My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - History

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - History

Ari Shavit’s highly acclaimed book appears on the list of the most important books of 2013. While I understand why this book has received abundant honors, if I was composing the list I would not have given My Promised Land such a prominent place. Shavit’s book is well written and engaging. The author makes clear that his narrative is not a history, but a chronicle of a personal journey. However, the book is unquestionably a history of the State of Israel as seen through the lens of specific places and times.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” begins with the voyage to Palestine by Shavit’s Great, Grand Father (a wealthy British Jew who was an early Zionist.) With his excellent journalistic eye, Shavit shows us the Palestine his great grandfather embraced. Shavit brings with him the hopes and fears of the Jewish people. He makes it clear, early on, that if his Great Grandfather had not settled on this course the likelihood would be great that by this generation Shavit would only be part Jewish. Woven into the fabric of the family storyline, Shavit lays out what becomes a recurring theme in his book– Zionist blindness when it comes to the Palestinians. Shavit writes:

“Riding in the elegant carriage from Jaffa to Mikveh Yisrael, he did not see the Palestinian village of Abu Kabir. Traveling from Mikveh Yisrael to Rishon LeZion, he did not see the Palestinian village of Yazur. On his way from Rishon LeZion to Ramleh he did not see the Palestinian village of Sarafand. And in Ramleh he does not really see that Ramleh is a Palestinian town.”

Shavit’s questions why his grandfather did not see the Palestinians during his visit. He provides several answers. Shavit suggests that even though there were a million Palestinians living in the full land of Palestine (including what today is Jordan), this was a land of 100,000 square kilometers. Furthermore, Shavit reminds us there was no Palestinian political identity. Many of those living here were nomadic Bedouins. However, finally, and probably most conclusively, Shavit writes that the Zionists did not have the luxury to pay attention to the residents of the land. They were worried about saving a people.

The second chapter of “My Promised Land” is about the building of Ein Harod, on of the early Kibbutzim in the Galilee. Shavit writes about their historic efforts to build the Kibbutz based on Socialist principles. His depiction of the establishment of the Kibbutz is masterful. Here Shavit refrains from returning to his favorites themes (i.e. the fact that the Socialist founders of Ein Harod and the others Kibbutzim in the valley ignore the Arabs of the area.)

In the third chapter, Shavit jumps to 1936 and describes the Orange Groves of Rechovot. The chapter tells the story of the German immigration to Palestine in 30’s, and also describes the transformation of the Jewish inhabitants of the country from early pioneers to a thriving middle class population. This change was complete metamorphosis– despite the fact the country already had Hebrew University and the Technion; and the fact the Zionists had a 25 year-old capital in the growing metropolis of Tel Aviv. Shavit does talk about the Arabs of the land but here, but he writes more about the positive effect of the Jewish settlement:

“In Qubeibeh, Zarnuga, and the other Arab villages surrounding Rehovot, Jewish capital, Jewish technology, and Jewish medicine are a blessing to the native population, bringing progress to desperate Palestinian communities. So the Zionists of Rehovot can still believe that the clash between the two peoples is avoidable. They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

While mostly celebrating the success of the Zionist movement, this chapter also takes note of the beginning of the start of the Palestinian nationalism and resistance to Zionism.

Shavit’s next chapter is entitled:“Masada”. It starts by describing the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936, and the first murder of Jews (i.e. the killing of fifty year old Zvi Dannenberg and 70 year old Israel Hazan, because they were Jews.) Shavit briefly references the 1929 Massacres in Hebron and Safed. However he explains how events in 1936 were very different, as they reflected “a collective uprising of a national Arab-Palestinian movement”.

Shavit cites the Peel Commission and it plan to partition the land into two States. He places emphasis on the recommendation that “Arabs residing in the Jewish State be transferred elsewhere as should Jews living in the future Arab state.” Shavit believes that the Peel Commission legitimized a new direction for Zionism. Interestingly, Shavit ignores one of the most important historic facts about the Peel Commission– the fact that the Jews accepted the recommendations of the Commission and the Arabs rejected them. The chapter then goes on to describe Masada through the eyes of an expedition organized by a leading Zionist educator, Shmaryahu Gutman. His goal was to transform Masada into a modern day symbol of resistance. Something Gutman was very successful at doing.

The next section of “My Promised Land” will be most upsetting for those who have been brought up on the myth that all of the Arabs left Israel willingly during the 1948 war; just waiting for the Jewish State to be wiped out by the advancing Arab armies. Shavit tells the story of the Arabs of Lydda who were forced out of their homes, and forced to become refugees, (as well as those killed by accident, or in some cases by design.) While there is nothing new in Shavit’s description of these events, his telling of the story is as riveting as it is disturbing. (Note: For those who want to gain a full understanding of the events in 1948, I recommend reading Benny Morris’ superb and balanced “1948”.)

The next chapter called “Housing Estate in 1957” tells the story of some leading Israelis (such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, author Aaron Appelfeld, Justice Aaron Barak and Louis Aynachi.) It conveys the story of the great immigration to Israel in the years after the establishment of the State and how the State successfully (and less successfully) absorbed new immigrants.

The next chapter, called “The Project 1967” outlines the story of the establishment of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. He adds interesting color to the legend of the building of the reactor. Here Shavit is at his most pessimistic:

“The expulsion of 1948 necessitated Dimona. Because of those dead villages it was clear that the Palestinians would always pursue us that they would always want to flatten our own villages. And so it was necessary to create a shield between us and them and the engineer took it upon himself to build that shield. We would not allow the Palestinian tragedy to jeopardize the monumental enterprise designed to end our own tragedy.”

Here Shavit reflects on his fear that Israel will soon lose its monopoly on what supposedly goes on in Dimona, and that could be our undoing.

Shavit’s next chapter, “Settlement 1975” and chronicles the story of Israel’s settlement of the West Bank. This is a known, well-told story, but Shavit does a good job of retelling it.

The next chapter “Gaza Beach 1991” relays Shavit’s thoughts and feelings about his Army reserve duty in Gaza that year, as a guard in a detention camp. Again, for those who have no understanding of what it means to serve in the territories, this chapter will be very disturbing. I must say, many of the experiences, and certainly the emotions, that Shavit describes are very paralleled to my experiences doing reserve duty in Gaza 11 years earlier.

The following chapter, “Peace 1993” is a reflection on why the Peace process failed. It includes interviews with Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin. Shavit tells the story of the Oslo agreements through Beilin.

Shavit explains for the failure of the peace process, lamenting: “its fundamental flaw was that it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible. But the history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible.”

He goes on to say that the fundamental problem of the left was that it concentrated on 1967 and ignored 1948. Shavit strengthens his argument by telling the story of Kibbutz Hulda and the Arab village of Hulda that was wiped off the map.

The next chapter of the book is called “J’Accuse 1999”. It relates the story of Shas leader Aryeh Deri. I must say that this was a chapter where I learned many things that I did not know. This chapter is required reading for those who want to understand the phenomenon of Shas.

The chapter “Sex, Drugs, and the Israel Condition, 2000”, describes the Tel Aviv party life and night scene in that year. For those who are not aware of the scene in those days, it’s worth reading. While Tel Aviv has evolved since 2000, the Tel Aviv of today has some of its roots in 2000. In the next chapter, “Up The Galilee 2003”, Shavit examines the views of the Arabs of Galilee.

His next chapter “Reality shock 2006”, uses the background of the Lebanon war to ask what went wrong. On one hand, Shavit makes it clear that part of the problem with the war was the occupation that should have ended. However, more significantly, Shavit describes seven different revolts that took place in Israel over this period of time– the Settlers revolt, the Peace revolt, the Ultra-Orthodox revolt, the Hedonistic revolt, and the Palestinian-Israeli revolt. Shavit claims that while each of these revolts was justified, taken together, they eroded the Israel Republic and undermined its ability to act.

Shavit’s next chapter is called “Occupy Rothchild”. On one hand, he uses the chapter to tell the story of two of Israel’s richest families- i.e. the story of the Strauss family and their diary and food giant they built, and the story of Kobi Richter, the former fighter pilot, turned exceptionally successful high-tech entrepreneur. After discussing the successes of these financial giants Shavit tries to deal with both the causes of the protest movement, as well as the internal demographic threats that Israel faces.

In his second to last chapter Shavit talks about the threat posed to Israeli by the Iranian nuclear program. Finally, in the last chapter called “By the Sea”, Shavit tries to put all of the problems that he poses in his book into perspective. Shavit details how successful Israel has been in providing a homeland for the Jewish people, and how it is now the center of Jewish life in the world. He describes how much Israel has accomplished since the time his Great Grandfather visited. He applauds Tel Aviv of 2013, that I know so well, and what an unbelievable city it has become.

Shavit ends the book by saying we are all “members of a cast of a movie where the scriptwriter went mad, the director ran way… But we are still here, on this biblical set. The camera is still rolling and as the camera pulls up it sees us converging on this shore and clinging to this shore and living on this shore come what may.”

“My Promised Land” is required reading for anyone who is familiar with our history and is able to put Shavit’s weather into the proper perspective. It is not a work of history and has many historical holes. However, Shavit is a very gifted writer, and he successfully brings into focus a fascinating montage of some very important points in our history.



Truth without context: The trouble with “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit

Last weekend I had a chance to peruse the “Best Books of 2013” lists in The Economist and The New York Times. Though there were not many concordant choices between the two lists, they did coincide regarding the selection of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. In fact, the coveted #1 spot on The Economist’s list went to Shavit’s book. Let me start by stating that I did not find any inaccuracies in Shavit’s work. As someone who is very familiar with the history he covers, however, I can also say there were no new revelations in this volume. I must also admit that the book is compelling and well written. All that being said, I must add that this is a book I would never have written– and a book I do not think Shavit should have released (at least, not in the way it has been presented.)

I say all this as someone who shares most of Shavit’s political views– if anything I may be slightly to the left of him. His article, “A Missed Funeral and the True Meaning of Zionism reflects everything I believe.

To the best of my knowledge, his depiction of the events in Lydda in 1948 are historically accurate and the experiences he had guarding a Gaza prison camp closely mirrors my own during army reserve duty on the Strip more than 30 years ago. The power of Shavit’s book became even clearer to me after a recent article by Daniel Gordis appeared. Gordis is a scholar I respect and admire. But I have felt in recent years that he’s become too much of a cheerleader for our government. Yet, after reading Shavit’s book, Gordis wrote that, “being forced to confront the reality of the Jewish state is always a deeply painful process.”

Despite the book’s clear and various merits, I have three problems with it. First, as an historian, I have a hard time with history relayed solely through stories. Even a middle-school student knows that to write historic accounts without providing footnotes or sources is unacceptable.

Second, and more problematic, while Shavit tries to provide context for the narratives he presents, the context he provides is exceptionally limited. This problem begins early in the book when he tells the story of his Great-Grandfather, Hebert Bentwich’s journey through Palestine, Shavit puts the account into historical context by writing:

“Then, suddenly, these devoted sons of Europe notice that Europe won’t have them. Europe thinks they smell. Overnight there is a new strange look in Mother Europe’s Eye.”

That is how he accounts for the rise of early Zionism. Shavit makes no reference to the Dreyfus trial– spare a brief reference later in the book.

His main reference to the Holocaust, where he does mention Dreyfus, is limited to a line in his chapter on Rechovot, relating to how the settlers felt:

“At the end of July 1935, Alfred Dreyfus dies. In mid-September 1935, Nazi Germany enforces the racist laws of Nuremberg. From a Zionist point of view there is a link between the two events. Dreyfus was the French Jewish army officer whose persecution made Herzl fear the nightmare that awaited the Jews of twentieth-century Europe. The racist laws of Nuremberg prove Herzl right. It is impossible to imagine that within a decade, millions of Jews would be gassed to death, yet in the summer of 1935 the Jews of Berlin are experiencing something they had not experienced in a hundred years—pogroms. The news reaching Rechovot in late summer leaves no room for doubt: the great avalanche had begun. European Jewry is about to be decimated.”

Shavit returns to the Holocaust briefly in the middle of his section on Masada. There he describes the impact of the Holocaust on Zionist thinkers, such as Yosef Tabenkin and Berl Katznelson. To be fair, he also briefly returns to the story of Holocaust when telling the life stories of Professor Ze’ev Sternhell and author Aharon Appelfeld. However, this point in the book is less focused on historic context, and more about telling the story of these individuals

I could go on (and I do, in a this complete review.) Breathtaking, however, is what has been left out of this popular, acclaimed narrative of Israel. For example: The U.N. Commission on Palestine the decision of the Arabs to oppose the plan, followed by their decision to start a war, is almost a passing reference in his story on Lydda. The refusal to resettle the refugees after 1949 the Hamas bombing after the Rabin assassination the second Intifada the rocket fire from both Lebanon and Gaza all omitted- or mentioned in passing– the curious list of critical omissions goes on and on.

In my opinion, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is an excellent book for Daniel Gordis, or anyone who knows our basic history. It is a terrible and potentially dangerous book for the world to read and embrace, without the historic context that many of Shavit’s stories demand in order to be fully understood.

This brings me to the third, and my core complaint and it goes beyond just Shavit’s treatment of history. There are two possible reasons why this book was designed in this way and why the book was first published in English rather than in Hebrew. First, perhaps it was purely a commercial consideration (i.e., Shavit and his agents determined what would sell and what would receive good reviews). If that is the case, Kol Hakavod (congratulations) for hitting the nail on the head). They struck it just right– producing a book on Israel that is at once highly critical yet authored by an Israeli who clearly loves Israel and is committed to its future (albeit, a sentiment that only comes to light in the concluding portions of the book). An alternative explanation for publishing this book is that Shavit has joined a long list of people who believe the only way to bring about change in political policy here is by exerting external pressure. A friend recently confided to me her belief that, “Our only hope of ending the occupation is American or European pressure”. It’s part of the ‘J Street line’. I disagree with this perspective 100%. The only way to end the occupation and change what happens in this country is to transform the views and priorities of Israelis. Turning the world against us, just bolsters the belief that the whole world is against us– which further strengthens and emboldens the right and does nothing to support the left’s aspirations.

Ari Shavit’s book is eloquent and engaging. As a work of history, which, of course, it makes no claims to be, — but which most readers will think it is — it is an alarming book. As a political discourse, this book misses the audience who should be its prime target– the Israeli voting public, and not the global elite who are the majority of the book’s current readership. “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” should be required reading for every Israeli high school student. Unfortunately, they will not likely be the ones examining and internalizing Shavit’s message.


  • Author : ARI. SHAVIT
  • Publisher :
  • Release Date : 2018
  • Genre:
  • Pages :
  • ISBN 10 : 039959048X
  • Author : Ian Buruma
  • Publisher : Atlantic Books Ltd
  • Release Date : 2016-01-19
  • Genre: Biography & Autobiography
  • Pages : 123
  • ISBN 10 : 9781782395416

Ian Buruma's maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred (Bun & Win), wrote to each other regularly throughout their life together. The first letters were written in 1915, when Bun was still at school at Uppingham and Win was taking music lessons in Hampstead. They were married for more than sixty years, but the heart of their remarkable story lies within the span of the two world wars. After a brief separation, when Bernard served as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front during the Great War, the couple exchanged letters whenever they were apart. Most of them were written during the Second World War and their correspondence is filled with vivid accounts of wartime activity at home and abroad. Bernard was stationed in India as an army doctor, while Win struggled through wartime privation and the Blitz to hold her family together, including their eldest son, the later film director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday), and twelve Jewish children they had arranged to be rescued from Nazi Germany. Their letters are a priceless record of an assimilated Jewish family living in England throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century and a moving portrait of a loving couple separated by war. By using their own words, Ian Buruma has created a spellbinding homage to the sustaining power of a family's love and devotion through very dark days


Discussion Questions

1. To tell the history of his country, Shavit begins with the story of his British great-grandfather&rsquos trip to Palestine on a Thomas Cook caravan in 1897 and continues in his role as our guide throughout the book. He also introduces significant historical events through a personal lens, telling the story of one orange grove owner, for example, to represent the economic boom of the late 1930s in Palestine and of an individual entrepreneur to represent the tech boom of the past decade. Do you feel that this approach to writing about the history of Israel is effective?

2. Was there anything in the book that challenged your assumptions about Israel&rsquos history? What surprised you?

3. Chapter Four, &ldquoMasada,&rdquo is the story of one man&rsquos successful campaign to change the perception of history by shaping a national narrative. To what degree is history shaped by individuals? Can you think of other examples, within the book or in world history in general, in which an individual has reshaped a country&rsquos identity and narrative?

4. Chapter Five, &ldquoLydda,&rdquo presents the book&rsquos central moral conflict through the lens of one battle. At the end of the chapter, Shavit writes, &ldquoI condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I&rsquoll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn&rsquot for them, the State of Israel would not have been born.&rdquo Discuss Shavit&rsquos moral response to what happened in Lydda. Does every country have a Lydda in the history of its statehood? If so, think of some examples.

5. Chapter Six, &ldquoHousing Estate,&rdquo describes the enormous sacrifices made by the new refugees for their future state, often unwillingly. Do you agree with Ben Gurion&rsquos view that memories of the Holocaust and the past needed to be subverted to create the new state? Discuss the tension between the individual and the state in the creation of Israel. You might also discuss the astonishing success rate among the immigrant children of the Housing Estate, many of whom became the leaders of the young country. What factors do you think contributed to their success?

6. Chapter Seven discusses the stealth creation of Israel&rsquos nuclear reactor. Discuss its implications for current discussions of nuclear proliferation. Shavit presses the engineer to discuss the moral significance of his life&rsquos work, but the engineer refuses to take part in the discussion. Do you think Shavit is right to push the engineer as he does, or is the engineer right in saying, &ldquoIf everyone spent as much time thinking as you do, they would never act&rdquo?

7. In Chapter Eight, on the settlements, Shavit writes, &ldquoThe question is whether Ofra is a benign continuation of Zionism or a malignant mutation of Zionism,&rdquo and answers that it is both. Discuss the two ways of viewing the settlements. Do you agree with Shavit&rsquos assessment?

8. In Chapter Ten, &ldquoPeace,&rdquo for Shavit, Hulda represents the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And he says that Hulda has no solution, &ldquoHulda is our fate.&rdquo What does he mean by this?

9. In Chapter Seventeen, &ldquoBy the Sea,&rdquo Shavit describes the concentric circles of threat that challenge Israel. The sixth threat he describes, on pp. 403-404, is a moral threat: &ldquoA nation bogged down in endless warfare can be easily corrupted. It might turn fascistor militaristic or just brutal.&rdquo How significant and urgent is this moral threat compared to the other threats Israel faces? Do you believe Israel has a greater moral responsibility than other countries? Is a moral Israel necessary for its survival, and is this true for countries in general?


Book Review of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

In April 1897, just months after Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State and launched the Zionist movement, a steamer containing twenty-one dreamers docks in Jaffa. They are a delegation of upper-class British Jews, and they have traveled to Palestine to investigate the prospects of settling the land with the persecuted Jewish masses of Russia, Poland, and Belarus. A prophetic fear of the extinction of the Jewish people— whether in the pogroms of Eastern Europe or the secularized assimilation of Western Europe—combined with a romantic Victorian yearning for Zion have inspired these pilgrims to leave the comforts of London for the deserts of Palestine. Leading the delegation is the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, the great-grandfather of the author Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators. As the steamer moors, Shavit pauses his narrative and asks himself, “Do I want him to disembark? I don’t yet know.” 1

My Promised Land is the most widely acclaimed and commercially successful book on Israel of the last decade, receiving effusively positive reviews upon its publication in the United States. It is an attempt to understand Israel by telling its story from the arrival of Bentwich in Jaffa in 1897 to the writing of the book in 2013. Shavit thankfully rejects polemic for the most part, instead presenting a “personal odyssey,” an idiosyncratic but always gripping mix of family history, memoir, archival research, and interviews. Structured chronologically, each chapter pro- vides a snapshot of a historical moment set in a geographical location within Israel. Thus from his great-grandfather’s arrival in Jaffa in 1897, Shavit moves on to the 1920s and the pioneers of the Kibbutzim in Ein Harod, where “[a]fter eighteen hundred years, the Jews have returned to sow the valley,” 2 and then onto the flourishing orange groves of Rehovot in the 1930s, before the bloodshed of the Arab revolts in 1936 shattered the illusions of the more utopian elements of the Jewish national movement.

The State of Israel’s first decade is evoked by the Bizaron housing estate, inhabited by quietly traumatized but obsessively industrious European Holocaust survivors. Other chapters include a fascinating account of Israel’s “ambiguous” nuclear project at Dimona, with which both Shavit’s father and uncle were directly involved, and an overwrought portrayal of the throbbing hedonism of Tel Aviv’s nightlife. Shavit has set out to write an avowedly centrist ac- count, appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of reader—hawks and doves alike. Thus, in the chapter containing his account of his own experience as a guard in a prison on Gaza Beach, Shavit can use words like “Aktion” and “Gestapo” and quote a fellow soldier who says that “the place resembles a concentration camp,” although Shavit himself has “always abhorred the analogy.” 3 In another, however, he can provide an analysis of the existential threat posed by the Iranian centrifuges so hawkish Netanyahu himself could have written it. This dualism runs throughout the book.

Shavit is nostalgic for Israel’s more socialist past, tracing many of the problems he sees today to the victory of the right in the 1977 elections, which ended thirty years of rule by left-wing parties. He is a passionate critic of the occupation, viewing it as unjust and politically corrosive. At the same time, however, despite agreeing with the leftist peace movement on the moral illegitimacy of the occupation, he sees the “peaceniks” as naively deluded in their belief that withdrawing to some version of the 1967 borders would bring peace: “We should have been sober enough to say that occupation must end even if the end of occupation did not end the conflict.” 4

On this logic, Israel need not wait for a deal with the Palestinians but should just take unilateral measures to “gradually and cautiously withdraw” from the West Bank. 5 Given the unlikely prospects of any successful negotiated settlement, a unilateral withdrawal of this sort, which Ben-Gurion himself advocated immediately following the 1967 war, increasingly represents one of the few remaining responses for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. After Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, however, popular support for any risky disengagement from the West Bank is at an all-time low. At the same time, Shavit is clear-sighted about the dangers of de-occupation—especially the potential for the rise of, in Netanyahu’s words, another missile- lobbing “Hamas-stan” just minutes from Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport. Shavit’s account, then, written in English and clearly targeted at an American audience, has much to interest all readers. In places, it is genuinely powerful and moving, most notably in its descriptions of Zionism’s almost miraculous nation-building, as malaria-ridden swamps are drained and deserts bloom. Ultimately, however, Shavit’s tale revolves around a core of gnawing, corrosive, confidence-sapping guilt over the foundation of Israel.

For all Shavit’s celebration of Israel’s national achievement, this anguished guilt rots away at Shavit’s moral faith in the Zionist project. It hangs over much of the book’s early chapters, with portentous forebodings of an impending catastrophe shrouding his description of Zionism’s every move, no matter how benign, from growing an orange to attending a violin concert. From the very first paragraphs of the book, when Bentwich is described as “still an innocent” 6 when he views the Holy Land from his steamer—not yet damned for the fate of the Palestinians whose villages he “does not see” 7 as he surveys it—guilt hangs over all the triumphs of My Promised Land. This self-flagellating contrition finds its defining apotheosis in one chapter in particular, entitled “Lydda, 1948,” which gained some notoriety when published separately in the The New Yorker. It de- scribes, graphically, the expulsion of thou- sands of Arabs from the city of Lydda in July 1948, as “Zionism carries out a massacre.” Shavit writes, “Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda . . . If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.” 8 The events at Lydda are the realization of what was always going to be, from the moment Bentwich landed in Jaffa, an “imminent, inevitable tragedy.” 9 Indeed, for Shavit, Israel’s history is always shaped by a “tragic decree,” by “eternal struggles”—in short, by “fate,” a word that appears an extraordinary number of times over the course of the book, with repeated injunctions to his fellow citizens to “recognize our fate [and] live up to our life’s decree.” 10

For Shavit, war in the Middle East is an inevitable necessity, given the converging forces of Zionism and the Palestinians there was no escaping Lydda, and there is no escaping a future of eternal war. Except that there was and there is. History isn’t Greek tragedy. The fates of nations are not con- trolled by the will of distant, arbitrary gods. The events at Lydda, and indeed the current events in the Middle East, are not and have never been inevitable. They are historically contingent, generated at least in part by specific decisions by individuals with moral agency. Lydda was not inherent in Zionism but emerged in the desperate maelstrom of a war of survival—the essential context, which Shavit downplays, of the simultaneous invasion of the nascent Jewish state by five Arab armies, in a war the Secretary-General of the Arab League promised would be “a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.” 11 In Shavit’s ac- count, all Arab agency is subsumed into suffering passivity, merely waiting for a “tragic decree” to unfurl: “Lydda suspected nothing.

Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen.” 12 But the Arab invasion followed the rejection of the UN partition plan by the Arab states, a rejection that was not fated or inevitable but a deliberate political decision. Even within the brutally bloody context of a war for Jewish survival, there was nothing inevitable about Lydda, given that numerous other Arab cities, such as Nazareth, saw no such massacres or expulsions. Shavit’s description of a unitary, monolithic Zionism, moreover, ignores the numerous debates that divided the movement from its very inception. For instance, John Judis has argued recently (in Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict) that the vision of a binational state envisaged by Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am could well have been realized had Truman acted differently in 1948. 13 It is not true that Zionism required the destruction of Lydda. History is not fate.

This is true not only of the events of 1948 but of the whole subsequent history of the region. The long sequence of failed negotiations, plagued initially by Palestinian rejectionism and increasingly by the continuing announcement of tenders for settlement construction, does not stem from a decreed, preordained injunction but from the unfolding consequences of quite deliberate political actions. For all My Promised Land’s undoubted merits, the persistent, crushingly fatalistic view of history as an inescapably tragic destiny is a major weakness of the book. Blaming fate becomes a get-out clause, negating the need for the difficult decisions from both parties that will truly define the region’s future.

Ultimately, Shavit concludes, “There will be no utopia here. Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be . . . But what has evolved in this land is not to be dismissed . . . a truly free society that is alive and kicking and fascinating.” 14 Israel is home to a “living people,” and the “Israel tale is the tale of vitality against all odds.” 15 Given the tragedy of the first half of the twentieth century, this is no small triumph. It’s just as well Herbert Bentwich disembarked.

Sam Winter-Levy is the von Clemm fellow 2014–15 at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, studying history and international relations.

1 Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 8.

11 David Barnett and Efraim Karsh, “Azzam’s Genocidal Threat,” Middle East Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 4 (Fall 2011): 85–88.

12 Shavit, My Promised Land, 104.

13 John B. Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).


My Promised Land by Ari Shavit


When Secretary of State John Kerry began his diplomatic work, no doubt he approached it with the high-minded, can-do style of his American predecessors. We have to do something fair and rational in the Middle East, he must have thought as he began his energetic and well-meant efforts. I hope he is reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land while he pursues his elusive goal, as it explains the inexplicable state of affairs in Israel and the tortured complex history that led it to the present status quo. Shavit’s book is immensely readable it deals with complex matters with extraordinary fairness and balance and it provides a bill of factual particulars that will be hard for any other book to equal.

In one chapter, Shavit tells four stories of four Israelis – a professor of politics, a Supreme Court chief justice, a noted literary author, and an escapee from Iraq. The atrocities they and their families endured – emblematic of the Jewish Diaspora after World War II – led them to Israel. The chaos and madness uprooted and destroyed their families and their lives. Their stories put into a comprehensible context the dilemmas of current Israeli society, after “the world had shifted from its natural course.”

Shavit compares their personal stories with his own during the country’s dramatic, early years of Zionism when Israel dealt with “a wave of immigration never experienced by any other state in modern times…a remarkable melting pot.” But the melting pot didn’t melt completely. Oriental Jews claim to have an inferiority complex, and the vast influx of Russians remains insular. The young generation does not share the same utopian commitments of their pioneer parents and grandparents. The unruly process of Zionism created improvised and “imperfect solutions to acute challenges…always adjusting and creating new realities.”

It was also a time when “Palestine vanished and the modern state of Israel replaced it.” But the romantic miracle of its birth and early kibbutz life makes it difficult for Israeli society today to deal with its recent history. Shavit writes: “As it marched toward the future, Israel erased the past.” In doing so, it was inevitable that Israel “expunged Palestine from its memory and soul.” Israelis’ nation-building had to be based on denial Israel could not afford guilt or compassion at the same time. Yet, claims for refuge in ancestral Palestine are as historic as they are current.

Shavit uses Masada – the 2,000-year-old desert fortress near the Dead Sea where, ages ago, Jews committed suicide rather than die at their enemies’ hands – as a mystical historical metaphor for Israel’s loneliness in a hostile world. He retells the aching story of Lydda as the source of the settlement movement and the conversion of a utopia into the “dark secret of Zionism.” The current Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, Shavit concludes, derives from the story of Lydda and how the loss of Palestinian sovereignty and dignity led to intergenerational revenge oozing from unhealed wounds. “My nation has become an occupying nation.”

Shavit studies and faults the settlements phenomenon, “illegal, immoral, and irrational,” attributing it to the wars of 1967 and 1973. Zealots sought to “bring the Bible to life.” Shavit concludes ominously: “There will be war, no doubt about it” as Israel is entangled in a predicament caused by saving one people “by dispossession of another.”

Shavit describes his personal experiences as a military guard at a Gaza prison as a morally corrupting one: “We are evil in Gaza.” Caught in a circle of violence and counter-violence, “the tragedy never ends.” He describes the evolution of Israel’s reactor in Dimona, its Star Wars “insurance policy of nuclear deterrence,” and questions whether eventually it will “open the gates of a future hell” and become “a cathedral for a tragic modern age,” an inferno.

My Promised Land is a sad book, one of successes and survival of settlement and displacement of partition, occupation, and homeland and of wrenching cruelties, horrors, and inhumanities. It describes a complicated history, and Shavit tells it with compassion, understanding, and honesty, and without polemics. He takes us to villages, kibbutzim, and cities, introducing readers to engaging, interesting people. And he tells their remarkable stories. He explains why Israel is “an ongoing adventure, an ‘odyssey.’”

The humanity of all the contending players we meet is manifest. “I write with my heart,” Shavit says, “to bring back to life different periods of time.” It is hard to see long-term peace in Israel’s future. Israel has become “a state in chaos” it is “a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny.” It is economically strong – miraculously so – but politically distressed. Once an oasis, it is now surrounded and threatened without a peace artner. “We dwell under the looming shadow of a smoldering volcano.”

Shavit’s history of this place he knows and oves is must reading for our secretary of state and anyone else who cares bout peace in the Middle East and wants the cycle of struggle and tragedy to end.

Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.


Timstafford's Blog

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is a wonderful and troubling book, a history of modern Israel that uses carefully researched profiles to tell Israel’s story and pose its dilemmas. Shavit is a secular Zionist and a journalist who writes for Haaretz. He begins the story of Israel with his own great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an English Zionist who visited Palestine in 1897 to test the possibilities of establishing Jewish colonies. Shavit paints vivid pictures of the early kibbutz movement. He describes in detail the men who fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, and carefully draws out what is known of the development of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Shavit writes beautifully, and his deep love for and pride in his country suffuses the book. He made me feel the severe beauty and energy of modern Israel.

He also looks unblinkingly at Israel’s cruelty. As he sees it, Israel was a necessary and astonishing innovation intended to solve the problem of the Jews of Europe—under deadly persecution in the east (which would lead to the Holocaust) and at risk of complete assimilation in the west. If the Jews as a people were to survive, they needed a place of their own. He makes a strong case that Israel was necessary, and he clearly believes that it is necessary today. But with equal insistence he describes the fatal flaw in the vision: Palestine was already the home of somebody else. The early Zionists (including his great grandfather) chose not to see Palestinians the later Zionists saw them and recognized that they could not coexist. Some of the most harrowing passages in My Promised Land describe the actions and thoughts of men whom Shavit clearly admires as they steeled themselves to cruelty and murder, forcing Palestinian Arabs out of their ancestral villages and towns.

Given what his ancestors did, Shavit sees no possibility of peace. He does not blame Palestinians for hating Israel, and he does not blame Israelis for defending their land at all costs. He believes that Israel’s current occupation of Palestinian territory is a policy disaster, as well as a humanitarian outrage, but he understands that it is rooted in well-grounded fear. “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.” Try as he may, he cannot see a good future in this combination. He has only an amorphous hope that somehow the genius of Israelis will find a way, again, to preserve their country. Otherwise Israel’s triumph can only lead to tragedy for Jews as well as for Palestinians.

Shavit is a passionate man with strong ideas, and he writes with verve. Some of course disagree, and he allows them, including Palestinians and religious Jews, to have their word, which he treats with respect. He is impressively fair-minded, a journalist who asks probing questions and listens to the answers. All the same it is his passionate conviction—his fear, his pride, his hope, his shame—that makes him a wonderful dialogue partner in trying to understand the past, present and future of Israel. I learned a lot from reading this book, and it sparked many thoughts about the meaning of life and history far removed from the triumph and tragedy of modern Israel. More on that in future posts.

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2015 at 9:28 pm and is filed under history, justice, politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “My Promised Land”

[…] I wrote last week about My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a powerful, emotive history of modern Israel. What struck me most was the recording of Israel’s founding—the evocation of a people on the brink of an abyss, about to be exterminated in eastern countries and assimilated in western countries. The idea of the nation of Israel—Zionism—was anathema to many Jews who saw their salvation in religious identity, not in establishing a state after more than 2,000 years without one. Even if you believed the premise that a Jewish state would transform their situation, was the idea practical? Shavit shows that it was made practical only through a remarkable combination of zealous idealism and ardent pragmatism. He dramatizes real people and real places where extraordinary determination, skill, chutzpah, smarts and risk-taking created a desert miracle, a vital, successful, creative and sometimes joyful country. If a degree of cold cruelty was unavoidably at its heart, Israel was still a remarkable accomplishment. […]


Shavit's 'My Promised Land Examines Israel's Complexities

Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep talks to Israeli journalist Ari Shavit about his new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit attempts to capture the complexity and contradictions of modern Israel by examining his country's history.

Shavit's 'My Promised Land Examines Israel's Complexities

Recently my colleague Steve Inskeep heard an Israeli journalist give a talk. The journalist said that people in Israel had over the past few decades forgotten their nation's narrative.

ARI SHAVIT: We've lost this basic understanding that we are the ultimate victims of the 20th century. We are the ultimate victims of Europe. And Israel, with all its flaws, is a remarkable project of life-saving of a nation that was facing extinction and took its own fate in its own hands and tried to save itself and in many ways succeeded.

GREENE: Ari Shavit has long been a columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Now he's written a book called "My Promised Land." In it, Shavit examines his country's history, its glories and its most painful chapters. When he stopped by our studios a few weeks ago, he talked with Steve about a man who visited the holy land over a century ago.

SHAVIT: My great grandfather was a self-made, very successful British-Jewish lawyer, and the question I asked myself at the beginning of the book is why would such a person who had it going so well for himself in London, which was the capital of the world at the time, why would he go to desolate, remote Palestine?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: He went on a scouting trip to see if this would be appropriate for Jewish settlement.

SHAVIT: And the answer I come up with, that he and his cofounders of Zionism had these brilliant insights. Although they did not know there will be such a place called Auschwitz, they realized that Europe was going mad and it's going after its Jews. And they tried actually physically to save the Jews. And to do that they actually launched the most amazing revolution of the 20th century. They transferred the people from one continent to another, they took a land, they built a nation, and all this and this amazing life-saving project that Israel is.

INSKEEP: Well, you went back and you read your great grandfather's journal of a portion of this journey to the holy land, to what is now Israel, and you read the journals of other people who were on this scouting trip of sorts. And you go into some detail in describing what he saw when he was looking around and looking at the prospects and, also what he did not see.

SHAVIT: Absolutely. There was this flaw from the very beginning, and the flaw was that my great grandfather, like other Zionists, did not really see the other. They did not really see that this land, this is the land of our forefathers, our ancient homeland, is occupied, it taken by another people. There was no Palestine national entity. There was no political entity.

INSKEEP: It was part of the Ottoman Empire.

SHAVIT: It was part of the Ottoman - and the entire region was, like, chaotic and tribal. So one has to remember, they did not conquer a well-established state, but those other people were there. And my great grandfather did not see them. Now, that's the source of the tragedy, because on the one hand, you have this amazing triumph that is a result of the brilliant insight. On the other hand, you have this ongoing tragedy of a 100-year war - more than that - that is the result of that basic flaw, that we did not see the Palestinians and the Palestinians would not see us, and.

INSKEEP: And you mean that in an almost literal sense - people would look right at Arab villages and ride past them.

SHAVIT: And in many ways. So I think, one of my hopes is that Palestinians would read this book and be able to understand where we come from, understand our narrative. And while we Israelis will really recognize our other and see that the Palestinians are there in a deep way, I think that that is the key - to recognize the past and move on and to see one another in a deep, human way.

INSKEEP: You do reconstruct in a literary way a lot of painful moments. The mid-1930s when Arabs realized the Jews were getting really quite numerous, attack the Jews, and there were Jewish reprisals that were terrible as well. You go to the 1940s - 1948 - this is around the time of the formal declaration of the state of Israel and describe Israelis forcing everyone out of a town called Lida(ph). Why focus on that episode? What happened there and why is it important to you?

SHAVIT: First of all, let me begin with what you say about the '30s. In many ways the most important year in the history of that holy land is really '36, because this is when the two people saw each other for a moment and the result was a total war. The Palestinians really wanted to drive us out. And Zionism has changed, 'cause it lost its innocence. Up to that point, with this romanticism and idealism, they did not see the problem. From that moment on, both sides saw the problem and the result was terrible violence.

INSKEEP: Meaning that at that moment both sides understood there was another people on this land.

SHAVIT: Yeah, and both wanted, and both - now, there is no - the brutality began in a big way in the late '30s. So in many ways the war of '48 was a result of that, because we moved from innocence to living in a brutal pain. My painful chapter about Lida is there because I think it's my moral obligation to look at things as they were. And I describe at great length what has happened there, which is that the Israeli forces conquered the city and drove away its civilian population. So this is a tragedy. And what I say about Lida is, one, I must acknowledge Lida happened two, we all have to be fair and see that many things as Lida and worse happened in the 1940s three, we have to remember that anywhere that the Palestinians or the Arabs then had a victory over the Jews in that war, worse things happened and the most important thing is really this dialogue, in a sense, that I have with the Palestinians here, which says, yes, I recognize, I acknowledge Lida, but you must not get addicted to Lida. You have to leave that behind and we must build our future in that land, remembering that it happened, remembering and understanding that it's at the heart of your tragedy. But other tragedies happened and let's move on. Let's not get caught in this tragic cycle of trying to bring back that past and not being able to get out of the vicious circle.

INSKEEP: So what does Israel owe the Palestinians then?

SHAVIT: A state. I think that the two-state solution is necessary for political reasons, first of all, but also for moral reasons. I think that it's incomprehensible that the Palestinians will not have a state of their own. But that state should live in peace and it should not try to replace Israel. And regretfully, there are still many Palestinians who have a vision of Palestine that actually in this way or another replaces Israel. I think that after having such a long war, you have malaise on both sides. Our malaise is occupation. We have to end occupation. If we can do it through peace, that will be great. If not so, we have to do it unilaterally in a cautious, gradual way, because we cannot be occupying them. And we owe it to them - they should have a state. What the Palestinians have to do is to realize that their Palestine will live next to Israel and we cannot endanger Israel. Both patients have to be cured.

INSKEEP: Ari Shavit is author of "My Promised Land." Thanks very much.

SHAVIT: Thank you very much.

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My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Winner of the Natan Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

An authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East today

Not since Thomas L. Friedman’s groundbreaking From Beirut to Jerusalem has a book captured the essence and the beating heart of the Middle East as keenly and dynamically as My Promised Land. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family’s story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.

We meet Shavit’s great-grandfather, a British Zionist who in 1897 visited the Holy Land on a Thomas Cook tour and understood that it was the way of the future for his people the idealist young farmer who bought land from his Arab neighbor in the 1920s to grow the Jaffa oranges that would create Palestine’s booming economy the visionary youth group leader who, in the 1940s, transformed Masada from the neglected ruins of an extremist sect into a powerful symbol for Zionism the Palestinian who as a young man in 1948 was driven with his family from his home during the expulsion from Lydda the immigrant orphans of Europe’s Holocaust, who took on menial work and focused on raising their children to become the leaders of the new state the pragmatic engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s, in the only interview he ever gave the zealous religious Zionists who started the settler movement in the 1970s the dot-com entrepreneurs and young men and women behind Tel-Aviv’s booming club scene and today’s architects of Israel’s foreign policy with Iran, whose nuclear threat looms ominously over the tiny country.

As it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? Can Israel survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that Israel is currently facing, My Promised Land uses the defining events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global political landscape.

Praise for My Promised Land

“This book will sweep you up in its narrative force and not let go of you until it is done. [Shavit’s] accomplishment is so unlikely, so total . . . that it makes you believe anything is possible, even, God help us, peace in the Middle East.”—Simon Schama, Financial Times

“[A] must-read book.”—Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

“Important and powerful . . . the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review

“Spellbinding . . . Shavit’s prophetic voice carries lessons that all sides need to hear.”—The Economist

“One of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.”—The Wall Street Journal


The State of Israel

Too much of the discourse on Israel is a doubting discourse. I do not mean that it is too critical: Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I mean that the state is too often judged for its viability or its validity, as if some fundamental acceptance of its reality is pending upon the resolution of its many problems with itself and with others. About the severity of those problems there is no question, and some of them broach primary issues of politics and morality but Israel’s problems are too often combined and promoted into a Problem, which has the effect of emptying the Jewish state of its actuality and consigning it to a historical provisionality, a permanent condition of controversy, from which it can be released only by furnishing various justifications and explanations.

In its early years Israel liked to think of itself as an experiment in the realization of various ideals and hopes, but really all societies, including Arab ones, are, in the matter of justice, experiments and existence itself must never be regarded as an experiment, as if anybody has the authority to declare that the experiment has failed, and to try and do something about it. Israel is not a proposition, it is a country. Its facticity is one of the great accomplishments of the Jews’ history and one of the great accomplishments of liberalism’s and socialism’s and nationalism’s histories, and it is not complacent or apologetic to say so. The problems are not going away. I cannot say the same about the sense of greatness.

It is one of the achievements of Ari Shavit’s important and powerful book to recover the feeling of Israel’s facticity and to revel in it, to restore the grandeur of the simple fact in full view of the complicated facts. “My Promised Land” startles in many ways, not least in its relative lack of interest in providing its readers with a handy politics. Shavit, a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, has an undoctrinaire mind. He comes not to praise or to blame, though along the way he does both, with erudition and with eloquence he comes instead to observe and to reflect.

This is the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read. It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism. It is about the entirety of the Israeli experience. Shavit is immersed in all of the history of his country. While some of it offends him, none of it is alien to him. His extraordinary chapter on the charismatic and corrupt Aryeh Deri, and the rise of Sephardic religious politics in Israel, richly illustrates the reach of his understanding.

Nowhere is Shavit a stranger in his own land. The naturalness of his identity, the ease with which he travels among his own people, has the paradoxical effect of freeing him for a genuine confrontation with the contradictions and the crimes he discovers. His straightforward honesty is itself evidence of the “normalization” to which the founders of Zionism aspired for the Jews in their homeland but it nicely confounds their expectation that normality would bring only contentment. Anxiety, skepticism, fear and horror are also elements of a normal life.

Shavit begins Israel’s story at the beginning: with Zionism and its utopian projects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been a long time since I encountered a secular observer of Israeli society who is still so enchanted by the land and still so moved by the original visions of what could be established on it. “Zionism’s mission,” as Shavit correctly describes it, was to rescue the Jews from destruction in exile and he has too much dignity to entertain second thoughts about the appetite for life. “The need was real,” he writes. “The vision was impressive — ambitious but not mad. And the persistence was unique: For over a century, Zionism displayed extraordinary determination, imagination and innovation.” There is something almost wicked about such a full-throated love of country in a journalist so sophisticated — and about such a full-throated love of Israel.

But this is not a hollow or mendacious patriotism. There is love in “My Promised Land,” but there is no propaganda. Shavit knows how to express solidarity and criticism simultaneously. He proposes that Zionism was historically miraculous and he proposes that Zionism was historically culpable. “From the beginning, Zionism skated on thin ice”: There was another people living in the same land. “The miracle is based on denial,” he bluntly remarks. “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland.” Shavit’s narrative of the massacre and expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda by Israeli forces in the war of 1948 is a sickening tour de force, even if it is not, in his view, all one needs to know about the war or the country. “The choice is stark,” he unflinchingly declares: “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

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Shavit makes his choice. He does not reject Zionism, though he does not make excuses either. He condemns the perpetrators of the crimes, but he does not condemn the war for survival and self-­determination in which the crimes were committed: “If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the state of Israel would not have been born. . . . They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.” Is this shocking? Only to the innocent. The appeal to “tragedy” can be easily abused, but Shavit does not abuse it. He refuses to look past what he calls “the baser instincts of the Jewish national movement,” and there is no duplicity, no self-­forgiveness, in his honesty. “My Promised Land” abounds in anguish, and it has the unrelenting tone of a genuine reckoning.

Yet Shavit insists upon a high degree of moral complication. Even if “denial was a life-or-death imperative” in dire or inflamed circumstances — which nation-­state or national movement will cast the first stone? — denial must be brought to an end and the whole nasty tangle must be exposed. But the morally compromised nature of power must not confer moral glamour upon powerlessness. The problem of means and ends will not be solved by suicide. This is all very tricky. The fact that liberty and sovereignty are often won with violence cannot justify anything that any state or any movement might do in the name of liberty and sovereignty. But surely there is also no justice in dying with clean hands instead of living with dirty hands. Palestinians should be able to understand this. Israelis should be able to understand this about Palestinians.

The author of “My Promised Land” is a dreamer with an addiction to reality. He holds out for affirmation without illusion. Shavit’s book is an extended test of his own capacity to maintain his principles in full view of the brutality that surrounds them. “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear,” his book begins. And a few pages later: “For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation.” I admire him for never desisting from this duality of “existential fear” and “moral outrage.” No satisfactory account of the Israeli situation can be given without this double-mindedness, not least because the present-day debate about Israel consists largely of an argument between those who wish to ignore one of the terms and those who wish to ignore the other.

In such a debate Shavit is splendidly unobliging — as, for example, in this comment about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.” It is a formulation that will be unhelpful for activists and diplomats and editorialists, but all of it is true.

If the Palestinians cannot be adequately and respectfully grasped when they are regarded solely from the standpoint of the Israelis, the same is true of the Israelis when they are regarded solely from the standpoint of the Palestinians. I do not wish to leave the impression that “My Promised Land” is another book about Israel and the Palestinians. It holds much more. Shavit treats the full plenitude of his country, its history, its culture, its religion, its politics. (I wish he had told more about its language: The creation of modern Hebrew is an even greater astonishment than the creation of modern Israel.)

Shavit chooses 16 dates in the annals of Zionism and Israel, from 1897 to 2013, and not the canonical dates, through which to tell the national story. He reports on ­places and people, he scours archives. In his hands the national story is also a personal story, not only because he traces the roles of family and friends at various turning points in the saga, but also because he is always checking and double-checking his own hold on his country’s realities.

Yet this is not, thankfully, a memoir it is an inquiry enhanced by intimacy. Shavit explores his society with the thoroughness of a man who feels implicated in its fate, and he is unsparing about the fraying of the Israeli republic in recent years. “In less than 30 years,” he memorably observes, “Israel has experienced seven different internal revolts: the settlers’ revolt, the peace revolt, the liberal-judicial revolt, the Oriental revolt, the ultra-­Orthodox revolt, the hedonist-individualistic revolt and the Palestinian Israelis’ revolt.” He worries, perhaps a little excessively, that his country is coming apart: “This start-up nation must restart itself.”

There is certainly no extenuating the economic and social inequalities he describes, or the utter derangement of the settlement policies in territories that Israel has an urgent and prudent interest in evacuating. But Shavit’s admonition that “the old discourse of duty and commitment was replaced by a new discourse of protest and hedonism,” his exhortation that “the immediate challenge is the challenge of regaining national potency,” is grimmer and more draconian than the spirited and capacious voice in which his book is otherwise written. And the rhetoric of “national potency” has unattractive associations. The turbulent and crackling place described in “My Promised Land” will not be healed by a rappel a l’ordre.

“What this nation has to offer,” Shavit concludes, “is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.” The blessing of not being Luxembourg, then. It is a mixed blessing, to be sure — but what other kind of blessing is there? By the measure of the Jewish past, and by the measure of the Levantine present, mixed is quite a lot.


Watch the video: Ari Shavit with David Remnick: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel