This post is based on my bulletin column of April 2014. At Temple Beth Abraham, the Sisterhood's book club is discussing this book on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 8:00 PM.
The most important new book about Israel this year is called My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. If you read only one nonfiction Jewish book, this is the one you have to have.
My Promised Land is a history of Israel and of Zionism, told through a loving and critical lens. Shavit is one of the Israel's most probing commentators. He writes for Haaretz, one of Israel's three main daily newspapers.
Shavit begins the book with the story of his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a British Jew who came see Palestine in 1897. Shavit talks about what his great-grandfather saw and experienced, and also what he didn't see or chose not to see, namely the Arabs in the villages all around the new Zionist towns.
For each decade he profiles, Shavit zeroes in on an emblematic storyline. He chooses “tragedies” in the ancient Greek sense. Moral dilemmas with no obvious right or wrong answer, dilemmas that could not be avoided in real time.
The Israelis of 1948 sent away Arabs from their homes in parts of the land. There wasn't time to figure out how to integrate Arabs into every part of Israel, with Arab armies bearing down. In order to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, Israel created standardized housing and a single dominant culture. There wasn't time, with military and economic challenges, to make room for differences, or to deal with communal traumas in the open.
Shavit criticizes something about each layer of Israel's history. But he is emphatic that the ideal path is only available in hindsight. He is equally hard on those who believe in sheer military power, and those who believe in a perfect peace with all the Arabs.
For me, one of the strongest impressions from the book is just how many social challenges Israel has had to face in less than sixty-five years. Without civil war, Israel has absorbed Jews who survived the Holocaust, those who become unwelcome in Arab countries, and those who were suddenly liberated when the Soviet Union collapsed. Israel's largely secular culture has had to face a powerful religious revival.
After the near-defeat in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, suddenly Israel's army was no longer an invincible force and an automatic source of pride. As the peace process of the 1990s collapsed, the idea of coexisting with Arabs in mutual understanding was exposed.
Through all of this, Shavit keeps his faith in the necessity of Israel. He considers whether all the mistakes mean that it would be better for Jews to live only in the diaspora, or in a binational state with the Palestinians. Shavit is emphatic: There is no future for Jews in the world without Israel. The moral responsibility for the past is real. Recognizing and taking responsibility for past mistakes is what it means to be a modern nation.
My Promised Land is not an easy book to read. Shavit does not point the way out of Israel's current struggles – not with the Arabs or internally. I kept reading because despite all his research and reflection, despite all the moral questions, Shavit is never disillusioned with Israel.
It is a tribute to the American Jewish community, and to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, that Shavit has been invited across the country to speak as a Zionist and defender of Israel. He represents the notion that Jews are strong when we are honest and self-critical, and avoiding the honest look can only weaken Israel and the Jewish people.
We'll need some way to talk about this book. It's more than one discussion. I'll have the book in our library, but there should be a line out the door. Get a copy, and start reading.