A Quick Primer On Understanding 21st-Century Israel
“Fog of war” is a concept that military theorists and practitioners trace to that great Prussian observer of war, Carl von Clausewitz. It encapsulates the multiple factors of uncertainties inherent in military operations about one’s own—and the enemy’s—real strength and position. To minimize such uncertainties and the dangers they pose to victory, militaries invest in military intelligence, employ command and control systems and doctrine, and rely on the “discriminating judgment” they ought to have been constantly cultivating in their officers.
When it comes to just about any matter having to do with the modern state of Israel, there’s been a deep and persistent fog of ignorance and outright assumption, willful blindness, and deliberate presentation of propaganda as objective news by the legacy media for decades now. There’s also been just a lazy slapping on of a simplistic America-specific (racial) political framework and narrative to one of the world’s most historically complex—in every way—regions.
For those in search of some (any) clarity about Israel and the web of larger regional dynamics in which it is enmeshed (not to mention greater dynamics slightly further afield involving Russia, Europe, the United States, and China), it can be overwhelming to know where to start looking for intelligent information. And it’s doubly, or triply so now, given the massacre of Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023, and the state of war that Israel is now in, with a situation that’s constantly changing on the ground, premature Twitter/X reporting, and—once again—deliberate propaganda and misinformation churning every second worldwide.
What follows are some books, articles, authors, reporters, scholars/policy wonks, and accounts that I’ve found helpful alongside “mainstream” outlets over the past few years and days in my attempt to understand the domestic and national security realities of Israel and the current war. It’s by no means exhaustive. My wish is simply to pass on conduits to more intelligent information and deliberation. One principle to keep in mind, however: In this region of the world, memory is long—very, very long. As in, millennia-long. The feuds and blood grudges are never simply forgotten.
Seventy-five years ago, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, commonly known as the Israeli Declaration of Independence, was proclaimed. This summer, Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler published “Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” which presents the drafts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in English for the first time and explores the historical and political theory journey of arguably the most important document for modern Israel (and its ties to the American Declaration of Independence). One comprehensive and yet accessible history of Israel is Daniel Gordis’ 2016 book “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.” Of course, the modern state didn’t just emerge one day in a vacuum—David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” presents how contemporary hostilities between Arabs and Israelis and the violent challenges posed by various Iran-, Iraq-, Syria- (and other) backed competing sects are “rooted in the region’s political inheritance: the arrangements, unities, and divisions imposed by the Allies after the First World War.”
Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran’s “Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East” tackles the oft-told story of the British-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 and the Suez Canal Crisis but in a way that critics have argued reveals “the dangerous ‘collective American delusion’ about the Middle East.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (and also former Knesset member) Michael B. Oren’s 2017 “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” covers the 1967 Arab-Israeli War but also argues that that war never really ended, as every crisis since from the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the (then ongoing) intifada attested to. And speaking of the intifada, there’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Jonathan Schanzer’s “Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War,” which not only covers the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas but unfolds for the reader the dynamics of Hamas, including how the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the terrorist group’s primary patron since the late 1980s. Given the current war, this relatively quick read might be a place to start.
Two other quick mentions: the works of the late famed Middle East/Islam scholar Bernard Lewis, and Walter Russell Mead’s recent treatment of the history of America-Jewish-Israel relations, “The Arc of a Covenant.”
In terms of writer-journalists, Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman has quickly become a favorite “must-read.” His books span multiple topics, from Leonard Cohen’s time in Israel during the Yom Kippur War, to Israel’s pre-Independence Mizrachi spies, to the Aleppo Codex. But his long-form articles are unique for what they provide that’s missing elsewhere: richly textured stories of life as it is actually lived in an Israel that is firmly Middle Eastern, not European. Recently I had the opportunity to do a podcast with him, “The View from Israel.” But it would be a shame to miss his wonderful history of dates (the fruit) for Smithsonian Magazine.
The Jerusalem Post and its editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz are also on my list. HonestReporting.com makes it its mission to act as a media watchdog organization regarding news about Israel, providing educational articles about media bias and balance. They’ve also published a list of “The Top 7 Israeli News Sources in English.”
For think tank policy wonks and scholarly types, on X/Twitter there’s Hudson’s Michael Doran (@Doranimated) as noted above, and from FDD, Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer); Joe Truzman (@JoeTruzman); Mark Dubowitz (@mdubowitz); Hussain Abdul-Hussain (@hahussain); and Enia Krivine (@EKrivine). There’s also former U.S. State Department spox Morgan Ortagus (@MorganOrtagus) and senior political correspondent Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov).
In this current conflict, foreign correspondent Trey Yingst is rapidly becoming one of the most (if not the most) popular on-the-ground reporters, through his Instagram and Twitter handles no less than his TV coverage. Many in the military/national security community are looking on Twitter to @IsraelWarRoom for breaking coverage, and to Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) accounts (like @OSINTdefender or @OSINTtechnical; however, caution is important here, as these latter often offer analysis rather than pure data, and they’ve sometimes gotten that analysis wrong). Meanwhile, BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) is just one of several who are making a point of regularly composing Twitter threads correcting misinformation about images and media tweeted out from prior conflicts (like the Syrian civil war), earthquakes, national disasters, and terrorist strikes as though they are from Gaza this October.
And finally, it never hurts to go straight to Israel’s military sources themselves. The Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) runs a very savvy Instagram account. And if you haven’t noticed his numerous guest appearances on TVs around the world the past few days, be prepared to notice IDF spox Jonathan Conricus (@jconricus).
Again, this is in no way exhaustive, nor even comprehensive, but rather a starter list of suggestions that, during these terrible days, might provide you with some avenues of intelligent information beyond the highlight reels on your TVs.