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

Ari Shavit is a well known, left-leaning Israeli journalist and a columnist for Haaretz (Israel’s oldest daily newspaper). This book is an apologia for his home land, but also an unsparing cri de coeur addressed to his fellow Israelis to make it better. Shavit relates the history of Israel from early Zionist days in the late 19th century to the present through examples of archetypical individuals. Although he personalizes the narrative, he also discusses the gnarly political and philosophical issues raised by the actions of, and even the very existence of, the Jewish state.

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Shavit is torn between his love of his native land and the immense difficulty (as he sees it) of solving the problem of what to do about the millions of Muslim Arabs who live within or near its boundaries and who will not recognize its legitimacy. The problem is truly intractable: the Jews need a safe refuge from the persecution they have suffered since the Roman conquest in the first century C.E.; and the Arabs have a pretty legitimate claim to the land they inhabited almost exclusively for about 1300 years.

The early Zionists are typified by the author’s great-grandfather, the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a prosperous English Jew. In 1897, Bentwich perceived that Judaism in Europe was in trouble in two ways. First, in Eastern Europe, Jews were the object of vicious pogroms that threatened their physical safety. Second, in Western Europe, Jews were assimilating with the rest of society and were attenuating, if not actually losing, their Jewish faith. In any event, Bentwich was wealthy enough to pull up stakes and establish his family in Palestine.

Shavit describes Bentwich as arriving in Palestine and seeing an empty country. In Shavit’s words, the Arabs living there “are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman,” who as a “white man of the Victorian era, cannot see nonwhites as equals.” Shavit’s great-grandfather “does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see.” And in this respect, he was typical of the early Zionists. [Cf. also Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John B. Judis.] Shavit says that among the early Zionists only Israel Zangwill had a clear view of the Arab population of Palestine, and Zangwill asserted that the Zionists must “drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Prior to 1948, few Zionists would have admitted to agreeing with Zangwill. At the same time, few of them would have looked on their Arab neighbors as equals. Shavit describes the early Zionists as living in a state of denial about the Arabs. He states:

An obstinate disregard [of the Arabs] was crucial for the success of Zionism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a lack of awareness was crucial for the success of Israel in its first decade of existence. If Israel had acknowledged what had happened [to the Arabs] it would not have survived. If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed. Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the… nation into which I was born.”

Many of Israel’s current problems can be traced to the after-effects of its overwhelming victory in the 1967 War. Shavit says, “The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris, and messianic delusions of grandeur.” Accordingly, it undertook a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project,” i.e., the settlement of the Arab-occupied West Bank [Judea and Samaria, to many Israelis]. The settlements have entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled:

The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality.”

Shavit himself is very troubled by some of the tactics employed by his countrymen in controlling the Arabs, or as he says, “imprisoning an entire population.” Nevertheless, he cannot bring himself to protest too vigorously because of his belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. He observes:

This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure. And I am a part of it all. I comply.”

Shavit is deeply pessimistic. He fervently desires peace and justice, but his Arab neighbors are some of the most xenophobic and religiously intolerant people on the planet. To Shavit, the fundamental flaw of the Israeli Left 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. The correct moral position of the Left was compromised by an incorrect empirical assumption.”

Moreover, he sees the problem for Israel is even deeper and thornier than a resolution of the settlements in the West Bank. The problem goes back to the founding of the country in 1948:

What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They [the Arabs] will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life. [Arabs and Jews] cannot really see each other and recognize each other and make peace.”

Uncomfortable as he is with the justice of the situation, Shavit quotes Moshe Dayan’s assessment in 1956 as “the most sincere words ever spoken about the conflict”:

…without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Moshe Dayan in the 1950's

Moshe Dayan in the 1950’s

Shavit rightfully lauds the energy and achievements of his countrymen. He contrasts the thriving Israeli society and economy with its torpid and resentful Arab neighbors. He notes that for the past 40 years Israel’s possession of atomic weapons has helped make it safe from invasion by hostile Arab regimes, but he fears that nuclear monopoly may not be permanent.

Shavit is not always consistent in his assessment of the possibility of peace with the Arabs. Although early in the book he sees no real possibility of a solution, he is highly critical of the current Israeli government for not attempting more creative approaches out of its predicament. He fears that Israel’s secular Jewish majority will become a minority vis-à-vis Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not serve in the military and who tend not to be economically productive. He says:

Secular Israelis are the ones working, producing, and paying taxes. Once they are outnumbered, Israel will be a backward nation that will not be able to meet the challenges of the third millennium….Fewer and fewer Israelis run faster and faster to carry along the Israelis who don’t run at all. A flawed political system guarantees the special interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the mega-rich. But the productive middle class has been abandoned by the state. That’s why this exhausted middle class is growing bitter. It feels the nation has betrayed it. It sees the Israel it loves disintegrating.”

Shavit is consistent, however, in describing his country’s treatment of the Arabs:

The State of Israel . . . has not yet found a way to integrate properly one-fifth of its population. The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights, and did not accord them real equality….To this day there is no definition of the commitments of the Jewish democratic state to its Arab minority.”

Shavit’s concluding paragraphs are wonderfully written. They summarize the tensions inherent in Israel’s precarious position in the world. They express his affection for his country, which he embraces enthusiastically, warts and all. A few of his pithier observations follow:

We probably had to come. And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable….There will be no utopia here. Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be, nor will it be Europe-away-from-Europe….This free society is creative and passionate and frenzied….We respect no past and no future and no authority. We are irreverent. We are deeply anarchic.”

There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here. Not soon. There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here. Not in this generation….So what we really have in this land is an ongoing adventure. An odyssey. The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.”

Evaluation: I have quoted the author more extensively than is usual in book reviews. This is because he writes so passionately and so well. I greatly appreciated his analysis and his candor. This book has a message that is important for Americans, particularly American policymakers. By better understanding its history and current situation, we can be a loyal friend to Israel even though we recognize its shortcomings. And as a true friend, we should not simply rubber stamp the policies of a government that has [in Shavit’s words] “turned Israel into a semi-pariah state.” But we must also recognize the temperament of the Israeli people, who will not tolerate being dictated to by a country with its own interests, not Israel’s, at heart. Accordingly, we would do well to find common ground with the westernized secular middle class to which Shavit belongs, and gently prod their government in directions that serve our mutual interests.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random ouse, a Penguin Random House Company, 2013

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