Review of Ari Shavit’s ‘Promised land’

Nostalgia for a Zionism that never was

Published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine

‘The newborn State of Israel was one of the most egalitarian democracies in the world… there was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process… There was no equality for the Palestinian minority.” For author Ari Shavit, the history of Israel seems to hang on a series of essential, and often unexplored, contradictions.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, on the face of it, seems like yet another attempt by an Israeli author to look back on Israeli history and struggle with its problems; similar to Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel and Hirsh Goodman’s The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. However, while Shavit’s book is lucidly written, it isn’t clear if the narrative devices employed create a cohesive work.

The book wrestles with some of the fundamental questions of Israel’s history.  Looking back at English Zionists touring the country in 1897, of which the author’s ancestor Herbert Bentwich was one, he asks, “Is this colonialism?… Although the setting is colonial and the customs are colonial, these pilgrims are not agents of a colonial power.”

Addressing the 1948 War of Independence and the expulsion of Arabs from the town of Lydda, Shavit understands that one must accept Zionism along with its historical foibles. “They [who expelled the Arabs] did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons, to live.” But right from the start, the reader is left perplexed. The introduction begins with a self-analysis of “my nation’s future and my moral outrage regarding my nation’s occupation policy.” Yet the “occupation” is not central to the book.

Likewise, the author claims that “my ancestors were among the founders of the Zionist enterprise.” This sounds like the setting for an exciting memoir. Then he places himself in the place of his ancestor, standing on the deck of a ship at Jaffa. “Do I want to disembark? I don’t yet know.” He imagines he is with Bentwich, “I watch him as he awakens.” He asserts that Bentwich, ascending Ramle’s white tower, “did not see the Palestinian village of Yazur… he does not see the Palestinian village of Haditha.” Supposedly, this is based on family documents, but since he doesn’t quote what his ancestor wrote, how can we know what a man saw in 1897? Obviously Shavit is worried about this: “I still ask myself why he does not see.” But perhaps he saw perfectly well.

The tomb Ali on the road to Ramla in 1880 (Victor Guerin)

The Palestinian-Arab tomb commemorating sheikh Ali on the road to Ramla in 1880 (Victor Guerin)

Similarly, the author claims to know what the Arab town of Lydda was thinking in the 1940s. “Lydda suspected nothing… for 44 years it watched Zionism enter the valley.” But Shavit doesn’t inquire what diaries of the Arabs of Lydda might reveal of how they felt, or what they suspected. Instead, he concludes, “If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.” But Nazareth and other Arab towns could, only Lydda could not? The narrative seeks to reveal a seminal problem of Zionism prior to 1948, but in actuality is a series of generalizations without logical analysis; a hodgepodge of feigned insight that misses key facts.

Lydda in 2006 (Seth Frantzman)

Lydda in 2006 (Seth J. Frantzman)

Much of this book is a traditional Labor Zionist tale of Israeli history; Arabs, Orthodox Jews, religious Zionists, Menachem Begin’s Revisionists, Russians and Sephardim are all presented as outsiders, if they are even mentioned at all. The kibbutzniks are disproportionately praised, with claims that without them “Zionism will not have the sense of moral superiority.” Moreover, a whole chapter is devoted to a nameless “orange grower” in Rehovot. The section on Lydda focuses on another nameless IDF “brigade commander.” The source notes claim these are composite characters, but it harms the narrative and makes it read like historical fiction.

Elsewhere, the tale makes sophomoric Eurocentric mistakes, claiming that “[biblical scholars] Edward Robinson and Eli Smith were the first modern men to identify Masada,” and “American missionary Samuel Wolcott and the English painter W. Tipping were the first to climb up Masada.” Obviously, he means “modern Westerners,” since for all we know many Ottoman subjects went up and down Masada before them.

The way the narrative is constructed, as a series of vignettes focusing on several individuals in each – one exciting chapter on the race for nuclear weapons, another on interviews with Jews in the West Bank – is appealing. It bridges the gap between boredom-inducing, detail-packed general histories and long-winded polemics. But the decision to write many of them in the present is disconcerting. At one moment we find Shavit driving up to the Galilee in 2003 and sitting with Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, the radical Islamist preacher, and then with Azmi Bishara. “An outspoken Knesset member since 1996, Bishara is now very cautious. As he awaits the Supreme Court decision that will determine his political future, he looks more like a well-fed cat than a dangerous tiger.” The confusing use of the present tense harms the reader, because those familiar with the story will know that Bishara fled Israel in 2007, fearing indictment for aiding Hezbollah.

The use of the tense makes it seem like it is based on an article written in 2003 that has been repackaged for 2013. The same goes for the description of the 2011 social justice protests. We are treated to the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. “In many respects, the 2011 revolt is the most impressive of all Israeli revolts… I so wish the wake-up call will truly awaken us.” But it has been two years now; leaders of the “revolt” are in the Knesset or they have left the country to live the good life, and none of the problems of the tent protest have been addressed. A more reasoned discussion would ruminate on what lessons society has not drawn, rather than pretend that we are still living in 2011.

ISRAEL IS under threat by “Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces,” admonishes the author. He was one of the canaries in the mine warning about the Iranian bomb since 2002. Accordingly, he sculpts a picture of three circles of evil around Israel, like Dante in Hell. “Surrounded by Islam… Israel is a Jewish nation-state founded in the heart of the Arab world.” And a Palestinian circle sleeps on the doorstep. “The gradual decline of the West and turmoil in the East are shifting the tectonic plates on either side… the Middle East is growing wilder and Israel has turned its back on it.”

Unfortunately, the book provides no solution to the issue. Outwardly vulnerable, the internal state is presented as a series of contradictions.  “The same state that denied the Diaspora and denied the Holocaust and denied Palestine also denied the Orient.” It is a series of revolts: “the settlers’ revolt, the peace revolt, the liberal-judicial revolt, the Oriental revolt, the ultra-Orthodox revolt, the hedonistic-individualistic revolt, and the Palestinian Israelis’ revolt.” But the author fears them, claiming that what good Israel achieved in the 1950s “was very much eroded in the four decades years [sic] following the 1973 [Yom Kippur] War.” The result of the revolts was cumulatively destructive. “They did not advance Israel as a functioning liberal democracy.” Why? In other democracies, the agitation for more rights by minority groups has resulted in positive steps for democracy, but in Israel it results in only problems and the creation of an “extravagant bazaar.”

WEB Du Bois, African-American leader; minorities were accepted into the national narrative in the US

WEB Du Bois, African-American leader; minorities were accepted into the national narrative in the US

Shavit juxtaposes these destructive revolts with David Ben-Gurion’s Israel, which “built the housing estates and erected Dimona.” It reveals the weakness of his narrative, in that Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement didn’t undermine the America of the 1950s, which built the highways and increased nuclear power. There is no connection between minority rights and economic achievement, yet Shavit claims that these revolts were “dangerous” and created a “lack of leadership and direction.” It sounds like the Italians of the 1920s whining about how liberal democracy had failed them, and running to vote for Il Duce.

The problem is that the “state was in flux.” Writings about Israel suffer from this notion that the state is always about to be unhinged; one more little push and it will be swept away. It is this unsettling feeling runs through My Promised Land.

“No one had moral authority anymore… hierarchy broke down. The sense of purpose was gone. The common set of core values disintegrated.” And to put a nail in the coffin, “the mass Russian immigration of 1989-1991 added to the chaos.” Why so much fear of the immigrants? He blames them for intensifying “the process of turning Israeli society into a loose confederation of tribes.” Perhaps, instead, he should blame Labor Zionism for creating a notion that everyone who doesn’t behave and integrate in exactly the same way is outside the Zionist tent and part of a “tribe.”

The author also castigates Russians for not adhering to the “binding national code,” because they were too well-educated and “maintained their Russian values and their Russian way of life.” If not deracinating oneself completely of the culture they are born into makes them a threat to Israel’s stability, then the country has a problem. The real bitterness in Shavit’s tone is revealed in a 2006 essay he reprints in full, in which “the Israeli elite turned its back on reality, turned its back on the state.” It is the lack of a guiding elite that he mourns.

Demography is also a constant thread through this book. Shavit speaks to economist Daniel Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, who warns him that 20 percent of Israel’s children attend ultra-Orthodox schools. The author calls this a “national disaster in the making,” and Ben-David concurs: “If Israel had an effective Zionist government, it would fight this disastrous trend.” How, by adopting a Chinese policy of one child per Orthodox family? The author doesn’t say, but in a later chapter he complains about how demography has been “vicious” to English Jews because “in the latter part of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to Great Britain. Many of them were ultra-Orthodox… in the last 100 years most descendants of Britain’s veteran Jews have ceased to exist.” Shavit counts his family among these “veteran” Anglo Jews, even though his own ancestors came from Russia in the 19th century to England; apparently the difference between an “Anglo Jew” and a demographically threatening “immigrant Jew” is whether one came to the UK in 1850 or 1930.

He also applies his demographic mumbo- jumbo to American Jewry, fearing that “the numbers of American non-Orthodox Jews [will] diminish over the next 50 years.” Thus, “our tribe could not survive on these lush green meadows… enlightened Europe also kills us softly, as does democratic America.” Diaspora Jews may find this death sentence offensive. Here he falls into a contradiction, claiming that birthrates in the West have fallen, “America’s total fertility was 2.06 [in 2012]… Israel’s fertility was a staggering 2.65.” Staggering? The difference is only 30%, and it is precisely the Orthodox Jews that make up that difference – the very birthrate he fears will bring “disaster” to Israel.

When speaking about “Oriental Jews,” the term Israel invented for Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, Shavit is at his most disdainful. Shas leader Arye Deri is subject to his wrath for creating “a parallel Israeli universe: a religious Oriental world funded by the government it challenged and undermined… a sectarian education system and a sectarian welfare system… [a] kingdom of oppressed and downtrodden.” He goes on to berate Sephardi Shas voters as the opposite of “enlightened Israel,” a teeming mass of “desperately poor traditional Oriental Jews… who had rejected the secular progress that had established the state.” This reveals the bias of Shavit’s worldview, where the Mizrahi citizens represent an “Oriental-traditionalist revolt against the secular Ashkenazi state that Zionism had founded.” The irony here is that the kibbutz school system created by the state isn’t “sectarian,” nor is the Arab-only school system. Shavit doesn’t question why, after half a century of Israeli independence, Sephardim in Israel were “desperately poor.”

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas leader

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas leader

The narrative is simple; Zionism is made up of Ashkenazi Jews, and anyone who votes for other political parties, like Shas, is outside the Zionist tent. As he notes about growing up: “Although they constituted almost half of Israel’s population… they were not our lot, not really us.” In this narrative it is the Mizrahim who are to blame for feeling a “sense of discrimination.”

Shavit relates in an interview with Deri that the Shas leader told him about “the great traumas of most Arab-speaking [Jewish] immigrants was the indiscriminate spraying of DDT that they all received upon arrival.” Here, the author doesn’t stop his narrative and put himself in the mind of those people being sprayed like animals, because even though the narrator can understand the “brigade commander” and the “farmer” and others from his European Jewish culture, those sprayed with DDT seem unfathomable.

Shavit argues, “Israel was to have been home to the Jewish people of Eastern Europe – that is what the state was designed to be … having no other choice, Zionism turned eastward.” This is a shocking admission; that in this worldview Israel wasn’t for the Jewish people, it was only for a small group of Jewish people, leftwing socialist secular Jews from Eastern Europe. And this is the anachronistic language the book uses; the Mizrahim are “orphaned masses” and a “proletariat.”

Yet Jews from Europe are not “masses,” they are individuals. Although the author says “I realized we had done wrong,” he claims that “Oriental Israelis are not aware of what Israel saved them from: a life of misery and backwardness in an Arab Middle East.”

They aren’t the only people being saved, since “modern Israel brought progress and prosperity to the Palestinian regions. Now our backward neighbors had the electricity and running water.” But the backward darkness of the Middle East is closing in on My Promised Land, and the author yearns for the; “Old Israel..Mount Herzl is the Israel of my childhood.

It is the social-democratic Israel of pre- 1967. It is secular, egalitarian, and disciplined… there is no nationalist kitsch here, no religious kitsch.” Here are the good people “who toiled, those who fulfilled.” It is perhaps not coincidental that Shavit describes Mount Herzl, its military cemetery, and ignores the large monument to Ethiopian Jewry right beside its entrance. Ethiopian Jews do not fit into this narrative, as they represent the diversity that seems threatening to the Israel envisioned here.

Ethiopian Jews at Hag HaSigd in 2011

Ethiopian Jews at Hag HaSigd in 2011 (Seth J. Frantzman)

Shavit finds solace beside the grave of Theodor Herzl: “Here is the exact point where the reality of the State of Israel is derived from Herzl’s vision.” In a Zionist graveyard, he ponders: “Can 21st-century Israel reconstruct the Mount Herzl republic?” Not if Herzl’s republic is only meant for a narrow strata of secular socialist European Jews.

My Promised Land, By Ari Shavit, Random House 445 pages; $28

3 responses to “Review of Ari Shavit’s ‘Promised land’

  1. Pingback: Diagnosing Haaretz | Seth J. Frantzman·

  2. Pingback: The American Jewish community and the myth of Ari Shavit | Seth J. Frantzman·

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