My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Our member Jack Siegel writes:

Like most American Jews, for most of my life I viewed the State of Israel with unqualified admiration and pride. I have been challenged by Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. It is a sobering look at the complexities and moral ambiguities of the country we view as our homeland.

Ari Shavit is a reporter and columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. There is no doubt that he is a committed Israeli patriot, having served as a paratrooper for the IDF. His book is a subjective narrative of his country’s history from 1897 to 2013, told through his examination of 17 carefully chosen events.

The triumphs are those well known to us but they deserve Shavit’s fascinating retelling: draining swamps and making the desert bloom; gathering in of more than a million immigrants, many refugees from the nightmare of the Holocaust; triumphant entrepreneurial, technical and cultural accomplishments. There is an entire chapter describing the vibrancy of the Tel Aviv club scene in the 1990’s. The story of Israel’s clandestine establishment as a nuclear power reads like a spy thriller. That these accomplishments took place during a constant state of war is astounding.

However it is in the recounting of the “tragedy” of Israel that gives the book its unique importance. Shavit’s foreshadows his main thesis in the very 1st chapter. He writes of a journey to the Holy Land taken by his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an early British Zionist. Bentwich’s journal speaks movingly of a growing attachment to the land. But there is a conspicuous absence of any mention of the native people, almost as if they were invisible. “There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins and Druze in Palestine in 1897… So how can the pedantic Bentwhich not notice … that there is another people now occupying the land of his ancestors?”

The pivotal chapter, “Lydda, 1948”, is painful to read. In horrifying detail Shavit describes the massacre of some of the native Palestinian population of this village and the expulsion of the most of them during the Israel’s War of Independence. The action was sanctioned at the highest levels of Israeli leadership. He claims this was not an isolated occurrence. “Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. …[I]f a Jewish state was to exist in Palestine, an Arab Lydda could not exist at its center.” 

It is Shavit’s belief that this expulsion of 1948, rather than 1967 West Bank occupation, is the main obstacle to peace in the region. Even in chapters extolling the wonders of Israel’s accomplishments he is relentless in reminding us of the “dark secret”. At the same time he continually stresses the difficult realities of Israel’s existence. “If need be I’ll stand with the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them the State of Israel would not have been born.”

My Promised Land is not an easy book. It courageously faces the bewildering uncertainties of Israel’s existence. It doesn’t offer simplistic solutions. It is simultaneously distressing and uplifting. It is a challenging work that I believe deserves to be widely read.