The Rise of Israel: A History of a Revolutionary State
by Jonathan Adelman
(London: Routledge, 2008): 269 pp.

Reviewed by Caitlin Carenen Stewart, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, Eastern Connecticut State University

Jonathan Adelman’s ambitious work—The Rise of Israel: A History of a Revolutionary State—seeks to place Israeli history in an international context and thereby provide scholars of international relations with a more comprehensive, comparative analysis of Israel’s position, history, and challenges in modern world history. Adelman correctly argues that existing scholarship on Israel focuses on what sets Israel apart from the history of other nations instead of trying to understand Israeli history and politics from a comparative international perspective. In the case of Arabists, in particular, Adelman argues that they “have not paid serious attention to the creation and rise of Israel . . . [because] they see nothing positive in Israel, which is derided as a Western sub-agency.”(9) Yet Adelman ultimately insists that Israel is exceptional—its history and survival in fact set it apart from other nations. In The Rise of Israel, Adelman simultaneously examines Israeli exceptionalism and offers occasional comparisons to other revolutionary states.

Adelman sets up his analysis with a powerful introduction that argues that Israel’s birth and survival defied expectations and then proceeds to address specific reasons why Israeli success can be attributed to its status as a “revolutionary state.” Overcoming of myriad enemies, the transition from socialism to semi-capitalism, the development of extensive education and technological industries, the universal military conscription, the melding of the Diaspora into a viable nation, and the creation of a formidable defense force and intelligence agencies are some of the ways that Israel is a revolutionary state.

Adelman is most convincing when addressing the history and accomplishment’s of the economic and political flexibility of Israel’s transformation from socialism to semi-capitalism. Adelman argues that Israel underwent a fairly dramatic political and economic transformation from the first Zionist, purely socialist revolution, to a Labor Party revolution that made the first overtures to capitalism. As the country stabilized itself, to a more capitalist society under the Likkud revolution in the late 1970s, Israel moved away from its earlier statism. Here he also argues that Israeli contributions to the fields of scientific discoveries, patents, and industries belie its relatively small size and population. According to Adelman, this adaptability has served Israel well in carving out its place among the First World nations.

Professor Adelman’s scholarly expertise in Russian and Chinese international politics promised a new, much needed approach. If Adelman had indeed approached the topic from a thoroughly comparative perspective, The Rise of Israel might have offered a more significant contribution to the academic dialogue on Israel than it in fact, does. Yet, except for the introduction and a few comparative references in the body of the book’s chapters, we see very little comparative analysis. This reader wished that the comparative aspect addressed in the introduction had continued throughout the analysis.

Moreover, the tone of the book falls short of the neutral analytical approaches that characterize the most convincing scholarship. The Rise of Israel appears at times to be a list of Israeli victories with scant attention paid to historical events that challenge that interpretation, including the 1939 Arab Revolt (only briefly addressed) and more recently, the ethical and moral dilemmas presented by Israel’s security wall along the West Bank. In one example, Adelman writes “The far fewer Jews, unable to mobilize openly, with little military experience, without uniforms or heavy equipment, fought off first the British, then the numerically superior Arabs to achieve independence in May 1948.” (145) Such a statement belies the complex reality of Israel’s first war with its Arab neighbors and he leaves unchallenged the recent assertions by new Israeli scholars that despite being outnumbered, Israelis had qualitatively superior war materiel. The fact that Adelman’s sweeping statement is factually correct belies the problems of politicized analysis: do such assertions reflect the larger truth or create of a vital national myth? In a similar over-simplification, he downplays the uneasy and brutal integration of the pre-Independence paramilitary organizations like the Irgun and the Stern Gang into the IDF and intelligence forces post independence.(152)

Finally, while the writing is refreshingly accessible, the organization and pace of Adelman’s analysis appears too compact and hurried—with a great deal of secondary research to consider, Adelman packs a huge amount of material into every page. One wishes for a slower unpacking of fewer thoughts and ideas, with more attention focused on their importance to the author’s central theme. In general, The Rise of Israel over-corrects the often hostile scholarship that exists on Israel’s place among the modern nations. Adelman’s politicized rhetoric distracts the reader from the overall thesis and might turn neutral readers away. This would be a shame since at its best The Rise of Israel: A History of a Revolutionary State offers careful readers a bold perspective on Israeli history.