Isaac Deutscher, the Polish-British historian and “non-Jewish Jew” best known for his three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, once compared persecuted European Jews’ acquisition of Palestine to a man jumping from the top floor of a burning house and landing on another man on the ground below, thereby saving himself but grievously injuring an innocent person. Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists and political commentators, adopts a similar view in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, a book that proves nuanced and insightful, but also coyly two-minded about many aspects of the contentious Zionist enterprise. Born in 1957, Shavit, who writes for the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, has long explored his country’s fraught condition, which he characterizes thus: “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened.” The author sees an “inner circle of the conflict in which an Israeli Goliath stands over a Palestinian David,” and an “outer circle in which an Arab-Islamic Goliath stands over an Israeli David.”
Shavit’s book emerges from his ongoing journey into Israel’s soul (and includes chapters first published as articles years ago), but also from a physical expedition. The author both retraces and deviates from the route taken by his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich, a British Jewish barrister imbued with Zionist ideals who, along with like-minded others, briefly toured then-Ottoman Palestine in 1897 before settling there after the onset of the British Mandate in 1920.
Along the way, Shavit delves into the Israeli saga as experienced by disparate Jewish immigrant groups and Palestinians. He interviews fascinating figures, including novelists Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, historian Ze’ev Sternhell, dovish politicians Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin, a former manager of the Dimona nuclear reactor, founders of the West Bank settlement movement, a television show host who articulates the torn identity of Jews from Arab countries, an Israeli Palestinian lawyer, and an elderly Palestinian refugee.
Shavit’s honest appraisal of the injustice done to the Palestinians is one of this book’s strongest suits, though it coexists awkwardly with his (conflicted) acquiescence in the initial phase of the phenomenon. He acknowledges the inevitability of Palestinian resistance to Zionism. But he also concedes that in order for a Jewish state to become demographically and politically viable, nascent Israel had to expel a large portion of the country’s Palestinian population in 1948.
Shavit contextualizes Zionist settlement endeavours according to the political realities of the day. He admonishes a leader of West Bank settlers, who argue that their actions since 1967 resemble those of the Zionist pioneers in British Mandate Palestine: “You were wrong to think that a sovereign state could do in occupied territories what a revolutionary movement can do in an undefined land.”
The author wants Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, which he believes should become independent Palestine. This common stance among liberal Zionists deserves praise in Shavit’s case because it stems from a strictly moral judgment; he maintains that Israel should withdraw because it is wrong to rule another people, not because pulling out will lead to peace. The author points out that even if his country were to relinquish control of the West Bank, which it occupied in 1967, this wouldn’t mollify those Palestinians who were expelled or fled from what became Israel proper in 1948 – and who, along with their descendants, wish to return.
Throughout My Promised Land, Shavit extols his Jewish compatriots for their achievements. From the fledgling yet determined founders of the Ein Harod kibbutz in 1921 – “Godless, parentless, and homeless, they had to survive” – to the orange growers of Rehovot in the 1930s, and the high-tech wizards and business magnates of today, examples are numerous, varied and often inspiring.
However, something is missing here. In his introduction, Shavit asserts: “The Israel question… will not submit itself to arguments and counterarguments. The only way to wrestle with it is to tell the Israel story.” He proceeds to do just that in a vigorous and engaging manner. But arguments are imperative when deciding how to confront Israel’s transgressions.
Shavit condemns Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. (He also bemoans discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.) But he doesn’t urge the international community to oblige the Jewish state to end the occupation. This contrasts with his position that the world should do everything possible to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb (which everybody, including Shavit, believes Israel already possesses). Had he called for using sustained political pressure and sanctions to compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and lift – not merely ease – its blockade of the Gaza Strip, one wouldn’t feel a lingering unease about those chapters highlighting the country’s merits.
Indeed, Shavit’s exaltation of Israelis’ ingenuity, innovativeness, and resilience begs a pressing question he never poses, let alone answers: To what extent, if any, do Israel’s virtues mitigate its oppression of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state?
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.