A book about the fears and hopes and failures of the Zionist idea
By Jerry Haber, Magnes Zionist
January 25, 2014
There are two important stories about My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s memoir cum interviews cum meditation on Israel: the story of the book, itself, and the story of the enthusiastic reception it has received in America (and decidedly will not receive in Israel.) This post will take up the first story.
I read the book last night, and I couldn’t put it down, not because it is well-written (aside from the interviews I found it full of clichés and bombast) but because I wanted to get it over with in one sitting. This doesn’t mean that I think it an unimportant book; on the contrary, it is vital reading for anybody who wishes to understand the mentality of the secular Israeli elite, of what Shavit calls the Israeli WASP – the White Ashkenazi secular peacenik (or former peacenik, since he no longer believes that peace is possible).
There have been good reviews of the book by Noam Sheizaf and Jerome Slater (who shows how selective and ahistorical Shavit’s account is). But the one that resonated best with my reactions is by Avrum Burg in Haaretz. Rather than write my own review, I will cite passages from Burg’s review with which I agree.
The Ari Shavit of this book often sees himself as the awareness, perhaps even the conscience, of Israel as it could have been, as he would wish it to be. If this is the secret of the book, it is also the source of its principal weakness: The blind spots in the conscience and awareness of Shavit in the book are also the weakness of the Israel that once was and has changed unrecognizably.
Like many on the Zionist left, of which he was once a respected member, though now he considers himself more realistic and less dogmatic, he says in effect: It’s enough that I am aware of the wrongs, the crimes and the mistakes; I don’t need to take responsibility for them or do anything about them. Creating an easy equation for himself, he proceeds to solve it without any problems. “And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”
But what about a bit more courage? Yes, he admits Israel’s responsibility for the refugee problem, and, yes, he does open the windows of Israeli consciousness to the Palestinian narrative. But in the middle of the process, the preacher in him suddenly falls silent. Whereas Shavit generally knows what to do, and is ready with good recommendations for policy and action – on these issues, he stops short of offering some practical political and human measures to solve, whether completely or symbolically, the refugee challenge. Here Shavit doesn’t take the last step of the thousand-kilometer journey. Here he is reluctant. All is written in a type of softness that is generally reserved for the observer. Even his few admonitions sound respectable, restrained, uttered with the national responsibility sensed by one who is aware of the tremendous power of written words.
I’ll go one step further than Burg. Shavit makes claims that the most ardent Palestinian nationalist would endorse: Israel wiped Palestine off the map. The Zionists are responsible for the Palestinian catastrophe. The Israeli left doesn’t realize that it’s not about 67, it’s about 48, etc. And yet he rejects any implications for Israel’s responsibility to make amends for their actions. Like a contemporary politician, Shavit is willing to “accept upon himself full responsibility” and move on. Rather than doing the tough work of sitting down and working out a reasonable solution to 1948, or at least a way of living together, Shavit, paralyzed by anxieties, can only cower behind the Iron-Wall ghetto he has created unilaterally. And this unilateralism is the hallmark of traditional Zionism he admires so much. It is a Zionism that didn’t need to carry out a physical transfer of the Palestinian natives because they had never been on their mental map of Palestine to begin with.
Actually, it’s much worse than that. Shavit uses the fact that the Palestinians have justifiable grievances towards the Zionists from 1948 to argue against any accommodation with them, because, he claims, in their heart of hearts they cannot be satisfied with anything less than the end of the Zionist regime. But this conclusion is not that of his friend, the Arab rights lawyer Mohammed Dahla, who, although he will never accept the moral legitimacy of the Zionist regime, is willing to compromise on core issues, such as allowing the return of only those refugees who are languishing in squalid camps in Syria and Lebanon, But that sort of nuanced and pragmatic accommodation is entirely wasted on Shavit, whose existential fears allow him only to bemoan the “deep schism” between him and Mohammed and to ask, “What will happen to my Land, your Land?” This is Zionist passivity at its worst. Maimonides says that true repentance begins with recognition of the sin. Begins, not ends.
[Shavit] describes the Israeli dilemma according to his understanding: on the one hand, the most threatened state in the West, on the other hand, the only occupying state in the West. This dual, connected insight allows him to stake out a critical position both toward the left, which ignores the existential threats, and toward the right, which shrugs off the corruption entailed in the occupation…Shavit’s binary formulation is too limited. These are not Israel’s only problems or even its principal ones. The built-in international and regional isolationism, the self-perceived victimization, the lax commitment to democracy, the inordinate centrality of power as the definer of identity, the aggrandizement of the rabbinate at the expense of sovereignty, the moral rift with the Jewish people and its magnificent culture, the strategy of trauma and similar problems – these are effectively not covered by Shavit’s simple, superficial formula….
Shavit’s high-quality narrative ability covers up his two weaknesses. The first is his reference group, and the second is the world of fears that drives him. Both are authentic and reflect faithfully the limits of the Shavit narrative, the limits of secular Zionism, which was once the central force of the Israeli way of life, but no longer exists.
Most of Shavit’s heroes are well-established, secular, Ashkenazi males, with preference given to those with a personal and ideological background that tilts slightly (not overly so) to the left. Hardly any other voices from Israel’s mosaic of opinions and identity politics are heard in the book. I don’t think that’s due to a mistake by the editor. It’s a far deeper – representative – conception.
So much of Shavit’s book smacks of the secular Israeli longing for the “Golden Age of Israel,” the pre-1973 Shangri la run by white, Ashkenazi, Europeans who had changed their names to sound authentic. (By the way, Shavit writes that the book is based on numerous interviews and discussions with “hundreds of Israelis—Jews and Arabs, men and women.” In fact, in a book of over 400 pages, only two women and two Palestinian Israelis appear. Since Shavit has a great deal of contempt for haredim, it’s not surprising that not one of them is interviewed. And I, for one, will never forget Shavit’s interview with Burg himself, where his contempt for Burg’s positions was evident in almost every question he asked. That interview did not get into the book.)
Many of those who love Shavit’s columns in this newspaper, like many of those who will love this book, actually love the illusion it offers with such consummate skill.
They are in love with the mythological Israel of 1948. The Israel that rose from the ashes, its way lit by the vision of a model society, of unbounded sacrifice and pioneering. But that Israel no longer exists, and probably never did. Israel came into being as a secular, socialist utopia, and in the course of time and circumstances became religiously fundamentalist and flagrantly capitalist. It’s a very different society, perhaps even a different country from Shavit’s artistic depictions….
Indeed. Zionism’s greatest success, as of this moment, has been to build us a home in the mouth of the most eruptive volcano on earth. But it never tried to extinguish the destructive sources of the seething, threatening Middle Eastern lava. Accordingly, this is a book about all the fears and all the hopes and all the failures of the Zionist idea.
It’s a book that only looks back, and in this sense is a story of a nostalgic, yearning parting from the imagined past – not a new vision or a groundbreaking work plan. So much so that Shavit finds it difficult to answer even his own question of questions: “How long can we sustain this lunacy?” It remains a resonating interrogative with no signs of having a convincing answer.