Implications of Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land”

Implications of Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land”

Ari Shavit’s book is one that everyone from the American Jewish center and moderate left who cares about Israel loves to love, just as Max Blumenthal’s book “Goliath” is the one they love to hate.  I can partially understand that, because Shavit’s book is a paean to the Israel that many of us pine for.  On the other hand, there is a darkly pessimistic aspect to it, and a painful description of the 1948 expulsion of 50,000 Palestinians from the city of Lydda (now Lod and the site of Israel’s international airport), featured in October in the New Yorker.  Shavit’s chapter may be an indication that recognition that there was a Palestinian Nakba that accompanied the birth of Israel in 1948  is going mainstream in the Jewish community.  And unlike “Goliath,” which is bleak and depressing, Shavit’s book is mostly a joy to read.
       Since the book came out a month ago, it has been reviewed almost everywhere and the plaudits and brickbats were largely predictable.  I enjoyed browsing a dozen or so reviews till my eyes started to glaze over.  My favorite was by Noam Sheizaf at 972 Magazine, though I’m somewhat less critical of Shavit’s approach than he is, and 972 has a bunch of other more vitriolic reviews as well.  In my view, however, the book’s critique of Israel could be potentially eye-opening for American Jews; his exposition of the dangers Israel faces is much weaker and unconvincing, at least from my perspective.
     My Promised Land is important partly because this darling of the pro-Israel liberal establishment (e.g. Leon Wieseltier and Tom Friedman) has nevertheless smuggled some truly subversive ideas into the mainstream discourse.  One, as mentioned above, is his lengthy and horrendous description of the Lydda expulsion in 1948.  This was publicly revealed back in 1979 in the memoirs of no less a figure than Yitzhak Rabin, who commanded the action, but Shavit has done yeoman’s work in detailing the expulsion in a context that many who support Israel unconditionally will actually read it. It should be noted that this is a book written in English (not published in Hebrew), thus making available some perspectives American Jews may not necessarily be familiar with.

     The second unusual point Shavit makes is pounding home the insight that Israel’s success and prosperity today are inseparable from the ugliness that occurred in 1948.  Had green-line Israel not been largely cleansed of Arabs, there would not have been room for the massive waves of immigrants and  Israel might have collapsed, in his view, from the heavy proportion of non-Jewish citizens.  The point is largely obvious, but has been obfuscated in traditional Zionist historiography by the now-exploded claims that Arabs left “voluntarily” or were “told to leave,” evidence for which is as hard to come by as for the much-sought WMD in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003.
     Shavit makes clear — and I completely agree with him in this — that neither of these unpleasant (to put it mildly) realities delegitimates Israel, something both the far left and the moderate to far right disagree with; not coincidentally, those are largely the same crowd that fundamentally criticizes Shavit’s book.  Those who consider Israel’s existence and record are so flawed that it shouldn’t exist will simply see this as grist for their long-running mill.  What is more interesting, though predictable, is that the far right crowd that insists Israel has never wronged the Arabs types seema to agree that Israel’s legitimacy is so fragile that revelation of war crimes or atrocities by Israeli forces calls Israel’s “right of existence” into question, and thus the purveyors of such stories must be shunned and themselves delegitimated.  See for example, Ruth Wisse’s review, in which she makes clear her contempt for the book and claims Israel has never harmed Arabs.
     Shavit does not engage in his book the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state but I assume he supports it.  And this is where his insight and imagination fail him.  In my view, in both his Ha’aretz columns and in his book, he is very successful in penetrating the psyche of Israelis, or many of them.  He is completely unsuccessful in penetrating the Arab psyche.
     Shavit says that his army service turned him into a peacenik, but Oslo remade him as a realist, who understood in the mid-1990s that Palestinians didn’t want peace, they wanted only to return.  Similarly, he takes credit for being one of the first, in 2002, to “recognize” the existential danger that Iran posed to Israel; although, inexplicably, he only started calling attention to this danger several years later.  He repeats these two dangers innumerable times but, even more strangely, never bothers to explain why he thinks Palestinians cannot possibly accept what they have announced innumerable times that they would accept — namely, a state in the West Bank and Gaza.  Nor does he explain why he thinks Iran is ready and willing to endure certain destruction at the hands of the United States in order to destroy Israel.  Both of these assumptions are apparently too obvious to him to require evidence.  Indeed they are completely obvious to the current Israeli government, but not so to many who are reading his book.
     Shavit is right that Palestinians are loathe to renounce the right of return.  Having discussed it privately and publicly with hundreds of Palestinians over the years, the reasons seem clear to me.  That establishes their right to the land, just as Jewish history does for Jews, and they want it recognized, Just as Israelis do.  It has long been common wisdom among moderate Palestinians that they will give it up when, and only when, they are going to get a state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.  And everyone knows Israelis would never let a Palestinian state emerge unless the “right” is given up.
     However, Shavit makes a strange differentiation between ending the occupation and peace.   Many of us see the former as leading to the latter, not automatically or necessarily, but probably and logically.   Shavit, by contrast, sees ending the occupation as morally and politically necessary for Israel — but not something that is likely to lead to peace.  The Palestinians will take it and go for more.  Compromise — or ending the conflict — is simply not in their DNA, at least for the foreseeable future, according to him.
     Shavit has a very good handle on how Israelis think, but almost no clue about Palestinians.  The format of his book reflects it: of the many dozens of people he identifies as having interviewed, only one is an (Israeli) Palestinian.   I’m quite sure that in his extensive journalistic career he has spoken to many, but he seems to have taken away little or no insight.  He also has a tendency to seriously over-dramatize issues; see the rather funny review in 972.

Nevertheless, the book’s release is important as a political and cultural event, because it marks the first large-scale recognition — implicit or explicit — by many of the most important American Jewish pundits that there was a Nakba, and that part of any peace will necessitate Israel coming to peace with its past treatment of Palestinians, as well as with those who are alive today.  Shavit is unusual: a dove on the past, but a hawk today.  This contrasts with a Palestinian intellectual in a seminar I organized who asserted he is a moderate on making peace but a radical on the past.  In other words, he recognizes fully that Palestinians will not get their land back nor return to today’s Israel, but that some recognition of what happened in 1948 is absolutely essential for him.  Israel gets most of the land but the Palestinians get to keep most of their history.


That, I think, may be the most we can hope for.  And Ari Shavit’s book, almost completely unwittingly, may have helped to move that forward.  I will be writing more about what seems to be the increasing Nakba awareness among American Jews, and how it is a positive (and pro-Israel!) development.

By | 2014-01-05T02:38:00-05:00 January 5th, 2014|Blog|10 Comments


  1. Ira January 5, 2014 at 5:17 am - Reply

    Thanks again Paul for another intelligent and insightful column.

  2. Anonymous January 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    The 972mag’s takedown of Shavit’s chronic drama of “now is the time” is eerily close to that of this takedown of Tom Friedman and “the next six months will decide”. They must have attended the same writing seminar.

  3. daveed in Princeton January 6, 2014 at 4:50 am - Reply

    Paul, Shavit is not that unusual in being a dove on the past, but a hawk today. Other prominent members of this group include “new” historian Benny Morris, who also has written about the Lydda expulsion in 1948 in Operation Dani, and former Shalom Achshav member and current Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz.

  4. Ralph Seliger January 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    It’s fine and proper that there be more recognition of Israel’s role in the Nakba. But this would be more likely, and more accurate, if such recognition includes Palestinian acknowledgment of their side’s historical wrongs: rejecting the UN’s partition resolution in Nov. 1947 and then immediately launching a wave of attacks against the Jews of Palestine, which included a months’ long siege of Jerusalem.

    I dare say that peace would be advanced if both sides acknowledged this more complex truth. Otherwise, I think that laying blame for the Nakba should mostly be left for writers and historians, lest debates about history undermine a more peaceful future.

  5. Paul L. Scham January 6, 2014 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comments,as always.

    Daveed, you’re right about Morris but I don’t think Steinitz accepts Morris’s or Shavit’s view of the past. But it’s an unusual position; I’ll think about its implications.

    Ralph, my point is that the Nakba is NOT history for Palestinians; it’s a current issue that they feel have to be dealt with in any final settlement. I’m not supporting that; I’m reporting what I see. You talk about a pragmatic process of recognizing mistakes and current realities and moving on; in my view that simply won’t work. I suggest you discuss it with some Palestinians; moderate ones who fully accept a two-state solution, and see if they feel they can do what you suggest. My experience over many years suggests otherwise, which is why I’ve emphasized narratives and why I said, only partially tongue in cheek; Israel will get most of the land but the Palestinians will have to get to keep their history.

  6. January 6, 2014 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Excellent discussion of a very important book; it is not a history or an analysis, it is a statement of where popular understanding of the conflict is and is going. Frank recognition of what was necessary to the creation of Israel must be assimilated as part of the nation’s past; 1948 cannot be undone any more than World War II, of which it was part. However, 1967 can be and must be undone; moreover the demographics dictate that it must be.
    Shavit sees where Jews are concerned but is blind about Arabs and apparently Persians too. He attributes them no capacity for change. Iran was once Israel’s best friend in the region; it can and probably will be again. So too do the Palestinians have the capacity to assimilate 1948; they have said again and again that they want only to undo 1967, not 1948. Shavit has a hearing problem too. As for his acumen as a political analyst, 972 took him apart brilliantly.
    Irwin Wall

  7. Ralph Seliger January 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    Paul makes a good response, but part of my point is that if both peoples can’t or won’t admit to their sides’ historical misdeeds, they have to sidestep history. Which conforms with your notion of “narratives,” in a way.

  8. Paul L. Scham January 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    What you’re saying is logical, but that won’t solve the problem. I think Israel can and should step up and try to deal with this. Otherwise, in my view, the stalemate will continue. Just as the Palestinians have to accept that the Jews are traumatized by a Holocaust that wasn’t their fault – and deal with it – we have to recognize their Nakba trauma, not for their sake but to reach some sort of peace, which is in both of our interests.

  9. Ralph Seliger January 6, 2014 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    One problem is that the Nakba occurred within the context of a war that the Palestinians initiated, and the Jews had to win in order to survive as a community. Another is that the Palestinian nationalist struggle DID impact the Holocaust, although they didn’t know it in the late 1930s when the Arab revolt prompted the British to issue its White Paper of 1939, which sharply curtailed Jewish immigration at exactly the time when the need for refuge was becoming desperate.

    In due time, I hope that everybody will be able to acknowledge these interlocking historical truths. It would be a fresh tragedy if the parties to the conflict allow narratives of the past to sabotage their future.

    Coming to terms with history would not be so tough for you and me or if Meretz were Israel’s primary governing party. But it’s hard enough to see Likud and Yisrael Beitenu making the concrete concessions required without adding this element of confession, which clearly violates their “narrative.”

  10. Anthony Perry March 21, 2014 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    I am not Jewish – just an 85 year old man living in London. After the war we were huge supporters of Israel – wanted to go and work on a Kibbutz. Read Koestler’s “Thieves In The Night”.

    That feeling of support has not diminished but one looks on in despair at what seems an intractable problem.

    Is there really no way forward?

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