The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last, by Bernard Avishai. Bernard Avishai has long been one of the foremost interpreters of Israeli society. His 1985 book, The Tragedy of Zionism, offered a bold new interpretation of the history of political Zionism and made Avishai both a beloved and loathed figure in Israel, where he has lived off and on for decades. His new book, The Hebrew Republic, tackles an even trickier topic: Israeli identity.
In Israel, there are two categories of personal identity: Israeli citizenship and Jewish nationality. All occupants of the state are eligible for citizenship. But because Israel was founded exclusively as a Jewish country, only a Jew can claim nationality and all the material benefits—residency rights, tax breaks, and subsidized mortgages—that come with it. It is this paradox that Avishai believes puts the lie to Israel's claim to be at once "Jewish and democratic."
The answer, for Avishai, is to transform Israel from a Jewish state into what he terms a Hebrew Republic, one in which Israeli identity is based not on a person's Jewishness but rather on a shared sense of Hebrew culture that can be adopted by Arab and Jew alike. This solution is at once pragmatic and troubling. Avishai admits how hard it may be for Palestinian Israelis to assimilate into "Hebrew culture." But he also notes, correctly, that such assimilation is already taking place. In any case, Avishai is right to conclude that Israel's only chance for a peaceful future is to re-examine its present concept of nationality.— Reza Aslan
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely. In his debut work of popular economics, Ariely—a professor at MIT—sets out to show that irrational behavior is not, well, so crazy after all. At any rate, it is predictable. We derive greater relief from a $1 aspirin than from the same drug priced at 10 cents. We also overvalue what we own, just because it is ours. And we snap up things when they are offered to us for free, even if we don't value them very much or if we have to pass up superior opportunities elsewhere. A behavioral economist at home in both psychology and economics, Ariely makes an entertaining and convincing case that a field that has long put rational actors in the foreground should pay more attention to feelings, expectations, and social conventions.— Tyler Cowen
The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. The Three Trillion Dollar War isn't intended to convince readers of the folly of the Iraq Project; after all, no price tag, no matter how high, could persuade the dwindling core of true believers—schmoes like William Kristol—that the invasion wasn't worthwhile. Instead, Stiglitz and Bilmes take the idiocy and mendacity of the Bush administration as a baseline assumption and methodically crunch numbers.
Toting up the costs of everything from long-term disability payments to injured soldiers to interest incurred on the national debt as a result of Iraq spending, they arrive at a nice round figure: $3 trillion. Like all such exercises, the book contains a combination of precision (the lifetime economic value of a soldier killed in the war is $7.2 million) and guesstimation (they conclude that the price of oil is $10 per barrel higher than it should be due to the war). And since big portions of the $3 trillion in costs are spread out over decades, the immediate macroeconomic impact probably isn't as large as advertised.
Critics can accuse Stiglitz and Bilmes of not trying seriously to quantify the benefits of the war, which, in theory, would balance out some of the costs. To which I say: Go for it. Since it's nigh on impossible to document any economic gains that have accrued to the United States as a result of the invasion, that would be a fool's errand. Alas, as this book reminds us, there are plenty of fools around.— Daniel Gross