My Promised Land – A Review

8 Apr
by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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Ari Shavit, a Haaretz columnist and television commentator, is clearly an accomplished journalist and a very good writer. He also identifies himself as an upper middle class secular Ashkenazi, a former Peace Now activist, and a leftist who spent many years promoting a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the course of this absorbing history of Zionism and the State of Israel, and his personal story, Shavit describes successes and failures on all three fronts.

Along the way, he recounts interviews with a wide range of individuals who reveal – indeed represent – the different directions which that history took. From the man called Bulldozer who conquered Lydda to Aryeh Deri who brought mizrahim some power in Israel, only to become mired in a corruption scandal, from the sex-and-drugs leaders of modern Tel Aviv’s hedonistic night life to the bitter Arab landowners in the Galilee who reject any two-state solution, and from the leaders of the West Bank settler movement to the kibbutznik who was a top gun in the Air Force, helping Israel win the Six Day War, and later becoming a brilliant hi-tech billionaire, Shavit presents a fascinating spectrum of the Israeli experience. However, among his interviewees, we somehow find no strictly Orthodox rabbis (he calls them “Ultra”) or, in fact, any representative of religious Judaism at all. He condemns “occupation,” calling it a disaster. Yet he points out that the left was naïve about peace: “It counted on a peace partner that was not really there.”

While he states that the Arabs who lived in what is now Israel never had a national movement like those that existed in other parts of the Middle East, he writes as if this is their land. The word “Palestinian” – a designation many of us remember as a fiction circulated by Arafat – appears in almost every other line. Even those Arabs who are now citizens of Israel are called Israeli Palestinians. Clearly, Shavit has real sympathy for their losses. He also recognizes, however, that they have no sympathy for Jewish losses. Holocaust survivors might live next door, but the Arabs still deny the Holocaust took place.

Asking what went wrong, Shavit identifies seven internal revolts that produced “the disintegration of the Israeli republic.”  Each one caused fatal infighting. He also discusses three alien threats, from different parts of the Arab/Muslim world. He predicts no peace, “not in this generation… What this nation has to offer,” he concludes, “is the intensity of life on the edge. The adrenaline rush of living dangerously.”

This book is definitely worth the read for anybody who wants to know more about the effect of key historical events on a typical Israeli. Looking at such events from west of the Atlantic, this reviewer misses the effect they had on world opinion. In the early 1960’s it was “in” to be Jewish. Broadway shows like “Milk and Honey” and “Fiddler on the Roof” dramatized the joys of Jewish life. The prevailing attitude was “Look at those plucky Jews. They nearly got wiped out and now they are building a new country.” But, once Israel won a war against four enemies in six days, world attitudes began to change. It was as if the West could accept Jews as victims, but not as victors. Israel became a target for criticism, then for condemnation.

Subtitles of books can often tell us more than their titles. This book’s subtitle is “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” It first deals with the achievement of independence in 1948 and a spectacular military victory in 1967. It then moves on to the tragedy of various splits in the polity, and errors of the Israeli state. If it were written 45 years ago, it might be subtitled “The Tragedy and Triumph,” referring to the tragedy of the Holocaust, followed by the success of re-establishing the old-new homeland. I hope a capable chronicler like Shavit will one day tell the story that will also reverse the subtitle, telling our story from the tragedy of constant infighting to the triumph of a unified nation. I hope it will not take another 45 years.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon is an ordained Rabbi and Cantor. 



One Response to “My Promised Land – A Review”

  1. Louis Sokol April 8, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

    I am in the middle of reading this book. It discusses issues and theories that most Jews and especially Israelis don’t want to bring up. Some are hard to take sides on, others are decided simply on having Israel exist as a country and requiring some specific beliefs and actions in order to still be there today. The formation of Israel was not easy and the Arab response has not changed much since 1948. Sometimes the ends have to justify the means, even when Jewish philosophy teaches other methods. The book places great emphasis on events and political realities that affected what has happened in the Middle East since the late 1800s. Most of the stories are just eye-opening and thought-provoking.

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