Todd Hasak-Lowy on Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Every publishing season brings a new batch of titles dealing with Zionism, Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are simply too many new books to read, and most, perhaps deservedly, don’t receive much attention. But every year or two, a book breaks through, and soon the author is all over the national media, while the book itself is reviewed in every major publication. Ari Shavit’s best-selling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is most certainly a breakthrough title. Indeed, it may turn out to be the most widely-read book on Israel since Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, published twenty-five years ago this year. A book of this sort deserves the attention of specialists, if only because it records — and often shifts — discourse on Israel in the United States. Shavit’s book is, as the New Historians would put it, as much an event as it is a representation.
I explain the particular appeal of My Promised Land with two general observations. First, Shavit, a prominent columnist at Haaretz and member of its editorial board, celebrates the realization of Zionism and the achievements of the state while simultaneously lamenting the cost of the former and the dark side of the latter. As the subtitle puts it, Shavit’s subject is the triumph and the tragedy of Zionism and Israel. This avowedly evenhanded approach, which informs the book’s tone throughout, allows Shavit to situate his book somewhere in the center of a highly polarized discourse and thus avoid alienating readers from both the right and the left.
Second, Shavit approaches his topic by focusing on depth over breadth, a decision responsible for much of the book’s force. My Promised Land is organized as a series of detailed studies, in some cases based on testimony from hard-to-reach and still-anonymous figures, that each narrate a decisive, representative development since 1897: the establishment of Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1921, the rediscovery and popularization of Masada in 1942, the creation of the Israeli Nuclear project in the late 1950s and early 1960s, etc. This structure enables Shavit to devote page after page to individual moments, places, and figures, all of which would typically receive at most a paragraph in a more conventional historical study. There is a cost to this approach, as certain undeniably crucial events (the 1982 Lebanon War, for instance) are barely mentioned. Nevertheless, the unrelenting, vivid specificity of Shavit’s narrative — along with his fluid, even lyrical prose — makes for a consistently gripping reading experience. My Promised Land, in the plainest language, is a profoundly interesting book that makes a dauntingly complex topic manageable.
Precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ongoing, the question of responsibility informs a vast majority of the discourse about Israel, especially when the approach appears to be historical in nature. For this reason, Shavit’s stance on culpability for the conflict deserves special attention here. In other words, a large number of readers will digest his specific stance on this matter, so how does he approach it? Who, according to Shavit, is responsible for the emergence, crystallization, and tragic persistence of the conflict?
By far the most crucial section of the book in this regard is a single chapter, “Lydda, 1948,” (an excerpt of which appeared in The New Yorker) which details the new Israeli army’s destruction of the Palestinian community of Lydda during the final stages of the first Arab-Israeli War. Though Shavit presents new details here — equally fascinating and troubling, and gleaned mostly from his interviews with certain key (and at times unnamed) participants — the larger picture he paints doesn’t differ much from the one that has been available to English readers for decades. Shavit’s unflinching contribution is remarkable for two reasons. First, it appears in a mainstream book on Israel, which speaks volumes to how much the conversation about the conflict has evolved since Benny Morris’s research on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem first set off a firestorm in the late 1980s. My Promised Land may help Americans finally recognize that the establishment of Israel involved ethnic cleansing, both spontaneous and systematic.
Shavit’s extended, detailed narration of the dissolution of Palestinian Lydda also forces the reader to confront this event — which is unique in its way, but nevertheless part of a larger cluster of similar expulsions — in all its human dimensions. The triumph and tragedy of Israel couldn’t be any more closely intertwined than in the retelling of this episode. For many American readers, this chapter will provide a painful first encounter with actions inseparable from the creation of Israel.
Shavit writes: “the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of Lydda were no accident. They were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state. Lydda is an integral and essential part of our story. And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” The plain honesty of this passage is commendable. He acknowledges the reality of Lydda, both in and of itself, as well as a synecdoche for Israeli action in 1948.
And yet there’s something troubling about his use of “inevitable,” which, along with words like “essential,” “crucial,” and “imperative,” appear elsewhere in his book when addressing regrettable chapters from the story of Zionism and Israel. This reliance on “inevitable” is, I believe, both morally and epistemologically problematic. Morally because the use of this concept suggests that the expulsions were unavoidable, assuming the achievement of statehood was both non-negotiable as well as unattainable without resort to violence of this sort. Shavit clearly asserts that the new Israeli forces committed these acts, but his use of “inevitable” simultaneously dilutes the agency of those who acted because, this rhetoric suggests, they didn’t truly have a choice. Seen from this perspective, Shavit’s candor is, I believe, a good deal less laudable.
In regards to epistemology, Shavit’s use of “inevitable” strikes me as an instance of what the literary critic Michael Andre Bernstein calls “backshadowing,” which “endows the past with the coherence of an inevitable and linear unfolding; it works by a kind of retroactive foreshadowing … .” Shavit approaches Lydda, and the expulsions in general, as if they could not have been avoided without, as it were, avoiding the establishment of a viable Israel. But is this necessarily true? With the infinite number of factors involved at the time, with the infinite number of developments since then, can one truly claim that no combination of events would have allowed for the establishment of a viable state without the concurrent ethnic cleansing?
This last question, obviously, cannot be answered with any kind of certainty, because it isn’t, narrowly speaking, an historical question at all. History is the study of the past. It is not the study of possible pasts that never materialized. Ultimately Shavit’s assertion that no other possible pasts existed (or is it could have existed?) in which both Israel was founded and Palestinians remained in their homes functions, in the larger narrative of My Promised Land, is a rhetorical double-move. Shavit acknowledges the crimes committed in the name of Zionism while simultaneously claiming that such crimes were importantly unavoidable. In this way, Shavit identifies guilty parties but limits their culpability in crucial ways.
I’ve spent so much time here analyzing just a couple key moments from Shavit’s lengthy, thoughtful, and in many ways penetrating book on Israel, because I believe these moments represent how many American readers, who maintain at least some affection for Israel and a belief in Zionism, will formulate their own answer to that key question: Who is responsible for the conflict? Readers taking Shavit’s lead will base their answer on a simultaneous acceptance and dismissal of Israeli culpability. Yes, terrible acts were committed, but no, there was no real alternative.
Zionism is often understood as having played a crucial role in the Jews’ “return to history” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to this view, the Zionist movement helped transform the Jews from passive objects to active subjects capable of determining their own history. Israel’s establishment thus stands as the astonishing culmination of this profound, collective reinvention. Yet if we are to accept Shavit’s account, the realization of the Zionist dream involved not just a tragedy — the Zionist project was realized at the expense of another national movement — but a tragedy of the most ironic sort as well, because 1948 involved events beyond the control of the Jews themselves.
Whether or not Shavit is right about 1948, it seems fair to claim that the realization of modern Jewish historical agency — which includes the emergence of Israeli military might — involves an obligation to rectify the wrongs committed in its name. Merely recognizing past tragedies, however sincerely, belittles the ongoing existence of very real Jewish power. Shavit’s book offers much for those willing to confront the last one-hundred and twenty years in all its complexity. It would be a shame, however, if his rhetoric allowed people to read it as an invitation to accept that the immoral application of Jewish power is occasionally unavoidable.
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