My Promised Land
When I finished John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid on Thursday morning two and a half weeks ago, I thought the timing perfect because Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, was due to arrive in the post later that day from the UK. (I had pre-ordered it from the UK Amazon, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January.) But when I got home that evening, it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel had appeared in the NYT the day before, reawakening the interest I had in it after reading Oren Kessler’s WSJ review two weeks before.
In the spring of 1897 a steamer carrying a delegation of 21 British Jews left Port Said, Egypt, for Jaffa—the last leg of its journey to the Holy Land. Leading the pack was Herbert Bentwich, an affluent London lawyer and Zionist leader and the great-grandfather of Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators.
In “My Promised Land,” his first book in English, Mr. Shavit charts Israel’s history partly through the lives of his pioneering forebears: His grandfather, Herbert’s son, was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system, while his father was a chemist at the eye of Israel’s nuclear program. The result is roughly equal parts personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and prophecies for the land’s future. It is one of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.
“My Promised Land” shifts into higher gear in its middle sections, with the claiming of the Masada fortress in the 1940s as a symbol for Zionism, and with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This book’s middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.
It’s not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel’s founding with clarity and precision. This is a story we’ve read before, in a stack of books that, laid end to end, would wrap 88 times around the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It’s that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.
This book’s central chapter is probably the one about how the Palestinian citizenry was driven from the Arab city of Lydda in 1948. Many were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. There was looting. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, long columns, were driven from their homes into the desert. In expulsions like this one lie his country’s original sin, the author argues, beyond the settlements of its later expansion.
“Lydda is our black box,” he declares. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.” Mr. Shavit is a powerful writer about denial. The miracle that is Israel, he says, is “based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”
It’s among Mr. Shavit’s gifts as a writer and thinker that he can see this fact plainly yet condemn “the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what” was done in Lydda “but enjoy the fruits of their deed.”
Garner’s claim that the “book’s middle 200 pages” are “the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year” sure got my attention. I downloaded the free portion that Thursday evening and began reading. Rankin’s book arrived the next day, but it was too late. I was hooked. (I also saw that next day, with the NYT Sunday book review posted online, that it would featured as the subject of the lead review, by Leon Wieseltier.
Until we get to the tedious later pages, each chapter of My Promised Land focuses on a particular time, place, and set of people, with some superb story telling based on historical research and interviews. The first chapter revolves around Shavit’s great-grandfather’s 1897 visit. The second drew me in through its treatment of Jewish settlement in the Harod Valley in the 1920s, with a focus on Kibbutz Ein Harod.
The further I read into this chapter, the more I had a sense of déja vu. Not that I had been there, but my cousin Batia had settled a kibbutz in the 1920s, and I began to suspect that it was in the same valley. Sure enough, later in the chapter, Shavit wrote about a day in April 1926 when the members of Ein Harod and some neighboring kibbutzim, including Beit Alpha, stopped work early to wash up and prepare to attend a concert held in a valley amphitheater. Shavit takes a moment here to explain that none other than Jascha Heifetz had performed in this quarry a few months earlier. As for Beit Alpha, that’s the kibbutz my cousin founded.
Batia was my mother’s (much older) first cousin. Her mother and grandmother—my grandfather’s sister and mother—were active Zionists in Poland. Batia moved to Beit Alpha in the 1920s. Her sister and mother stayed behind to continue their efforts, ultimately perishing in the Holocaust. When I met Batia over forty years later, in the summer of 1970, she was a kind older woman (not so much older perhaps than I am now) living in Tel Aviv with her husband, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who commuted to Rehovot daily to work on a chemistry curriculum for the nation’s high schools. One son was an engineer with two young children, living in a suburb south of Tel Aviv. The other was an advanced student at the Technion, still serving in the Army. It was a professional urban family, living in a modest apartment where I spent a lot of time.
A year later, on a return trip to Israel, I came to Tel Aviv one weekend to visit Batia and Fritz, as was the norm, and off we went on a Saturday morning on a long drive to a kibbutz where they had friends. It was Beit Alpha. To my surprise, when we arrived Batia and Fritz were treated like honored guests, as pioneer members decades before. This was counter to everything I knew about them. We had the most delightful afternoon. I remember the kibbutz as sitting on the lower slopes of a hill or mountain, with the West Bank border just beyond. On reading Shavit’s account, I realized this was Mount Gilboa.
Anyway, as Garner mentions in his review, the book hits full stride in chapter 4 with Shavit’s treatment of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda in the 1948 war. From there, for 200 pages or more, the reader is in for a powerful experience. An essential theme for Shavit is that the Jewish settlers lost their way, or their innocence, not with the West Bank settlements in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars but with the expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war. This was, as it were, the original sin.
The book lost its way, at least for me, in the closing chapters, which become more a monologue in which Shavit expresses his concerns about Israel’s direction, less a historically focused treatment of key moments in Israel’s history in which a series of fascinating characters is introduced. The penultimate chapter goes on and on about the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon development, something that evidently was a Shavit cause in his newspaper writing for years. The final chapter, one of the two longest, is an extended essay on the challenges the country faces. I would have been happy if the book ended before them.