Unsettled

My Promised Landby Ari Shavit

Random House. 464p $28

The respected Israeli journalist Ari Shavit has written a remarkable book about the deeds and misdeeds of his beloved country. My Promised Land offers a compelling, soul-searching mix of history, politics, culture and military strategy.

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The three most riveting chapters examine Israel’s brutal expulsion of Palestinians from the Lydda Valley in 1948, the controversial decision to build nuclear weapons and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

In the Lydda rampage, Israeli soldiers forced tens of thousands of Palestinians to grab their belongings and march to an unknown destination. Soldiers blew up a mosque, stole cash and valuables from fleeing civilians and forced Arab men to bury the dead before they too were fatally shot.

Although Shavit is “horrified” by Lydda, he ends the chapter with this equivocation: “I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.... If need be, I’ll stand by the damned.”

He is less ambivalent about the ongoing campaign to build illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. “The settlements,” he writes, “have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral and judicial reality.... That’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel.” Nearly 400,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers now occupy the West Bank, which was seized from Jordan as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967.

While Shavit supports the end of occupation, he also worries that pulling back would bring Muslim terrorists closer to the heart of Israel.

Shavit sheds light on the intense internal debate about the risks and rewards of developing a nuclear arsenal. Proponents saw nuclear arms as a necessary deterrent. But opponents argued that if Israel built a nuclear arsenal, it would embolden nearby Arab nations to do the same and thereby increase the possibility of nuclear war.

In the 1950s, “the mere thought that this tiny, weak nation would succeed in obtaining nuclear capabilities seemed audacious, megalomaniacal, even unhinged.” Shavit says Israel now has a nuclear arsenal with dozens of warheads.

Eventually, Israel’s nuclear monopoly will be broken, the author says. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Algeria have expressed nuclear interest, particularly if Iran succeeds in building its own arsenal.

Shavit’s great-grandfather moved from London to Palestine in 1897, the start of an exodus of Jews from Europe. Jewish settlers sometimes forced Palestinians to flee, then destroyed their homes and settled their land.

A British commission in 1937 recommended partitioning the land into two nations, Jewish and Arab. Others thought Palestinians and Jews could live together as neighbors in one nation, but Zionists rejected that solution. As daily headlines make clear, the world still struggles to find an answer that will satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians.

When Israel became a nation in 1948, Arabs and Jews were carrying out senseless acts of terror and retribution. In one instance Israeli boys set out to conquer an Arab village. They drove out 800 inhabitants, looted the village and blew it up.

Between 1948 and 1951, 750,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Israel—a wave of immigration not experienced by any other nation in modern times. Initially many were forced to live in tents because housing could not be built fast enough.

Profiles of Israelis who lost parents, grandparents and siblings in the Holocaust are woven into the story as a stark reminder of a ghastly phase of 20th-century history.

Shavit writes with pride about the many accomplishments of the young settlers in the arts, industry, education and farming, but he also includes an awkward chapter on sex, debauchery, drugs and “the breaking of every taboo” by urban youths.

The author is not optimistic about Israel’s future. The tiny nation is surrounded by Arabs, Palestinians and more than a billion Muslims, many of whom wait for the day when they can drive Jews into the sea. Since 1973 Israel has not been invaded by the military forces of an adjacent Arab nation, but that lull could easily end. Shavit worries that an Arab nation might create another Hiroshima by dropping an atom bomb on Tel Aviv.

Demographics do not bode well for the Jewish state. Palestinians make up 46 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories, a figure projected to rise to 50 percent by 2020 and 55 percent by 2040. The trend is worrisome because radical Palestinians are gaining dominance. “The Palestinians are now the elephant in the room no one dares talk about,” Shavit writes.

Shavit pored over records and conducted long tape-recorded interviews with many of the principals on both sides of each issue. The story is not a simple one, and the author grapples with the many moral ambiguities involved. He has written a masterful account of the birth of a modern nation.

Shavit says in his introduction that he “always stood for peace and supported the two-state solution,” although he does not elaborate. “I have learned,” he writes, “that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick-fix solutions to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 8 months ago
I would normally say at a time like this, "Quite frankly, I don't see what any of this has to do with Israel," but that might be a little awkward now, so I'll just say, "Quite frankly, I don't see what this has to do with racism."
3 years 8 months ago
I could not help being struck by the fairly one-sided view offered in Bill Williams review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (April 14, 2014). It was interesting that the chapters Mr. Williams found “most riveting” just happened to be the ones in which Ari Shavit is most critical of Israel, his own country. That is a matter of personal taste and opinion, however, and Mr. Williams has a right to both. It is, however, a little troubling that Mr. Williams is so selective in his facts. If he is going to call specific attention to the brutality at Lydda, should he not also at least mention comparable massacres of Jews by Palestinian and Arab armies during the 1948 war? -- Gush Etzion for example. Before 1948 Gush Etzion was a group of four Jewish agricultural villages located between Jerusalem and Hebron. On May 13, 1948, Palestinian irregular forces massacred all of the Jewish residents after they had surrendered. The Etzion bloc was then looted thoroughly by Arab villagers and irregular troops. This was the civil war stage of the hostilities and brutality occurred on both sides as it usually does in war time. Similarly, Mr. Williams references “Jewish settlers” forcing Palestinian Arabs to flee in the years between 1897 and 1947. I am not aware of any historic record of this and Mr. Williams provides no specifics. He also makes no reference to the well documented multiple Arab riots forcing Jews to flee at that point in history. The 1929 Palestine riots, in which a total of 133 Jews were killed by Arabs, and brought the centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron to an end comes to mind as one example. The paragraph on the British Peel Commission is odd -- Mr. Williams notes that while the British recommended partition “others” preferred a bi-national state but “Zionists rejected that solution.” But he fails to note that the Zionists accepted the Peel Commission partition -- which would have given them a very small part of the land -- while it was soundly rejected by the Arabs. Personally I wish we could get past the point where we all look to cast blame on one party or the other in this tragic conflict. But if some need to point fingers, lets at least get the history correct. And we need to acknowledge that if all we ever report is blameworthy behavior on the part of Jews and Israelis while simultaneously ignoring that of Palestinians and other Arabs, we are going to fall into the very fundamental sin of false accusation and scapegoating. Rev. James Loughran, SA Graymoor

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