My Promised Land by Ari Shavit


Ari Shavit’s highly acclaimed book appears on the list of the most important books of 2013.  While I understand why this book has received abundant honors, if I was composing the list I would not have given My Promised Land such a prominent place. Shavit’s book is well written and engaging. The author makes clear that his narrative is not a history, but a chronicle of a personal journey. However, the book is unquestionably a history of the State of Israel as seen through the lens of specific places and times.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” begins with the voyage to Palestine by Shavit’s Great, Grand Father (a wealthy British Jew who was an early Zionist.) With his excellent journalistic eye, Shavit shows us the Palestine his great grandfather embraced. Shavit brings with him the hopes and fears of the Jewish people. He makes it clear, early on, that if his Great Grandfather had not settled on this course the likelihood would be great that by this generation Shavit would only be part Jewish. Woven into the fabric of the family storyline, Shavit lays out what becomes a recurring theme in his book– Zionist blindness when it comes to the Palestinians. Shavit writes:

“Riding in the elegant carriage from Jaffa to Mikveh Yisrael, he did not see the Palestinian village of Abu Kabir. Traveling from Mikveh Yisrael to Rishon LeZion, he did not see the Palestinian village of Yazur. On his way from Rishon LeZion to Ramleh he did not see the Palestinian village of Sarafand. And in Ramleh he does not really see that Ramleh is a Palestinian town.”

Shavit’s questions why his grandfather did not see the Palestinians during his visit. He provides several answers. Shavit suggests that even though there were a million Palestinians living in the full land of Palestine (including what today is Jordan), this was a land of 100,000 square kilometers. Furthermore, Shavit reminds us there was no Palestinian political identity. Many of those living here were nomadic Bedouins. However, finally, and probably most conclusively, Shavit writes that the Zionists did not have the luxury to pay attention to the residents of the land. They were worried about saving a people.

The second chapter of “My Promised Land” is about the building of Ein Harod, on of the early Kibbutzim in the Galilee. Shavit writes about their historic efforts to build the Kibbutz based on Socialist principles. His depiction of the establishment of the Kibbutz is masterful.  Here Shavit refrains from returning to his favorites themes (i.e. the fact that the Socialist founders of Ein Harod and the others Kibbutzim in the valley ignore the Arabs of the area.) 

In the third chapter, Shavit jumps to 1936 and describes the Orange Groves of Rechovot.  The chapter tells the story of the German immigration to Palestine in 30’s, and also describes the transformation of the Jewish inhabitants of the country from early pioneers to a thriving middle class population. This change was complete metamorphosis– despite the fact the country already had Hebrew University and the Technion; and the fact the Zionists had a 25 year-old capital in the growing metropolis of Tel Aviv. Shavit does talk about the Arabs of the land but here, but he writes more about the positive effect of the Jewish settlement:

“In Qubeibeh, Zarnuga, and the other Arab villages surrounding Rehovot, Jewish capital, Jewish technology, and Jewish medicine are a blessing to the native population, bringing progress to desperate Palestinian communities. So the Zionists of Rehovot can still believe that the clash between the two peoples is avoidable. They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

While mostly celebrating the success of the Zionist movement, this chapter also takes note of the beginning of the start of the Palestinian nationalism and resistance to Zionism.

Shavit’s next chapter is entitled:“Masada”. It starts by describing the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936, and the first murder of Jews (i.e. the killing of fifty year old Zvi Dannenberg and 70 year old Israel Hazan, because they were Jews.)  Shavit briefly references the 1929 Massacres in Hebron and Safed. However he explains how events in 1936 were very different, as they reflected “a collective uprising of a national Arab-Palestinian movement”.

Shavit cites the Peel Commission and it plan to partition the land into two States. He places emphasis on the recommendation that “Arabs residing in the Jewish State be transferred elsewhere as should Jews living in the future Arab state.” Shavit believes that the Peel Commission legitimized a new direction for Zionism. Interestingly, Shavit ignores one of the most important historic facts about the Peel Commission– the fact that the Jews accepted the recommendations of the Commission and the Arabs rejected them.  The chapter then goes on to describe Masada through the eyes of an expedition organized by a leading Zionist educator, Shmaryahu Gutman. His goal was to transform Masada into a modern day symbol of resistance. Something Gutman was very successful at doing.

The next section of “My Promised Land” will be most upsetting for those who have been brought up on the myth that all of the Arabs left Israel willingly during the 1948 war; just waiting for the Jewish State to be wiped out by the advancing Arab armies. Shavit tells the story of the Arabs of Lydda who were forced out of their homes, and forced to become refugees, (as well as those killed by accident, or in some cases by design.)  While there is nothing new in Shavit’s description of these events, his telling of the story is as riveting as it is disturbing. (Note: For those who want to gain a full understanding of the events in 1948, I recommend reading Benny Morris’ superb and balanced “1948”.)

The next chapter called “Housing Estate in 1957” tells the story of some leading Israelis (such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, author Aaron Appelfeld, Justice Aaron Barak and Louis Aynachi.) It conveys the story of the great immigration to Israel in the years after the establishment of the State and how the State successfully (and less successfully) absorbed new immigrants. 

The next chapter, called “The Project 1967” outlines the story of the establishment of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.  He adds interesting color to the legend of the building of the reactor.  Here Shavit is at his most pessimistic:

“The expulsion of 1948 necessitated Dimona. Because of those dead villages it was clear that the Palestinians would always pursue us that they would always want to flatten our own villages. And so it was necessary to create a shield between us and them and the engineer took it upon himself to build that shield. We would not allow the Palestinian tragedy to jeopardize the monumental enterprise designed to end our own tragedy.”

Here Shavit reflects on his fear that Israel will soon lose its monopoly on what supposedly goes on in Dimona, and that could be our undoing.

Shavit’s next chapter, “Settlement 1975” and chronicles the story of Israel’s settlement of the West Bank. This is a known, well-told story, but Shavit does a good job of retelling it.

The next chapter “Gaza Beach 1991” relays Shavit’s thoughts and feelings about his Army reserve duty in Gaza that year, as a guard in a detention camp. Again, for those who have no understanding of what it means to serve in the territories, this chapter will be very disturbing. I must say, many of the experiences, and certainly the emotions, that Shavit describes are very paralleled to my experiences doing reserve duty in Gaza 11 years earlier.

The following chapter, “Peace 1993” is a reflection on why the Peace process failed.  It includes interviews with Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin. Shavit tells the story of the Oslo agreements through Beilin. 

Shavit explains for the failure of the peace process, lamenting: “its fundamental flaw was that it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible. But the history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible.”

He goes on to say that the fundamental problem of the left was that it concentrated on 1967 and ignored 1948. Shavit strengthens his argument by telling the story of Kibbutz Hulda and the Arab village of Hulda that was wiped off the map.

The next chapter of the book is called “J’Accuse 1999”.  It relates the story of Shas leader Aryeh Deri. I must say that this was a chapter where I learned many things that I did not know. This chapter is required reading for those who want to understand the phenomenon of Shas.

The chapter “Sex, Drugs, and the Israel Condition, 2000”, describes the Tel Aviv party life and night scene in that year. For those who are not aware of the scene in those days, it’s worth reading. While Tel Aviv has evolved since 2000, the Tel Aviv of today has some of its roots in 2000.  In the next chapter, “Up The Galilee 2003”, Shavit examines the views of the Arabs of Galilee.
His next chapter “Reality shock 2006”, uses the background of the Lebanon war to ask what went wrong. On one hand, Shavit makes it clear that part of the problem with the war was the occupation that should have ended. However, more significantly, Shavit describes seven different revolts that took place in Israel over this period of time– the Settlers revolt, the Peace revolt, the Ultra-Orthodox revolt, the Hedonistic revolt, and the Palestinian-Israeli revolt. Shavit claims that while each of these revolts was justified, taken together, they eroded the Israel Republic and undermined its ability to act.

Shavit’s next chapter is called “Occupy Rothchild”. On one hand, he uses the chapter to tell the story of two of Israel’s richest families- i.e. the story of the Strauss family and their diary and food giant they built, and the story of Kobi Richter, the former fighter pilot, turned exceptionally successful high-tech entrepreneur. After discussing the successes of these financial giants Shavit tries to deal with both the causes of the protest movement, as well as the internal demographic threats that Israel faces.

In his second to last chapter Shavit talks about the threat posed to Israeli by the Iranian nuclear program. Finally, in the last chapter called “By the Sea”, Shavit tries to put all of the problems that he poses in his book into perspective. Shavit details how successful Israel has been in providing a homeland for the Jewish people, and how it is now the center of Jewish life in the world. He describes how much Israel has accomplished since the time his Great Grandfather visited. He applauds Tel Aviv of 2013, that I know so well, and what an unbelievable city it has become.

Shavit ends the book by saying we are all “members of a cast of a movie where the scriptwriter went mad, the director ran way… But we are still here, on this biblical set.  The camera is still rolling and as the camera pulls up it sees us converging on this shore and clinging to this shore and living on this shore come what may.”

“My Promised Land” is required reading for anyone who is familiar with our history and is able to put Shavit’s weather into the proper perspective. It is not a work of history and has many historical holes. However, Shavit is a very gifted writer, and he successfully brings into focus a fascinating montage of some very important points in our history.