My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
By Ari Shavit
Spiegel & Grau
With Israel being both the target of great adulation and deep criticism, most book-length accounts these days tend to sway one way or the other. In My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit indeed presents a loving account of his country. But he also reveals all of Zionism’s warts in often painful detail. The subtitle of the book refers to Israel’s triumphs and tragedies. However, after reading Shavit’s book, one might consider replacing the word tragedy with the words moral and ethical culpability.
Based largely on interviews, Shavit recounts Zionist history in broad strokes: the early Jewish immigration, the building of the first Hebrew town and the first Hebrew city, the vineyards, the stables, the roads, the fields, the kibbutzim. Importantly, Shavit describes the intense need by the early Zionist settlers to see the Arabs as invisible. But, as Shavit reveals, they don’t remain invisible. They are soon the target of violence and expulsion.
The capstone event, which Shavit recounts during the months of Israel’s founding, is that of the siege of the Arab town of Lydda. There, Israeli soldiers shot dead more than 100 civilians, and expelled tens of thousands of residents.
Lydda, Shavit writes, “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. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.”
It’s a serious indictment of Zionism. But that is not the personal conclusion Shavit, in what is often an overly repetitive prose rhythm, chooses to draw. Readers will draw their own conclusions. Some may be angered by his inclusion of these acts of violence and expulsion. Others will be angered by his unwillingness to abandon the Zionist dream in the face of these uncomfortable truths. This moral equivocation, though, is ultimately a strength of the book.
Shavit tells the tale of the creation of Israel’s still unacknowledged nuclear deterrent in Dimona, a chapter, he tells us, he submitted to the military censor. He writes of the rise of the settlement project – “I feel for Ofra [a West Bank settlement],” Shavit says. “I feel strongly for the Ofra that I am furious with.”
Shavit investigates the rise of the Mizrachi Shas party, in the form of a short biography of the party’s early star, Aryeh Deri, and an intriguing – if startlingly – descriptive chapter on Tel Aviv’s club scene.
As his historical account concludes, Shavit looks to the future by outlining the “threats” he sees Israel facing: Iran’s weaponry, the currents of Islamism, the Arab awakening, the moral corruption of the occupation, the non-Zionist Arab minority and the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox segment.
As he recounts population challenges – because the Jewish population in the city is only 63 per cent, Jerusalem’s demography “is not promising,” he asserts – one could be forgiven for absorbing traces of xenophobia in his own writing, just as he critiques the xenophobia he sees as having taken hold of Israeli society.
It is clear that Shavit sees Zionism as the key solution to the Jewish problem – both in terms of the anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, and in terms of the assimilation Jews have chosen for themselves. Musing on what might have been his fate, if his British great-grandfather had not set sail for Palestine over a century ago, he concludes he likely would have been half-Jewish at best, his children probably not Jewish at all.
Pairing the persecutory forces befalling the Jews with their own assimilationist impulses may be an accurate way to tell the story. But, morally, it falls short. Dispossessing another people is one thing when the Jews were jumping from the flames of anti-Semitism. But it’s another thing entirely, if the Jews were running as much from their own inevitable cultural integration desires – in other words, fleeing from themselves. Shavit never quite addresses this ethical predicament. No doubt he is aware of it, as he is of the many tensions he chooses to highlight as he grapples with his complex homeland.