Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren
Overall, I found this to be a well-done book. The author, Michael B. Oren, PhD, is an American-born Jew, served in the IDF as a paratrooper in the 1982 Lebanon War, and is the current Israeli ambassador to the United States. He’s had his speeches disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters on numerous occasions. Other readers may assume that means a de facto pro-Israeli bias, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that objectivity would be a tall order for someone in Oren’s role and with Oren’s background. But good historical writing is good historical writing, and I honestly believe that with the honest study of history, any single writer’s bias, evident or covert, should ultimately be irrelevant, because no savvy historian, amateur or otherwise, should ever believe a goddamn thing he or she reads. I’ve always found complete distrust of everyone to be the best policy; it allows utter credulousness. This is a privilege that I enjoy as someone who does not have to make policy. Every time I read modern history, I am damned glad I never plan to run for office.
While I’m on the topic of bias: In my experience, American and British books on the region tend to show a pro-Israeli bias…strangely, sometimes more than Israeli books do. Israeli writers are often more willing to acknowledge the moral ambiguity in the choices made by Israeli leaders. So it shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that I found this book to be acceptably balanced, or that I found the view of Nasser, King Hussein and the other Arab leaders to be remarkably nuanced. To my reading at least, it doesn’t show an overt tendency to demonize them or to take their actions out of context. The coverage of the internal Israeli politics is more extensive than the equivalent events on the Egyptian side — but it’s all so damned interesting that it doesn’t bother me one bit. I would like to read a similar history from an Arab writer, for the sake of balance. But Israeli politics of this era is so unbelievably fascinating to me that every page of this book was like crack to me.
In any event, there is no way in HELL I would recommend this as an introductory text to the conflict. I have done a fair amount of reading on the Middle East and I was at sea much of the time. I needed to check Wikipedia, literally, about 100 times, trying to bone up on the period in question. And this is FAR from the first book I’ve read on modern Middle Eastern history.
I ended up loving the book. It is basically a very sharp, very good popular history, not an academic work per se. I would recommend it to someone with a good strong background in the Cold War politics of the era, and of the players in the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and even Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to the Israeli pantheon of the time, I’m not sure if I’m just more familiar with those politicians and military leaders, or if the book does a better job of giving the basic background. Certainly, Oren’s coverage of the US diplomatic and political background is cursory, so I wouldn’t have understood the book very well if I didn’t already know a certain amount about the Johnson administration.
Short version: Great book, but not for beginners. I enjoyed it, but I wish I had read this AFTER having read a book about the events immediately preceding the 1967 war.