Ari Shavit : My Promised Land

Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ was a very interesting read which inspired a lot of background research, and by the time I finished it I knew a lot more about Palestine, Israel, Zionism and the whole Middle Eastern conflict than I had done when I started. I’d been given this book by my friend H., who told me it had ‘opened his eyes’ about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and led him to his current strongly pro-Israeli position. Having now read it myself, I can’t quite understand why. Interesting though the book was, it did nothing to make me more sympathetic to Israel – quite the reverse, in fact…

(details below)

Before moving on to its subject matter, first a few words about the book itself. I don’t think Ari Shavit will be getting any literary prizes for it. Although his style isn’t bad and he’s sometimes capable of some powerful writing, he’s also slightly too prone to clichés, romanticism and an extreme overuse of adjectives. He seems to be incapable of writing, for instance, ‘the farmer started the pump to draw water from the well’. No, it would have to be something like ‘the young Jewish farmer started the powerful pump to noisily draw crystal-clear water from the deep well’. Not that it’s such a big problem or anything – it just gets a bit tiring after a while. And if he has to use an unnecessary number of descriptive phrases he could at least try to vary them a bit. In chapter two he talks three times about the “dilapidated archives”! OK, we know they’re dilapidated already! But it would be unfair to judge this book on its writing style, so I won’t.

In much of the book, especially the earlier, more historic sections, everything is absolutely bursting with deeper meanings, historical significance and symbolism:

The orange grower is not sentimental. He is a man of deeds. But as the rain falls on the packing house, he walks up and down the long hall observing the sorters, wrappers, packers, and carpenters. He sees that their lips are pursed in concentration. He notices the quiet, the order, the sense of the sacredness of the work, as if the working men and women realize that they are taking part in an event far greater than themselves. (ch. III)

Give me strength! They’re just packing oranges for fuck’s sake! OK, Ari Shavit is a journalist rather than a novelist and this book doesn’t really have any literary pretensions, so none of this is really very important. What annoyed me much more, however, was the following passage:

[during the 1973 war] I listened closely to the sounds of sirens and looked with dismay at the terrified eyes of my loved ones locked in German-made gas masks. (Introduction)

I mean, was it relevant that the gas masks were German-made? Would he have mentioned their place of manufacture if it had been China, Canada or Ireland? Was I really the only reader to make the immediate and involuntary mental connection Jews-gas-Germany, and to notice an almost subliminal (but not quite) message flashing through my brain to make me feel even more sorry for these poor people… I can’t imagine that this was accidental, and that it wasn’t just a bit of cheap emotional point-scoring. This didn’t make me optimistic about what was to come, but luckily it wasn’t typical of the book and he didn’t repeat it.

Ari Shavit has the reputation of being a liberal, left-wing, peace-orientated commentator on the problems of Israel, but he makes it very clear that he regards himself as a Zionist. And as Zionism is a form of nationalism (albeit a very special one), it’s no surprise that Shavit’s main concern is not with the survival and well-being of Jews as individuals, but as a people. He sees assimilation and intermarriage as being just as dangerous as anti-semitism, because they threaten the all-important Jewish identity:

In the millennium preceding 1897, Jewish survival was guaranteed by the two great g’s: God and ghetto. What enabled Jews to maintain their identity and their civilization was their closeness to God and their detachment from the surrounding non-Jewish world. […] But in the hundred years prior to 1897, God drifted away and the ghetto walls collapsed. Secularization and emancipation—limited as they were—eroded the old formula of Jewish survival. There was nothing to maintain the Jewish people as a people living among others. Even if Jews were not to be slaughtered by Russian Cossacks or to be persecuted by French anti-Semites, they were faced with collective mortal danger. Their ability to maintain a non-Orthodox Jewish civilization in the Diaspora was now in question. (ch. I)
As 1900 approaches, my great-grandfather is faced with the challenge that will face American Jewry in the twenty-first century: how to maintain a Jewish identity in an open world, how to preserve a Judaism not shielded by the walls of a ghetto, how to prevent the dispersion of the Jews into the liberty and prosperity of the modern West. (ch. I)

He’s very nearly saying that the ghetto was a good thing and that the Jews would have been better off without all this liberty, prosperity, secularization and emancipation!

When Shavit talks about the survival or annihilation of the Jews, he’s not talking about individual survival or annihilation, but that of the Jews as a people, so that intermarriage is regarded as a serious problem:

Low birthrates and high intermarriage rates are leading to the disappearance of non-Orthodox Jews. There appears to be a gradual loss of interest in Jewish life and Jewish identity in Britain. The descendants of Herbert Bentwich who were born in England in recent years are not Jewish, and those of my wife’s English grandfather are not Jewish, either. […] So as I look out at the gray cliffs of Devon, I know that if my great-grandfather had not removed me from this coast, I myself would probably have been today only half Jewish. Tamara, Michael, and Daniel might not consider themselves Jewish at all. Our private life in Hampstead and Dorset would be full and tranquil, but the collective we belonged to would be vanishing all around us. (ch. XVII)

And if Jews want to marry non-Jews and don’t want many children, is that a problem? Presumably if those Jews found it a problem they would have acted differently.

Demography is vicious. When my great-grandfather enjoyed his time of leisure on the coast of Kent, Jews were 0.8 percent of the British population. Today they are less than 0.5 percent. […] Less than half of today’s Jews are the descendants of the Anglo Jews of 1920. The disappearance rate of Herbert Bentwich’s Anglo-Jewish community is staggering. In the last one hundred years, most descendants of Britain’s veteran Jews have ceased to be Jewish. (ch. XVII)
[in America] Most secular young Jews have less interest in Israel or organized religion than their parents have. They are drifting away from the center of gravity of Jewish identity; they are disappearing into the non-Jewish space. Some of Herbert Bentwich’s young American descendants whose parents did not keep Jewish law do not consider themselves to be Jewish anymore. (ch. XVII)

Yes, it usually happens to immigrant communities within a few generations. It’s called integration, and is generally considered a good thing.

The other side of the coin is that while overpopulation is a serious global problem, the fact that more Jews are being born is greeted as wonderful news:

The mass immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel in the twentieth century is Zionism’s greatest triumph. […] Zionism’s other triumph was the outstanding fertility rate of the Jewish population in Israel. In 2012, America’s total fertility was 2.06, Britain’s was 1.9, Italy’s was 1.4, and so was Germany’s. By contrast, Israel’s fertility was a staggering 2.65, by far the highest of all OECD countries. (ch. XVII)

Shavit bemoans ‘the disappearance of European Jewry’ almost as if he were talking about a second Holocaust:

The demography tells a clear story: In the second half of the twentieth century, which Herbert Bentwich will not live to see, the Anglo-Jewish community will shrink by a third. Between 1950 and 2000 the number of Jews in the British Isles will drop from over 400,000 to approximately 300,000. Jewish schools and synagogues will close. The communities of such cities as Brighton and Bournemouth will dwindle. The rate of intermarriage will increase to well over 50 percent. Young non-Orthodox Jews will wonder why they should be Jewish. What’s the point?
A similar process will take place in other Western European countries. The non-Orthodox Jewish communities of Denmark, Holland, and Belgium will almost disappear. After playing a crucial role in the shaping of modern Europe for more than two hundred years—think of Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Mahler, Kafka, Einstein—Jews will gradually leave center stage. The golden era of European Jewry will be over. The very existence of a viable, vital, and creative European Jewry will be questioned. What was shall not be again. (ch. I)

But isn’t there something just a suggestion racist in all this? Is Shavit saying that Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Mahler, Kafka and Einstein wouldn’t have been such geniuses if they’d only been half Jewish, a quarter Jewish or not Jewish at all? Is he in fact saying that Jews are in some way better than non-Jews? I mean, what would we say about a German who maintained that Goethe, Beethoven or Kant owed their greatness to their being German, and that it was a pity that so many Germans were intermarrying these days instead of keeping their German blood pure by only breeding with their own race?! But perhaps this isn’t really so surprising. Zionism is a form of nationalism, after all, and maybe there’s a little of this very same spirit, sometimes more subtly expressed and sometimes more blatantly, in every form of nationalism. And not only in nationalism but in every philosophy which sees the group as being more important than the individuals of which it consists.

But anyway, back to Israel…

The book starts with an account of the journey of Herbert Bentwich, Shavit’s great-grandfather, to what was then called ‘The Holy Land’. It soon becomes clear that (whatever some Israeli historical revisionists might now claim) the land was anything but ’empty’:

There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are twenty cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can the pedantic Bentwich not notice them? How can the hawkeyed Bentwich not see from the tower of Ramleh that the Land is taken? That there is another people now occupying the land of his ancestors? (ch. I)

Now, whether Palestine really was “the land of his ancestors” is a somewhat dubious point which I won’t go into here, but when he talks about it’s being “occupied” by “another people” he’s definitely wrong. According to genetic analysis, a majority of the Muslims of Palestine are descendants of Christians, Jews and other earlier inhabitants of the southern Levant whose core may reach back to prehistoric times. In other words, not all the Jews left Palestine, but the descendants of most of those who stayed were converted to Christianity, then to Islam, and they now speak Arabic rather than Aramaic. Does this make them ‘occupiers’ who somehow have less right to live there than the Jews who left?

As I observe the blindness of Herbert Bentwich as he surveys the Land from the top of the tower, I understand him perfectly. My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back. But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great-grandfather chooses not to see. (ch. I)

There seem to be two kinds of potential colonist: those like Herbert Bentwich who don’t see any natives, and those like Israel Zangwill who do see them, and warn that they will have to be defeated and kicked out.

In chapter II – Into the Valley, 1921, we are given a highly romantic account of the founding of the kibbutz Ein Harod. Judging by their pioneering spirit, we could just as well be reading the story of the American pioneers trekking westwards.

I watch the encampment grow. First it is located by the spring, so that it will have absolute control over the valley’s water source. Weeks later, when the serfs of the Ein Jaloud hamlet give up and leave, the encampment is transplanted to the mountain slope, right next to the deserted stone houses. (ch. II)

Not to suggest that these pioneers treated the natives anything like as badly as the American pioneers treated theirs, but certain small points mentioned in passing do give food for thought. Why, exactly, did the serfs of the Ein Jaloud hamlet “give up and leave”, abandoning their stone houses. Presumably they must have had a very good reason.

The next chapter describes the setting up of orange groves in Rehovot in 1936:

The colony of Rehovot discovered the virtues of citrus in the 1920s. Rehovot was founded in 1890 on 10,600 dunams of the Ottoman feudal estate of Duran, situated some fifteen miles southeast of Jaffa. After the barren land was purchased and the Bedouins occupying it were evicted, it was taken over by Russian and Polish Jews hoping to find peace and plenty in the land of Israel. (ch. III)

Yet again, the odd point mentioned in passing makes us wonder about the background, and about what we’re not being told. For instance, why were those Bedouins in that place at that time? Probably because there was good grazing there for their flocks. For how many generations, if not centuries, had they been coming to this place at this time of year? Where did they go after being so summarily ‘evicted’, and what effect would this have on their future livelihood? Did the new owners know the answers to such questions? Did they even care?

The Arab villagers working in the grove respect the orange grower. They admire his knowledge, they appreciate his fairness, they dread his master’s authority. They regard him as serfs regard a benevolent feudal lord. At the same time, the orange grower sees his Arabs as any plantation owner on any colonial estate views his native workers. He understands that his workers are the very best: strong, resilient, and disciplined. They are committed to their work and devoted to their master. And yet the orange grower knows that one day, one day. (ch. III)
As Rehovot prospers, Zarnuga prospers, too. When the workers from Zarnuga arrive at the gate of the orange grove each morning, it seems that all is well. And when dozens of youngsters from Zarnuga ride into Rehovot on their bicycles each day, it seems that all would be well. There is no reason to believe that Jew and Arab could not live here together in peace. (ch. III)

While reading this chapter I was very much reminded of accounts I’ve read of the arrival of French and Spanish colonists in North Africa, and this Rehovot orange grower could easily have been a French wine maker in Algeria. In other words this was in many ways a typical colonial situation: people come in from outside, transforming the land with modern technology and thereby transforming the lives of the locals, some of whom end up better off and some worse. But even when their lives are improved, the natives remain conscious of the fact that they’ve lost their independence, and that they’re now servants of a colonial master. In Algeria, too, colonialism brought its advantages, and anyone who saw the French wine maker working peacefully together with his Algerian employees might think that nothing will ever change. But, in Rehovot as in Algeria, the colonial master knows, somewhere deep down, that it’s all going to end some day…

…and it does, in 1936-1939, when the local population rises up against the (relatively) old and new colonial powers, i.e. the British and the Jews. Unsurprisingly, as in similar situations elsewhere, it’s generally not the locals who have profited from the new situation who rebel, but those who have seen their old way of life destroyed. The uprising was partly inspired by the activities of the Palestinian Black Hand group and its leader Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, of whom we can read the following in Wikipedia:

His greatest following came from the landless ex-tenant farmers drifting in to Haifa from the Upper Galilee where purchases of agricultural land by the Jewish National Fund and Hebrew labour policies excluding Arabs had dispossessed many of their traditional livelihoods.

The above-mentioned ‘Hebrew labour policies excluding Arabs’ does not refer simply to the personal preference of Jewish farmers to hire Jewish labour, but to what had been official Zionist policy since the beginning of the 20th. century. It’s ironic to note that long before racist employment policies were introduced in Nazi Germany, they were well established in Palestine.

The final result of the 1936-1939 uprising, its suppression, and everything that had gone before, is the departure of the British (leaving the sort of mess they generally leave behind them), the 1948 war and the founding of the State of Israel. We hear the story of the expulsion of the original inhabitants from the city of Lydda, where, after 44 years of peaceful, in fact positive coexistence, we see Zionists committing atrocities, murdering civilians, torturing and then executing prisoners, often just to get revenge and often just for the fun of it. And these weren’t undisciplined guerrilla fighters but regular soldiers. I’d never realised that things had gone so far in 1948.

Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear. When Herbert Bentwich saw Lydda from the white tower of Ramleh in April 1897, he should have seen that if a Jewish state was to exist in Palestine, an Arab Lydda could not exist at its center. He should have known that Lydda was an obstacle blocking the road to the Jewish state and that one day Zionism would have to remove it. But Herbert Bentwich did not see, and Zionism chose not to know. For half a century it succeeded in hiding from itself the substantial contradiction between the Jewish national movement and Lydda. For forty-five years, Zionism pretended to be the Atid factory and the olive forest and the Ben Shemen youth village living in peace with Lydda. Then, in three days in the cataclysmic summer of 1948, contradiction struck and tragedy revealed its face. Lydda was no more. (ch. V)

Lydda wasn’t by any means the only massacre in 1948, and there were more to come during the war of 1956. Shavit makes it very clear that from an early point onwards (i.e. well before the 1948 war started) there was a definite and deliberate intention of what’s now known as ‘ethnic cleansing’ among some of the high-ranking Zionists: Israel was to be a Jewish state, there would be no room for Arabs in it and they would have to be removed by force. Shavit tells all this very honestly, and the praise he’s received for doing so indicates the extent to which such honesty is the exception rather than the rule. He’s also honest about the consequences to be drawn from these events:

Do I wash my hands of Zionism? Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the deed of Lydda? Like the brigade commander, I am faced with something too immense to deal with. Like the military governor, Gutman, I see a reality I cannot contain. Like the training group leader, I am not only sad, I am horrified. For when one opens the black box, one understands that whereas the small mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events, 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. (ch. V)

Having seen the worst that the new Israelis are capable of, we start the following chapter (VI – Housing Estate, 1957) with the biographies of several other new Israelis, most of whom are Holocaust survivors. It’s as if Ari Shavit, having done his duty as a liberal by honestly admitting that the Israelis have done some terrible things, now wants to show that whatever the Israelis may have been guilty of, it was nothing compared to what the European Jews had suffered. If we’re going to compare atrocities, then he’s quite right: the odd massacre of a few hundred civilians here and there, plus a bit of ethnic cleansing, can’t in any way be compared to the extermination of millions. He seems to be working around to a standpoint which, I presume, is the official Zionist standpoint on such matters (well, that of the honest, liberal-minded Zionists anyway – the hard-liners will undoubtedly just deny that such massacres ever happened), which is that yes, some regrettable incidents did occur, but they don’t match up to the long and terrible suffering of the Jewish people, which was the raison d’être of Israel in the first place. Towards the end of the previous chapter Shavit talks about the choice he is faced with – either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda. It’s always been obvious which choice he made, and now he’s explaining why.

The following passage sums up Israel’s biggest problem very succinctly:

As the Russians launch their first Sputnik into space, Israeli newspapers stick closer to home, reporting a staggering rise in refrigerator and washing machine sales. The economic boom and German reparations awaken old appetites: dozens of delicatessens open in central Tel Aviv. As Israel gears up for its tenth birthday, there is a strong sense of achievement and even wonder. A First Decade Exhibition is planned, to be held in the summer of 1958 in Jerusalem, to highlight Israel’s success. The message will be that Israel is now the most stable and most advanced nation in the Middle East. It is the most remarkable melting pot of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is a man-made miracle.
But the miracle is based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth. Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland. By the socialist kibbutz Ein Harod lie the ruins of Qumya. By the orange groves of Rehovot lie the remains of Zarnuga and Qubeibeh. In the middle of Israeli Lydda, the debris of Palestinian Lydda is all too apparent. And yet there seems to be no connection in people’s minds between these sites and the people who occupied them only a decade earlier. Ten-year-old Israel has expunged Palestine from its memory and soul. When I am born, my grandparents, my parents, and their friends go about their lives as if the other people have never existed, as if they were never driven out. As if the other people aren’t languishing now in the refugee camps of Jericho, Balata, Deheisha, and Jabalia. (ch. VI)

In the following chapter (VII – The Project, 1967) we hear about how Israel got the bomb – even if the fact is still officially denied, to the extent that Shavit “cleared this chapter with the Israeli censor”!

Ben Gurion’s vision, Peres’s cunning, and the diligent work of a few other Israelis who joined Peres in Paris convinced France to place in Israel’s hands the modern age’s Prometheus’ fire. For the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other peoples. (ch. VII)

And is that something we ought to be happy about? (as Shavit clearly is). In the course of the book so far we’ve already seen that for the average Zionist the survival of the state of Israel is important enough to justify absolutely anything. We’ve also seen how, since the second world war, the legend of ‘Masada’, where the inhabitants of the besieged fort are said to have killed themselves rather than be captured by the Romans, has become an important Zionist symbol. This new ability to ‘annihilate other peoples’, combined with the ‘Masada’ mentality described earlier, could have serious consequences some day, and not just for Israel and the Middle East…

Shavit goes on to assure us that the bomb is in safe hands, as the Israelis, by denying that they’ve even got one, are in fact acting is though they didn’t – which of course means that they’ll never actually use it, even as a deterrent. Well, why don’t all the nuclear powers just deny they have the bomb and start pretending they don’t, and the world will be a much safer place!

My second thought is about the Arab villages the engineer destroyed in 1948. Even if he does not say so, it is clear that a straight line leads from those villages to Dimona. The expulsion of 1948 necessitated Dimona. Because of those dead villages it was clear that the Palestinians would always pursue us, that they would always want to flatten our own villages. And so it was necessary to create a shield between us and them, and the engineer took it upon himself to build that shield. We would not allow the Palestinian tragedy to jeopardize the monumental enterprise designed to end our own tragedy.
My third thought is about the engineer himself. The more I listen to him, the more I understand that he cannot delve any deeper. He does not possess Ben Gurion’s historical acuity, Amos de Shalit’s tragic insight, or Dostrovsky’s dialectical shrewdness. He truly does not comprehend the complexity of his actions, the problematic aspects of his deeds. He has no perception of the enormity and the horror of his accomplishments. He is possessed by a strong national imperative, an iron will, an impressive propensity for action. But he does not have the ability to see his life’s work in perspective. His ability to do is derived from his ability not to see the implications of his deeds. (ch. VII)

That last half paragraph could have been written about Israel as a whole…

In the next chapter (VIII – Settlement, 1975) we jump forward to the period following the 1967 war – a war which, like that of 1948, was seen by many Israelis as a good opportunity to expand and strengthen the country.

That is why […], I am driving to Ofra—the mother of all settlements—not to fight it, but to understand it. To understand how the settlements turned from rightist fantasy to historical fact. To understand what the forces were that impelled late-twentieth-century Israel to erect a futile, anachronistic colonialist project. To understand how Ofra came to be. (ch. VIII)

But if the settlements are an “anachronistic colonialist project”, then why not the rest of Israel? Is colonialism so much more anachronistic now than it was when the Zionists colonised Palestine? Two chapters further (X – Peace, 1993), Shavit comes to more or less the same conclusion himself, but not yet. The only real difference between pre- and post-1967 colonialism is that the modern colonists cannot use the same excuses as their predecessors:

Ofra is no Ein Harod. It did not issue from a desperate Diaspora but from a sovereign state. It did not intend to give the Jews shelter but to build the Jews a kingdom. It did not stand up to a foreign power but against the Jewish democratic state. (ch. VIII)
in the summer of 1967 it was already clear that the national religious community, who up until the Six Day War did not dare covet Greater Israel and did not swear by Greater Israel, was now completely devoted to Greater Israel.” Religious Zionism was determined to settle Judea and Samaria and make them an integral part of the sovereign State of Israel. (ch. VIII)
More and more religious young people identified with the new protest movement and joined it. Even among the nonreligious there was growing sympathy for those who were perceived as the new pioneers of a new era. There was something attractive and tempting in the enthusiasm and devotion of those determined to go to Samaria. Even Israelis who realized that settling occupied territory was illegal and immoral and irrational found it difficult to resist settlement. Gush Emunim was seen as the new torch of Zionism, at a time when other torches were being extinguished. (ch. VIII)
Etzion tells me that Gush Emunim had a strategic rationale for building Ofra: the understanding that eventually Israel’s permanent border would pass along the last Jewish furrow. They believed that no territory without Jewish settlement would remain Jewish. But Etzion admits that this hawkish strategy was only a small part of the ambitious endeavor. “Nablus, the capital of Samaria, is the most significant city in the land of Israel,” he tells me. “It’s the city where Joshua renewed the covenant with God after the conquest of Jericho. Nearby Elon Moreh is the site where Abraham built his first altar after he entered Israel. At Elon Moreh, God said to Abraham: ‘To your offspring I shall give this land.’ So divine revelation takes place in Elon Moreh and in Nablus. […] Our way is the way of our fathers; we must go back to the land of our fathers, go back to the mountains we lost. We must bring Zionism back to the mountains and bring the mountains back to Zionism.” (ch. VIII)
“The Temple Mount is the focal point of the land,” Etzion tells me. “But it is in the hands of gentiles. As long as the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Omar mosque stand on the Temple Mount, there can be no salvation for Israel.” (ch. VIII)

This is no longer the common or garden colonialism of the strong and rich triumphing over the weak and poor, much less the desperate last resort of people with no other option and nowhere else to go. It is, rather, colonialism inspired by religious fanaticism – which is much worse and much more dangerous.

In chapter X – Peace, 1993, we see that the desire for peace has always been present among at least a few of the Zionists who settled in Palestine and founded the state of Israel. We also see that it has always been a fairly marginal concern, and that the desire for strength and victory was always stronger:

In the abstract, the desire for peace had always been a part of Zionism. It was there in the late 1920s when Herbert Bentwich’s son Norman realized that the Jews were not alone in Palestine and joined the Jerusalem intellectuals who formed Brit Shalom, the Jewish Peace Alliance. It was there in the early 1930s, when Yitzhak Tabenkin settled the Valley of Harod and Jewish radicals rose against Zionist colonization that led to the dispossession of Arab tenants. It was there in the late 1930s, when the Rehovot writer and orange grower Moshe Smilansky warned that we have partners in the land and that we must learn to live with them. It was there in the early 1940s, when Shmaryahu Gutman led his cadets to Masada and Jewish humanists denounced the militaristic chauvinism that was capturing the hearts of the young. It was there in the late 1940s, when Palmach battalions emptied the Arab villages and conquered Arab Lydda, and Smilansky’s nephew Yizhar wrote Khirbet Khizeh, a seminal novella about the savagery of expulsion. It was there when the young State of Israel was building and arming itself in the 1950s, and left-wing parties demanded a peace initiative that would deal justly with Palestinian refugees. And it was there in the early 1960s, when Ben Gurion built the Dimona reactor and men of morals denounced the nuclearization of Israel and the Middle East.
For seventy years the yearning for peace existed on the fringes of Zionism, trying to restrain the baser instincts of the Jewish national movement. But after the Arab uprising of 1936, mainstream Zionism wanted more and more land, more and more power. It paid lip service to peace, but it was not willing to pay a real price for it. It saw immigration, settlement, and nation building as its main goals, and it did not consider peace to be an absolute value or a supreme cause. (ch. X)

The first person interviewed in this chapter, Yossi Sarid, has an extremely pessimistic view of the chances of peace, and therefore of Israel’s long-term future. Shavit, also, seems to be of the opinion that “given our history and our geography, peace is hardly likely”, so if Israel is to continue existing, it will have to continue fighting. Unfortunately, I fear they may well be right.

Shavit ends the chapter by interviewing his first Palestinian, and paints a good picture of how it must have felt for someone who’d been living in peace with his Jewish neighbours for eighteen years to be suddenly thrown out of his village, see his house demolished and his land stolen, and be hounded out of the country.

In chapter XI – J’Accuse, 1999, we see that Israeli society is not uniform, and that even among the Jews there is racism and there are oppressed minorities. There is a clash between, on the one hand the European Ashkenazi Jews who are richer and better educated, and, because they have experienced the Enlightenment, less religious, and on the other hand the poorer, less well educated and more religious Jews from Arabic and oriental countries. Just as so many European cities have their suburbs full of unemployed North Africans, crime, drugs, prostitution and gang warfare, so Israel has very similar suburbs full of North African and Middle-Eastern Jews. The reasons are very similar:

“What happened is quite clear,” Deri elaborates. “Oriental-Jewish culture was founded on three pillars: the community, the synagogue, and the father. The father was very strong—too strong. He was the family’s provider and king. He told his wife what to do. He told his children what to study and how to behave. Even when modernization came, with its French and English influences, the father and the rabbi remained dominant. Religion, tradition, and patriarchy preserved the Oriental-Jewish community for a thousand years. We did not go through European-style secularization. We didn’t have Western enlightenment and a revolt against religion. We lived a life that combined religion, tradition, and rudimentary modernity. We looked up to the rabbi and feared the father, and thus we survived as a community. (ch. XI)

Which just goes to show that it’s not a good idea to base morality on fear, authority and religion. Once these things collapse, and people are expected to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their actions, then it all falls apart.

The Oriental-Jewish story is simple and cruel, I think. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, Arab world Jewry experienced a relative golden age. As it was close to French and British colonial rulers, it enjoyed their patronage. It won rights it had never enjoyed before. […] But by the 1940s and 1950s the magic of the Orient had evaporated. Colonialism retreated, Arab nationalism was on the rise, and Zionism was triumphant. Within a few years a civilization collapsed. Thousand-year-old communities disintegrated within months. With one swing of history’s sword the soft underbelly of the old Levant was sliced open. The enchanting, pluralist Orient was gone. A million Jewish Arabs were uprooted, their world destroyed, their culture decimated, their homes lost. (ch. XI)

I’m sure that being seen as friends and helpers of the colonial rulers didn’t help them once the natives started to rebel against colonialism, but I also wonder to what extent Zionism in general, and the 1948 war, the expulsion of the Palestinians and the setting up of the State of Israel in particular, were to blame for their problems.

The Zionist story is also simple and cruel, I think. Israel was to have been home to the Jewish people of Eastern Europe—that is what the state was designed to be. But between 1939 and 1945, the Jewish people of Eastern Europe almost ceased to be. Having no other choice, Zionism turned eastward. The result was ironic. In 1897, when Zionism was gaining momentum, only 7 percent of the world’s Jews were Oriental. In 1945, after the Holocaust, only 10 percent of the world’s Jews were Oriental. But in Israel, by 1990, over 50 percent of Jewish Israelis were Oriental. A state designed for one population was populated by another. A state based on one culture was overtaken by another. But Zionism did not—and could not—acknowledge the sea change that had taken place. It could not admit that the original blueprint did not fit the new circumstances. So Zionism pressed on, wilfully ignoring the harm it was doing. The Israeli melting pot worked with brutal efficiency: it forged a nation, but it also scorched the identities and scalded the souls it was to have saved. (ch. XI)

The result was racism on the one hand, and shame and self-denial on the other. The interview with Gal Gabai makes clear than many non-European Jews internalised the racism and started to think of themselves as inferior. They preferred to marry Ashkenazi Jews to give themselves and their children a better chance in life:

My beloved grandmother would say it to me in her native tongue: ‘For you, Gal, a Moroccan will not do, only a Polish boy.’ (ch. XI)

You would perhaps think that, after all the Jews had been through, they’d be above racism, but not so. And not only can they be racist against non-Jews, but also against Jews from the wrong cultural background. There again, there was a time when I thought that, after all they’d been through, the gays and the blacks must be above racism and discrimination – until I knew better. All very depressing…

The picture we get in the next chapter (XII – Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition, 2000) of the Allenby 58 club in Tel Aviv at the start of this century, very much resembles the best you could hope to find in London or Amsterdam in the preceding decade. It’s free, it’s hedonistic, and the fact it’s here is a very good sign: along with the orange groves, the irrigation projects, the nuclear bomb and the high-tech industries, here is something you definitely wouldn’t expect of a small and very new country in the Middle East. Yet another amazing Israeli achievement! But, putting this into the context of the rest of the book, I can’t help feeling that all these people are ‘dancing on the volcano’.

Shavit normally sounds like a liberal and a ‘peacenik’, but in chapter XIV – Reality Shock, 2006, we see a more hawkish, Zionist side coming out:

What has happened to us?
First and foremost, we were blinded by political correctness. The politically correct discourse that reigned supreme over the last decade was disconnected from reality. It focused on the issue of occupation but did not address the fact that Israel is caught in an existential conflict fraught with religious and cultural land mines. It paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and too little to the historical and geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive.
Israeli political correctness also assumed that Israeli might is a given. Therefore, it was dismissive of the need to maintain this might. Because the army was perceived to be an occupying force, it was denounced. Anything military or national or Zionist was regarded with contempt. Collective values gave way to individualistic ones. Power was synonymous with fascism. Old-fashioned Israeli masculinity was castrated as we indulged ourselves in the pursuit of absolute justice and absolute pleasure. The old discourse of duty and commitment was replaced by a new discourse of protest and hedonism. (ch. XIV)

Now he seems pessimistic about Israel’s chances of surviving, but it still goes without saying that Israel must survive.

In chapter XV – Occupy Rothschild, 2011, we hear about how the Strauss family, after emigrating from Germany to Palestine in 1936, built a dairy and expanded it into one of the world’s biggest food companies.

“What is Israeli about Strauss?” I ask. “What is it about Israel that enables Strauss to succeed?” Michael fires back instantly: “The people. Israel has extraordinary people. Israeli human capital is absolutely unique. The challenges facing any Israeli business are enormous—a dysfunctional government, an inefficient bureaucracy, wars. Israel’s permanent uncertainty is a real drawback. But what compensates for all these obstacles are the Israelis themselves. I’ve been around the world. There are no such people anywhere else. Israelis are exceptionally quick, creative, and audacious. They are sexy even in the way they work. They are hardworking and tireless. They are endowed with a competitive spirit—with the need to be the first at the finish line. And they are willing to do whatever it takes to be the first at the finish line. They never take no for an answer. They never accept failure or acknowledge defeat.” (ch. XV)

We then hear about Kobi Richter, who also ‘did very well’:

In his eyes, the kibbutz was the elite unit of Israeli society, which was the elite unit of the Jewish people, which was the elite unit of humanity. Anyone lucky enough to be the son of a kibbutz was at the apex of the apex of the apex. (ch. XV)
I ask Kobi what I asked Michael Strauss: “What is Israel’s contribution to his success? What is Israeli about Orbotech and Medinol?” Richter answers that the secret is “to beat swords into plowshares”—not because it is good for peace, he says with a laugh, but because it is good for the plowshares. Beating swords is not only the sound prophecy of Isaiah and Micah, it is also a sound business plan. (ch. XV)

Maybe we’re starting to touch on the very interesting question of why everyone always seems to have hated the Jews so much – to which I unfortunately feel obliged to add that wanting to understand the reasons for anti-semitism does not in any way imply justification or approval of it. But that question, interesting though it might be, is way beyond the scope of this little essay…

In chapter XVI – Existential Challenge, 2013, we hear of the great dangers inherent in the possibility that any Middle Eastern power other than Israel might gain access to nuclear weapons:

The Iranian nuclear challenge has a global context. Since 1945, the international community has managed to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in an impressive way. But if Iran goes nuclear it will bring about a nuclear globalization that might eventually endanger the post-Nagasaki miracle. (ch. XVI)

The control of the proliferation of nuclear weapons wasn’t that impressive, and didn’t avoid the technology spreading to countries like India, Pakistan and, indeed, Israel. But as we’ve already heard in chapter seven, Israel’s nuclear weapons don’t count, as the Israelis have decided to pretend they don’t have any, and will therefore never use them. Maybe if the Iranians develop a nuclear bomb, but deny the fact and pretend they don’t have it, then all will be well. But seriously folks… Once Israel had nuclear weapons, it was only a matter of time before someone else in the area got them too. Anyone could have told them that, and in fact many leading Israelis, including many senior army officers, did so at the time, but would Ben Gurion listen? So now it’s about to happen, and even if it doesn’t happen this time it will eventually. So then we’ll be back to where we started as far as the balance of power in the Middle East goes, but the world will have become a much more dangerous place.

In the final chapter, XVII – By the Sea, Shavit sums up his main argument. He talks about the several “concentric circles of threat closing in on the Jewish state”, which are the Islam circle, the Arab circle and the Palestinian circle:

Israel is perceived by its neighbors to be a settler’s state founded on the ruins of indigenous Palestine. Many Palestinians perceive Israel as an alien, dispossessing colony that has no place in the land. The underlying wish of a great number of Palestinians is to turn back the political movement that they blame for shattering their society, destroying their villages, emptying their towns, and turning most of them into refugees. (ch. XVII)

As we have seen in this book, this perception is a pretty accurate one. He points out that the ‘three circles’ are merging, and that the measures which Israel took against them in the past are no longer effective. The final message of the book is basically that for Israel, peace is an impossible dream. Much as the Israelis would love peace, they have to realise that they are surrounded by neighbours who want only one thing – the destruction of their country – and that if they want to survive they will have to keep on fighting.

Having talked about the great dangers facing his country, he sums up what has been achieved – and it’s a lot:

The Jewish national liberation movement gave the Jewish people the basic rights they had been deprived of and the life expectancy they had lost. It conquered a land and liberated a nation and carried out a revolution like no other. (ch. XVII)

It certainly “conquered a land” and “carried out a revolution like no other”, and I think he’s probably right about the basic rights of the Jewish people as well, but isn’t “liberated a nation” just a little bit exaggerated? That term normally applies to the original inhabitants of an area evicting the colonisers or invaders – not to one set of colonisers being replaced by another, who then proceed to evict the original inhabitants!

I finished this book with a very pessimistic feeling. If Shavit is right, then there is no alternative to a perpetual state of war between Israel and its neighbours. That may continue to be a cold war with occasional flare-ups, or (if and when the Arab states become more powerful and better organised) a proper war of the type seen in 1948 or 1967. The outcome this time may well be the destruction of Israel, or more likely, as Israel will never allow itself to be destroyed, the destruction of the entire Middle East (and beyond) by nuclear warfare. If I was an Israeli and really believed in this scenario – as Shavit apparently does – then I’d go about finding myself a new country to live in.

But is his pessimism really justified? It’s based mainly on the premise that the Arabs don’t want peace, but only the destruction of Israel. After reading this book I came across a pretty negative article about it by a certain Jerome Slater, an American professor of political science with a special interest in the Arab/Israeli/Palestinian problem. He goes through the various stages of the dispute, examines the different peace conferences and attempts at reconciliation and the reasons for their failure, and looks at the circumstances under which the violence has repeatedly escalated. He also examines, country by country, the attitudes (both official and unofficial) of the Arab states towards Israel at various stages, asks how far they were willing to go in terms of compromise on the Palestinian question and the acceptance of Israel, and looks at how these attitudes have changed over the years. He makes a very good case for the proposition that peace was possible many times over, and that the Arab states have repeatedly gone as far as they reasonably could to reach a compromise, but that time and time again it was Israel which sabotaged the negotiations by demanding ever more and refusing to give an inch. This, more or less, is the impression which I, personally, have always had of the conflict. And not only that: I’ve also always found it difficult to imagine any that any impartial observer who’d followed the events could see things very differently. This isn’t to say that Israel bears all the responsibility for the failure of all these peace initiatives – only that it bears most of it.

This isn’t very good for the image of the various governments which have run Israel, nor for that of the people who voted them into place. But it is still an optimistic message compared to that of Shavit, because if people like Jerome Slater are right then peace was possible in the past and it may well be now or at some point in the future. Not only that, but the question of whether there will be peace lies first and foremost in the hands of the Israelis.

Unfortunately this also implies that there will only be peace if and when the majority of Israelis drastically change their attitude to their history and to the whole question of why they’re there. They will have to give up the ridiculous idea that they have some sort of God-given ‘historical’ right to live on that particular piece of land, i.e. more right than the people who were living there before they arrived. They will have to acknowledge that the whole Zionist project was in fact a colonial project (something of which the original Zionists made no secret), and that the fact that they’re living in Israel now is not because of some right but simply because of a combination of favourable political circumstances and their own military successes. On a more general, philosophical level, ‘rights’ are not something absolute, objective and God-given, but rather something relative, subjective and man-made, and are therefore open to interpretation and not very useful for settling political disputes. In practice such disputes tend to be settled – as is very much the case here – by power politics and military superiority: the old but ever less acceptable rule that if you conquer some land then it’s yours.

Another precondition for peace is that the Palestinians and the Arab states recognise that, even if the Jews never had any special right to live in Palestine, their colonial project differs from any other in at least two ways: firstly, it wasn’t motivated by greed but by the need to find a safe haven for people who had been persecuted for centuries, and secondly (and perhaps of more practical importance), whereas most colonisers have some ‘home country’ to go to, and can therefore perhaps be persuaded to leave, this is not the case with the Israelis – quite apart from the fact that anyone born in Israel has just as much right to live there as any ‘real’ Palestinian. In other words, whether anyone likes it or not, and whether the whole Zionist project was or was not a good idea, Israel is here to stay and the Palestinians and the Arab states will have to recognise that fact. I think there are enough signs that they are prepared to do so, given some willingness to compromise on the Israeli side – if for no other reason, then because they don’t really have much choice in the matter.

But still, given the existing situation, the biggest compromises will have to come from the Israelis. For a start they’ll have to give up all the land they conquered in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If the Palestinians are willing to accept this then the Israelis will have done very well indeed out of the deal, as the pre-1967 borders are far beyond those of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 (aka Resolution 181) – and even that Partition Plan allotted far more land to the new Jewish state than a demographically proportional division would have allowed them. As well as giving up some land they’ll also have to do something towards compensating the people they displaced, but here the possibilities are endless and there is much room for negotiation.

And is all that ever going to happen? Well, I may not be as pessimistic as Ari Shavit, but to say I was optimistic would be an exaggeration. A combination of British political idiocy, Zionist chauvinism and an international attitude which lets the Israelis get away with anything because of what the Jews have suffered in the past, has led to the creation in what used to be Palestine of the mother of all regional conflicts, the mess to end all messes – one which makes little problems like Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and South Africa fade into insignificance. I don’t see any signs of this mess being cleared up any time soon, and I fear it may be a question of generations rather than years.

So, what have I learned from this book (and from the background research to which it inspired me)? I’ve certainly learned a few historical facts of which I was unaware. For instance, I never knew that Israel had been seriously threatened by the German armies in North Africa, and that if Rommel hadn’t been stopped at El Alamein then the Jews in Palestine might well have ended up sharing a similar fate to that of the European Jews. Neither did I know that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had such close ties with the Nazis, even if the wildly exaggerated post-war claims of his being largely responsible for the Final Solution are simply an Israeli attempt to shift some of the blame for the Holocaust onto the Palestinians, thereby ‘justifying’ their own war crimes. (According to Wikipedia, the article on the Mufti in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust is “more than twice as long as the articles on Goebbels and Göring, longer than the articles on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann—of all the biographical articles, it is exceeded in length, but only slightly, by the entry for Hitler.”) Not that any collective punishment of the Palestinians would ever have been justified, even if the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had been single-handedly responsible for the Holocaust.

I also didn’t know that the pre-1947 Zionist movement was so secular and socialist (Labor Zionism). Jewishness is a strange combination of race and religion, two things which are generally much more independent, but it would seem that you can be 100% Jewish without having any religious beliefs.

This book also made me appreciate much better certain things of which I’d already been vaguely aware. For example, what a unique and amazing achievement it was to create a modern, technologically advanced state out of what was more or less a piece of desert in such a short space of time. It shows how determined, talented and hard-working the Israelis are.

I’d also always assumed that the departure of the vast majority of the Palestinians had been more or less haphazard, the sort of thing which tends to happen in a war, where a few ‘unfortunate incidents’ involving the death of a few civilians frightens thousands of others into leaving. I now know, however, that there was little haphazard about it, and that the various wars were in fact seen as useful opportunities to solve a demographic problem which had always been on the agenda, and were carefully and successfully exploited as such.

Ari Shavit said right at the start of the book:

I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick-fix solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have realized that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic. (Introduction)

I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. The Israelis find themselves in the unfortunate position of having colonised a Middle-Eastern country long after colonialism went out of fashion, in fact not long before increasing discontent and rising national consciousness forced all the other colonial powers to abandon their colonies. And whereas the other colonists had somewhere to move “back” to (even if many of them had been born in the colonies and felt like foreigners in their “home country”), the Israelis cannot abandon their colony because they have nowhere else to go.

Not that they would want to, nor that they even see themselves as colonists, intruders or invaders, as Zionist ideology provides them with the comfortable illusion that they are in fact only reclaiming their rightful property which was taken away from them. With hindsight, it is obvious that the colonisation of Palestine should never have been allowed to happen, or at least not in the way that it did. It might have been possible to allow massive Jewish immigration to the area in a way which wouldn’t inevitably lead to war, but that would have required a strong and impartial government to guide the process and balance the rights of the original inhabitants with those of the newcomers. The British could never have achieved this, as they weren’t a well-established colonial power (they’d only ‘acquired’ the area after the first world war), and neither were they particularly impartial. Perhaps a strong UN presence with sufficient Arab representation could have done it. We shall never know…

Be that as it may, the Jews did arrive en masse, settle the area, drive out most of the original inhabitants and set up a Jewish state, and nothing is going to change that now. Israel is here to stay, but unfortunately for the Israelis the original inhabitants haven’t just gone away or disappeared. They are demanding their country back, ever more loudly, and all Israel’s neighbours are of the opinion that they deserve to have it – or at the very least a large part of it.

The result of all this is an exceptionally complex, not to say disastrous situation, of which there is certainly no easy way out. Given that the ‘single state solution’ is almost unanimously regarded as being impossible (as it already was by the UN in 1947), it will have to be a two-state solution, possibly with a special status for Jerusalem, and it should be obvious to anyone that for this to succeed it will be necessary for both sides to give up something which they believe to be rightfully theirs. In other words both the present-day Israelis on the one hand, and the original inhabitants of Palestine and their descendants on the other, will have to give up part of what they believe to be their country. Until that happens, there will certainly never be even a chance of peace in the Middle-East.



author Ari Shavit
title My Promised Land
first published 2013
language English
publisher / version read Spiegel & Grau, New York
ISBN 978-0-8129-8464-4
read 01/12/2014 – 08/12/2014


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