Book Review: Saving Israel by Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President and Senior Fellow of the Shalem Center, sent me a review copy of his new book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End . The title highlights the contradictory nature of the book’s theme: Israel has difficult and seemingly intractable problems, but there are solutions. Gordis builds his case carefully, with anecdotes and historical tidbits of information. In the chapter on early Zionism, we learn that Bialik’s famous poem, Nad-Ned, has a hidden message. Nad-Ned has been set to music and causes a Pavlovian reaction with the caretaker bursting into song whenever a child is put in a swing. One line asks, mah lemaalah, mah lematah?, or “What is up, what is down?” Gordis points out that Bialik chose this line from a discussion in the Mishnah (Tractate Chagigah) about the limits of questioning God’s actions and maintains that Bialik means to disparage the rabbis’ arguments. Despite the strong secularism of many early Zionists, they valued Jewish history, tradition, and ethical teachings. Bialik would have been shocked to see the lack of Jewish knowledge and identity of many modern Israelis. Gordis’ son met a young man who had never heard of the Shema, the central Jewish prayer affirming God and said twice a day and on one’s deathbed. I know a woman whose 12-year-old neighbor, one Friday night, asked her why she had lit candles. A generation that lacks Jewish identity and cultural and historical context, a generation that has not learned the value of Judaism, will have a hard time finding reasons to defend itself against threats. Gordis describes an interview with two Sudanese refugees, living in a converted shipping container and awaiting an answer regarding their legal status.  As they began their story he mentally prepared himself for the refugees’ complaints about their treatment and wondered whether it had been wise to bring his teenaged son.

“How was it in jail?” my friend from Los Angeles asked them. Again, I felt my hands gripping the arms of my chair. “Very good,” Mahmoud said. “No,” my friend insisted, certain that Mahmoud had not understood. “In jail, how was it for you in jail?” “Yes,” Mahmoud persisted, “very good.”

In the Egyptian jail, where he had been held for demonstrating outside the UN office, 60 men had to take turns sleeping on the floor in a single cell. In the Israeli jail, they got their own beds and three hot meals a day. Gordis’s point is clear. Those who set out to criticize Israel will find plenty of material. But an unbiased, outsider’s view, often tells a different story. My husband pointed out that Gordis sounds like an American liberal who needed to adjust his views when he arrived in Israel. That explains why Saving Israel contains a chapter on the difference between American-style democracy and Israeli-style democracy. The United States was founded to allow equality for everyone. But Israel was founded to improve the condition of the Jewish people. Both are strong democracies, yet have different goals. Gordis devotes two chapters to explain the painful reality that Arabs in Israel, while enjoying equal rights on an individual level (despite  discrimination that should be eliminated), cannot have the same status on a national level without negating the reason for Israel’s existence. Saving Israel is an excellent book for anyone neutral about Israel, or confused about why the Jewish people in modern times need their own state. Gordis describes the appalling condition of the Jews after the Holocaust and what the foundation of Israel meant to them, something hard for the younger generation to appreciate. The first half of the book describes the insidious nature and injustice of relentless and ongoing physical, moral and political attacks on Israel and Jews. He explains that while Judaism does not glorify war and abhors cruelty, pacifism is not a Jewish value. It didn’t work to prevent the Holocaust, and  can’t work for any sovereign state with powerful enemies. I read it in sections because there was so much to absorb and because Gordis’ personal, conversational tone, unusual for this type of book, irritated me at times. In Saving Israel, Gordis presents the many dilemmas faced by Israel an answers common charges made against Israel and Zionism. Read it for yourself or give a copy to an ambivalent friend. Whether or not you agree, it will make you think about the issues on a deeper level. More book reviews: She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel Through the Narrow Gate, by Karen Armstrong Show, Don’t Tell. Features a writing exercise based on a passage from another of Brooks’ books. Rashi’s Daughters, Book I, by Maggie Anton.


  1. This looks like a book I might read and share.

  2. You have convinced me that I should study Bialik. Maybe I’ll read Gordis’ book, too, but more so I would like to study the early Israeli poets.

  3. causes a Pavlovian reaction with the caretaker bursting into song whenever a child is put in a swing.
    LOL! 🙂

  4. Mrs. S and MII- too true!

    Although I always thought the words were “Na l’maalah Na l’matah”. After this article, and consulting the authoratative “100 Shirim” I see I’ve been singing the wrong words for 6 years!

  5. I haven’t read the book but I get Gordis’ pieces by email and I believe a lot of the book is taken from these emails. He writes well, in a manipulative sort of way. In general it ends up being a tear-jerker. In any caase I think reading these one directly after anothe is probaable too much at once, He is definitely better in small doses. I think your husband is right on the money here. He is trying to maintain a liberal democratic attitude and maybe it works on American Jews in America. Personally, it’s hard for me to take.

  6. As a childcare worker, I laughed too. But was surprised by the child who didn’t know about lighting candles. I live and work in a secular kibbutz, but every Friday we light candles and drink “wine” in our own kabbalat shabbat. When there are no birthdays, we make hallah with the children. And whilst we don’t dwell on religious aspects or mention G-d often, when discussing holidays we certainly include the Jewish identity.

  7. mominisrael says

    Julie, presumably the mother knows about Shabbat candles but failed to pass on the knowledge to her daughter.

  8. The “Nad-ned” song really is the way I learned it, at any rate), “mi le-ma’alah, mi le-matah;” and it goes on to answer the question: “rak ani, ani ve-ata.” I didn’t know there was any ‘hidden meaning’ to it.
    Thank you for your review; it sounds like a book I would definitely want to read.

  9. I read it and thank Daniel Gordis for writing it. We need to understand what he says. Anyyone with doubts should read all the details of the Holocaust when all the nations would not issue visas to Jews so the Germans understood they could kill them and take all their possessions for themselves with impunity.
    Just as the Arabs teach hate, murder and suicide bombing the European Church did the same. Hence everyone believed that the Jews killed God etc. and they deserved, including the infants to be murdered.
    Israel and the United States are the only decent states.

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