‘My Promised Land,’ by Ari Shavit
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 arappel a l’ordre .
By Ari Shavit
Illustrated. 445 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.