Wednesday, July 22, 2015


I have a hard time deciding whether it is better to read books about a country before a trip or after. If I read before I travel, I have a broader base from which to draw as I see new things. If I read after, the book tends to have more meaning because I have context for the informatoin. It's a conundrum, and the only real solution is to do both, which may also mean reading a book twice.

I read quite a few books pre- and post-traveling to Israel. Some I've already reviewed and appended to my posts, including:
Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler
Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by       John Esposito
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
The Lion's Gate by Steven Pressfield
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright 

There are many, many other books to read about this fascinating country, however, and I keep finding them.  Here are a few more suggestions of good pre- and post-travel reading:

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan
I have read this insightful, poignant book twice. It is the true story of two families who both lived in the same house in Israel, an Arab Palestinian family first and then an Israeli family after 1948. A 25-year-old son in the Palestinian family courageously ventures into Israeli territory in 1967 to visit the house (and the eponymous lemon tree his father planted while his family lived there) and becomes friends with the 19-year-old daughter of the Israeli family who currently owns it. The author tracks the lives of the two characters and chronicles their sometimes rocky friendship during the ensuing decades. This is the best book I've read to give context to both the Palestinian and the Israeli side of what remains a complex and volatile conflict.

Golda by Elinor Burkett
I had no idea that Golda Meir was born in poverty in Russia and grew up in Wisconsin. When I was a young teen, she was the symbol of both the Israeli cause and of the international feminist movement. (I also never thought of her as a raving beauty, but as a young woman, she attracted her fair share of men.) Her politics were shaped in the US and later as a young married woman living on a kibbutz in Israel. After holding various positions in the Israeli government, she became the Prime Minister in 1969, the first woman head of state in the Western world. She served during some of Israel's most tumultuous periods, including the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This book paints a fascinating portrait of a very complex woman and gives many insights into Israel's growing pains.

Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices by  Mosab Hassan Yousef
The author is the oldest son of the founding member of Hamas, the militant Anti-Jewish faction of Islam in Palestine. At first part of the organization, Yousef ultimately converts to Christianity and advocates "love your enemy" as the only possible solution in Israel. I liked that (for the most part) he did not paint members of Hamas as evil, unfeeling barbarians, but as humans with strong emotions, good along with the bad.

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish 
A Harvard-trained Palestinian infertility specialist who is on staff in an Israeli hospital recounts his experiences raising his family in the Gaza Strip and his efforts to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. In 2009, less than a year after his wife's death from cancer, an Israeli bomb struck his house and killed three of his daughters. Refusing to retaliate or sink into a pit of despair or anger, he calls for peace and open discussion between the warring factions. While we did not get close to the Gaza Strip on our trip, I think this book provided me with valuable insights into the politics of the region and made me much more sympathetic--again--to the Palestinian cause.

The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
This novel, written by a Jewish-American woman, is about the Arab-Jewish conflict in Israel as told through the eyes of an Arab child who grows up to be a brilliant Arab-American physicist. An advocate for the peaceful sharing of Palestine/Israel, the author describes the complexities of the situation and the horrors of oppression that lead to violence. It is interesting that while she mostly sides with the Arabs against Jewish domination, this book has been much criticized by the Arab community. The book covers a period of 54 years, beginning in 1955 and ending in 2009, giving a good overview of the conflict. The solutions seem a bit simplistic, but the story held my attention.

Exodus by Leon Uris
For decades this book was the definitive text that shaped many Americans' opinions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A sweeping historical novel covering the period between the end of World War II and the establishment of Israel in 1948, Exodus not only gives the reader a large slate of memorable characters, but also a good view of history and insight into American attitudes regarding Israel during the late 1950s when the books was written. I learned a lot--such as how Jews from Nazi concentration camps were relocated on the island of Cyprus in virtual concentration camps and how English policies held back the establishment of a Jewish state--but I did get a little annoyed at how Uris painted all Arabs as low-lifes and all Jews as heroes. On the other hand, understanding that mindset is a key part of understanding US policies in Israel. 

My Glorious Brothers by Howard Fast
This historical novel has gotten many rave reviews since it was first published in 1948. It covers the heroic Maccabee revolt against powerful Greece in 167 BC, a classic David vs. Goliath tale. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah has its roots in the events of this period, and the book provides a lot of information about a period of history I knew almost nothing about. Five Maccabean brothers are at the heart of the story, and the author does a good job of exploring the characters of each, but overall the book reminded me a little too much of an Irving Stone novel. I think I would have preferred a bit more scholarship. While this book felt outdated in its approach, it is still a good introduction to the brave Maccabees and their amazing story.

Life of Christ by Frederic William Farrar
I recently started reading this magnificent book, written in 1874 by an Anglican priest who ministered in Westminster Abbey, was later Dean of Canterbury, and was also a classics scholar. His tender portrayal of Christ is written "as a believer to believers" and draws from the Gospels, Josephus, apocryphal writers, philosophers, poets, years of research, his own translation of the Gospels from Greek, and personal experiences. The text is broken up by chapter headings that make it very easy to navigate so that it can be read alongside the Gospels themselves. Farrar's love and testimony of Christ emanates from every page. It's a lengthy book (700 pages) but worth the commitment.
Jesus the Christ is a thoughtful examination of not just the life of Christ, but also of his pre-earthly existence and the ramifications of his ministry for all the world during and since his life. James E. Talmage, a prominent and respected scientist and an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was commissioned by the church's First Presidency to write this book in 1915. Mormons consider it a classic, and it is still widely read and referenced by members of the church.

If you have read a good book about Israel, please post the title and author in the comments below. 


  1. I read "I Shall Not Hate" before our journey and "The Lemon Tree" after. That were both powerful--the first shifted my perspective before I experienced, the second more meaningful after I experienced.. I read "Exodus" years ago and found it difficult to get through--the writer's style seemed a little soap opera-y to me. Lots of interesting books here I need to add to my list of reading material.

    1. PS Thanks for sending those two books to me--they really enriched by understanding of the people we saw and places we visited.

  2. I agree that you almost have to read some books twice: once before to get some context for the visit and once after to really start to understand it. It is reading and writing about our trips, after-the-fact, that really promotes understanding.

  3. We enjoyed watching the first part of Masada last night. I will definitely take the time to visit Masada if we get back to Israel and maybe re-read the book before we go. I had an interesting clash of perspectives in 1972 by spending a month in Beirut and hearing the views of our pro-Palestinian branch president Orin Parker and then spending a month in Israel with David Galbraith who was the first branch president in Jerusalem. David was working on his doctorate in Arab-Israeli relations at the Hebrew University at the time. I started to realize how complex the issues were as I listened to the passionate views on the subject from to good members of the Church who had completely different views on these issues. David Galbraith's book, "Jerusalem The Eternal City" is not a quick and easy book to take to the beach, but a comprehensive study of the holy city from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 200 - from Melchizedek to the Millenium.