Ari Shavit’s bittersweet love letter to fans of Israel

From Zionist dream to problematic reality

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is a bittersweet love letter addressed to all those who want to see Israel succeed as a democratic Jewish state.

The subtitle suggests why bitter (“Tragedy”) and why sweet (“Triumph”).

Shavit, born in Rehovot in 1956, is a respected columnist for Haaretz and a popular commentator on Israeli public television. He has taken well over 400 pages to offer an exhaustive account of the slow transformation of the Zionist dream into a richly complex but problematic reality. His book is wise, nuanced, and honest; the author is not afraid to focus upon the heartbreaking and deeply troubling moral compromises that have accompanied the creation of the State of Israel.

Shavit begins his story with his great-grandfather, The Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, who visited Israel as a devoted Zionist in April of 1897.  In his very first chapter, Shavit sounds a theme that becomes a leitmotif throughout the book: the Zionists’ failure to see the Arabs in Palestine and their concurrent failure to see what massive Jewish immigration into the land would mean for the Arab natives.

Shavit puts it this way: “There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are twenty cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can the pedantic Bentwich not notice them? ... That there is another people now occupying the land of his ancestors?” A few paragraphs later: “My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see, because if he does see, he will have to turn back.”

In chapter five, “Lydda, 1948,” which appeared in somewhat different form in the Oct. 21, 2013, issue of “The New Yorker,” Shavit spells out the dark consequences of Zionism’s 50-year blindness to the native Palestinian Arab population. His focus is the small Arab city of Lydda, located a short distance from what is now Ben Gurion International Airport, population 19,000 at the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence.  In describing how the Israeli army destroyed Lydda and forced its population into a long column of the dispossessed stumbling eastward, Shavit makes vivid the tragedy of competing nationalisms, the inevitable conflict arising from two peoples claiming the same land at the same time:

“Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda.  From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be … if a Jewish state was to exist in Palestine, an Arab Lydda could not exist at its center.”

Towards the end of chapter five, Shavit comments bluntly regarding the Israeli soldiers who conquered Lydda, “They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughters, my sons to live.”

In “My Promised Land,” Shavit writes perceptively about a whole host of subjects that are beyond the purview of a single column: among these topics, the establishment of kibbutz Ein Harod in the Galilee in 1921, the central place of Masada in Israeli consciousness, the absorption of Holocaust survivors, the building of the “bomb” in Dimona, the peace process, “the Oriental-traditionalist revolt against the secular-Ashkenazi state that Zionism had founded.”  Shavit even includes an insightful – perhaps inciteful! – chapter which he titles “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition.”

“My Promised Land,” if not totally pessimistic, is an exceedingly sobering book. Shavit acknowledges that Israelis face concentric circles of external threat: Palestinians, the Arab nations and the Islamic world at large – most of whom would be happy to see Israel disappear. In addition, Israelis are threatened by the enemy within: a diminished mental and moral toughness, which could lead to a failure of will and a collapse of national identity.

Nevertheless, Shavit remains hopeful, almost defiantly optimistic, for he is convinced that Israelis themselves are Israel’s greatest asset. He describes Israeli identity as a creative paradoxical powerhouse: “… Israelness is an iridescent kaleidoscope of broken identities that come together to form a unique human phenomenon.”

It is easy to find writers who are highly critical of Israel, and it is equally easy to dismiss them for their criticisms are all too often one-sided, self-righteously rigid and altogether incapable of entertaining the notion that Israel’s tragic situation may, on occasion, require morally ambiguous actions; at worst, such critics are afflicted with more than a tinge of hatred for the State of Israel.

Ari Shavit cannot be dismissed. His love for the land of Israel and its citizens shines through on every page of “My Promised Land,” even as, on every page, he offers a stinging criticism of the people he loves. His criticisms then, to use the language of the ancient rabbis, amount to yesurin shel ahavah, chastisements of love. While Shavit points out in painful detail Zionist failures of political, practical, and moral judgment, he also shines a light upon Zionism’s many triumphs. Indeed, from Shavit’s perspective, Zionism has done nothing less than give life back to a dying Jewish people.  His intent is to engage his readers in the enormous project of recreating a democratic Jewish state worthy of its early promise.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington and can be reached at