Thursday, March 6, 2014

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Shavit begins what he hopes is an international dialogue with this book. Such a dialogue has been long in coming. Perhaps the time is ripe. He can see that the Israeli position in the Middle East is dangerous and endangered. He uses interviews to illustrate various events that have shaped the nation and its now shifting worldview.

Shavit shows us how both the right and the left in Israel today have flaws in their grasp of where Israel is in relation to the Palestinians, the Arab world, indeed, even America. He is blunt, bruising, argumentative but illuminating as he cuts away at justifications of former and would-be leaders. The underpinnings of their stance are revealed in this way.

We know where Shavit stands:
”…the choice is clear: either reject Zionism because of (the expulsion of Palestinians from) Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda. One thing is clear to me: the brigade commander and the military governor were right to get angry at the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed. I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” (p. 131)

The following passage was one of the most revealing and enlightening to me for it gave me a perspective I had not considered:
”Israel of the 1950s was a state on steroids: more and more people, more and more cities, more and more villages, more and more of everything. But although development was rampant, social gaps were narrow. The government was committed to full employment. There was a genuine effort to provide every person with housing, work, education, and health care. The newborn state was one of the most egalitarian democracies in the world. The Israel of the 1950s was a just social democracy. But it was also a nation of practicality that combined modernity, nationalism, and development in an aggressive manner. There was no time, and there was no peace of mind, and therefore there was no human sensitivity. As the state became everything, the individual was marginalized. As it marched toward the future, Israel erased the past. There was no place for the previous landscape, no place for previous identities. Everything was done en masse. Everything was imposed from above. There was an artificial quality to everything. Zionism was not an organic process anymore but a futuristic coup. For its outstanding economic, social, and engineering achievements, the new Israel paid a dear moral price. There was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process, or laissez-faire. There was no equality for the Palestinian minority and no compassion for the Palestinian refugees. There was little respect for the Jewish Diaspora and little empathy for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ben Gurion’s statism and monolithic rule compelled the nation forward.”(p. 151)

Shavit seems to mourn, to regret, that the folks who were instrumental in setting up and continuing the success of the Israeli state seemed not to know what they were doing in terms of outcomes. The folks he is talking about were big, big in every way: in society, in influence, in action, and that they should have taken more care to think how their actions would affect the present and the future of Israel (and I would add, the world). But they were only men. Only human. They did the best they could at what they were best at. Most of us would be proud to have that written on our gravestones. But we now have to ask ourselves, “is this the best we can do?” The legacy of these folks is unacceptable today.

Shavit begins with the historical underpinnings of the state of Israel, but by the end he admits the “binding historical narrative has fallen apart.” One almost wishes it were possible to begin again, starting back when land was actually purchased rather than stolen. Shavit acknowledges it is difficult to ignore the truth of displaced Palestinians. “What I see and hear here is an entire population of ours…imprisoning am entire population of theirs. This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure.” Whatever else Israel has succeeded in accomplishing must be paired with this bald fact.

But many in Israel are willing to live with this. Even Shavit claims it gives his people the edge (“quick, vital, creative”) that living under the “looming shadow of a smoking volcano” brings. Some “harbor in their heart a great belief in a great war, which will be their only salvation.” Well. (pause) Do I need to add that this does not seem much of a solution?

It was difficult for me to finish reading this book. My emotions roiled as I read the bulk of Shavit’s narrative, and at some point I exclaimed, “thank god for Shavit,” for he is willing to struggle with hard truths and face them like a leader. But I felt I was finished before I got to Shavit’s concluding chapter.

This exhaustive (and exhausting) catalog of personal histories, slights and wrongs, achievements and successes, thoughts and second thoughts about who really deserves to be in Israel and Palestine culminated in me wanting to say “just do it.” Now that everyone has had their say and we understand all…just fix it.

The contrast between Israel’s self-congratulation on one hand (we have so much talent, wealth, ambition, vision) and despair on the other (we have no friends, and so many enemies, we must actually bomb sovereign states to feel safe) is stark. But the state of Israel may be facing what every nation appears to be facing these days: a more divided electorate that hews to less moderate viewpoints, growing ever more radical and less tolerant by the year. While it is possible for me to feel empathy for individuals, it is difficult for me to feel sorry for a nation.

I did read the end of Shavit’s book. He is not optimistic. We all have reason for despair, but real leadership refuses to acknowledge the same boundaries that constrain the rest of us. It seems clear that we all want someone else to do the hard work of compromise and “leading” for us, and we wait for someone else to appear…when we really should all be thinking now, in this age of global warning and divided nations: What have we wrought?

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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