My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Ari Shavit – My Conclusion
Ari’s book has been more raved about than any book that has come out of Israel in the last quarter of a century. M. J. Rosenberg in The Huffington Post wrote: “It is an absolutely brilliant book which left me grateful for the existence of Israel, awed by its accomplishments, yet stunned by the horrors that surrounded its creation (the Nakba) and the post ’67 occupation. .It is the best book I’ve read about Israel since Amos Elon’s The Israelis: Founders and Sons in 1971.” Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic in his New York Times review called it “important and powerful” and praised Ari Shavit for bringing erudition and eloquence with an undoctrinaire mind to the promises and challenges facing Israel. Thomas Friedman, the author famous not only for his incisive New York Times columns, but for his own marvellous book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, effused over the book and recommended that both Obama and Netanyahu read it.
So even though I stood and cried and saluted and felt renewed when I finished reading the book – I actually read it twice and the feeling was even stronger the second time – why did the book leave such a bad taste in my mouth? After all, those who praised the book were correct. The book is a great read. Sometimes a lament and at other times the book acquires a soaring lyricism, it moves at a rapid pace while we meet dozens and dozens of individuals and traverse a myriad of places at a dizzying speed.
And its political message can appeal to both the right – bomb Iran – and the left – get out of occupied West Bank, and, more importantly acknowledge what the Jews did to the Palestinians. But do not apologize. They made it necessary. And don’t retreat. Stand up tall and proud for what Jews created in Palestine. Ari Shavit is praised as a man with the courage to speak truth to power, to tell it as it is. Further, he sets his analysis within a dialectical account of two contradictions vying with one another, the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland and developing there a prosperous and creative nation and doing so at the cost and excision of another nation, the Palestinian people.
Since I co-wrote a volume called No Refuge, No Return that documented in detail across many refugee movements the reality that populations displaced in ethnic and religious conflicts do not return except if they win through the use of arms, then that is the choice the Palestinians face. Either accept the reality of no return or continue the fight. There is no third alternative. Ari too has stated that, “It is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it by helping them establish a Palestinian state that is ready to live in peace with Israel. But, ultimately, it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to overcome the painful past, lean forward and not become addicted to victimhood.” So we agree. So why don’t I cheer on this book from the highest towers and with the loudest voice?
Because Ari does not really face Lydda. He describes it well in a more moving way than Benny Morris. But other than calling for Israelis to recognize what happened, does he call for trials for those who were criminally responsible? When he calls for accountability, how is the accountability to be addressed? Should it be through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? These are the really difficult questions that Ari avoids. Instead, he opts for posturing, for calling for responsibility but not offering an institutional way to exemplify that responsibility. Would either trials or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be relevant? Would they work? I myself have serious doubts. But the questions must be asked. The questions must be explored. To avoid them and yet call for responsibility and accountability is to be irresponsible in what you say and to continue the trope of avoiding true accountability.
Ari Shavit is not a propagandist. He gives the impression of presenting Israel in all its complexity. However, he repeatedly simplifies the interpretation and boils it down to dichotomies, often false ones while, at the same time, denouncing the traditional dichotomies. As he makes the story complex, he oversimplifies at the same time. Most of all, he is an old style Zionist parading in a new dress at war with itself, in love with gays and respecting the drug culture but denouncing with the thunderous moralism of one hand clapping their turned-off disavowal of their collective responsibilities.
In his chapter on the rabid ideologues of the settler movement, where is the discussion of the Allon Plan that gave those settlers the moral authority and institutional backing of the state? It is not as if it is not there. But it only lurks in the shadows.
What you do not get is the rich artistic life of Israel, the depth of its science, the profundity of its scholarship the brilliance of its new-found culinary skills. Overwhelmingly, this is a political book. And many Israelis have given up on politics. But in calling everyone back to man the barricades, women are marginalized. Sephardim are given the most moving chapter, but are otherwise ignored. The Israeli-Palestinians are represented by a rabid Palestinian nationalist dressed up as an outwardly liberal human rights lawyer. The Nakba story is told through the events at Lydda and for those unfamiliar with the atrocities committed, it may be very upsetting. But most of all we get tendentious generalizations that seem to rise phoenix-like out of smoke and ashes rather than careful sifting of evidence and argument.
Look at how central Israel is to American policy as it withdraws from Afghanistan but is engaged with negotiations with Iran, Israel’s most notable existential threat, and with Syria, now Israel’s self-destroyed neighbour, and with the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s most intractable problem. The book is written as much for Americans as for Israelis at the same time as Shavit relegates diaspora Jews to the wastebasket of history. I applaud Ari when he screams, “It is not the occupation, stupid! It is the conquest!’ but then berate him for his repeated false prophecies over Iran and his drum-beat insistence that bombing Iran is the only answer otherwise judgement day is at hand – in 2006, in 2007, in 2008, in 2009, in 2010, in 2011, in 2012, in 2013. Ari Shavit is no different than a Christian preacher who repeats every year that the end of the world is now and finally immanent and then proposes a way to deal with it that would bring the immanence of terrible worldwide destruction nearer.
I find Ari’s placing the blame for the demise of Oslo on the Israelis because they failed to recognize that the central issue was the nakba and the refugees and not the occupation misplaced, thugh they did do that. I have written for years that the refugees (and Jerusalem) were the central issues and not the settlements, but I did not fault the Israelis for their failure but Arafat for his flakiness and Abbas for his stubborn grip on the refugee issue. Ari’s historical analysis was just inadequate and incorrect for me.
I applaud Ari’s insistence on a two-state solution. All other visions are chimeras or nightmares. But I do not deride Kerry and Obama for once again trying even if the odds are against them — as they both well know. Most of all I deride Shavit for his necessitarianism, his repeated claims about inevitability when my take on history, whether looking to the past or the future, is to emphasize possibilism. Contingencies have a force all their own. Of the sixteen Track II efforts in the attempt to get the Israelis and Palestinians together at the peace table, I was a participant in one track. Neither it nor any of the other tracks knew about the initiative that came out of a Prime Minister of Norway’s kitchen and from two Haifa academics previously not intimately connected with the peace process. Yet they succeeded against all odds where we were unsuccessful.
History and politics are serendipitous.
So it is not because I am put off by his style. I find it enchanting and wonderful. And I am not put off by most of his messages. I applaud them. The dogmatism of his premises drive me up a wall in a man that is otherwise a voice of tolerance and understanding. What bothers me in the end is that he is an inspiring, engaging and brilliant Israeli who is a great listener in his professional life but would probably display the arrogance and know-it-all qualities of the stereotypical Askenazi Israeli elitist male who loves an argumentative debates – though, I insist, none of my very personal friends are like that. He purports to lay the groundwork for a new renewed Zionism but it is the old Ashkenazi elitist Zionism in a new dress that does not recognize that women now wear the pants in the family, that does not come to terms with the strength and creativity of religious Zionism, that does not really come to terms with the creativity and industriousness of Palestinians who want to give up on the politics of nostalgia.
The book is very uneven, with some brilliant chapters – Lydda, the Deri chapter and the final chapter with its call to arms, but the tale of the youth sit-in in Tel Avi , Occupy Rothchild, is both confusing and unrevealing. The chapter on sex and drugs and the club culture is an exercise in self-indulgence and contradicts his final message. And that is part of the problem of the book. It has been drawn from many of his columns and, other than the case of Iran, reveals views which he clearly no longer seems to hold.
In the end, there is a problem of voice, not only the problems with Ari’s voice, the inadequacies of which I dealt with many times over my many blogs on the book, but the absence of other voices that would undermine Ari’s caricature of even Palestinians, of Mizrachi Jews, of the religious, and of the women’s movement that is so strong in Israel. For a book of so many voices, it is interesting how many groups do not seem to have a spokesperson. Most of all, the dispora Jews relegated to the ashcan of history also have and will continue to have an important contribution to make.