My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
This sprawling, ambitious, lyrical book is so important, so informative, and so illuminating that it makes me regret ever having said or written anything about Israel before having read it. No one, especially no North American Christian, should say another word about the now 66-year-old modern state of Israel without first reading this book by Ari Shavit, one of Israel's leading writers and public intellectuals.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), as its title suggests, is a highly personal book. It finds ways to tell the story of Israel through Shavit's own story, beginning with the arrival in 1897 from England to Jaffa of his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich, one of modern Zionism's first explorers. It is a travelogue, taking the author and the reader across the length and breadth of modern Israel. It is a collection of mini-essays, some of them drawn or adapted from the author's own prior work. It drops in on some of the most important dates in modern Israel's history, though not always the ones the reader might expect. It is a bracingly honest book, filled with love, admiration, heartbreak—and fear. "Existential fear" is where the book begins and where it ends.
Shavit tells much of his story against the backdrop of the European Jewish story. Here was a people, 9 million strong, scattered across Europe as a minority among sometimes indifferent, mainly hostile, and occasionally murderous "Christian" neighbors. Zionism began in the late 19th century as a rescue-nationalist movement for the Jews of Europe. Theodor Herzl was among the first to sense in his bones that there was no safe future for Jews in Europe. He was the first to propose a mass emigration back to Eretz Israel in order to found a modern Jewish state. Shavit's great-grandfather Bentwich was among the first to make the journey.
In his early chapters, Shavit tells of the gradual settlement of Palestine by mainly European Jews, some pulled by the Zionist vision and others pushed out of Europe during spikes of persecution and pogrom. Gradually they bought land, built their kibbutzim, and planted their orange groves; gradually they found a place among the local Arab inhabitants already in the land. Early Zionism came in many flavors—at times socialist, utopian, and tolerant, at other times more nationalist and state-oriented. One thing early Zionism was not was religious. Shavit describes these early settlers, many of them survivors of eastern European pogroms, as orphans, and their orphanhood as metaphysical as well as familial. The God worshipped in the eastern European shtetls was left behind, along with the powerless weakness of these communities in Christian Europe. This was an orphan people, alone in the universe and in a hard land, building a new nation with their bare hands.
In 1936, the growing and increasingly prosperous Jewish population of British Mandatory Palestine faced its first major set of attacks from local Arabs. These attacks on civilians, against the backdrop of the darkening scene in 1930s Europe, predictably but tragically evoked a hardening on the Jewish side and the first statements of an "us or them" vision for who would control Palestine. What Shavit describes as a once humane, pragmatic, socialist Zionism begins to face competition from a much more militant Zionism. Once reports begin to come in from Europe of Nazi mass murders of Jews, it becomes tragically obvious to many Jews that the Zionist project had started too late—and that this land would become the final fortress responsible for Jewish survival. "Masada 1942," perhaps my favorite chapter, tells the story of how the old mountain fortress in which the last Jewish families perished by their own hands during the Roman War of 66-73 became resacralized as a symbol of Jewish resistance, to the death, against contemporary enemies. It was 1942—the year 2.7 million Jews were being murdered in Europe.
"Lydda 1948" unflinchingly recounts the most controversial story of all in Israel: how during Israel's successful War of Independence, Israeli forces destroyed numerous Arab villages—and villagers. Shavit zeroes in on the village of Lydda, describes the bloody battles there, and movingly depicts the forced march out of Lydda of the surviving Arab population. Lydda, he says—speaking not just of Lydda but also of numerous similar villages—is Zionism's "black box." The real issue—and he says this repeatedly throughout the rest of the book—is what happened in 1948, not what happened in 1967 after the Six-Day War and in 1973 and the settlements built thereafter. "Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda," he writes. In other words, Israel came to birth as a nation in part through the destruction of an existing Arab population, community, culture. Modern Israel is, quite literally, built on the barely acknowledged remains of a prior civilization. And the survivors and descendants and friends of that civilization have not forgotten it. They cannot forget it. They will never forget it. Some of them, as Shavit describes in a chilling chapter, are part of that 20 percent of the population of Israel commonly called Israeli Arabs.
Post-war, baby Israel was a traumatized people in denial, says Shavit. The government rapidly assimilated the survivors who came from Europe, but there were not nearly as many as originally anticipated. The "housing estates" were filled with grieving survivors and orphans who developed a particular psychological pattern based on denial of the Holocaust and denial of the Naqba, what 1948 meant from the Palestinian Arab point of view. His description of what might be described as an Israeli temperament surely must have been controversial in Israel:
To function, they flatten themselves. They turn into people of action whose personalities are rigid and deformed, whose souls are shallow. They lose the riches of Jewish culture as they are shaped by a new synthetic culture that lacks tradition and nuance and irony. They create a loud, externalized way of life that is eager to display a forced gaiety. They have lost the place they came from without knowing where they are heading.
It is this people who then faced another existential assault when attacked by the surrounding nations in 1967 and 1973, and this people who, when victorious, then faced what became the insurmountable temptation to hold onto the lands occupied after 1967. Post-1973 Israel, says Shavit, became a complex combination of proud and fearful. And this Israel's government proved too weak to resist both a stealthy and open campaign to build illegal settlements on land essential for the building of a Palestinian state. Shavit, again chillingly, describes the birth of a new militant settler Zionism, much of it religiously motivated, that surged into power after 1973 and led the way in settling what we now call the West Bank. This new force in modern Israel has played a huge role in distorting its politics and behavior since the 1970s, and Shavit, though trying to understand it, treats it with disdain. This is Israeli religio-imperial fundamentalism. That some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would find this an appealing concoction to support and fund is beyond horrible.
Shavit was an active participant in the Israeli left and Peace Now during the heady days that culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and Yasser Arafat's PLO. But—and here Shavit's tone begins to shift in a surprising way—Shavit is convinced that Israel's need for a peace deal outran the reality of the Palestinian mentality, not to mention the worldview of Israel's Arab and Muslim neighbors. Essentially, Shavit concludes, Israel's situation is genuinely tragic, not amenable to any kind of moral resolution. That's because the problem is 1948, not 1967. Israel could remove every settlement and agree to a peace deal, but that would not resolve the wound of 1948. It would not change the fact that it is surrounded by hostile neighbors who have never really come to terms with its existence. And at least one of those neighbors is about to go nuclear—Iran.
Shavit ends the book on the Tel Aviv seashore with his lovely family. He celebrates the triumph of what Israel has accomplished over these decades and the vital society that it has created. But he fears, desperately, that Israel's weak government, profound internal divisions, unhappy Palestinian neighbors, dangerous regional enemies—whether one or all of these—will one day destroy what has been built over the last century. Surveying Tel Gezer and other archaeological mounds in Israel, Shavit reminds the reader that the region is layered by destroyed prior civilizations. What is to guarantee that post-1948 Israel will not one day be just another artifact of history? Not the absent God, not sweet reason, not international law. Thus: existential fear.
North American Christians cannot guarantee that Shavit's worries will not come to fruition. All we can do is press Israel and the Palestinians to do what they in various ways and at various times have said they will do: agree to live in peace and security with one another through a peace settlement negotiated and recognized internationally. Shavit doesn't now seem to think this is possible. But there is no alternative. May we do our part to create a just peace in what many of us still think of as "the Holy Land."
David P. Gushee (@dpgushee) is professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.