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?



My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: Introduction

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: Introduction


Ari Shavit

Almost thirty years ago, Bernie Avishai published The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy. Every generation Jews seem to need to read a cosmological lament about the state of Israel. Avi Shavit is the author for our times. He has written a widely praised book about the history and contemporary socio-political position of the Israeli state. To have the impact it has, the book had to be written for a current audience. What is the book’s appeal? How does the author have such an impact?

Avi’s introduction begins with: “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” His fear is not for himself but for his beloved Israel. He dreaded that a dark ocean “would rise and drown us all. A mythological tsunami would strike our shores and sweep my Israel away.”  Did he mean “metaphorical” rather than “mythological”? Or was “mythological” itself a word used metaphorically to connote “gargantuan”?  For Avi is clearly not referring to a divinely-inspired disaster like Noah’s flood or an immanent natural disaster arising from the degradation of the environment and rising seas.

I, too, have had a recurring nightmare. I am fleeing from the Nazis. I am in a cobbled square with streets going off in different directions. I am not slowed down by my ambivalence over choosing which route to escape but by my dreamy wayward youngest daughter who is on her tricycle pedalling around in circles. And the Nazi trucks and storm troopers are just about to reach that square when I wake up in a panic and sweat. The fear is not a product of current circumstances. Nor even from historical experience since neither I nor my family were ever threatened by the Nazis. The question arises whether the fear was instilled in me or whether I have projected it onto the world, or, a third option, it was instilled in me and I then project back onto the world.

Or perhaps the fear is primordial. It arises because, whether Jew or gentile, we are all deeply afraid. Thomas Hobbes wrote, that this is the core of all humankind. “There is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.” I, myself, think it is a combination of external stimuli and internal psychology and the job of critical observation and reflection is to sort out when that fear is a projection with internal sources and when there is a justified external provocation. I am not and was not an Israeli. In fact, even though at the time I was an intellectual anti-Zionist, in the weeks and days leading up to the Six Day War in 1967, I, as Ari did, also feared the Arabs were going to defeat Israel and throw its Jews into the sea.

In 1973, for Ari, “For ten terrifying days it seemed that my primordial fears were justified. Israel was in peril” The walls of the third Jewish temple were shaking.”  Thus do instilled memory through historical and mythological instillation reinforce and adumbrate the experiences of the rocket attacks from Saddam Hussein and the 2002 terror campaign of the Palestinian intifada. The source of the fear was real; terrorists had blown up his neighbourhood pub and three young Israeli men were killed at the bar and a young woman lay lifeless in the corner. When I was teaching at HebrewUniversity in 1977-78, I heard a huge boom but continued teaching thinking it only the result of dynamite from construction or the sound boom from a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier. When we emerged from that Hegel class, I understood why the students had been so fidgety. A suicide bomber had accidentally set off the bomb strapped to his chest and killed himself; he had been just twenty feet from the outside of our classroom.

Ari then shifts the scene to the West Bank after the Six Day War and his observation that the “Palestinian children my age and younger had fear in their eyes.” Was this real fear or was Ari projecting his own fears onto the Palestinian children? When I was in Israel with my family and older four children in 1973, I did not detect any fear among Arabs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank but only merchants eager to sell me things. Perhaps it was because I was insensitive. Perhaps it was because I was not an Israeli but just a foreigner.  But I also did not detect, as Ari writes, that the Jewish state was then “drunk with a heady sense of power” even though when I went to see the historian, Jacob Talmon, in 1973 before the war broke out and we sat talking for 2-3 hours, he expressed precisely the same concerns as Ari.

When Ari joined the paratroopers and he was assigned to do the “dirty work” of manning checkpoints, imposing house arrests and dispersing demonstrations using violence, it was the same year I had gone with my family as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor to teach at the HebrewUniversity. Not only had a terrorist bomb gone off outside my classroom window, but my twelve year old son came home from school one day to tell me that the back of the bus in front of the one he was riding returning from school had been blow off. Amidst those bombs and terror attacks, amidst the joys of exploring Israel and the West Bank and especially the various oases along the Gulf of Eilat in what is now Egypt, I experienced the thrill of Anwar Sadat coming to Israel with an olive branch and Prime Minister Begin, in spite of his fears and his preoccupation with the Holocaust, accepting that  olive branch.

Many years later, the son of my daughter who in my dreams continually road her tricycle in circles in a Prague square as the Nazis pursued us, received his red beret from the IDF paratroopers and I was thrilled. His mother had made aliyah and he was born an Israeli. I also listened to him literally for hours as he talked about the war games or the videos like Game of Thrones where men fought with bravery and honour, but also the much shorter time when he described how, when he was on patrol with his best friend on the border of the Gaza Strip form which the Israelis had withdrawn, his friend had been killed. A week ago my grandson and my daughter attended the third anniversary yahrzeit service of his best friend’s death.

I too had also come from Egypt with my oldest son years earlier when Israel still occupied Gaza; we re-entered Israel though Gaza. I had been appalled in self-righteous fury at the indignities to which I saw the Palestinians subjected to when they were being interrogated at the border crossing. Thus, I too have ambivalences about Israel, proud of what the country has accomplished and its ability to defend itself and ashamed and angry when Israel treats non-Jews, especially Palestinians, with disrespect.

So our fears and our targets for indignant condemnation are informed by different experiences. Unlike Ari, I did not have the experiences of being in the IDF to turn me into a peace activist; I had been one since I had been an undergraduate well before I switched from being an anti-Zionist to falling in love with Israel in 1973. I remember being in Tul Karem as an invited guest at a town hall meeting in which I was to comment after the Arab mayor and a doctor from the town, who was a member of the Arab communist party, addressed the group that had gathered. When my turn came to talk after the other two, I was totally tongue-tied for the first time in my life. In embarrassment I had to explain that I had not been able to listen to the other speakers to be able to comment. I had been  preoccupied, not with an analysis of the political events of the moment, but with the fact that the mayor of Tul Karem was the image of my late father – the same nose, mouth, receding hair land the same facial structure. Only he had different eyes. My father’s glittered with joy. They were carefree, normally a good sign, but not in a father who totally abandoned his responsibilities. The mayor’s eyes were more contemplative and serious like my own.

My friend and colleague when I taught at HebrewUniversity, Avishai Margolit, had proposed an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon, who finally died after eight years in a coma, surprisingly took up the idea. It worked out badly in many respects as everyone knows, both for the settlers who were removed and for the security of Israel. So though we remained peaceniks, all of us, including Ari Shavit, we “gradually became aware  of the flaws and biases of the peace movement.”

For Ari, “As the second decade of the twenty-first century has begun to unfold, five different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future; the concern that Israel’s regional hegemony is being challenged; the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state is eroding; the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal-democratic foundation crumbling; and the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social integration.”

Whoah! How did Ari get from his deep inner fears connected to his quick summary of his life experiences and these grand general conclusions? I shared the first recognition that peace is still unlikely between the Israelis and the Palestinians in spite of the strenuous efforts of John Kerry and his team to advance the peace process. However, though Turkey and Iran might be challenging Israel’s regional hegemony, neither is even close. The ability of Egypt to engage militarily had been in sharp decline and Syria’s capacity to wage war was now non-existent. Iran had become truly a paper tiger. In my observation, not only was Israel stronger than ever as a regional power, but there was no real challenger even on the horizon.

Though there were distractions by organizations such as the American Studies Association which had recently passed a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions, though not Israeli academics per se, these peccadilloes were more than offset by strengthened Israeli relations with India and China, with entry into more international organizations, and with the increasing practice of more and more Arab states dealing with Israel through practices rather than formal recognition.

How often over the years have I heard how deeply Israeli society is “now divided and polarized”, how its liberal-democratic structure is crumbling and what a dysfunctional government it has. Will the book be informed by these conclusions so that these generalizations shape the selection, organization and historical developments in his tale or will they be products of his historical analysis? From the very way he has constructed his introduction and jumped to these definitive conclusions about the current state of Israel, and by making them so definitive and apocalyptical, I suspected the worst, that they would shape history rather than be primarily informed by that history. However, even as a personal odyssey, the book promised to be interesting.

TOMORROW: The foundation for a Tragic Vision

How often over the years have I heard how deeply Israeli society is “now divided and polarized”, how its liberal-democratic structure is crumbling and what a dysfunctional government it has. Will the book be informed by these conclusions so that these generalizations shape the selection, organization and historical developments in his tale or will they be products of his historical analysis? From the very way he has constructed his introduction and jumped to these definitive conclusions about the current state of Israel, and by making them so definitive and apocalyptic, I suspected the worst, that they would shape history rather than be primarily informed by that history. However, even as a personal odyssey, the book promised to be interesting.

TOMORROW: The foundation for a Tragic Vision