Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review: How to Understand Israel In 60 Days or Less

I read this book over the weekend:

I know that I am a little behind the times, so you don't have to remind me. I also remember when the book first came out we got the usual fracas of pro-Israel people saying it's too anti-Israel and anti-Israel people saying it's too pro-Israel. Which is usually a good sign.

If you aren't already familiar with it, the book is about the Sarah Gillman's Birthright trip to Israel. Before she goes she already expects to hate it and everyone there because she's "been doing a lot of reading" about how badly the Israelis treat the Palestinians, and we very much see that in her initial reactions to the experiences (a lot of sidelong smart aleck remarks).

I guess the major issue that I take with the book is that I don't know what the point of it is. The title indicates that it's about a girl coming to understand Israel during her short time there, but it is clear at the end that even though she knows more she also doesn't understand Israel any better than she did when she arrived. Also the title seems to imply that this book will teach you about Israel but in a notation on the inside cover the author explains that it is a "memoir" and not supposed to be "the truth" but merely how the character sees it. If the point of the book is that Israel can't be understood (which is what I am growing to believe) and Sarah failed at it, that would make more sense.

On the other hand, if it is a memoir than the story feels even more pointless because we never understand the character of Sarah all that well and don't feel like we know her any better at the end. Her conversations with Israelis only ever leave her "confused" or "emotionally unsettled." She spends the whole book on an "emotional roller coaster" and even though she believes she knows it all she realizes she still has a lot to learn. No offense to her, but that's something all of us experience on a great variety of subjects. I didn't find a particular reason to care about her experiences on Birthright versus someone else's. If anything I found her more difficult to relate to because she enters the whole experience with a "this sucks and I hate it" as well as a "I already know everything and this is all just propaganda" kind of attitude. As a cynical person myself, I don't mind that point of view necessarily, but it doesn't exactly make her so likable. And as I feel like I've said before, we don't get the impression that she has changed very much as a person by the end of the story, there's no character arc there. She has more knowledge, but no more understanding.

I guess the bottom line is that if you are interested in the experiences of American Jews on Birthright, or at least those American Jews who actually care about the politics of the region, then you might want to take a look. But as someone who has had many experiences in, out and regarding Israel, it didn't have much in the way of new points of view.

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