My Promised Land II: The End of the Nineteenth Century

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: The Core of a Tragic Vision


Ari Shavit


Part II The End of the Nineteenth Century


Ari Shavit is a sabra and heir to the Israeli aristocracy on both sides of his family. His great-grandfather was a prominent Jewish aristocrat whose father in turn had been a poor immigrant to Britain from Russia. The Rt. Honourable Herbert Bentwith first visited Israel in 1897 before the first Zionist congress in BaselSwitzerland. Drawn from his great-grandfather’s journals, Ari’s description of that visit makes up the first chapter of the book.


During that visit, Sir Herbert Bentwith was greeted by Dr. Hillel Yoffe, Ari’s other great-grandfather who pioneered in the eradication of malaria from Palestine, distinguished between blackwater fever (favism) and malaria and provided the groundbreaking study that allowed other researchers to identify the inherited characteristic of favism in Jewish males of Iraqi and Kurdish origins. (See Harry Ostrer Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, OUP.) Dr. Yoffe escorted the visiting diaspoa Jews from the West to the French agricultural school at Mikveh Israel and showed them its pioneering efforts to bring modern science and technology to agricultural production in Palestine.


Why Bentwith and not Yoffe? Dr. Yoffe does not appear in the book again. Was it only because Bentwith wrote a journal? Why the romantic rather than practical Zionist? The answer is not simply because Ari is an anglophile. Perhaps because Bentwith was linked to the Balfour declaration.


Although an anglophile, Ari is an old style Zionist through and through. He believes that the Jewish diaspora is doomed to whither away in the face of the enlightenment, assimilation and the disappearance of the ghetto which protected Jews from this menace of progress. Ari is also  through and through an Ashkenazi Jew. He says Jew lives in ghettos. Ethiopian Jews did not live in ghettos. Indian Jews did not live in ghettos. Iraqi Jews did not live in ghettos. For Ari Shavit, if the Jewish people were to survive they had to be transformed from a people of the Diaspora to a sovereign self-governing people. Herzl Zionists foresaw this law of history. He realized that Jews were “faced with a radical problem: the coming extinction of the Jews.” Enlightenment = assimilation = extinction. The alternative? Enlightenment = rise of antisemitism = Nazism = extinction. Either path yields the same result. The only alternative is political Zionism: “if they are to survive, the Jewish people need the Holy Land.”


Since a reader is unable to distinguish between the author’s and Bentwich’s views, we can only assume that  they both share a propensity to being rigid and pedantic accompanied by arrogance, determination, self-assurance and non-conformity (in Ari Shavit’s own words), but the two agree on the future of the diaspora (none) and the absolute need of Israel if the Jews are to survive. The prosperous American-Jewish community is faced with a malaise. The ratio of Jews to non-Jews is shrinking rapidly. That this may mostly be the result of new immigrants who overwhelmingly are not Jewish is not considered. Extinction faces diaspora Jewry.  After all, the Jewish population of Great Britain has dropped from 400,000 to 300,000. But how much of that drop was a result of Jewish emigration after the war to North America and Australia? When Ari describes the evisceration of a thriving Jewish community in Brighton, my friend, Verne Shaw in Toronto from Brighton could attest to that. But my friends from St. Johns, New Brunswick could testify to the same phenomenon. The Jewish population has been consolidating from small towns and moving to larger cities.


But Ari is correct that Jews as a people are faced with the problem of assimilation. That problem has many answers, most having to do with changes required in the diaspora. Only one of them entails emigration to Israel. Further, unless there is a rise in antisemitism, the mass immigration to Israel is unlikely to take place and even from France it is little more than a trickle.


However, Ari does not have to get the diaspora issue right since his book is about Israel. But even  with Israel he arrives at some very questionable interpretations. He acknowledges that Palestine was viewed as an empty land, not because there were no Arabs, but because there was plenty of room for Jews and Arabs. But most of his message is that these future Israelis failed to pay attention to these Palestinians. Further, there was then “no cogent national (Palestinian) identity” wanting to express itself at the time.


Then why does Ari accuse his grandfather of not wanting to see, of mindblindness? Perhaps he was. But Ari seems just to be making this blindness up simply because his great-grandfather did not make notes on the Palestinians in the Arab towns through which he traveled. Between the vision of Zionist settlement and the vision of enlightenment progress and the advance or technology and urbanization, the vision may not include a continuation of “Palestinian peasants who stand by their olive and fig trees”. But that dilemma of the survival of the peasant village is a worldwide problem, one not specific to Zionists. Ari writes: “They will replace one people with another” just after he wrote that at the time there was no people in Palestine with a national identity and when he is writing that only Israel Zangwill perceived this “truth” of the need to cleanse the land of the Arabs, as if the expulsion of 720,000 Palestinians as refugees was foreordained. For Ari Shavit, of the 21 travellers who accompanied Bentwich, only Israel Zangwill was not naive.


But what about the numbers of Arabs that remained? And why insist that Bentwich never saw the Palestinian Arabs living in a myriad of towns and cities – there were a million when Bentwich arrived and Palestine included the much larger territory of Jordan? He surely did not mean “literally” did not see. He meant that his great-grandfather did not see the Palestinians as a political obstacle to a Zionist settler enterprise. Perhaps his great-grandfather did not but the Zionist tracts he read surely would have informed him. They would have discussed the various debates among Zionists about how the problem of the Arab and Bedouin inhabitants would be dealt with. 


This is but another literary conceit which distorts history. The Zionist forbears who saw a land without a people as ripe for resettlement are accused of ignoring the resident Arab population when they did not. The land was described as empty, not because there was no population on it, but because the land was so sparsely populated, especially in comparison to the period two thousand years earlier when Jews were a sovereign people.


The tragedy, for Ari, begins before the Zionists even arrive in Palestine in his construction. “The British Isles are not really ours.” Jews are an alien presence in other lands. Secondly, the land of Palestine is also not ours for it belongs first and foremost to the Arabs who already live there when the Zionists arrive. Neither conjointly nor separately is either proposition a given truth. There are four choices:

1. Jews have no rights to be anywhere;

2. Jews have rights to live in ancient Israel.

3. Jews have been granted rights to live in many countries.

4. Jews have rights to live anywhere, including Palestine.


Why does Ari adopt the first option except that it dooms Jews to having a tragic history and makes his case?



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