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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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A cornucopia of books …

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With Chanukah almost upon us, think of giving some of these newly published books to friends and relatives as gifts.

Bernard Lewis, the British-turned-American Mideast specialist, has had a distinguished career. “During my long life, I have been principally concerned with the study of the Middle East,” Lewis, 96, writes in what may be his final book, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). “This interest began when I was still a schoolboy. It has grown ever since.” In this intellectually vigorous volume, he recalls people he has known and events he has witnessed and participated in.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found accidentally by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave near Qumran in 1947, have aroused both wonderment and controversy. John J. Collins, in The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography (Princeton University Press), offers insights into the passionate debates that have swirled around them since their startling discovery. One of topics he explores is the extent to which they broadly reflect the Judaism of that era.

On Jan. 14, 2011, the president of Tunisia fled after 28 days of popular protest. About a month later, his Egyptian counterpart was forced to step down in the face of persistent demands for his resignation. These upheavals ushered in the Arab Spring, which is still playing out in the Arab world, judging by the civil war in Syria and the continuing turmoil in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. In The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (Oxford University Press), Jean-Pierre Filiu examines the ramifications of these historic revolts.

Within the past six years, Israel has fought one war with Hezbollah, the Party of God, and two wars with Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. What are their roots, histories, ideologies and tactics? Joshua L. Gleis and Benedetta Berti skilfully explore these issues in a fine primer, Hezbollah and Hamas: A Comparative Study (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

With the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led allied invasion of Iraq fast approaching, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Pantheon) is certainly timely. Written by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, this blow-by-blow account is informative and useful.

More than half of Israeli Arabs, comprising 20 per cent of Israel’s population, prefer to be called “Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.” Queen’s University political scientist Oded Haklai, in Palestinian Ethnonationalism in Israel (University of Pennsylvania Press), explains the sources of their discontent and disaffection in this illuminating, important volume.

Canadian journalist Doug Sanders, in The Myth of the Muslim Tide (Alfred A. Knopf), challenges the assertion that Muslim immigrants in Europe are disloyal, hew to a political agenda driven by Islam and pose a demographic threat to western mores and values. Drawing on his own reporting and scholarly documents, he writes that such claims are not only overdrawn but inaccurate and dangerous as well.

Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran, and by no coincidence, a significant proportion of these Iranian immigrants are Jews. Having identified with the deposed monarchy, and having been attached to Israel, Jews understood that their place in Iranian society might be jeopardized under a new Islamic regime. In her book, From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture (State University of New York Press), Saba Soomekh draws a compelling ethnographic portrait of what life was and is for them in Iran and the United States.

Iraq’s Jewish community is the subject of Orit Bashkin’s penetrating New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq (Stanford University Press). Bashkin examines their status in Iraqi society and analyzes the forces that impelled them to leave en masse after the creation of Israel. In her view, Iraqi politicians manipulated the Palestinian issue for their own selfish ends, while the anti-Zionist campaign they promoted was unconstitutional. It was certainly ironic, since Zionism in Iraq was a minority movement.

A procession of visitors, from Christopher Isherwood and Georges Simeon to Albert Camus and John F. Kennedy, travelled through Nazi Germany as Adolf Hitler consolidated his grip on the country and persecuted German Jews. Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945 (The University of Chicago Press), edited by Oliver Lubrich, presents a riveting picture of life under the Nazis based on the published and unpublished impressions of more than 50 perceptive visitors.

Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (Oxford University Press), by Peter Longerich, is a first-rate account of an unprecedented state-planned and sanctioned atrocity. Longerich’s approach to his topic is meticulous and masterful.

Nazi functionary Udo Klausa considered himself a decent man, but as the civilian administrator of the Polish town of Bedzin, some 40 kilometres from the Auschwitz extermination camp, he was responsible for implementing policies that marginalized and ghettoized Jews and ultimately set the stage for their murder. Mary Fulbrook, in A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (Oxford University Press), tells a powerful story of a German bureaucrat who advanced his career through genocide. More tellingly, the functions that Klausa routinely performed were also carried out by administrators elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Nazi Germany, Canadian Responses: Confronting Antisemitism in the Shadow of War (McGill-Queen’s University Press), edited by L. Ruth Klein, is a valuable compendium of nine essays by academics of how Canadians reacted to the persecution of Jews. Christopher J. Probst’s incisive work, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Indiana University Press), documents the manner in which German theologians and clergy made use of the inflammatory 16th-century writings of Martin Luther to reinforce racial antisemitism and religious anti-Judaism. A chilling companion volume, No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941 (Stanford University Press), shows through the diaries of German Jew Willy Cohn how the process of marginalization inexorably unfolded in that local Jewish community.

The Harts, an industrious Jewish family that set down roots in Quebec in the 18th century, are the focus of Denis Vaugeois’ book, The First Jews in North America: The Extraordinary Story of the Hart Family (Baraka Books). Regrettably, it is less than captivating.

Flip through the glossy, lavishly illustrated pages of Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Ten Speed Press), by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, and the flavours and aromas of Israeli cuisine come through. This excellent primer contains recipes for meat, fish, vegetables, soups, beans, grains and sweets, and hits the spot.

Three books of general interest are well worth reading: Antony Beevor’s The Second World War (Little, Brown), Laurent Dubois’ Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan) and John Gimlette’s Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (Alfred A. Knopf).

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