My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

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

Published by Scribe Publications, pp. 445.


Nearly half a century ago, I chaired a meeting at university in which the speaker was Norman Bentwich. He had been Attorney-General in Palestine during the British Mandate. A passionate Zionist, yet a loyal servant of the Crown, the Foreign and Colonial Office saw him as a debilitating eyesore and an inconvenience in its attempts to row back from the Balfour Declaration. He was dismissed in 1931. He was genial, liberal, an old school Zionist who had learned his views and values on the knee of his father, Herbert Bentwich, a leading member of the Anglo-Zionist cousinhood. And Herbert, it turns out, was Ari Shavit’s great-grandfather.

Herbert Bentwich opens this book in 1897 with his Victorian, upper-class romantic vision of a promised land. He also closes it – and in between his-great-grandson relates the remarkable history of Israel, through events, personalities and movements, warts and all. It is elegiac and eloquent. It is like watching an old black and white flickering film, accompanied by Shavit’s insightful commentary, which gradually bursts into colour.

Ben-Gurion once commented that only 10% of the second aliyah of Marxist-Zionists remained in pre-World War I Palestine because the conditions were so harsh. Yet these 3000 were the founders of the state in 1948. As Shavit notes, it was this kibbutz socialism which gave Zionism its social cohesion and its moral value. It also produced a hard builders’ generation as focussed as the Bolsheviks. It was ‘the most ambitious and audacious of all twentieth century revolutions’.

How then did Zionism move from ‘a state of utopian bliss to a state of dystopian conflict’? Shavit locates the change in the 1930s. The Peel Commission recommended the transfer of 225,000 Arabs and a partition into two states. Quoting the labour ideologist, Berl Katznelson, in 1937, Shavit seems to believe that this was the official view of all Zionists rather than unspoken wishful thinking in dark times. Even the so-called father of the Zionist Right, Vladimir Jabotinsky remarked that ‘it must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens.’

The story that Shavit tells is not original, but the manner in which he tells it is brutally direct. He brings home a complex point in a few carefully constructed phrases – to which an academic would devote several dour chapters. Shimon Peres is brilliantly described as ‘the sorcerer’s apprentice’ – the magician being Ben-Gurion. Yossi Beilin as ‘a peace entrepreneur’. The West Bank settlement of Ofra – ‘a pregnancy outside the womb’. Yet this also has the disadvantage of generalisation. Zionist colonisation thus becomes colonialism. Was the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs, a deliberate act, as Shavit implies? Or was it more complex? Is there a clear-cut explanation which can be conveyed in a few elegant words? Shavit, a leading Ha’aretz journalist, clearly thinks that it can.

In one sense, this is a book designed to manoeuvre British Jews out of their comfort zone. To bring to the surface, their deepest fears. ‘Whether Israel will end the occupation or whether the occupation will end Israel’. Will Shavit’s account stimulate a deeper, yet critical  identification with Israel or will it push people over the edge into the chasm of disillusionment? It is easy to tell which approach communal organisations take by noting who has invited Shavit to speak.

The story of the 1948 war is accompanied by harrowing descriptions of Israeli actions, designed to alter the hardest Diaspora disposition, but Benny Morris indicated over 25 years ago that the war of independence was never ‘a clean war’. Shavit balances this reality with the raison d’etre for a state of the Jews in the shadow of the Shoah. Heart rendering stories of survivors such as Ze’ev Sternhall and Aharon Appelfeld are told – and their attempts to remould themselves in Israel. Little Yossi Schneider’s parents lost both their families. His depressed mother eventually committed suicide on the anniversary of the Nazi aktion in her home town of Rafalowka in Poland. His father sat him on the kitchen stool and told young Yossi that the family name would now be ‘Sarid’ – the Hebrew for ‘remnant’.

The poet and journalist, Yossi Sarid, was the leader of the Israeli peace camp for many years. The Oslo Accords in 1993 brought the understanding that the conflict was not simply Israel against Palestine – or vice-versa – but also the struggle of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps against their rejectionists. As Shavit describes the entrapment:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome.

Yet Shavit rightly draws attention to the confusion on the Israeli Left between opposition to the settlements and the issue of peace. Shavit points out that withdrawal from the West Bank does not automatically ensure peace and the benevolence of the grateful Palestinians. It would, however, rid Israel of the brutalising, corrupting influence of the occupation and make its society a more moral one, a more Zionist one.

Shavit has written a remarkable book which integrates the miracle of Israel with the price it has had to pay, the ineptitude of political decisions taken long ago with a can-do attitude to meet any future crisis. A book for every Jewish bookshelf.

Jewish Renaissance April 2014


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