By Rich Gotshall

The recent Middle East visit by President Donald Trump has raised a new interest in that region and in particular the future of the state of Israel; and a recent book from Indiana University Press should answer many questions raised by that trip.

“Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century” is not a primer but more of a contextual guide to the issues that drive that country and its relationship with its regional neighbors and with the United States. While at least a basic understanding of the history of the modern state of Israel would be helpful, the chapters are not so esoteric.

An interested novice will come to a much clearer understanding, and well-informed readers will increase their depth.

The authors are wide ranging, and all are specialists in their respective fields. Each chapter includes an annotated bibliography that will allow for more in-depth research.

The book opens with an overview to its approach, setting the scene both for Israel and its position in the Middle East and the Arab world. The next chapter examines the geography of the country. While the authors show how the land has shaped the people, they are not geographical determinists.

The third chapter, “From Zionism to Zion” explores the origin and growth of the Zionist movement that helped build pressure to create a modern Jewish state. Several of the leading figures in the movement are profiled.

The mission of this entry is made clear in the opening sentence of the chapter conclusion: “Israel was not born ex nihilo in 1948.” Near the end, the authors write: “The Holocaust might have been decisive to convince the world of the necessity of a Jewish state but at the same time it almost buried the Zionist dreams.”

Ensuing chapters cover a variety of topics, such as Arab-Israeli conflicts and the peace process, democracy in Israel, and literature and culture.

Many readers are likely to find especially interesting are the chapters on Christianity and Israel and Islam and the Jewish state. In the former, readers will find a brief history of anti-Semitic thought in Christianity, particular the Catholic Church, and the emergence of modern Israel as a manifestation of contemporary Pentecostalism. Many believers see Israel as the first step in the return of Christ.

With respect to Israel and Islam, the author goes to some length to refute the belief that Jews and Arabs have been at each other’s throats since the beginning of Islam.

In fact, Jews were tolerated in Muslim countries for centuries. It was only in the late 19th century that animus heightened. In the 20th century — and continuing today — Arab leaders repeated many of the calumnies previously espoused by anti-Semitic Christians.

The establishment of the state of Israel, the battlefield successes of its military and the Palestinian refugee problem further fueled this hostility.

None of the authors offer suggestions for settling modern political issues. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive. But readers will come away with a much clearer view of the issues involved and be better able to understand and appreciate contemporary developments.

At a glance


Title: Essential Israel: Essays for the 21st Century

Editors: S. Ilan Troen and Rachel Fish

Pages: 423

Price: $35

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Rich Gotshall is a retired journalist and Franklin resident. Send comments to