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.
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.”