The tough choice of living in the chosen land

A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel By David Horovitz Alfred A. Knopf 311 pp., $26

Israel, like America, was built by pioneers chasing a dream. The early Israelis, like early Americans, had to push aside - sometimes violently - the people who were there already.

And like the American government, the state of Israel is the manifestation of a set of ideas. The difference is that where America attempts to separate God from government, Israel wants to unite the two.

Then again, maybe not. That's the problem. More than 50 years after its founding, Israel can't decide just how Jewish a state it ought to be.

Hence David Horovitz's "A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel." Several recent books ponder the relationship between Judaism and the Jewish state, but Horovitz's is the most entertaining for a non-Israeli audience.

The editor of a respected newsmagazine called the Jerusalem Report, Horovitz is a Briton turned Israeli who debates constantly the merits of staying in his adoptive land. The father of three young children who are destined to be conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces, his recurring ambivalence is easy to understand.

"That's the way I draw the line," he writes. "Provided that the country is genuinely trying to find peace, I will likely stay here and allow my children to grow up here with the army beckoning. If the ... era [of Prime Minister Ehud Barak] proves a false dawn, if we do slip back into hard-line, uncompromising policies that prompt more violence, well, then I would have to reconsider."

Notice that he says "reconsider," not "leave." He certainly could leave - he has a British passport, and his wife holds US citizenship. But Horovitz is clearly in love with Israel. "My heart still lifts when ... I gaze up to the Old City's sixteenth-century walls, bathed in soft golden illumination," he writes. "I might forever be a slightly displaced former Brit in a slightly foreign land, but this is as close to home as it gets. I don't want to get off the roller coaster."

In lengthy conversations with people he knows well - the brother-in-law who lives in an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian West Bank, the cousin who is an ultra-Orthodox Jew - Horovitz lays out the passions and conflicts that threaten Israel's cohesion and even its very existence.

To survive, Israelis must figure out how to bridge the divide between peace-minded folk like Horovitz, who yearn for an equitable settlement with the Palestinians and with Syria, and those who are religiously and fiercely committed to staying on Arab lands. Secular Jews and deeply religious Jewish communities must learn to coexist with greater mutual understanding.

Horovitz charts the progression of this thinking - his early prejudices and his gradual enlightenments. He doesn't necessarily get around to agreeing with his interlocutors, but he does understand them better. By the same token, so do we - at least to some extent. This book is not the work of a reporter or outsider trying to do justice to the various sides of complex issues. It is an insider's work, a personal chronicle, the book of a man trying to understand the issues for himself.

There are drawbacks to this approach. We encounter several pages of discussion between two Israelis about the "fundamental Arab mindset." There are better experts to consult on this, but the fact is that Israelis devote hours to this subject. The benefit of Horovitz's approach is that his personal stake in the Israeli experience makes the book more engaging. You end up wanting to know: Will he stay or will he go?

*Cameron W. Barr is a Middle East correspondent for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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