile these two phenomena with a democratic society.

A number of authors make comparisons with the US as far as state-religion relations and perceptions of private property in America are concerned, as opposed to the primacy of the state in Israel. The cultural and historical differences between the two entities are laid out so as to help the reader to better comprehend the Israeli experience. The main divergence seems to be the emphasis on individualism in the American experience, whereas in Israel the focus has been on the community and the nation. 

Israel’s relations with the diaspora, especially with American Jews, are also covered in the volume. Rising tensions between the two largest Jewish communities in the world are a function of a number factors, including the Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs in Israel and the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Jews belong to non-Orthodox denominations such as Reform and Conservative Judaism. The fact that their conversions and marriage ceremonies are to a large extent unrecognized in Israel is a source of friction. Consequently, the attempts of the Women of the Wall to claim a place to pray on the Western Wall, which meet with rejection by Orthodox authorities in Israel, is another source of disagreement, even though the Israeli government tried to find a solution to these demands only to renege after religious pressure coming from haredi political parties. In other words, all these discussions unpack a complex reality regarding the relations between state, religion, and Jewish identity in Israel. 

Other significant topics covered in the book include chapters by Alan Dowty about the Arab-Israeli conflict and by David Makovsky on the Middle East peace process. Needless to say, Israel’s relations with its neighbors have been marred by war and violence, but there have also been significant endeavors to resolve the conflict, first with Egypt and then with Jordan and the Palestinians. While peace treaties were signed with the two Arab countries, a settlement was not reached with the Palestinians due to a number of reasons. The major reason for this state of affairs, in my judgment, is the fact that two peoples have claims over the same piece of territory, therefore making the Israeli-Palestinian antagonism one of existential rivalry. The fact that a two-state solution is becoming less likely should make both parties seriously consider the repercussions of a one-state reality. 

It is always possible to say another topic should have been included for any book, but a chapter about Israeli Arabs, who now make up 20 percent of the Israeli population, would have made the book more comprehensive in addressing Israel in its entirety. 

The editors of the book aim to increase literacy on Israel among the reading public and in academia, especially in the United States and all English-speaking countries. They have quite successfully accomplished this goal. This book, with its in-depth analysis and erudition, can be used as an excellent tool in Middle Eastern politics classes while also serving as an intellectual resource for experts who want to learn more about the complexities of Israel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Umut Uzer is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Istanbul Technical University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

S. Ilan Troen is the Karl, Harry, and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies and founding director of the Schusterman Center for Israel studies at Brandeis University. He is founding editor of Israel Studies. His publications include Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement and (with Jacob Lassner) Jews and Muslims in the Arab World: Haunted by Pasts Real and Imagined.

Rachel Fish is associate director of the Schusterman Center.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.