Monday, May 19, 2014

Comments: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, should be read by anyone interested in Israel and its predicaments. While flawed, the book captures the Israeli situation and shows an author struggling to make sense of it both as a political and a personal matter. The author is a reporter, columnist, and member of the editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which is considered liberal or center left. (Nevertheless, Shavit, while unalterably opposed to Israeli settlement policy, is hawkish when it comes to Iran.)
In his book, Shavit does not minimize the country’s problems and contradictions and extensively quotes people with whom he disagrees. For example, both a West Bank settler and an Israeli Palestinian lawyer make their respective arguments in their own words in the pages of this book. Shavit seems to be engaging in a dialogue with himself about his country and what is moral or ethical. He is not successful in resolving many of these issues.

One of the admirable aspects of Israel is its willingness to tolerate books and movies that harshly criticize some of the country’s policies. For example, the 2008 animated Israeli movie, Waltz with Bashir, does not gloss over Israeli complicity in the 1982 massacres in Palestinian refugee camps (Sabra and Shatila) committed by Lebanese Christian militias. In addition, the 2012 Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, is a disturbing look at Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security force, made with the cooperation of six former heads of that organization. Ari Shavit’s book is in this tradition.
It may be, though, that works by Israelis obviously concerned about the moral underpinnings of policies are not viewed as being significant in changing Israeli politics or policies. After all, Ari Shavit decided to write this book in English. Apparently, there is a manuscript in Hebrew that will be published some day. For now, it appears that a main target audience for the book is the American Jewish community.

Not all in the American Jewish community are pleased with the book. While Tom Friedman is a fan as is Leon Wieseltier, the author’s recounting of the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda during the 1948 war has received criticism from more conservative Jewish commentators. (I am not knowledgeable enough about Israeli history to have an opinion about what happened at Lydda.)
The book is in essence a series of magazine articles about different periods in Israeli and Palestinian history. In fact, some of the chapters originally began as articles, including the chapter on Lydda, which is based on the author’s New Yorker article on this subject. The resulting book is a bit surprising in what is highlighted. There is, for example, a great deal of detail about the Tel Aviv nightclub scene in 2000, and very little discussion of the 1982 Lebanon war. The author no doubt would justify the nightclub scene discussion as a way of portraying an aspect of current Israeli society, but the Lebanon invasion is an example of Israel’s deeper problems.

My main disappointment with the book, though, is the final chapter, where the author tries to explain why he is a proud Israeli and hopeful for his country. The problem is that it does not logically follow from the preceding chapters, which discuss Israel’s history and the burdens it presents. Moreover, in another chapter, Shavit recounts the arguments of an Israeli Palestinian lawyer, who does not believe in the two-state solution, but rather argues for one state, comprising both Palestinians and Jews. He says of this Israeli Palestinian: “I love Mohammed…He is as Israeli as any Israeli I know. He is one of the sharpest friends I have. We share a city, a state, a homeland. And yet there is a terrible schism between us.”
It is as if the author set the predicate for a logical argument but cannot move forward to a logical conclusion. One keeps reading, hoping for a resolution, but it is not forthcoming. Shavit does not find a logical way to his more or less hopeful conclusion. He writes: “The script writer went mad. The director went away. The producer went bankrupt. But we are still here, on this biblical set. And as the camera pans out and pulls up, it sees us converging on this shore and clinging to this shore and living on this shore. Come what may.” He implicitly admits he has to come to this conclusion. For him, there is no other choice, come what may.

This book is a fascinating and well-written account of an Israeli journalist struggling with his country’s history, burdens, and problems. It also provides the historical context that gave rise to the Zionist movement through its portrayals of individual lives. Most readers with some knowledge of the Middle East will find themselves agreeing with the author on some points and not others, but most will probably agree that his views should be taken seriously. While the author is unsuccessful in resolving the strands of his various insights, the book is well worth reading for its insights into a complex situation posing fiendishly difficult problems for Israel, the Middle East, and the world.

1 comment:

  1. Good book review! Had a glance at My Promised Land in local public library; your review encourages me to borrow the book this week - or now! Thanx for yr insights.....