Book Review: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel , by Ari Shavit

Reviewed by Joanna Graham
Thursday July 17, 2014 - 12:39:00 PM

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, Spiegel & Grau; 1st Edition (November 19, 2013), 464 pages

Reviewer’s Note: I wrote the following very long review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land in mid-May, at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at such a low ebb that, as Israeli polls repeatedly showed, most Israelis, if not Palestinians, had pretty much forgotten about it. Not to mention all the rest of us. I wrote the review because I had to, then filed it because it wasn’t of much use or interest to anyone else. I hope it will be helpful now.

Amongst the cacophony of voices this year shouting mostly horrible news, I would not be surprised if many people missed the brief exhalation of breath that signaled the end of the twenty-year Oslo period in Israeli/Palestinian history. (Explaining the failure of the peace talks, John Kerry said, “Poof. And that was that.”)

Although initially resisted by at least some in Israel (Rabin, who signed them, was assassinated), the Oslo Accords ultimately proved to be useful beyond imagining in myriad ways, not least of which was their success in keeping the American Jewish community tethered by the tantalizing promise of a Palestinian state. For twenty years, the on-again-off-again peace talks nearly completely suppressed all those nasty issues of occupation, apartheid, etc., the sort of thing with which Jewish Americans are so annoyingly concerned. If only we could give the Palestinians their own little (demilitarized) state, people thought, Israel could be both Jewish AND democratic, problem solved! It was only the Palestinians (obviously) and the left of the left among Jews who noticed—in the immortal words of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat—that while they were discussing the future of the pizza, Israel was eating it.  

Now that it is dawning upon even those with a nearly infinite capacity for self-delusion that there will never be a Palestinian state side by side with the Israeli one, some liberal Jews, both here and in Israel, increasingly worried that an awful lot of us are about to leap off the sinking ship, have taken it upon themselves to do something to prevent the mass exodus, to strengthen our connection, our commitment, and our resolve, to explain (once again) why Israel is necessary, even righteous, and why it must be (once again) not only understood and forgiven, but even thanked for the benefits it showers upon the Jewish people.  

It is in this context that Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel should be read. Although Shavit is a well-known journalist with the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, the great-grandson of a Founder, and a man whose circle includes the great and powerful of his own country, his book was written in English and published in the U.S.; there is no Hebrew edition. In his acknowledgments, he thanks Cindy Spiegel, his editor at Spiegel and Grau (an imprint of Random House) who believed he could “deliver the book about Israel she thought was needed,” also, “his dear friend David Remnick,” who “encouraged me to write this book.” Remnick also published an excerpt in The New Yorker and threw the launch party at his house. The New York Times provided the front page of their book review for Leon Weiseltier of the New Republic to praise Shavit’s book lavishly. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman chimed in with accolades as well. In other words, this book was written by an Israeli for an American (Jewish) audience at the suggestion and with the help of pillars of the American Jewish establishment, liberal side. 

That these Jews wanted this book at this time is clear. Did they get what they wanted? If one judges by the response of the people in my Engaging Israel class (more on this in a moment), a resounding yes! Several of my classmates were reading and loving it and recommending it to everyone else. I’m not sure, of course, how far at that moment they had got. Because during the first three chapters even I, who am pretty impervious to this sort of stuff, fell in love with these attractive pioneers such as Shavit’s own great-grandfather, the comfortably well-off British-born son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, who, in 1897, stirred by Zionism, took a Cook’s Tour of the Holy Land, complete with catered camp-outs, and eventually moved there. Then there were those tough but idealistic Labor [and Defense] Brigade kids who, in 1921, settled kibbutz Ein Harod. They turned strong and brown as they worked in the fields by day but still had energy left over to sing and dance and fire their guns into the air by night. Who could not be moved by their enthusiasm? 

Of course sometimes the writing is a little bit over the top. For example, we are informed that all these kibbutzniks were orphans. OMG, all orphans? Oh, wait. I think Shavit means metaphorically. “After all,” he says, “Zionism was an orphans’ movement, a desperate crusade [sic] of Europe’s orphans. As the unwanted sons and daughters of the Christian continent fled the hatred of their surrogate mother, they discovered they were all alone in the world. Godless, parentless, and homeless, they had to survive,” etc. 

We never find out exactly which country or countries on “the Christian continent” these (metaphorical) orphans came from. And how alone exactly were they? After all, who was the engineer and who the surveyors who showed up to plan the drainage of the malarial swamp? And although the kids supplied the hard labor, someone must have paid for the all those clay pipes that were used to build the drainage canals. But this is caviling; the young Jascha Heifetz (who has left Lithuania but chosen to live in New York) has just shown up to play a concert. By all means, since Shavit has given his performance two whole pages, let us enjoy it too. 

My Promised Land is divided into seventeen chapters (plus an introduction), dated chronologically from 1897 (great-grandfather’s visit) to 2013. Each chapter is a snapshot of a particular time and place, most based on interviews, a few of which were previously published. Taken all together they provide a highly romanticized and polemical history of Israel which goes something like this: (1) In the beginning, there were starry-eyed but level-headed and brave pioneers who came to Palestine to (a) rescue the Jews of Eastern Europe from persecution and violence and/or (b) rescue the Jews of Western Europe from their soft lives and assimilation. (2) Then the Palestinians figured out what was going on, got mad about it, and fought. (3) After that the Jews got tough, drove the Palestinians out, and established a Spartan state, permanently surrounded by enemies, which can only survive if everybody stays tough forever behind their “iron wall,” able and willing to fight in the wars which will always be necessary—and if Israel retains its exclusive possession of the Middle East’s (so far) only nuclear weapons. (4) Alas, the Israelis now include Arab Jews, ultra-Orthodox, unassimilated Russians, fanatic right-wingers, delusional peaceniks, and young Tel Aviv hedonists strung out on drugs, music, and sex who believe they live in Athens, not Sparta; Europe, not the dangerous Middle East. If they don’t all shape up and return to the Founders’ militarized collectivist vision—the national socialism or social nationalism of the Labor and Defense Brigade (“In years to come, historians will try to determine which is the more dominant feature of the endeavor, socialism or nationalism,” p.40)—the country is doomed. 

One of the things so clear from these opening chapters is that Zionism was from the beginning a deliberate plan to found a new country ex nihilo. This may seem obvious, but, actually, try as I might, I can think of no other such endeavor. People move around and take territory by force. Kings used to; now that there are nation-states, nation-states do. Boundaries change. Regimes change. During the age of nation-state formation (the last 200 years or so), nation-states have emerged from territories formerly organized otherwise, such as princely states or tribal areas and/or colonies. Even the obvious comparables, settler states such as the U.S. or Australia, were not initially settled with a clearly defined object of new nation creation but as various other projects of a motherland (get rid of undesirables) or individual entrepreneurs (get rich, etc). Only the Zionists, that I am aware of, made a decision to create a nation for people who had little in common with each other, and, furthermore, to do so in territory occupied by someone else. 

Presumably, one has to have a pretty good rationale for this, but oddly, on this important subject, Shavit offers two contradictory ones. On the one hand, Jews were physically threatened by anti-Semitism, and of course, this turned out to be only too true. On the other, they were not. Thus, they were threatened by assimilation. “What [had] held them together as a people were religious belief, religious practice, and a powerful religious narrative, as well as the high walls of isolation built around them by gentiles…. Secularization and emancipation…eroded the old formula of Jewish survival. There was nothing to maintain the Jewish people as a people living among others….They were faced with collective mortal danger. Their ability to maintain a non-Orthodox Jewish civilization in the Diaspora was now in question,” p. 5. 

Note that individual assimilated Jewish people, like Herbert Bentwich, Shavit’s English great-grandfather, were doing very well indeed. It was “the Jewish people” who faced “a collective mortal danger.” Note also, the oddity of maintaining a “non-Orthodox Jewish civilization.” Whatever does that mean? 

In the weeks before reading Shavit’s book, I was attending the first five (before I gave up/got kicked out) of nine classes of Engaging Israel: Foundations for a New Relationship, which is currently being presented all over the U.S. and (I assume) Canada. This project of the Hartman Institute of Israel, consisting of video lectures followed by a sort of discussion, is, to my knowledge, the other big attempt this year to deal with increasing American-Jewish discomfort with Israel’s path. Donniel Hartman, who speaks earnestly into the camera in nine videos and earnestly with someone who agrees with him completely in nine others, is a rabbi; Shavit is secular. Hartman’s dad made aliyah from Toronto in the 1970s; Shavit’s family goes back to the beginning of the Zionist project. Hartman, as far as I could discern, favors a two-state solution; Shavit despises the peaceniks for their lack of realism. Hartman harangues; Shavit seduces with purple prose. Hartman presents an Israel which is nearly heavenly in its perfection, Shavit a country with a lot of problems and a “tragedy” at its core, the dispossession of the Palestinians. 

But both men have a core belief in an entity called “the Jewish people.” Hartman’s strategy was to admit in the first lecture that there are currently two large and thriving Jewish communities in the world, in Israel and the U.S. (and smaller communities elsewhere) but to go on to argue in the second that no matter where we live we are all members of this mystical body. Furthermore, both men believe that “the Jewish people” is under threat and that Israel is “the Jewish people’s” last best defense. 

But, as Shavit himself acknowleges, the defense has already failed utterly. In the unselfconsciously narcissistic way that only an Israeli can talk about the genocide of the European Jews, he writes, “It is a Zionist catastrophe unlike any other….Gone are the great Jewish masses that Zionism was designed to save. Gone is the great human reservoir that was to save Zionism. Gone is Zionism’s raison d’être….With no Eastern European demographic backbone, Zionism becomes a bridgehead that no reinforcements will ever cross, protect, or hold,” p. 96. 

In other words, we can cross out saving real Jews from real physical danger because, whoops, it’s too late. Thus we are left with saving Jews from the threat of no real physical danger. 

Shavit begins the last chapter of his book with a description of a vacation trip to the South Devon coast which he undertakes with his family every summer. After describing the pleasures and attractions of English life, he hauls out those demographics about shrinking Jewish populations with which Zionists are so obsessed. The way things are going, he says, “One can imagine the last of the Jews….Enlightened Europe…kills us softly, as does democratic America. Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism….This is why the concentration [sic] of non-Orthodox Jews in one place was imperative. And the one place where non-Orthodox Jews could be concentrated [sic] was the land of Israel,” p. 387. 

What does Shavit mean by “non-orthodox Jews”—a phrase recurring three times in the few lines cited above as well as throughout his book? I think American Jews would use the phrase “secular Jews” or “cultural Jews” to describe the same state of being. Two facts about it strike me. The first is that the in-betweenness it represents is not restricted to Jews. Everyone who moves from a small integrated culture to a large cosmopolitan one like urban Western Europe or North America can experience nostalgia for a lost way of life, which includes language, religion, rituals, recipes, music, jokes, and so on. For close-knit communities, these cultural practices can be maintained over time—or at least dragged out for special occasions like holidays and life passages. But for most of us they fade generation by generation. This is as true for Irish-, Italian-, or Polish-Americans with their Roman Catholic background, for example, or Greek- or Russian-Americans with their Eastern Orthodox faiths, or Laotians or Tibetans or anyone else, as it is for the Americans whose ancestors came from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. With each generation the ties to the old country and the old ways loosen a little more until they are all but lost—or combined with other ways to create something new. 

So the second fact is that when Shavit speaks of “non-Orthodox Judaism,” he is speaking of something which by its very nature, although often suffused with nostalgia and longing, is transitory and must pass away. It can’t be saved. “Non-Orthodox Judaism” is the sensibility of a generation that has rejected Judaism as a way of life but can’t quite let go of, shall we say, the accoutrements. No God, but lox and bagels. But then Japanese-Americans start eating lox and bagels and Jews are eating sushi and soon they’re married to each other and even the nostalgia is gone. 

In this way we can see the Zionist project as an attempt to freeze a moment in time when the “world of our fathers” has disappeared but some vague memory of belonging to some sort of collective something remains. Don’t forget that Shavit described the Ein Harod youth of the 1920s as “Godless, parentless, and homeless.” Since their project was to settle “the Jewish state,” did you wonder about that “Godless?” 

In fact, Israel was settled by Eastern European Jews who hated everything to do with being Jewish. If they were “parentless and homeless,” it was not because the Holocaust had (yet) destroyed the world behind them, but because they had deliberately rejected their families’ kosher-keeping, Shabbat-observant homes to become “New Jews.” And one of their legacies to their descendents, like Shavit, is a hatred of “orthodox” Jews, who, as their percentage of the population inexorably rises, obsess Ashkenazi Israel. 

Here’s a passage from the last chapter. “More than twenty yeshivas and synagogues and religious schools stand on the northern slopes of Deir Yassin, and more than twenty stand on its eastern and southern slopes. Here are tens of thousands of square meters of religious institutions whose students don’t work, pay taxes, or fulfill military service. After the grand dream and the great effort and the horrific sin [a massacre], what Zionism established on the land of Deir Yassin is a new ultra-Orthodox ghetto,” p. 396. 

The detestation drips. But wait! There’s more. Even the “non-Orthodox Jews” of the Diaspora remain still a little bit tainted with too much Jewishness. 

Here’s Shavit: “Hebrew identity was revolutionary. It defined itself as a revolt against Jewish religion, Jewish Diaspora, and passive Jewish existence. It affirmed itself on the foundations of the Hebrew land, the Hebrew language, and the belief in a Hebrew future. It sanctified the Bible while dismissing postbiblical Jewish history and tradition. It cherished progress and action and a secular attitude to life,” p. 404. 

Please re-read that passage. For me, it is one of the most frightening in a very frightening book, because in it the whole mad illogic of the Zionist enterprise is calmly laid out. Israel was created to save “the Jewish people” from annihilation, whether by murder or assimilation. But Zionism rejects everything that made “the Jewish people” in fact Jewish— religion, culture, tradition, and history. 

In other words, a nation created by displacing a people (Palestinians) and destroying their completely actual, ordinary, everyday lives is dedicated to preserving some indefinable essence called “the Jewish people” by destroying other people’s (Jews’) actual, ordinary, everyday lives and replacing them with something as invented as anything Disney ever came up with—and somehow similar in its two-dimensionality, sentimentality, and inability to perceive nuance of any kind: a secularized mythologized history-free Bible-based Hebrewness, propaganda where once there was thought. 

OK, the project is crazy and certainly nasty for the Palestinians but why should we care? Because of Shavit’s chapter seven, “The Project, 1967” and chapter sixteen, “Existential Challenge, 2013.” But first, in case you haven’t read it lately, I must refresh your memory about Numbers 25. 

In this Old Testament narrative, like so many others unsuitable for children, the Israelites in the midst of their forty-year journey are camped out at Shittim, having sex with Moabite women and worshipping the Baal of Peor, thus bringing down the wrath of the Lord expressed as a terrible plague. While Moses is in confab explaining what must be done to appease Him (impale all the chiefs in the sun), Zimri son of Salu makes the grave mistake of wandering into the meeting with his new Midianite woman, whereupon Aaron’s grandson Pinehas grabs his spear, follows them out, and catching them either in a chaste embrace or in flagrante delicto (the text is not clear) runs them both together through the belly, like threading meat on a skewer. The Lord tells Moses that Pinehas has done the right thing and that, furthermore, he, Moses, is to “harass the Midianites, and defeat them: for they have harassed you by the trickery with which they deceived you in the affair of Peor,” etc. 

I looked up this text because in class three of Engaging Israel, (“Sovereignty and Identity”) and again in class four (“Power and Powerlessness”) and again in class five (“War and Occupation”), we found in our readings Remidbar (Numbers) Rabba 21:4 which, in its entirety, says: “Harass the Midianites (Numbers 25:17). Why? For they harass you (ib. 18). From this the sages have derived the maxim: If a person comes to kill you, kill him first.” 

How the sages derived the maxim that they did, either from the Biblical story in its entirety or even from the excerpts that they quote, is unclear to me, since both the story and the excerpts appear to deal with revenge, not preemption. But there it is. And as I’ve so recently learned and am sharing with you, it is a central text in Israeli thought. 

In week five of Engaging Israel, for example, our moderator, instead of leading a discussion about the putative topic (“War and Occupation”) devoted pretty much the entire session to Numbers Rabba 21:4, using it to teach us that unlike Christians, who are apparently weak and soft (cf. Matthew 5:38-42, the famous “turn the other cheek” speech, which was also in our readings), Jews value their own lives as much as the lives of others and therefore do not sacrifice themselves on others’ behalf. 

I don’t mean to denigrate this discussion, by the way, which is an important and difficult point of ethics. The problem in the rabbinical text, of course, is in the verb “comes.” How close must that person be to his intended act to justify “killing him first”? Personal self-defense is legal (even in weak, soft Christian lands) but it’s narrowly defined. And under international law nations are permitted to go to war if attacked or under imminent threat of attack but not preemptively. How imminent must imminent be?  

In 2009, Shavit managed to score an interview with Yosef Tulipman, a month before Tulipman died (chapter 7, “The Project”). Tulipman was the director general of the Dimona project from 1965 to 1973 while Israel brought its reactor online and produced the first weapons in its nuclear arsenal. In the interview, he is referred to only as “the engineer.” 

At one point in the interview, Shavit suggests to Tulipman that Dimona could be the first in a nuclear domino effect in the Middle East. “Our Dimona,” he says, “will turn from a blessing into a curse.” 

Shavit goes on: “The engineer does not have an argument to refute mine. Quite the opposite. He can definitely foresee a Middle East glowing in radioactive green….As far as the engineer is concerned, there is only one answer: a preemptive strike. He who comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” 

Here the man who could be described as the father of Israel’s H-bomb—and, I would guess although I do not know, one of the “non-Orthodox” or “Godless” Jews—quotes a (rather late) rabbinical commentary of uncertain origin on a violent, and presumably fictional, story written perhaps 2500 or 3000 years ago to justify starting a war, even possibly, if I understand his words correctly, a nuclear one. Had I not attended five weeks of Engaging Israel, found Numbers Rabba 21:4 in my source book three times, and participated in a two-hour discussion about it, I would not have recognized the quotation nor understood its centrality to Israeli thought and policy. 

Of course, Israel did bomb the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 and a possible nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007. In fact, Israel has been attacked just twice in its history (1948 and 1973)—both times, by the way, as a result of prior Israeli aggressions. Every other one of its many wars has been an aggressive war undertaken on the grounds of a theory of self-defense which has no basis in international law, but rather, as we can see, on a self-serving reading of a traditional Jewish text by people who despise those who actually study Jewish texts (in all those non-tax-paying yeshivas). 

“He who comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” In chapter 16, “Existential Challenge,” Shavit explains why he believes that if the United States will not take it upon itself to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Israel will have to bomb Iran, come what may. 

So there you have it. This is what David Remnick of The New Yorker and Cindy Spiegel of Spiegel and Grau ordered up and Leon Weiseltier and Thomas Friedman admired. 

I must admit that I did find it refreshing to read a mainstream Israeli (or any Jewish) writer who calmly admits that the Zionists drove the Palestinians from their land and believes, moreover, that there is no easy way out of the situation this action produced. I agree with Shavit that it’s self-deception to think that handing back some part of less than a quarter of their original land while leaving the situation of millions of refugees untouched will satisfy Palestinians forever and make their demands go away. 

But how satisfactory is Shavit’s answer of permanent war? Is permanent war even possible? I think not. Either its threat will ultimately, in some as yet unknown and unimagined way, recede, or the Middle East (and possibly elsewhere as well) will in fact “glow in radioactive green.” Just as “non-Orthodox Judaism,” a way station between Jewishness and non-Jewishness, cannot, I think, be a place of permanent residence, so too, a state of war is an in-between state and always resolves eventually one way or another, up to and including everyone on the battlefield dead. 

The strange thing, for me, is the appeal of Shavit’s book, not to hardcore rightwingers, but to the U.S. liberal Jewish establishment and perhaps to ordinary liberal American Jews as well. Doesn’t he say all the things we claim to oppose? Isn’t he scary as hell? 

On the other hand, it does make sense in a weird way. Shavit has produced an impassioned evocation of the state of Israel in which we (older) people grew up believing, the one to which we sent money so trees could be planted and the desert made to bloom. That vision melded the secular socialism of our parents’ or grandparents’ generation with a dream of rescue (if not, sadly, the rescue itself) as well as with the dream that someone, somewhere, was preserving what we ourselves were busy getting rid of as fast as we could. If we were changing our names and fixing our noses and drinking milkshakes with our burgers, in Israel they were saving “the Jewish people” on our behalf. Of course, since all Jews everywhere of East European origin wanted to shed the skin of their humiliating past, they were changing their names in Israel, too—but in their case not to something WASPish, in an attempt to blend in, but to something sexy or romantic or heroic, the Hebrew equivalent of “Stalin.” 

But that’s the point, isn’t it. Shavit resurrects the sexy, romantic, heroic Zionist dream: blond pioneers half-naked in the sun with pitchforks in their hands and guns slung on their shoulders. As Herzl wrote, “If you will it, it is no dream,” and thus they will remain that way—forever. 

Added 7/16/14: On June 12, 2014, after an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip which killed a purported militant and killed or injured a couple of other people also, including a 7-year-old—almost certainly one of the causes of the decision by Hamas to break the ceasefire and resume rocket attacks on Israel, thus leading to the current situation—Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted: “Our policy is clear. Kill those who rise up to kill us.” Mondoweiss, which reported the tweet, compared the sentiment to “an eye for an eye.” But they were wrong. It was not about revenge. As I—and now you—understand, Netanyahu’s tweet was what we here in the U.S. refer to as a “dog whistle”: an insider reference to Numbers Raba 21:4 which signaled clearly to all Israelis that their state in the name of “the Jewish people” will continue in perpetuity to arrogate to itself the right to kill, on its own judgment, whomever, whenever, and wherever it chooses, preventatively.