My Promised Land:
The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
By Ari Shavit
Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages
Ari Shavit’s new portrait of Israel neither demonizes nor whitewashes the country, and for many, this fact will be sufficient to praise his book and call it “balanced.” My Promised Land is divided into 17 chapters, each offering a fascinating portrait of an individual episode of Israel’s history, such as the founding of the first kibbutz in 1921, the construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor in 1967, the founding of the first settlement in Samaria in 1975, and the economic protests of 2011. Shavit, a longtime columnist for Haaretz, alternates effectively and entertainingly between broad overviews and personal stories. Thus, he describes the conditions that produced the nation’s citrus boom following World War I alongside the story of an individual orange grower from Rehovot, using archival materials and in-depth interviews, before providing his insights and analysis. This is an immensely readable book.
But Shavit has a larger and more ambitious goal than telling good stories. My Promised Land is his version of the story of Zionism—and in his telling, it is akin to a Greek tragedy, for it contained the seeds of its own undoing at its birth. Already in 1897, only a year after the publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State, the British writer Israel Zangwill said of Palestine that the Jews must be willing “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.” When Jews began settling the land in the late 19th century, Shavit implies, their presence set off a historical chain reaction that inexorably led to socialism, the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion’s statist melting pot, and nuclear weapons. As a result, Shavit argues, Israel has visited Iran’s nuclear shadow upon itself. Iran and other nations in the region believe that “if we have a right to our Dimona, they have a right to theirs. And when other Middle Eastern nations exercise their rights, our Dimona will turn from a blessing into a curse.”
History expresses itself in an ideologically convenient way for Shavit. For example, he acknowledges that those who governed the state in its first years mistreated many of their own kind—Jews from Arab lands, religious Jews, Holocaust refugees—as well as Palestinian Arabs. But, he says, it was the only way. It was inevitable. “If need be,” he writes, “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. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
The inevitability of Israeli history ends for him, though, in 1967. Israel’s phenomenal victory in the Six-Day War that year went to its head, in his view, and the nation and its leaders lost the discipline that had kept them balanced during the first two decades. Everything since has not been inevitable, and most of what has happened has not been good. The Yom Kippur War could have been avoided. Israel could have chosen not to settle the West Bank. The first Lebanon War was folly. “A movement that got most things right in its early days,” Shavit writes, “has gotten almost everything wrong in recent decades.”
My Promised Land is not, in the end, a historical account; it is a polemic. Shavit, a self-proclaimed romantic, idealizes pre-1967 Israel and laments what he perceives to be contemporary Israel’s lack of resolve, commitment, and community. For him, the excesses perpetrated by and in the name of Zionism before 1967 were acceptable collateral damage. But subsequent events—ones that make him unhappy—are the result of ideological overreach that has perverted Zionism.
The second half of My Promised Land chronicles the “seven revolts” that transformed post-1967 Israel. These revolts not only change Shavit’s Israel beyond recognition; they undermine his moral justification for the state’s existence. In its first 50 years, Zionism “was very careful not to be associated with colonialism and tried not to cause unnecessary hardship,” he writes. “It made sure it was a democratic, progressive, and enlightened movement, collaborating with the world’s forces of progress.” Shavit accepts the contention that the creation of the State of Israel was an exercise in colonialism, and that Zionism’s original sin was so profound that Israel itself could be defended only if it kept itself in line with anti-colonialist ideals. “Without the communal aspect of kibbutz,” he writes of that failed experiment in radical egalitarianism, “socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and will be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement…moral camouflage of an aggressive national movement whose purpose is to obscure its colonialist, expansionist nature.”
This, he says, has proved “true and not true.” He is wrong. It is not true.
The identification of Zionism with colonialism is the key flaw of My Promised Land. To be sure, at times, the early Zionists made common cause with colonial powers—just as, when they felt it necessary, they went to war against colonial powers. In the decade before independence, they were at daggers drawn with the imperial British power governing the land they wished to inhabit. Shavit makes no mention at all of the 1939 White Paper issued by Great Britain that severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and led Zionism into open conflict with British colonial authorities; in his vague telling, Britain eventually exits the stage because “His Majesty’s government has had enough of the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews.” The Zionists sought to bring a uniquely powerless and stateless people to its homeland before it was too late—the very opposite of colonialism.
There have been socialist, feudalist, and even fascist Zionisms, yet Zionism is neither socialism nor feudalism nor fascism. Zionism is the concrete expression of the Jewish people’s ancient yearning to go home. Shavit misreads the Jewish return to the hilltops of Judea and Samaria as a colonialist exercise when it is, in fact, an assertion that these territories are the Jewish heartland and homeland. A Jew need not justify his claim to his land by means of assertions of his moral superiority. That another people claims the land is an issue that must be addressed, to be sure. But that makes the matter a dispute between two peoples with ancient claims to the entire land. It is not a dispute between Eastern natives and Western occupiers.
Similarly, Shavit’s understanding of Zionism is limited by his dismissal of the central role of the religion of the Jews. In his view, the bold assertion of religious identity in Israel—by religious Zionists through the settler movement and by Sephardim through the Shas party—has contributed to the demise of a unified and cohesive state. He takes comfort in the economic protests in the summer of 2011, which had a leftist tinge and which he therefore sees as a return to unity and hope: “Neither the settlement nor the peace nor the Oriental Shas movements,” he writes, “was ever able to gather so many Israelis with such enthusiasm and broad-based support.” Shavit finished his book before the death of Shas leader Ovadia Yosef, the non-agenarian scholar and political agitator. Nearly a million Israelis attended Rav Ovadia’s funeral, approximately twice the number involved in the tent protests.
Shavit and the secular, social-democratic Ashkenazic tribe that created the state in their image and dominated the first three decades of its existence must be allowed to lament the loss of their Israel. My Promised Land is an elegy for that Israel, and here’s hoping that it offers catharsis, in the tradition of the great tragedies. But a growing majority of Israelis, the descendants of the millions who arrived as refugees in Ben-Gurion’s socialist state who have reasserted suppressed identities and sought a new direction for the country, do not lament. They are happy to accept Israel for what it is and will be, and feel no need to apologize.