Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism

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Almost thirty years ago, Bernie Avishai published The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy. Every generation, Jews seem to need to read a cosmological lament about the state of Israel. Ari Shavit is the author for our times. He has written a widely praised book about the history and contemporary socio-political position of the Israeli state. To make such an impression, the book had to be written for a current audience. What is the book’s appeal? How does the author have such an impact?

my promised landAri’s introduction begins with: For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear. His fear is not for himself but for his beloved Israel. His dread was that a dark ocean would rise and drown us all. A mythological tsunami would strike our shores and sweep my Israel away.  Did he mean metaphorical rather than mythological? Or was mythological itself a word used metaphorically to connote gargantuan?  For Ari is clearly not referring to a divinely-inspired disaster like Noah’s flood or an immanent natural disaster arising from the degradation of the environment and rising seas.

I, too, have had a recurring nightmare. I am fleeing from the Nazis. I am in a cobbled square with streets going off in different directions. I am not slowed down by my ambivalence over choosing which route to escape but by my dreamy wayward youngest daughter who is on her tricycle pedalling around in circles. And the Nazi trucks and storm troopers are just about to reach that square when I wake up in a panic and sweat. The fear is not a product of current circumstances. Nor even from historical experience, since neither I nor my family were ever threatened by the Nazis. The question arises whether the fear was instilled in me or whether I have projected it onto the world, or, a third option, was it instilled in me and project by me back onto the world.

Or perhaps the fear is primordial. It arises because, whether Jew or gentile, we are all deeply afraid. Thomas Hobbes wrote that this is the core of all humankind: There is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense. I think it is a combination of external stimuli and internal psychology and that the job of critical observation and reflection is to sort out when that fear is a projection with internal sources and when there is a justified external provocation. I am not and was not an Israeli. In fact, even though I was at the time an intellectual anti-Zionist, in the days and weeks leading up to the Six Day War in 1967, as did Ari, I also feared the Arabs were going to defeat Israel and throw its Jews into the sea.

In 1973, for Ari: For ten terrifying days it seemed that my primordial fears were justified. Israel was in peril. The walls of the third Jewish temple were shaking.  Thus, through historical and mythological instillation, does instilled memory reinforce and adumbrate the experiences of the rocket attacks from Saddam Hussein and the 2002 terror campaign of the Palestinian intifada. The source of the fear was real; terrorists had blown up his neighbourhood pub and three young Israeli men were killed at the bar and a young woman lay lifeless in the corner. When I was teaching at Hebrew University in 1977-78, I heard a huge boom but, thinking it only the result of dynamite from construction or the sonic boom from a fighter jet, I continued teaching. When we emerged from that Hegel class, I understood why the students had been so fidgety. A suicide bomber had died after accidentally setting off the bomb strapped to his chest; he had been just twenty feet from our classroom.

Ari then shifts the scene to the West Bank after the Six Day War and his observation that the Palestinian children my age and younger had fear in their eyes.” Was this real fear or was Ari projecting his own fears onto the Palestinian children? When I was in Israel with my family and four older children in 1973, I did not detect any fear among Arabs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, only merchants eager to sell me things. Perhaps it was because I was insensitive. Perhaps it was because I was not Israeli, just a foreigner.  But I also did not detect, as Ari writes, that the Jewish state was then drunk with a heady sense of power even though, when I visited historian Jacob Talmon in 1973, he expressed precisely the same concerns.

When Ari joined the paratroopers and was assigned to do the dirty work of manning checkpoints, imposing house arrests and dispersing demonstrations using violence, it was the same year I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor to teach at the Hebrew University. Not only had a terrorist bomb gone off outside my classroom window, but my twelve-year-old son came home from school one day to tell me that the back of the bus in front of his had been blown off. Amidst those bombs and terror attacks, amidst the joys of exploring Israel and the West Bank and especially the various oases along the Gulf of Eilat in what is now Egypt, I experienced the thrill of Anwar Sadat coming to Israel with an olive branch and Prime Minister Begin, in spite of his fears and his preoccupation with the Holocaust, accepting that olive branch.

Many years later, the son of my daughter who, in my dreams, continually rode her tricycle in circles in a Prague square as the Nazis pursued us, received his red beret from the IDF paratroopers, and I was thrilled. His mother had made Aliyah and he was born an Israeli. I also listened to him sometimes literally for hours, as he talked about the war games or the videos like Game of Thrones where men fought with bravery and honour, and sometimes for much shorter times, such as when he described how, while on patrol with his best friend on the border of the Gaza Strip from which the Israelis had withdrawn, his friend was killed. A week ago my grandson and my daughter attended the third anniversary yahrzeit service of his best friend’s death.

Years earlier with my eldest son, I had also come from Egypt to re-enter Israel through Israel-occupied Gaza and I was appalled, furious at the indignities to which I saw the Palestinians subjected while interrogated at the border crossing. Thus, I too have ambivalences about Israel, both proud of what the country has accomplished and of  ability to defend itself and ashamed and angry when Israel treats non-Jews, especially Palestinians, with disrespect.

So our fears and our targets for indignant condemnation are informed by different experiences. Unlike Ari, I did not have the experiences of being in the IDF to turn me into a peace activist; I was one already – since my undergraduate years – well before 1973 when I switched from being an anti-Zionist to falling in love with Israel. I remember being in Tul Karem as an invited guest at a town hall meeting in which I was to comment after the Arab mayor and a doctor from the town, who was a member of the Arab communist party, addressed the group. When my turn came to talk after the other two, I was totally tongue-tied for the first time in my life. In embarrassment I had to explain that I had not been able to listen to the other speakers well enough to comment. I had been preoccupied – not with an analysis of the political events of the moment but with the fact that the mayor of Tul Karem was the image of my late father, with the same nose, mouth, receding hair and facial structure. Only his eyes were different. My father’s glittered with joy. They were carefree, normally a good sign, but not in a father who totally abandoned his responsibilities. The mayor’s eyes were, like my own, more contemplative and serious.

Avishai Margolit, my friend and colleague when I taught at Hebrew University, proposed an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Surprisingly, Sharon, (who recently died after eight years in a coma) took up the idea. In many respects, as everyone knows, it worked out badly both for the settlers who were removed and for the security of Israel. So, though we remained peaceniks – all of us, including Ari Shavit – we gradually became aware of the flaws and biases of the peace movement.

Ari writes: As the second decade of the twenty-first century has begun to unfold, five different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future; the concern that Israel’s regional hegemony is being challenged; the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state is eroding; the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal-democratic foundation crumbling; and the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social integration.

Whoa! How did Ari get from his deep inner fears connected to his quick summary of his life experiences and these grand general conclusions? I shared the first recognition that peace is still unlikely between the Israelis and the Palestinians in spite of the strenuous efforts of John Kerry and his team to advance the peace process. However, though Turkey and Iran might be challenging Israel’s regional hegemony, neither is even close. The ability of Egypt to engage militarily had been in sharp decline and Syria’s capacity to wage war was now non-existent. Iran had become truly a paper tiger. In my observation, not only was Israel stronger than ever as a regional power but also, even on the horizon, there was no real challenger.

Though there were distractions by organizations such as the American Studies Association which had recently passed a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions, though not Israeli academics per se, these peccadilloes were more than offset by strengthened Israeli relations with India and China, with entry into more international organizations, and with the increasing practice of more and more Arab states dealing with Israel at least in practical matters if without formal recognition.

How often over the years have I heard how deeply Israeli society is “now divided and polarized”, how its liberal-democratic structure is crumbling and what a dysfunctional government it has. Will the book be informed by these conclusions so that these generalizations shape the selection, organization and historical developments in his tale? Or will they be products of his historical analysis? From the very way he has constructed his introduction and jumped to these definitive conclusions about the current state of Israel, and by making them so definitive and apocalyptical, I suspected the worst: that they would shape history rather than be primarily informed by that history. However, even as a personal odyssey, the book promised to be interesting.

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