Ari Shavit's book "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel" was a difficult read for me because I don't enjoy Zionist polemics, especially when they are dressed up in a format of human interest stories and interviews. That said, I stuck with it to the end. In fairness, it is clear that Shavit is a gifted writer with a flair for encapsulating worldviews in a few deft phrases.The stories and interviews give the book a deep human interest (even where one disagrees with the point of view being expressed) and a personal touch that, for the most part, held my attention.
Although much of the material was not new to me, the chapters on the earliest period of Jewish immigration and Zionist experiments in Palestine, the chapter on the religous foundations of the settler movement, the chapter on Dimona, and the chapter on the Tel Aviv party scene were interesting, and added to my understanding of the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian crucible, most especially from an Israeli point of view. I found the language of the settler ideologues fascinating and hauntingly vivid and poetic, even as I strongly oppose it. I appreciated his capacity to look at complex, layered issues from a number of different angles.
The abovementioned positives notwithstanding, I found the book permeated with an astonishing arrogance and unexamined sense of entitlement. Although one can find paragraphs throughout the book that indicate that he is aware of Israel's failings and critical of the occupation and willing to gore nearly every ox to give the appearance of being objective, the basic worldview that comes across is fairly standard Zionism. According to this viewpoint, the Jewish people's narrative of suffering and victimhood is without historical parallel, and the only thing that will prevent their annihilation by a Jew-hating world is a heavily armed Jewish state in historic Palestine. So deep is the arogance and entitlement that he justifies the deliberately-planned ethnic cleansing and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinian Christians and Muslim families in 1947-48 and the ongoing Nakba continuing to the present day both within Israel and in the occupied terriroties, on the grounds that without it the Jewish state would not have come to be. In other words, tragic and morally haunting though these Israeli actions may have been, all of these steps were taken by hard-headed realists, Zionist heroes, who understood that it had to be, there was no other alternative, Jews were and are entitled to the land, and without Israel there is nothing but an abyss awaiting the Jews. Essentially, Shavit argues that the tragedy of the Nakba is justified because without it, and without subsequent actions by Israel to solidify its gains, Israel as he knows and loves it today would not have come into existence. In other words, Israel's "triumph" justifies its "tragedies."
Shavit clearly sees himself as above the fray, the all-seeing commentator more objective than all others, who criticizes "the Left" for its naivete and "the Right" for its rigidity. He claims not to be critical or judgmental (12) and "I am no judge, I am an observer" (30). He also claims that the only way to "get the story of Israel right" is not through polemics but through stories. As interesting as the stories are, and as much as they do indeed illuminate aspects of the history and the current scene in Israeli politics and culture, I found his journalistic persona as the dispassionate "sees all sides" reporter as a deceptive disguise. He weaves his rendering of the story of Israel in the form of historical incidents, personal and familial reminiscencesis, but in reality he is a Zionist polemicist if ever there was one.
I thought it commendable that Shavit acknowledges and laments that his great-grandfather was so consumed by his own vision and aspirations that he was blind to the Palestinians, that he didn't see them, or to the extent that he did notice them saw them as obstacles in the way of Zionist dreams. I also liked being acquainted through the text with those humane and enlightened early Zionists who advocated a peaceful and respectful co-existence and cooperation between Jews and Palestinians. Even after all the mutual afflictions between the two peoples, I've personally heard many Palestinians say they are open to this co-existence with their Jewish neighbors and see much that could tie the two peoples together for their mutual good, provided that co-existence is built on a foundation of justice and equal rights. This early Zionist period puts the lie to the frequently-heard canard that "these two peoples are ancient enemies and they've been at each other's throats for centuries."
Still, Shavit stays very much within his Israeli skin and rarely inhabits Palestinian realities. In his discussion of the Arab uprisings in 1935-36, he knows the names and personal backstories of several of the Jewish victims of the violence, but none of the names or stories of the Arabs or Palestinians who were also victims of the violence. The one Palestinian he does go into some detail about is Al-Kassam, an early nationalist who takes up arms against the foreign colonizers, but Shavit's treatment of him is unnuanced and plays into the stereotype of the "savage Arab." I have so much more respect for Israeli Jews like Miko Peled and Jeff Halper, Eric Ascherman, and the B'tSelem human rights activists who "cross the forbidden boundary into real Palestinian life" and whose lives are utterly changed by the experience. They transcend the limitations of their self-absorbed Israeli culture and manage to see the Palestinians in their true humanity. In the end, because Shavit doesn't really do this, or does it only in a very limited way, as with his friendship with Mohammed Dahla in ch. 13, Shavit has not grown much beyond his great-grandfather's original blindness toward the Palestinians.
Shavit's treatment of the Nazi holocaust is fairly standard stuff, repeating the usual tropes that German hostility toward the Jews was pure hatred and anti-semitism arising out of something evil in the German character and Christian Europe. He fails to mention several salient facts which are conveniently absent from the "official" narrative and rarely mentioned in textbooks, and which shed a somewhat different light on the events of 1930s Germany: a) that world Jewry led by prominent New York attorney Samuel Untermyer and backed by several powerful financial institutions declared war on an economically weak Germany in the form of an all-out economic boycott -- selling nothing to Germany and buying nothing from Germany - on March 24, 1933, well before Kristallnacht (November 1938) or official German governmental sanctions or wholesale reprisals against Jews were carried out, b) that the leaders of the German Jewish community expressed confidence in their relations with the German people based on centuries of peaceful and prosperous assimilation, and pled with the World Zionist Congress not to impose this boycott because it was bound to inflame hostilities toward the German Jewish population, and c) the stated intention of the world Zionist movement was to precipitate the mass migration of European Jews to Palestine in order to expand the Jewish presence and realize Zionist ambitions there. The Zionist economic boycott in 1933 was calculated to destroy a post-WWI-economically debilitated Germany. These facts do not in any way excuse the horrifically evil actions of the Third Reich toward millions of European Jews (and other vulnerable or "undesirable" populations), nor do they short-circuit sober Christian reflection on Christian-Jewish relations and biblical hermeneutics. But they help to contextualize these horrors, and should not be omitted from a balanced and truthful account of the period.
I don't recommend this book to the casual reader who is not equipped with independent sources of information and experience. Without them, one is quite easily swept along by the rhetoric and will experience, almost without knowing it, their brains being expertly washed, their heart strings being skillfully played. Caveat emptor.
J. Mark Davidson