My Promised Land: The Tri­umph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shav­it
Win­ner of the 2014 Natan Book Award

By – November 14, 2013

Few books about Israel have received the praise that review­ers have giv­en Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Shav­it, an Israeli jour­nal­ist, colum­nist for Haaretz, and com­men­ta­tor on Israeli tele­vi­sion, draws on inter­views, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, and pri­vate diaries, as well as his own family’s expe­ri­ence, to pro­vide an insight­ful his­to­ry of Israel from the ide­al­ism of the ear­ly Jew­ish pio­neers who found­ed the ear­ly Kib­butz­im to the present. In the course of this his­to­ry, Shav­it pro­vides bal­anced assess­ments of the Jew­ish state, from its found­ing in 1948 to its response to the unpre­dictable Arab Spring,” its bit­ter­sweet rela­tion­ship with the West Bank set­tler move­ment, the ongo­ing efforts to reach an accord with the Pales­tini­ans, and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Writ­ing about the 1948 war which fol­lowed Israel’s found­ing, Shav­it notes that the expul­sion of Pales­tin­ian Arabs remains a for­mi­da­ble obsta­cle to peace because the Arab world insists on the return of the refugees to their for­mer homes in Israel. Shav­it argues, how­ev­er, that the removal of the Arabs was a nec­es­sary demo­graph­ic neces­si­ty if there was to be a viable Jew­ish state. Else­where, Shav­it con­tends that Israel as a Jew­ish state con­tin­ues to arouse reli­gious ani­mos­i­ty among many Mus­lims because Israel’s very exis­tence as a sov­er­eign non-Islam­ic state is regard­ed as an affront to Islam, and thus cre­ates the inher­ent ten­sion between Israel and the vast Islam­ic world.” As the Arab Spring moved from the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a demo­c­ra­t­ic Mid­dle East to one where­in rad­i­cal Islam has made inroads through­out the Mid­dle East, let alone Iran, it pre­fig­ures the real pos­si­bil­i­ty of future con­flict between Israel and a reli­gious fanati­cism that threat­ens the sur­vival of the Jew­ish state.

With regard to the cur­rent cri­sis over Iran’s pur­suit of a nuclear bomb, Shav­it argues that Israel was late in respond­ing to the Iran­ian threat. He cites Prime Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon’s order to Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, in 2002 to defuse the Iran­ian men­ace. But by 2005, Dagan promised his col­leagues and supe­ri­ors that Iran would not be able to spin even one cen­trifuge.” This arro­gance con­tin­ued in regard to Iran’s bomb-build­ing capa­bil­i­ty until Ben­jamin Netanyahu became prime min­is­ter. Shav­it writes, unlike his pre­de­ces­sors, Netanyahu under­stood Iran… [he] was total­ly focused on Iran from the day he took office, [and] he knew that his life’s mis­sion was to pre­vent Iran from going nuclear.” Although he cred­its Netanyahu for awak­en­ing Israel’s intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty to the dan­ger of an Iran­ian bomb, Shav­it is also crit­i­cal of the cur­rent prime min­is­ter in regard to his vocal oppo­si­tion to nego­ti­a­tion with Iran, his strained rela­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, his con­tin­u­ing threats to bomb Iran, and essen­tial­ly over­play­ing his hand by his per­ceived inter­ven­tion in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial election

Does Shavit’s book war­rant the effu­sive reviews it has received? Absolute­ly. This even-hand­ed vol­ume helps us under­stand the threats fac­ing Israel in the present as well as in the near future.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions

1. To tell the his­to­ry of his coun­try, Shav­it begins with the sto­ry of his British great-grandfather’s trip to Pales­tine on a Thomas Cook car­a­van in 1897 and con­tin­ues in his role as our guide through­out the book. He also intro­duces sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal events through a per­son­al lens, telling the sto­ry of one orange grove own­er, for exam­ple, to rep­re­sent the eco­nom­ic boom of the late 1930s in Pales­tine and of an indi­vid­ual entre­pre­neur to rep­re­sent the tech boom of the past decade. Do you feel that this approach to writ­ing about the his­to­ry of Israel is effective?

2. Was there any­thing in the book that chal­lenged your assump­tions about Israel’s his­to­ry? What sur­prised you?

3. Chap­ter Four, Masa­da,” is the sto­ry of one man’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign to change the per­cep­tion of his­to­ry by shap­ing a nation­al nar­ra­tive. To what degree is his­to­ry shaped by indi­vid­u­als? Can you think of oth­er exam­ples, with­in the book or in world his­to­ry in gen­er­al, in which an indi­vid­ual has reshaped a country’s iden­ti­ty and narrative?

4. Chap­ter Five, Lyd­da,” presents the book’s cen­tral moral con­flict through the lens of one bat­tle. At the end of the chap­ter, Shav­it writes, 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.” Dis­cuss Shavit’s moral response to what hap­pened in Lyd­da. Does every coun­try have a Lyd­da in the his­to­ry of its state­hood? If so, think of some examples.

5. Chap­ter Six, Hous­ing Estate,” describes the enor­mous sac­ri­fices made by the new refugees for their future state, often unwill­ing­ly. Do you agree with Ben Gurion’s view that mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust and the past need­ed to be sub­vert­ed to cre­ate the new state? Dis­cuss the ten­sion between the indi­vid­ual and the state in the cre­ation of Israel. You might also dis­cuss the aston­ish­ing suc­cess rate among the immi­grant chil­dren of the Hous­ing Estate, many of whom became the lead­ers of the young coun­try. What fac­tors do you think con­tributed to their success?

6. Chap­ter Sev­en dis­cuss­es the stealth cre­ation of Israel’s nuclear reac­tor. Dis­cuss its impli­ca­tions for cur­rent dis­cus­sions of nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion. Shav­it press­es the engi­neer to dis­cuss the moral sig­nif­i­cance of his life’s work, but the engi­neer refus­es to take part in the dis­cus­sion. Do you think Shav­it is right to push the engi­neer as he does, or is the engi­neer right in say­ing, If every­one spent as much time think­ing as you do, they would nev­er act”?

7. In Chap­ter Eight, on the set­tle­ments, Shav­it writes, The ques­tion is whether Ofra is a benign con­tin­u­a­tion of Zion­ism or a malig­nant muta­tion of Zion­ism,” and answers that it is both. Dis­cuss the two ways of view­ing the set­tle­ments. Do you agree with Shavit’s assessment?

8. In Chap­ter Ten, Peace,” for Shav­it, Hul­da rep­re­sents the heart of the Israel-Pales­tine con­flict. And he says that Hul­da has no solu­tion, Hul­da is our fate.” What does he mean by this?

9. In Chap­ter Sev­en­teen, By the Sea,” Shav­it describes the con­cen­tric cir­cles of threat that chal­lenge Israel. The sixth threat he describes, on pp. 403 – 404, is a moral threat: A nation bogged down in end­less war­fare can be eas­i­ly cor­rupt­ed. It might turn fas­cis­tor mil­i­taris­tic or just bru­tal.” How sig­nif­i­cant and urgent is this moral threat com­pared to the oth­er threats Israel faces? Do you believe Israel has a greater moral respon­si­bil­i­ty than oth­er coun­tries? Is a moral Israel nec­es­sary for its sur­vival, and is this true for coun­tries in general?