Sir Martin's Coffee-table Book

British historian Martin Gilbert wrote the most attractive book about the state of Israel; the text, however, could easily appear as is on the Web site of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

British historian Martin Gilbert is considered the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill and he has written dozens of books, many of which are about Jews, Zionism and Israel. In 1995, his work earned him a knighthood. On the occasion of Israel's 60th Independence Day, Gilbert has published a coffee-table book, "The Story of Israel" (Andre Deutsch Ltd.). I have never seen a more attractive book about the State of Israel; the text, however, could easily appear as is on the Web site of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

As in the coffee-table books published by the Imperial War Museum, Gilbert has integrated into his work dozens of historical documents, printed as faithful facsimiles of the originals and inserted into pockets and envelopes in the volume. The book's first chapter is accompanied, among other things, by excerpts from Theodor Herzl's diary, in his own handwriting, as well as an entry ticket to the First Zionist Congress in the name of Leo Motzkin. The reproductions are very good.

There is also a copy of the Balfour Declaration, and numerous colorful posters and maps, letters, notes, personal papers and other documents that history has created, some of them moving - like a little girl's letter to Leah Rabin: Inside an envelope, bearing a pentagonal ink stamp ("Internal, Inspected, 99"), is the note, which reads: "I am crying, crying and crying into my blanket, crying and crying and Mommy and Daddy are also crying ..." The sender was Hilla Nadir, 11, from Kfar Sava. This is the touch of history's hand.

Sir Martin is very clearly not a "new historian." His book radiates great respect for government power and as in history textbooks of yesteryear, he teaches that history is mainly something that leaders do. They are also the proper sources for its study: The bibliography lists only 10 books and five were written by Israeli politicians. The book is dedicated to Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.

The text is written with encyclopedic clarity. The Zionist Jews made the wilderness bloom and built settlements, danced the hora, raised oranges and established the Hebrew University and the Israel Philharmonic. Eventually Avigdor Arikha painted pictures and Amos Oz wrote novels. History was theirs.

There were also other people around, but it is hard to know, in fact, who they are - those Arabs - and why they behaved in such an uncivilized way toward the Jews: Time after time the Arabs attacked them and also acted obsequiously toward Hitler. Perhaps they did this because they didn't like Arikha's style? In any case, apparently they didn't have any history. Had there been any, Gilbert would certainly have mentioned it. He hasn't.

Of the War of Independence, he has written that its human cost was high: Of 650,000 Jews who lived in the land, more than 4,000 soldiers and another 2,000 civilians were killed. Had Arabs also been killed, Gilbert would certainly have mentioned this. Maybe some were killed, but their deaths are not a part of the human cost of the war.

Gilbert notes two estimates of the number of Palestinian refugees - "the Arab refugees," as he makes a point of calling them: 550,000 in the Israeli estimate, 725,000 according to the UN. Apparently, the Arabs have no estimate of their own. Otherwise, Gilbert would certainly have mentioned it.

The Arabs fled, the author relates, partly because their leaders promised that soon Israel would be defeated and they would then be able to go home. Here there are seven words that were apparently formulated by a committee: "Others were driven out by Israeli troops." Apparently those "others" have to be added to the overall count of refugees, but obviously there is no need to know how many there were exactly, especially as it wasn't the Haganah or the Israel Defense Forces that drove them out, but rather "Israeli troops."

Not such a big drama, then, and not ours but rather others', so therefore in the pockets of the book there isn't even one single Arab document that would document it.

On page 38 we come to the Six-Day War. The chapter begins with: "On June 6, 1967, only three weeks after Israel celebrated the 19th anniversary of its statehood, it was attacked by three Arab states: Egypt, Syria and Jordan."

The Six-Day War began, of course, on the morning of June 5; on that day Egypt did not attack Israel, but rather Israel attacked Egypt. Jordan bombarded Jerusalem and a few other places. Apparently one must be a British historian who feels a profound love for Israelis in order to praise them for not rejoicing in "a sense of triumphalism" (p. 39) after the war. As everyone remembers, we rejoiced no more than a British butler serving his master five o'clock tea.

And then comes the tremendous prosperity Israel brought to the territories and, in light of all this goodness, once again we will wonder: What could have led the Palestinian terror organizations to behave so barbarically?

The Second Lebanon War is covered in 50 words. The possibility that nevertheless something was not quite right there is implied in a comment that seems to be an anthropological observation: "Political debate in Israel is always vigorous."

Talmon and The Tablets

Various film props recently went up for sale in Hollywood, among them the tablets Charlton Heston hoisted aloft in "The Ten Commandments" (1956). Their value is estimated at around $500,000. Here is an opportunity to remember historian Yaakov Talmon.

One day a woman he did not know phoned and asked for his advice: She was going to London and no doubt would visit the British Museum, but she did not have much time and wanted to see only one thing. What would he recommend? After all, he was an historian. Talmon tried evasion, but the woman insisted, so he suggested she see the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments at the museum. An excellent idea, said the woman enthusiastically, and off she went to London.

She apparently arrived at the museum and started to roam about in its myriad galleries; she asked guards, she asked guides, she asked other visitors - no one knew what she was talking about. Profoundly disappointed, she returned home and phoned Talmon again. Oh my goodness, said the scholar, I completely forgot to tell you: They were broken! Talmon, a dear man and a great historian, used to recount this story at least once every semester.

Ben Zion's Urine

Ephraim Katzir was the fourth president of Israel. The autobiography he recently wrote will be of interest to anyone who wants to know about his life. However, anyone looking for Israel's atomic secrets will not find a single word about them there. Katzir describes his presidency in official language, too. It seems that his conversations with heads of other countries were of less interest to him than his scientific research. He talked to Queen Elizabeth about her horse.

The four presidents who succeeded him provided a considerable number of juicy scandals, but Katzir, who does not even mention Moshe Katsav, allows himself only one tiny bit of gossip - about Menachem Begin: Before entering Katzir's office, the prime minister would rub his shoes with the edges of his trousers to remove any bit of dust from them.

When he was justice minister, Begin asked Katzir to commute the sentence of Yehoshua Ben Zion, and Katzir agreed. Ben Zion had been convicted of stealing nearly $40 million from the Anglo-Palestine Bank. He obtained medical certification stating that "this is a very ill individual whose life expectancy is short." Ben Zion was released from prison and for the next 27 years he sought, and found, ways to evade paying the fine that had been imposed on him. There were rumors, wrote Katzir, that Ben Zion had given a urine sample that was not his own, but rather that of another prisoner. Nevertheless, Katzir does not feel like he was tricked: "I was very happy to hear that he remained alive after he left prison, for after all, I commuted his sentence so that he would not die."