My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013; $28.00, 419 pp. Reviewed here by Thomas G. Mitchell:
Since Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six Day War, there has been a small publishing industry in both the West and Israel devoted to explaining the Jewish state to the goyim. It began with books on the 1948 and 1967 wars, on kibbutz life and travel writing. As Israeli universities began producing their own historians, these were supplemented by histories written by American and British Jewish historians like Martin Gilbert and Bernard Wasserstein. The finest, most comprehensive such work, A History of Israel From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard Sachar, was published as two volumes in the 1980s and then reissued as a single updated volume in 1997. Since then fine histories have been published by Colin Shindler, Martin Van Creveld, and Anita Shapira.
But for average readers the more journalistic treatment is preferable. An ideal person to tell Israel’s story is Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a longtime writer for the liberal Ha’Aretz newspaper. Shavit has a reputation as a hawk-dove: like Israel’s leading military politicians he is aware of the problems of the occupation, which he protested against as a young peacenik, and of the real hostility of the Arabs. In recent decades he has been seen as a writer representing the Israeli center—those who voted for the Labor Party of Rabin and Barak and for Sharon’s Kadima Party. Shavit at one point identifies himself very clearly as belonging to the “upper-middle-class, secular Ashkenazi” Israel; as Bernard Avishai has pointed out, Israel is very much a society of different ethnic and cultural “tribes”: the secular center-left Labor Zionist, the secular neo-Revisionist Zionist right, the religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs. Shavit’s “tribe” would have voted over the last two decades primarily for Meretz, the Labor Party and Kadima—depending on the political circumstances and their mood. And most of the people Shavit writes about come from this tribe as well.
Shavit’s book is a very personal story based on his family history—he is descended from the famous British Zionist Bentwich family—and the stories he has reported and the people he has met over the years. He uses no research notes, but his “Source Notes” section at the end consists of two pages that lists the interview sources or articles that he used for each chapter. He claims that he checked the interviews against published information and we just have to take his word for that.
Shavit’s history is not a flowing narrative but a series of discrete chapters covering important events. One of the best is his chapter on the foundation of the Masada myth. It is the story of a trip by a Zionist educator who led a group of 46 youth leaders of 17-18 in a hike from Jerusalem to Masada in January 1942 and then in an ascent up the cliff. Shavit relates the strategic situation of the Yishuv in the winter of 1942 as Rommel’s Afrika Korps was advancing across the North African desert from Libya into Egypt and threatening Palestine. The chapter ends with an accounting of the butcher’s bill in Europe as Auschwitz started up and the Holocaust entered its industrial phase. The reader may want to ponder the fact that Israel has a tragic ending to all three of its mythic foundation stories (Betar and Tel Hai being the other two).
Probably the most interesting chapters for readers of this blog are these four: one on the Nakba of 1948, which Paul Scham has already discussed; one on the Dimona nuclear project; a chapter debating what went wrong with the Oslo peace process; and another discussing the Iranian nuclear threat.
Shavit’s chapter on Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona is based on an interview that he had with a leading nuclear engineer a month before his death. He quotes the old former engineer saying, “The Iranians already have a bomb. A bomb is no big deal. If a country has the desire and the means, and minimal engineering capabilities, it will have a bomb. If you’re determined to build a bomb, you’ll build a bomb.” This explains why Iran is such an issue for the Israeli elite. Israel successfully eluded American inspections in the 1960s and Israelis naturally assume that the Iranians are doing the same with the IAEA. As with Masada and Lydda, Shavit lays down in detail the strategic rationale for going nuclear and notes that both Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin were opposed to it, because unlike Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres they were strategic optimists and technological pessimists whereas Ben-Gurion and Peres were strategic pessimists and technological optimists. The chapter ends with Shavit’s meditation on whether the Dimona project was a blessing or a curse for Israel.
Shavit’s Oslo chapter consists of a series of interviews with major figures from Israel’s peace movement, all of whom Shavit has known for years, and his rebuttals to their arguments. Shavit’s main argument is that Israel tried to make peace solely on the basis of solving the problems created by the 1967 war (the occupation) and did not deal with the results of the 1948 war (the refugees). He also argues that the peaceniks acted as if Israel were in Western Europe rather than a foreign implant among both Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. While he is correct in this, there is nothing wrong with attempting to end the occupation and thus eliminate an ongoing source of tension with both the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Essentially Shavit is succumbing to the pessimism or “realism” of Dayan, whom he quotes, and of Sharon. This has the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. What is interesting is how little Arab actions figure into the argument. It is as if the Arabs are merely passive receptacles for whatever strategies the Israelis come up with.
The Iran chapter is interesting because it seems to pose Netanyahu as the hero defending Israel against the mortal danger from Iran. Shavit never discusses why nuclear deterrence would not work in the Middle East despite having worked between the superpowers, in Europe, in South Asia, and in East Asia between Russia and China. In fact the Middle East is more like Europe than it is like South Asia because Israel and Iran lack a common border and are only ideological enemies. Shavit clearly sees Netanyahu as focused on the Iran threat rather than on any other issue. Here I agree with him. This chapter should be a good antidote to the bubbameisters told by the Jewish peace-process industry about Netanyahu as a potential peacemaker.
He also has an interesting chapter about Israel’s Palestinian population. Israel’s own Arab population has grown much bolder than it was under Israeli military rule or since the late 1970s when I was a student in Israel. Then I could distinguish clear differences in attitudes between Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians from the territories. This is no longer true, at least in regard to the Israeli Palestinian elite. There has been a radicalization of attitudes that many American Jews may not be aware of.
There is also a very good chapter on the balkanization of Israeli politics as a series of political “revolts” by the different Israeli cultural “tribes” has led to a near disappearance of the core Israeli nation. When I lived in Israel in the late 1970s, there were three “tribes” that mattered: the secular center-left, the secular neo-Revisionist (Likud) right, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews. The religious Zionists were just starting to emerge from the shadow of the Labor Party to conclude an alliance with the Likud and the Arabs were excluded from Israeli coalitions and still are. But the ultra-Orthodox have greatly increased in numbers and as an overall percentage of the Israeli population, as have the Arabs.
Shavit’s overall assessment is carefully balanced between Jewish pessimism and Zionist optimism. This personal history should have the effect of reminding American Jews and gentiles that Israel has real enemies, that Israel is not perfect and has made many mistakes in the past, that it faces many difficult problems in the present, and that Israel is not helpless. He points out that during the Mandate, the Yishuv relied on the protection of British soldiers.
During the early 1950s Israel relied on the protection of Britain and France and the economic assistance of the United States. Since 1973, Israel has had the support of a very generous United States, and since May 1967 has had a nuclear arsenal.
The quality of writing is very high, as one would expect from a journalist who specializes in interviews and feature articles. But the thinking is not very deep. He raises questions but provides few satisfactory answers.
Thomas G. Mitchell, Ph.D., is the author of Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution and of the forthcoming Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak. His blog is The Self-Hating Gentile.