Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is a literary magnetic force. It attracts with enchanting rhapsodies about the miracles of the land of Israel and the early Zionist years; it repels with tales of occupation, corruption and cruelty. It navigates through the entirety of the Israeli experience, from 1897 to 2013, with 16 epochal pit stops. It extols Israel’s greatness and censures her weakness. It is positive and negative, and every gradation inbetween.
Shavit is a distinguished Israeli journalist who has compiled a patriotic, personal and powerful narrative. His clear and engaging style makes the sometimes incomprehensible complexities of Israeli politics understandable, even to one whose familiarity with the plays and the players is cursory. His interviews with key historical figures are intimate and raw, his scholarship exhaustive and praiseworthy. With a style that combines Studs Terkel, James Michener and ThomasFriedman, it is no wonder this book is a bestseller.
Shavit begins at his and Israel’s beginning, with his Zionist British great-grandfather’s 1897 trip to Palestine. Herbert Bentwich’s purpose was to evaluate the land as a potential national homeland for the Jews. What he saw led to his conclusion that the land was physically suitable. What he chose not to see would underpin the triumph and tragedy of Israel. While the 500,000 Palestinians living as nomads lacked cogent national identity, they were undeniably there in 1897.
Throughout his book, Shavit repeatedly links Israel’s current existential challenges to the single question, “How could they not have seen them?” By personalizing the tales, the reader feels what Shavit feels, and sees what he sees. We stand beside the early settlers as they clear the swamps, we smell the first orange blossoms in Rehovot, and we tingle alongside early kibbutzniks with the thrill of “creating something from nothing.” We also cringe at Lydda in 1948, where the War of Independence leads the Zionists to “throw off the yoke of morality,” looting, torturing and expelling Palestinians into the desert. “Lydda is our black box,” Shavit avers. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.”
There are chapters on the 1967 launch of Israel’s nuclear program, Tel Aviv’s frenzied culture, Israel’s religious zealots, and of course, the occupations and settlements. In “Up the Galilee,” a Palestinian-Israeli attorney provides apenetrating alternative viewpoint. “Existential Challenge” examines Iran.
“My Promised Land,” however, is much more than the sum of its parts. It is an exceptionally crafted valentine to Israel from her rebellious but unconditionally loving son. Shavit acknowledges her faults and wonders, but mostly he worries about her future.
“This start-up nation must restart itself,” he opines. “This immature political entity must grow up. Out of disintegration and despair we must rise to the challenge of the most ambitious project of all: nation rebuilding. The resurrection of the Israeli people.”
Is Shavit optimistic that this can happen? There are as many who would say yes as no. And every gradation in between.
Ari Shavit Random House Publishing, 2013