Book Review: On Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’

The Zionist story, re-told by the elite, for the elite.

A new book by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit won rare compliments in recent weeks from the liberal Jewish elite in the United States. A couple of prominent Jewish writers—Leon Wieseltier and Thomas Freidman—praised the book on the pages of the New York Times, the New Yorker’s editor held a party for the book and its author at his home, Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg handed the Natan Prize to Shavit, and more.

The 17 chapters of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Random House, English only) re-narrate the story of Zionist and Israeli history in this land, while investigating what Shavit recognizes as an existential crisis from which the nation is suffering. The first half of the book travels along the familiar Zionist path—the first waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Arab revolt, the 1948 war, etc. The second, more polemic part, focuses on social forces and political developments.

Throughout the book, Shavit explores and analyzes social and historical developments through the eyes of dozens of Zionist Jews and Israelis. Most of them were interviewed by the author; some are historical figures. It is a wise choice that highlights Shavit’s greatest quality as a journalist—he is a patient and focused interviewer.

Yet the identity of Shavit’s interviewees reveals the limits of his analysis. All the book’s heroes save for a few—and there are, as I said, dozens of them—are Ashkenazi men. The handful of exceptions highlights the similarity between all the rest: A couple of Mizrahi Jews are interviewed on the Mizrahi problem and the Mizrahi experience, two or three Arabs are quoted in the chapters dealing with the Palestinian problem, and women are almost completely absent from the book. Even 2011’s social protest—a unique historical event in the Israeli mainstream because its most important leaders were women—is examined through the eyes of (male) Itzik Shmuli, who found himself in the leadership circle due to his role as chairman of the national student union. Shmuli never played a major part in the events; and the remarks that Shavit is able to extract from him are among of the dullest in the entire book.

In a world that celebrates diversity, Shavit’s decision to narrow his story to the Ashkenazi-male experience is more telling than any of his observations. The ghettoization of all other voices — the fact that a women can’t discuss the Palestinian story or that a Palestinian is never asked about the Mizrahi experience or that a Mizrahi doesn’t analyze the economy, and so on — constructs Shavit’s story more than any other choice he makes. Every social or political group remains the object of the the same view; deprived of an existence that stretches beyond the role it plays in the Ashkenazi elite’s drama. Needless to say, Shavit identifies himself with this elite.

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It’s a long book, perhaps too long, and Shavit’s overly dramatic prose doesn’t make things easier. At its weakest moment, My Promised Land feels like a 100,000-word op-ed (“what we all face is the threefold Israel question: Why Israel? What is Israel? Will Israel?”); but there are also powerful parts, written with real passion and confidence. Such is the story of the rise and fall of the Shas party’s Aryeh Deri —a tale which every newspaper reader knows well, but Shavit still manages to tell in a way that feels new and exciting.

Ari Shavit: ‘My Promised Land’
Ari Shavit: ‘My Promised Land’

The chapter on the 1948 war also stands out from the rest of the book, both in style and in message. Shavit follows a unit of Israeli soldiers that murder, loots and steal the property of Palestinians. He then narrates the expulsion of Lydda in details, including the horrific massacre of men, women and children who found refuge in the city’s small mosque. (Shavit’s attempt to bring the Nakba out of post-Zionist writing and into Zionist history is the most original theme in the book.) My Promised Land also excels in other moments of great violence – the Holocaust, the Arab Revolt – and at times, it feels that there is a side to Shavit that is fascinated with Power, in and of itself.

This, no doubt, is part of the book’s appeal. The intellectualization of violence – and ultimately, murder – is a central theme with elites in the U.S. and Israel, due to the inherent contradiction between their values and the massive implementation of military force they often pursue. The specific genre of war-crime confessions is nicknamed “shooting and crying” in Israel, and traces of it are all over the book. That shouldn’t, however, be mistaken for a moral debate, since like others before him, Shavit avoids any serious discussion on questions of responsibility and accountability.

In fact, the confessions sometimes serve as a justification for more violence. According to Shavit’s rationale, since the Palestinians will never forget or forgive the Nakba, Israel is destined to fight them again and again. Indeed Shavit, who refers to himself as a peacenik, has become an advocate of war in recent decades. He supported military campaigns that were well within the Israeli consensus, such as Operation Defensive Shield (2002) and Cast Lead (2008), but also ideas which were met with considerable opposition: The disastrous ground invasion into Lebanon in 2006 and a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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Whereas the first part of the book is written in an admiring tone that idolizes the success of the Zionist elite in the state-building and later in the nation-building project, in the later chapters Shavit is much more critical of his interviewees, occasionally even bitter. The settlers are “zealots,” “mad,” suffering from “tribal psychology” and a “bizarre ideology.” The Left is “stuck in adolescence,” “never built [anything],” lacks love, “is all about negation.” The Sephardic Jews (“Oriental Israelis,” Shavit calls them) “are not aware” that Israel saved them from “a life of misery and backwardness in an Arab Middle East.” Tel Aviv’s party goers don’t care for the dying soldiers in the Lebanon War; the Russian immigrants felt superior to Israelis, and much like the ultra-Orthodox, failed to cherish democratic values; and so on. Together, all those groups turned the nation into “a political circus,” one that prevents Israel from confronting the existential threats it faces in a hostile region, and so on.

Shavit’s observations are disputable. He makes life easy for himself by searching the roots of the settlements project with its most radical, messianic of activists. Yet by now, most of the historical research refers to the settlements as a state-run, state-initiated project, which was carried out mostly by the government bureaucracy and supported by the mainstream, even when the same mainstream rejected Gush Emunim.

Contrary to what Shavit implies, the anti-democratic legislation of recent years didn’t come from the Orthodox parties but from Kadima and the Likud – the two centrist parties which Shavit himself supported at times (Shavit praised Ariel Sharon and called for him to break from Likud and establish a new centrist party, but he was disappointed with Kadima pretty early on); the new generation of Russian immigrants actually assimilated more rapidly than any wave of immigrants that preceded it (Lieberman’s rise in popularity is with veteran Israeli Jews, not Russians). Shavit’s rants against the Left are so abstract – what does “not building anything” refer to? – that it’s hard to extract any meaning from them.

In the same way, Shavit condemns the destruction of Sephardi culture by Zionism but sees Arab culture as dark and primitive – without recognizing that those are two sides of the same coin; the rejection of the Arab culture is the destruction of Arab-Jewish world – it was not “a mistake” but rather an inherent feature of the project. And while going to great lengths to describe the challenge posed to Israel by its Palestinian citizens, Shavit doesn’t allow any space in his writing for non-Jewish Israeliness; he rejects the Palestinians long before they can reject him. In short, what Shavit refuses to recognize is that all those groups don’t want to play a role written by others; they want their share in power, they want their identity recognized, and they want their stories heard, and not just in reference to the “problem” they pose.

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Ultimately, arguing with Shavit would be missing the essence of the book. My Promised Land is a conservative manifest that fits well into the current wave of Zionist romanticism that Israel is experiencing. It is not the Zionism of the 40s or 50s  – there are no second rounds in history – but neo-Zionism. I believe this neo-Zionism (or Israeli neo-Conservatism) to be the most influential ideological force of the recent decade.

It is a theory which is not exactly Left and not exactly Right, an approach that seeks to respond to post-Zionist trends of the nineties, that sees the multi-cultural nature of Israeli society is a threat, that seeks to renew Ben-Gurion’s melting pot and views the conflict with the Palestinians as a zero-sum game that can’t really be solved; it doesn’t support the settlements but it prefers to form political pacts with the Israeli Right and not the Left. Other prominent neoconservatives are journalists Ben Dror-Yemini, Gadi Taub and Irit Linor (like Shavit, all three had their roots in the Israeli left), MK Elazar Stern and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Even a phenomenon like Im Tirzu needs to be understood in the context of Zionist Romanticism, and not (purely) as a right-wing element.

Apart from certain nuances, what separates Shavit from these other writers and politicians is that he doesn’t attempt to hide his elitism. In fact he embraces it, and by doing so reveals the degree to which Zionist romanticism has to do with the maintenance of power; with insiders and outsiders.

My Promised Land is a book for the Zionist “1 percent,” not so much in terms of money but political power and cultural assets. (The gossip entry in an Israeli newspaper for the book launch party at the New Yorker editor’s home stated that “an aerial convoy of [Shavit’s] wealthy good friends from Israel arrived,” then listing the names of Israeli billionaires, a high-society attorney, a journalist known for her adoration of Israel’s tycoons, and more.) Shavit’s own journalistic career is one of extreme proximity to power: he supported Netanyahu in the late 1990s, then aligned with Ehud Barak, then became closer to the Sharon family (Shavit gave a personal testimony in favor of Omri Sharon just before the young Sharon, who took the fall for his father, was sent to prison), then Barak again. In Barak’s service, Shavit tried to politically assassinate Tzipi Livni ahead of the 2009 general elections, and traces of Barak and Bibi’s resentment for former head of Mossad Meir Dagan runs through the Iran chapter.

One can also try and make sense of the praise from liberal Jewish-American intellectuals, who welcomed the book. My Promised Land was lavished with endorsements from the most important columnist in America, the editor of the most important magazine, the head of the most important Jewish organization, the most important literary critic and the most important Jewish journalist.

These people often feel like they are the same person. Like many of Shavit’s heroes, they are powerful Ashkenazi-Jewish men. Their feelings of identification with Israel were built on the myths from the early decades, which Shavit revisits; their more intimate encounters with the country, however, were in the 80s and 90s, and they bear the mark of the rise of the second and third Israel, and the rapid decline of the old elites.

Much like Shavit, these Jews feel a certain anxiety from the voices coming out of Israel; they don’t recognize “their Israel” and they don’t understand or even know the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, the Sephardi or the Palestinians (one of the least explored topics in Israeli-Jewish American relations is the political effect of the ethnic identity of the American community on those relations).

Shavit provides his readers with an appealing explanation for the crisis, and while there is something unpleasant with an elite that schools minorities for not playing their part in the fulfillment of the Zionist dream (or fantasy), the comfort the book can provide to many readers is beyond denial. Will it give them a better understanding of the real people living in Israel/Palestine, their needs, their hopes and their dreams? I am not all that certain.