My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit 2013
Israel has been a very special part of me for as long as I can remember. I was born just weeks after the liberation of the Nazi extermination camps and the surrender of the Third Reich that ended the Holocaust. Israel declared its independence when I was 2 years old. I still vividly remember being thrilled by Ari ben Canaan in Leon Uris’s novel, ‘Exodus’ and the experience of doing a book review of James Michener’s ‘The Source’ for my temple while in college. The Six Day War was raging as my family was gathering in Boston for my college graduation, and Susan and I visited relatives from both our families and prayed at the Temple Wall when we were in Israel in 1971. In 1973, as the Yom Kippur War raged, I called the Israeli Embassy to volunteer my medical services. (They wisely decided that a doctor with two years of pediatric residency experience was not needed.) Israel was not just the Jewish Homeland, it was a beacon of morality, industry, tolerance, and hope for the whole world and especially the Jews of the Disapora. So it has been with sadness and deep misgivings that I’ve watched the developments in the Middle East during the last three decades, and as we prepare for our trip to Israel in March, 2020, I turned to Shavit’s book.
Ari Shavit is a journalist and self-described left wing peacenik. His book begins with a description of an 1897 trip by his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich a British Zionist. Bentwich led a delegation of English Zionists to visit Palestine at the request of Theodore Herzl to determine the conditions for establishing a Zionist homeland there. Bentwich’s report was influential in leading to the 1917 Balfour declaration in which Britain “viewed with favor the establishment of in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and he eventually settled in Palestine in 1923 establishing the first Anglo-Jewish colony and beginning Shavit’s family’s presence there.
Shavit ‘s book provides valuable background for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict detailing the extra-ordinary accomplishments of the early 20th C. Jewish immigrants, the period when Jews and Arabs lived in peaceful juxtaposition, the rise of pan-Arab nationalism that led to the pogroms and violence of the late 1930’s, the clearance of Arab populations from large swaths of Israel in the late 1940’s, the violence and hatred towards the new state on the part of the entire Arab Middle East after 1948, and the extra-ordinary accomplishments of Israel since statehood became a reality in 1948.
This background is important to understand the second part of the book which focuses on the current dilemmas in the region. Shavit refers to the twin realities of today’s Israel as “occupation and intimidation.” The Left overlooks the intimidation resulting from living in a violently hateful environment. The Right overlooks the moral deterioration involved in being an occupying power in the West Bank. He goes on to identify Israel’s need to become a “unique positive anomaly to address its unique negative anomaly.” That negative anomaly has resulted from what he calls seven ‘revolts’ that have occurred inside Israel since the loss of innocence that was the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the revolts of the settlers, the peaceniks, the liberals, the Orientals, the Orthodox, the hedonists, and the Palestinian Israelis. Each of these internal challenges has weakened the ability of the Israeli state to govern and to form a coherent approach to the grave economic, social, and international threats. He goes on to list the seven ‘rings’ of challenges that surround Israel today: the Islamic world, the more immediate neighboring Arab states, the Palestinians in exile, the internal socioeconomic disparities, the deterioration in the Israeli psyche that in the past had enabled conquering the desert and winning wars, the moral abyss of occupation, and the loss of the Hebrew identity that powered the state in the 1948-1973 years.
Some will find Shavit’s arguments and premises to be biased, incorrect, or even ‘treasonous’, but overall this is a thoughtful, thorough, and provocative book that bears reading while keeping in mind that at least six years have passed since it was written. The Iran Peace Accord has come and gone. Natanyahu remains Prime Minister but is under indictment and a third election is looming. The Occupation is stretching into its third decade. Life in vibrant, modern, high tech Tel Aviv continues as does the poverty and unemployment in the West Bank. Complex, confusing, but real, Israel enters its seventh decade.