My Promised Land

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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One Response to “My Promised Land”

  1. My Promised Land Again | Timstafford's Blog Says:

    […] 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. […]

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