Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land:’ Painful but inspiring

By Rabbi Jack Riemer/

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land." Credit: Random House.

The newly published “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” by Ha’aretz political columnist Ari Shavit, is simultaneously one of the most disheartening and one of the most inspiring books about Israel that I have ever read.

Going decade by decade, place by place, Shavit asks painful questions. He stands in what was once the Arab city of Lydda (now the Israeli city of Lod), which was just a stone’s throw away—literally—from Israel’s only international airport, and asks, would there be an Israel today if the Arabs hadn’t fled the country in 1948?”

Shavit stands in the Gaza prison where he once did guard duty, in what he can only describe as a cesspool, and asks himself, why must Israel sink to an inhuman level to care for hostile prisoners? Is there any way of keeping your enemy imprisoned without being imprisoned yourself in the process?

After touring the land and reflecting on what happened in each place and in each decade, Shavit ends up awed by what was achieved, frightened by what went wrong. On the one hand, he honors the pioneers who first farmed the land, and he celebrates the orange that gave them their first victory, but he asks questions. Why were the kibbutzim unable to hold on to their children? Why have their farms become factories, and what has this done to the image of Israel, and to its self-image?

Shavit posits that since 1973 there has been a conflict between what he calls practical Zionism, which focuses on the quality of life, and messianic Zionism, which believes that all the land of Israel can be held by the Jews—despite world opinion, despite the intransigence of the Arab world, and despite the price that holding on to all the land takes on the souls of the young Israeli soldiers who must secure it.

He does not have any simple solutions to propose. He believes that the Right is wrong in thinking that if Israel holds on to the territories it will be safe, and that the Left is equally wrong in thinking that if Israel just lets go of the territories it will be safe. He believes the truth is that there is no peace partner, and that there is no way that the conflicting claims of the Arabs and the Jews can ever be resolved. Nevertheless, he believes that the so-called “occupation” must end, not because the Arabs deserve it, and not because Israel can afford to withdraw strategically, but because Israel needs to do it for its own sake.

Shavit argues that the world is changing under our feet. America has been until now Israel’s staunchest ally, and Israel has been America’s most reliable base in the Middle East, but now, after Iraq and after Afghanistan, America is not the same world power that it once was. He asks, what will happen to Israel if America turns its attention elsewhere? The “Arab Spring” has turned into an Arab winter, and those that have seized control of the Arab states are more hostile to America and to Israel than the old regimes were. What will happen now if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, and if the other Arab states in the region decide they also need to have one? These are frightening questions, and Shavit claims that no one in Israel is focused on finding answers to them. This reviewer thinks Shavit’s judgment here is unfair. It is not that the strategists in Israel are not thinking about these questions—it is that there are simply are no answers to them.

But in Shavit’s eyes, more important than the Arab-Israeli conflict are Israel’s internal conflicts. He believes that Israel itself has changed in the last 40 years, and not always for the better. He believes that it was once a united people, organized around one Zionist vision. Now it is a collection of tribes: the Russians, the settlers, the Sephardim, the Haredim, the rich, the middle class, and the poor, each with its own agenda.

In Shavit’s book, there are no bad guys. He visits Ofra, in Samaria, and is moved by the morality and the idealism of the settlers. He visits a nightclub in Tel Aviv and is impressed by the need of the young people he meets to get away from all rules and all discipline, so that they can breathe free. He goes up and down the land, listening more than judging, with empathy for each group that he meets. And in the end, he says that he is glad that his great, great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, chose to leave England and settle in this land and that, despite all of its challenges and all of its problems, he would rather live in the pressure cooker that is Israel than in the melting pot that is England or America.

This is a book that is at times terribly painful to read but also at times enormously inspiring. The Israel that Shavit describes is not a land that is a utopia, or that will be one in the foreseeable. The foundations of this land are somewhat shaky, and every so often its people get the feeling that they are living near a volcano. But the people who live in Israel live well, even though they live on the edge. They do not—and probably never will—have peace and quiet, but what they do have is vitality and endurance. There is still sanity in this land, along with people who believe that the land can and will move forward--if it can only persuade the various groups that live within it to share one goal.  

And that is what makes Israel worth believing in and worth working for, no matter what.

MY PROMISED LAND: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, Schocken Books, New York, N.Y., Nov. 2013, 432 pages, $28.

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Posted on November 22, 2013 and filed under Book Review, Israel.