Ari Shavit’s MY PROMISED LAND is the most important book dealing with the Arab-Israeli Conflict to be published since Thomas Friedman’s FROM BERUIT TO JERUSALEM. After digesting Shavit’s work I am confused in trying to categorize it. It is in part a personal memoir, it also contains the historical background of the region, it discusses the political strategies and military actions that have taken place in Palestine since the turn of the twentieth century, but more importantly it seems to be the philosophical and moral ruminations of one of Israel’s most important commentators analyzing contemporary issues and what the future may hold. Shavit’s journey begins with his great grandfather Herbert Bentwich’s decision to forgo his comfortable family life in England and immigrate to Palestine in 1897. From that point on Shavit takes the reader on a wondrous journey that encompasses the early history of Zionism, the uprooting of Jews as they try to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the survival of the Holocaust, and the creation Jewish state, with its many economic, social, and political problems.
Shavit’s approach is a masterful blending of interviews with the actors in this drama, including perceptive historical analysis. At the outset Shavit has what appears to be a dialogue with himself as he wonders what his life would have been if his great grandfather had not gone to Palestine. He correctly points out that his great grandfather, like other Jews before and after him do not see the Palestinian villages as he is motivated not to see them. “He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back” because the wonderful possibilities that exist in the valley he witnesses are already spoken for. But the plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe are such that a safe haven is needed where the Jews can develop their Zionist dream and establish a new Jewish identity based on cultivating the land. According to Shavit, “as the plow begins to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity: as they take on the physical labor of tilling the earth, they transform themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns.” (35) But in doing so they do not see or solve the problem that the Palestinian Arab presents.
Through Shavit’s interviews and vast knowledge the reader is presented with intimate details of kibbutzniks working the desolate valley that makes up Ein Harod, and the settlement of Rehovot which by 1935 reflect throughout Palestine that the Zionist dream is taking root. The author tells the story of the orange growers in Rehovot as a microcosm of the brewing conflict between Jews and Palestinians that will boil over in 1936. Interweaving events in Nazi Germany and the development of Palestinian nationalism in the north the reader is presented a narrative and analysis of why the Palestinians will revolt in 1936 without the traditional political and ideological arguments that most historians present. The Zionist argument is presented in a local weekly published in Rehovot; “we are returning to our homeland that has awaited for us as wasteland, and we are entering a new country that is not ours….all these riches we bring with us as a gift to our ancient land, and to the people who have settled it while we were away….” (62) But again no reference to the Palestinian. Shavit’s argument throughout is that for the Zionist to be successful he had to be a colonialist and occupy the land that belonged to others and eventually force them out. 1936 is the first watershed year that Shavit speaks about as we witness the onslaught of Arab rage against the Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The violence and a general strike are different than past Arab protests as this is a “collective uprising of a national Arab-Palestinian movement that results in 80 dead and 400 wounded Jews that transforms their collective psyche as “the Jewish national liberation movement had to acknowledge that it was facing an Arab liberation movement that wished to disgorge the Jews from the shores they settled on.” (74) The Arabs could no longer be ignored and the response led to further violence and brutality through 1939 as for the first time the Jews retaliated in kind.
In a wonderful chapter dealing with Masada, Shavit describes his interview with Shmaryahu Gutman who realizes that as 1942 dawned the future of world Jewry rested in the hands of the Soviet army as it tried to stem the Nazi tide on the Eastern Front. At the same time General Erwin Rommel is threatening Cairo and if successful the Jews of Palestine would be decimated. At this point Gutman leads a group of 46 teenagers to climb Masada as part of their leadership training which the author describes in detail. Gutman wants Masada to become the poignant symbol that will substitute for the theology and mythology that Zionism lacks. He wants to create a Jewish ethos of resistance that will override the reputation of Jews who do not fight back. It is an interesting concept that was explored in an earlier book by Jay Gonen, A PSYCHOHISTORY OF ZIONISM which offers the idea that Israel as a nation suffers from a Masada Complex, a type of Adlerian inferiority complex based on Jewish history. Gonen argues that to overcome ones perceived inferiority, one adopts a superiority complex as compensation. If so this offers a useful explanation of Israeli domestic and foreign policy from 1948 onward. The Soviets blunt the Nazi advance and Rommel is stopped at El Alamein and “the Zionist enterprise is not that of drained or of orange groves bearing fruit but that of a lonely desert fortress casting the shadow of awe on an arid land.” (97)
For Shavit the lessons Jews learned concerning lethal historical circumstances are the key to Jewish survival. The author uses the Arab village of Lydda as an example of Israel’s demographic policies during the 1948 War of Independence. Because of its location it must be controlled by Israeli Jews if the new state is to survive. In addition, the area of the eastern Galilee must be Arab free to provide land for survivors of the Holocaust. The new Israeli government under David Ben-Gurion sees the War of Independence as a one time opportunity to solve the Arab problem. Ilan Pappe, another Israeli historian describes in minute detail Operation Dalet in his book THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE, a plan to clear out Arab villages from areas that the new Israeli government wanted for its development. Shavit agrees with Pappe and ruminates on the issue of Israeli occupation and what it has meant for Israel and how it has become an albatross around its neck from 1948 until today. Once these lands were seized in 1948 the issue of the right of Palestinians to return has become one of the major stumbling blocks for any future peace.
Shavit tells the stories of Holocaust survivors and Jews who were able to leave Arab countries to come to Palestine and later Israel. Shavit also tells the stories of displaced Arab families who have lived as refugees since 1948. In so doing the reader is presented with a picture that is far from equitable. Between 1945-1951 685,000 people were absorbed by a society of 655,000. This was facilitated in part by reparations paid by the German government. When interviewing Palestinian Arabs, Shavit hears that they would like resettlement and reparations, this time from the Israeli government to a Palestinian one.
The state of Israeli society is a major concern for Shavit and we see it through the eyes of many Israelis. The economic miracle of the 1950s is based upon the denial of Palestinian rights as it “expunged Palestine from its memory and soul.” (160) But this denial Shavit argues from a very personal perspective “was a life-or-death imperative for the nine-year-old nation into which I was born.” (162) Shavit describes the common thread that all immigrants that are highlighted in his interviews. First, travel by ship from a European port to Israel, followed by time in a refugee camp living in a tent for months on end, and finally a small apartment consisting of one and a half room in a town or joining an agricultural kibbutz. The author is sensitive to the difficulties of societal integration, and the ability of families to adapt to their new surroundings.
In developing the narrative Shavit has chosen a number of important dates of which 1948, 1957, and 1967 stand out. The War of Independence and the resettlement of Arabs is obvious, but 1957 is not so. It was during that year that Israel and the France began colluding to develop a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. French feelings of guilt because of the events of World War II made it possible for Israel to develop the Dimona Reactor which allowed Israel to develop a nuclear stockpile. From the Israeli perspective Shavit argues that the reactor was a necessity because the expulsion of 1948 meant that the Palestinians would never rest until they recovered what they believed had been stolen from them. He further argues that following the 1956 Suez War, Israel found itself surrounded by Arab armies that would never accept her and though Israel never acknowledged the facility the Arab states believed it existed. The 1967 War brings forth a new concept for Israel, one of preemption, which allowed the success of the Six Day War. That success however created a climate of preemption that will be carried out repeatedly in the future, i.e.; attacking the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, invading Lebanon in 1982, and destroying the Syrian reactor in 2007. The policy of preemption has had mixed results for Israel and as we hear the same rumblings concerning the Iranian nuclear reactor today, we can just hope.
Israel’s actions after 1967 solidified her as an occupier of Arab territory and for a few years Shavit argues that Israel felt secure. However, the early stages of the 1973 War proved a disaster for Israel. Shavit correctly points out that Israel was victorious militarily, but psychologically it was a defeat. The end result was the weakening of the Labour government that had led Israel since 1948 and for the first time Israelis felt doubt about the future. With the weakened government the ultra-orthodox saw it as an opportunity to built settlements in the West Bank which Shavit describes through the eyes of the leadership of Gush Emunim and the resulting splintering of Israeli society. This on top of the already emerging schism between the Oriental Jewish underclass and the Ashkenazi elite reflects a country that Israel was not unified and has not really come together to this day.
Shavit points out what he perceives to be the mistakes that Israel has made since independence. The greatest one being one of occupation as he describes during one of his own army reserve tours in a Gaza prison. But he also reflects as to the choices that Israel has as it is surrounded in a sea of Islamic countries who want to destroy her. Shavit argues that each time Israel gives up territory as in Gaza and Lebanon it winds up with Hezbollah and Hamas. He does not see a war breaking out in the near future but how viable will Israel be in fifty years when their own Arab population is a majority and orthodox Jews will outnumber secular Jews. As far as the peace process is concerned Shavit correctly states that “ what is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice.” (266)
There is much more to this book than I have discussed as Shavit ruminates on the conundrum that is Israel; “if Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if she does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.” (401) The picture Shavit paints is not a very optimistic one. Whether he writes about the fractures in Israeli society, the weakness of its government, the inability to control the settlement movement, or the hope that its economic strength can continue, the geo-political world it lives in leads him to conclude his analysis by comparing Israel to a film; “we are a ragtag cast in an epic motion picture whose plot we do not understand and cannot grasp. The script writer went mad. The director went away. The producer went bankrupt. But we are still here, on this biblical set. The camera is still rolling. And as the camera pans out and pulls up, it sees us converging on this shore and clinging to this shore and living on this shore. Come what may.” (419)