Our board’s resident scholar of Jewish and Israeli history, Jerome A. Chanes, has just published two new articles in the NY Jewish Week. The first, “For Israel, A Foreign Policy Camelot,” links this blog with the solemn commemoration of the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago. It examines how JFK transformed what had been a cold and distant relationship during the Eisenhower administration into what became a close alliance between the United States and Israel in later years.
In “A Country On The Edge,” Chanes reviews the new book by journalist Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. (NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman has just referred to it as “a good book about Israel — the real Israel, not the fantasy, do-no-wrong Israel peddled by its most besotted supporters or the do-no-right colonial monster portrayed by its most savage critics.”) The following is selected from the review by Chanes:
. . . In a heart-rending chapter on the Lydda massacre — a controversial moment in the 1947-’49 War of Independence — Shavit offers a basic moral argument for the sins of omission and of commission over many years on the part of the Zionists of the Yishuv and the State of Israel. . . .
. . . To Shavit, “Lydda” is a metaphor for everything that went wrong with the shaping of Israel.
. . . The strengths and flaws of “My Promised Land” are exemplified in the breathtakingly moving chapter on the founding of Kibbutz Ein Harod, the iconic early Mapai (later the Labor Party) kibbutz; and, in Shavit’s dramatic portrait of anarchist/Bolshevik/socialist Yitzhak Tabenkin, one of the great pioneer leaders of the Yishuv.
Shavit’s narrative of Ein Harod . . . is compelling — but he misses an important part of the point. In the Yishuv and the early years of the state, . . . ideological conflict led to the genesis of structures that became central institutions of the Yishuv. There were conflicting visions of socialism in the early Yishuv. There was Yitzhak Tabenkin’s vision of a “Kibbutz Ha-Me’uchad” — a “united” kibbutz movement in which the entire land of Israel would be one radical-socialist community, in effect one “kibbutz”; and there was the Hashomer Hatzair Marxist vision of individual communal settlements.
What emerged from these conflicting visions were Tabenkin’s Achdut Ha-Avodah party, combining radical socialism with territorial maximalism; and the network of Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim, which, together with the socialist Mapai … — Ben-Gurion’s party — were responsible for contouring many of the institutions of the Yishuv, and not only in agriculture. This point, not mere nuance, is missing in a book whose thesis is grounded in post-ideology distress.
Further, in his otherwise cogent discussion of the post-1967 West-Bank settlements, Shavit falls into the conventional-wisdom trap door. The settler movement did not begin with the religious Gush Emunim, which, in 1973, with its radical nationalist agenda, hijacked a centrist Mizrachi/National Religious Party. The first settlements, which appeared shortly after the Six-Day War, came out of the aforementioned Achdut Ha-Avodah, the Marxist and territorial-maximalist party. Indeed, there were settlements before there was a “settler movement.”
Where are we in 2013? Not in 1953. The Hashomer Hatzair [as a political party] and Mizrachi [the Religious-Zionist party] that we knew in the 1950s no longer exist . . . Zionism is unrecognizable to many, perhaps most, of today’s Jewish youth.
Shavit’s retelling of history jars us out of our familiar retrospections, reminds us (and we do need reminders) that there are historical reasons why Israel is a country on the edge. The age of innocence in Ari Shavit’s native land is long gone. “My Promised Land” will thus be profoundly disturbing to many, but the book will be required reading for both the left and the right.