The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel–Islamist Conflict
by Jonathan Spyer
(New York: Continuum, 2010), 227 pages
Reviewed by Joseph Morrison Skelly
Treasurer, Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa /
US Army Reserve
“People walked from tank to tank, shaking hands with friends,
wishing each other luck. I remember standing with my friend
Ariel Ronen and exchanging a few brief words before we boarded.
Blond Ariel, in civilian life the owner of a marketing business in
Petah Tikva, was a tank driver from platoon 2. Unlike me, he
had a practical, military bent to him, and was standing, watching
affairs with a worried furrow to his brow. ‘We aren’t ready for
this,’ he said, as we shook hands. I looked at him quizzically,
but he declined to elaborate, adding simply, ‘Not all of us will be
coming back.’ ‘We will,’ I reassured him, assuming the fatherconfessor role that I had awarded myself in the previous days. He didn’t reply.” (p. 13).
With this passage, and others like it, Jonathan Spyer recounts his experiences serving in the Lebanon War of 2006. A soldier in an Israeli armored reserve unit,
a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, and a research fellow in civilian life, Spyer
deftly interweaves his battlefield recollections with a sustained assessment of the
strategic challenges facing Israel. The result is an insightful, important, and at
times pensive volume, one that is part memoir and part sophisticated political
analysis. The main threats facing Israel today, Spyer asserts, are Islamist states
and organizations—enemies that not only loom on the horizon, such as Iran, but
ones such as Hamas and Hizbullah that lurk closer to home, raining down rockets
into the nation’s heartland. The Jewish State operates within a daunting strategic
environment. In confronting those challenges, Spyer rightly draws strength from
his comrades-in-arms in the Israeli Defense Forces, whose powerful and poignant
stories he sympathetically retells. Israel, too, can draw strength from their stoic
determination as it formulates and executes a national strategy for defeating the
Islamist threats arrayed against it.
In one of the early chapters of his book, Spyer contrasts the nature of Israel’s
current Islamist enemies with its previous opponents—secular Arab regimes and
organizations such as Egypt and the Palestinian Liberation Organization—and
traces the demise of the pan-Arab nationalism that animated these earlier foes. He
recalls the false hopes and hard realities of the Oslo era, a time when many Israelis erroneously concluded that the strategic forecast was improving. If the “collapse
of the Oslo process in 2000, and the four-year low-intensity conflict that followed,
put this assumption into question,” Spyer notes, the “events of 2006—the Hamas
election victory and then the Hizbullah war—all with nuclear-bound Iran lurking
in the background, conclusively buried it. It was clear that the rejection of Israel
had mutated again, and found a new form” (p. 7). With the demise of Israel’s secular
enemies, the threat to Israel did not cease, but morphed into new adversaries of
an Islamist bent. “The problem, as we have seen, was that the deeply felt Arab
rejection of Israel’s presence did not vanish with the fading of its Arab nationalist
carrier. Rather, it was inherited by the enemy and successor of Arab nationalism
within regional politics—the movements of radical Islam” (p. 74).
A vanguard in this transformation has been Hizbullah, which stalks Israel’s
northern border. This organization, which “seared itself into the consciousness
of a whole generation of Israelis who had served in the fighting units of the IDF
in the 1990s,” has been committed to “a stark, uncompromising ideology in which
support for the destruction of Israel formed a centerpiece. This was embedded in
a Shia Islamist worldview, which looked to the Iranian model of rule by clerics.
Optimists had supposed that much of the movement’s focus on this was a matter
of mere rhetoric” (p. 5), but events proved otherwise, especially following Israel’s
unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hizbullah exploited
this retreat to its own strategic and tactical advantages, as the 2006 conflict
While the nature of Israel’s enemies has altered over the past decade, so too has
Israeli society. In an important chapter in his book, Spyer perceptively delineates
how Israel is changing in response to the strategic threats arrayed against it—how
it is passing through a “transforming fire” of its own, in other words. He places
this transition in historical perspective:
… the European style Zionist ideologies which had shaped the country
and battled each other were being replaced by something new, more
amorphous, less recognizable, which was emerging from below, and from
outside the recognizable ideological divisions of the country. This new,
Israeli nationalism was at once more ethnic, more provincial, less European,
less clearly defined, less open than the country had previously seemed. It
was neither recognizably Ashkenazi, nor recognizably Sephardi, neither
rigorously secular nor strictly observant. The mass of Israelis could find
themselves somewhere within its broad and loosely defined borders (p. 80).
According to Spyer, “the version of Israeli national identity that holds the Israeli
center is entirely inseparable from Jewishness—even among its secular adherents.
Jewish Israel does not see itself as a new country. It is a self-consciously newold
one” (pp. 81–82). And this Israel, Spyer believes, is as determined to defend
itself against its enemies as were previous generations. It “has remained a far
more mobilized, committed society than it superficially may appear. Seventynine
percent of Israelis, when asked, said they would fight for their country.
This contrasts with just over 60 percent of Americans and just over 40 percent
of Britons. Israel scored first in a survey of citizens of twenty-six democratic
countries who were asked this question” (pp. 7–8).
Where does Spyer stand in relation to this process? He poignantly notes that
“I am neither an advocate, nor really an inhabitant, of the new Israeli-Jewish
identity which I have been trying to describe and encapsulate here.” At the time
he emigrated from London to Israel twenty years ago, he was attached to “an
ingrained and largely imaginary place that existed in our minds as a fertile, strong,
proud, and beautiful answer to the sufferings of the Jews in Europe, and to the
long humiliations of exile” (p. 89). But he has come to embrace the “real, breathing,
living country that gets up in the morning and works and argues and reconciles
and makes its loyalties, in its own language and in its own interests” (p. 91). Spyer
zeroes in on the key strategic question, that is, whether the country “the Jews
have built up in Israel over the last century will be sufficient to carry it through
the latest version of the rejection of its presence by the Arab and Muslim cultural
milieu that surrounds it” (p. 92).
Partly in search of an answer to this question, Spyer consistently returns to his
experiences in the IDF. He discusses what he learned about militant Palestinian
culture while serving as a guard at Mahaneh Ofer prison after his reserve unit was
mobilized in 2002. He often revisits the 2006 war in Lebanon. He deals with it on
several levels, revealing in each case his expertise borne of military experience
and intellectual analysis. He honestly assesses the campaign’s flaws; analyzes his
own unit’s controversial mission near the towns of el Khaim and Marjayoun in
southern Lebanon; distills professional advice for future conflicts; addresses the
hybrid mode of combat developed by Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps; and opens a window onto the tactical experiences of the battlefield.
He spares no one he deems responsible for the war’s shortcomings, and slings his
harshest arrows at “the smug intellectual consensus and the sense of superiority”
(p. 177) of the Israeli and foreign intelligentsia. This war, he writes, “is full of
lessons, which can only be located through a long and unsparing process of
reflection” (p. 165).
In retrospect, Israel’s battle with Hizbullah was at some level a proxy war with
its sponsor, Iran, the greatest threat now facing the nation. In this context Spyer
opens his book with a recollection from 2006 that is, in some ways, a metaphor for Israel writ large today. He talks of his unit on the eve of its operation into
Lebanon. They had assembled in an orchard just south of the Lebanese border.
They prepped their equipment, conducted their pre-combat inspections, tuned up
the engines of their tanks—and waited. “The company was positioned on a field
next to an avocado grove, on lands belonging to a border kibbutz,” Spyer writes.
“We had been waiting there for three days. Twice, the entry into Lebanon had
been postponed. We’d spent the days checking our equipment, eating sandwiches,
smoking cigarettes. Waiting. The routine of tense expectation and prolonged
activity was one you got used to” (p. 1).
Here Spyer captures the common experience of soldiering: periods of intense
preparation combined with anticipation, apprehension, impatience, and then a
calm resolve to complete the mission once the orders to move out arrive. In a sense,
this is a metaphor for Israel today, as it responds to the danger posed by Iran. It
is quietly preparing for all contingencies, making its case abroad, conducting the
nation’s business at home—and waiting. The flare may go up at any time. If it
does, one can hope that Israeli society has internalized the insights into Islamism
that Jonathan Spyer has spelled out in his book. Should that be the case, Israel
will successfully pass through the next transforming fire in its national history—
and in part will have Mr. Spyer to thank.