Searching for balance

by | Jun 2, 2014 | Book Reviews

My Promised Land:
The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Ari Shavit
Spiegel & Grau, 2013
445 pages, $28.00
ISBN: 9780385521703
eBook ISBN: 9880812984644

Winner of the newly established Natan Book Award, Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land is the most recommended book about Israel since Yehuda Avner’s brilliant The Prime Ministers. Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel, and a highly decorated hero, avers that “not since Amos Elon’s The Israelis, Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel, and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem has there been such a powerful and comprehensive book written about the Jewish State and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Effusive encomiums from such significant voices as Daniel Gordis, Jeffrey Goldberg, Franklin Foer, Rick Jacobs, Daphne Merkin, Abraham Foxman and Jon Meacham have attested to the perception, power, poignancy and passion of My Promised Land.

Without question, this book will be a best seller; it should, indeed, be read, but with some caution. The New Yorker magazine chose to publish (October 21, 2013) an excerpt from the book—the chapter on the Israeli 1948 occupation and massacre of non-combatant Palestinians in Lydda. Despite Shavit’s loving defense of the pioneer Zionist movement, Israel-bashers will revel in his baring of warts to which the average reader may not have been previously exposed. In truth, anyone striving for peace in the Middle East must acknowledge the tragedy of Lydda and comprehend its implications. As Benny Morris points out in his well-researched book, 1948 (reviewed in the Jewish News, June 2008), Haganah intelligence had scoped out the likely direction from which the Arabs would attack and felt compelled to remove Arab villages in their path that might cooperate with the invading armies.

This reviewer must admit to a kind of love-hate reaction to My Promised Land. Shavit couples what he terms Israeli denial of the Palestinian disaster with Israeli denial in the 1950’s of the Holocaust. “A dozen years after the catastrophe [the Holocaust] has no place in local media and art.

“The survivors are expected not to tell their stories.” In point of fact, as reparations were being organized in the 1950’s, West Germany was seen as the principal broker with the Holocaust. In western democracies the Holocaust, per se, was barely discussed, even within the powerful Jewish communities of North America. The publication in English of Elie Wiesel’s Night didn’t appear until 1960; Primo Levi’s first book, If This is a Man, written in 1946 was first published in English in 1959 and he didn’t begin writing his second book, The Truce, until 1961. Holocaust survivors in America were neither questioned nor cosseted in the 1950’s.

Shavit is correct in summarizing Israel’s dilemma in two words: Occupation and Intimidation. His interviews with dissident Israelis such as Yossi Sarid are chilling. Who can really deny that “Occupation is the father of all sins? Occupation is the mother of atrocity. When we occupied the West Bank and Gaza we opened a door, and evil winds swept through it. All the depravity you see in today’s Israel is a result of the occupation. The brutality. The deceit. The decay. Even now the army is rotting because it is being forced to be an occupying army.” Ze’ev Sternhell, a professor and a leading intellectual of the Israeli peace movement believes that although “Israel is my life… I see Israel fading away. I see a terminal illness consuming the nation I love.”

On the other hand, Israel is under constant intimidation by Palestinian leadership that professes never, under any circumstances, to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Your reviewer has himself questioned Palestinians. When asked if they would be satisfied with the return of the West Bank they asked this question: “When will you return Petah Tikva?” One must ultimately even agree with the thuggish Prime Minister, Bibi Natanyahu, when he asserts that there is no peace partner to talk to.

Shavit has remarkably been able to open doors to spellbinding interviews with Palestinian refugees, Israeli military leaders (past and present), intellectuals and politicians. His travels to meet these subjects are augmented with little known historical background, and the reader is not spared his judgment of those events. One is reminded of Martin Fletcher’s excellent 2010 Walking Israel. Not quite as over-wrought, nor as over-written as My Promised Land, Fletcher’s book records his attempt to cover most of the country on foot, searching for the soul of Israel. “The farther your move from the center of power,” Fletcher concludes, “and the closer you get to the real people, the less their stories fit the political platitudes.”

Unfortunately, Shavit succumbs from time to time to a kind of literary excess. For example: When introducing the story of the fabulous success of the Strauss family who created a billion dollar empire from a humble barn with a few milk cows, we are told, “Israel is a bitter land; dairy desserts are sweet and soothing.” And noting that the Strauss family emigrated from Ulm, which is also Albert Einstein’s home town, he adds, “…Einstein’s and Strauss’s German-Jewish Diaspora was doomed.” What is he getting at? In describing the 11 demonstrations in Tel Aviv in 2011 which ultimately drew crowds of 480,000, an astounding six percent of Israel’s population, Shavit refers to the civic protest as the “2011 revolt.”

No doubt Shavit is correct when he states that “we Israelis face a Herculean mission.” The problem of Occupation in the face of daunting Intimidation must be solved. Perhaps they will have to “redefine a nation and divide a land and come up with a new Jewish Israeli narrative.” But will they have to “restore a rundown state and unify a shredded society and groom a trustworthy civilian leadership?”

My Promised Land will reward the reader with perception, power, poignancy, and passion. It is up to the reader to find the necessary balance.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.