Every country should have an Ari Shavit. His acclaimed and criticized book My Promised Land, the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel and Grau, 2013) is an engrossing and insightful story of a nation told from the perspective of a questioning, ardent man. It is the kind of compassionate dissection and health check that every country could do with once in a generation or so.
Shavit makes no claim for his account as history and that is its strength. It is his story, the story of his family, of his profession as a journalist and how his life has been shaped by the dramatic creation and evolution of Israel. The narrative moves from encounters with the landscape of Israel and the individuals who shaped Israel’s achievements in key fields to majestic thematic sweeps that explain why and how Israel got to where it is today.
Perhaps Shavit’s greatest quality as a writer and chronicler – and he has many – is his empathy with the other viewpoint and the courage with which he explores and records the experiences of others, in particular those of the Palestinians dispossessed by the creation of Israel.
Shavit has thought long and hard about Israel and the dynamics that have shaped it. His narrative falls into well-defined even abrupt phases, each driven by social and political revolts. He moves eloquently from the founding Zionist idealism, the wars for survival and the massively under-appreciated impact of the arrival of the Oriental Jews – the mizrahim – in the 1950s and 1960s to the arrival of one million Russians in the 1990s, the growth of the settler movement and the Orthodox community (now numbering 700,000), the cultural and economic opportunities of globalization, and the burdens and expectations of the middle classes.
Each of these revolts presented an enormous challenge to Israel. Each of these was dealt with expediently and ultimately successfully, though Shavit argues at a price. That price, he suggests, is cumulative and now coming due.
Shavit is smitten with the notion that Israel is in trouble, possibly deep trouble, despite the miracle of its birth and survival. He looks backward in time; his family’s history is woven in the very fabric of Israel’s story. But he projects forward too; as he watches his children grow, he wonders what future lies ahead for them. Indeed his anxiety about Israel’s future is what has driven his exploration of its past. The title of the book captures his belief in a bifurcated Israel, triumphant and tragic. Shavit posits, mainly, that Israel’s triumph precedes a cluster of hinge moments between 1967 and 1977 and that its tragedy follows that cluster.
But Shavit is too aware of Israel’s dualistic nature – socialist and ruggedly individualistic, secular and religious, liberal democratic and oppressively colonializing – to suggest that the triumph and tragedy are divided chronologically by a convenient caesura. Rather the triumph and tragedy interplay: What made Israel triumph contained the seeds of its tragedy. He is mindful and courageous in facing the fact that Israel could not have come into existence without the Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral lands and villages. Indeed he goes on to argue that the heart of the matter is not 1967 but 1948 (his account of what happened at Lydda in 1948 has drawn particularly heavy fire from his critics.) Without the original sin of the 1948 expropriation and expulsion of Palestinians, the state of Israel could not have been possible. Yet the existence of Israel was an existential and moral imperative against the backdrop of the Holocaust.
Much of his account indeed is a constant juggling of such moral juxtapositions and how to understand, even rationalize, them. The many moral and strategic conundrums he encounters make the book the thrilling, courageous and sympathetic account that it is.
Shavit is not blithe enough to suggest that expiating the moral corrosion of the 1967 occupation by acceding to the two state solution is an easy or obvious thing to do: for ending the occupation certainly increases the security risks to Israel through the sheer loss of a heavy security and intelligence presence that the occupation demands. But unless Israel ends the occupation, it faces an increasingly difficult international environment, the prospect of a bi-national state and demographic uncertainty about sustaining a Jewish majority, and the alienation of the younger Jewish Diaspora notably in the US.
Shavit writes vividly about the unique threats that Israel faces and of which we comfortably in Europe are less cognizant. After the Holocaust, the decision to concentrate so much of world Jewry in one place was necessary but a gamble of a very high order; “…essential but dangerous” as Ari Shavit writes. He points out that in 1950 10% of Jews were in Israel; today it is 45% and by 2025 the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israeli. Israel is western, democratic and Jewish in an Orient of Arabs and Muslims comprising an outer circle of 1.6bn Muslims, an intermediate circle of 370 million Arabs and an inner circle of Palestinians who by 2055 will comprise 10 million or 55% of the population between the Jordan and the sea. All these circles press in on Israel in some form or another.
In a very specific way the title does not do justice to Shavit’s thesis and conviction. It might have been more accurately entitled if it contained the word ‘hope’ along with ‘triumph’ and ‘tragedy’. In all fairness that might have defied the cleverest of editors but it’s a necessary caveat because Shavit concludes on a positive note. He sees his children contented and confident as young citizens of Israel in a way that proved impossible for Jews anywhere else.
The concluding chapter is at one level hopeful but its title – By the Sea – is double edged. Yes, he seems to be saying, it’s lovely to see my kids by the sea free and equal in this miracle of a country but being by the sea is very dangerous because there is nowhere else to go, we are at the edge. Yet as he reflects on the miracle that is Israel, he concludes that its resilience and creativity, its commitment to life and restless energy suggests that Israel can yet again fashion a solution to its problems, that another chapter defying the odds can and will be written.