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Caveat Emptor


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There’s a new book out that, due to its subject matter, is certain to attract the interest of many a Monitor reader. Be warned, however, that the book in question – “Irreconcilable Differences” The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel? – is a truly awful piece of work, hardly worth the time and effort of anyone who doesn’t get paid to review such a wretched endeavor.  Not, mind you, that the Monitor fails to recognize the need for a book that takes an intelligent, comprehensive and objective look at the evolving relationship between Israel and American Jews. Unfortunately, “intelligent, comprehensive and objective” is not the type of book that Steven T. Rosenthal, an associate professor of history at the University of Hartford, has written.What he’s given us instead is a tendentious, sloppy, error-filled volume that fast-forwards through a century’s worth of history, with particular emphasis on the years 1977-2000. That he does it all in just 197 pages should in itself serve as something of a red flag; a topic this rich and complex would seem to require more than a Cliff’s Notes level of treatment.

Where to begin with this mess? You want mistakes? Rosenthal makes plenty of them, leaving one to wonder whether any knowledgeable person at Brandeis University Press actually read the manuscript before its publication.

What is there to say about a history professor who repeatedly misspells the names of Nahum Goldmann – a central figure in Zionist history – and Elie Wiesel – surely one of the most famous Jews alive today – throughout his book?

And what is one to think of a history professor who throughout his text botches the name of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations? It certainly is a mouthful of a name, but the organization it belongs to does, after all, play a seminal role in the story Rosenthal purports to tell.Or how about a history professor who in one part of his book incorrectly places the signing of the Oslo accords in October 1993, while in another part correctly places it in September of that year? A history professor who has the historic mass expulsion of Palestinians from Jordan into Lebanon taking place in 1971, when in fact it occurred in 1970?Beyond his carelessness with facts, Rosenthal makes some claims that are questionable at best, as when he describes Menachem Begin as having been “personally Orthodox.” (Begin did have an abiding appreciation for Jewish customs and culture, but to call him “Orthodox” is such a stretch that it almost constitutes an assault on truth.)

Rosenthal’s lack of objectivity is one more factor that renders this book an exercise in futility. It’s one thing to present so slanted a version of history if one is writing a polemic on behalf of one position or another, but this book is billed as a “full-scale examination of the nature and development of the American Jewish response to Israel.”Just how unsubtle is Rosenthal’s subjectivity? Let’s see: he simplistically describes Vladimir Jabotinsky as someone who “emphasized the importance of power over morality”; he decries what he calls Israel’s “troubling growth of racism embodied in Menachem Begin’s reference to Palestinians as “beasts with two legs” (never mind that Begin was in fact referring to PLO terrorists); and he swooningly describes the first intifada as perhaps “the most important event in the past twenty-five years of Israeli history….that the rioters could not be intimidated was unprecedented. Troops sent to put them down faced stones and rocks thrown by otherwise unarmed teenagers, who refused to disperse and bared their chests, daring the soldiers to shoot them.”And so goes the tone of this one-sided tract masquerading as straight history. But then, if straight history were what this book’s publishers really wanted, Rosenthal was never suited to the task. As he recently admitted to an interviewer at Salon.com, “in an Israeli context, I would be in the “Peace Now” camp.” Now he tells us.

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.


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