I haven’t read My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, the new New York Times bestseller by Israeli left-of-center journalist Ari Shavit. In my book-reviewing days I read more than my fill of “Israel is losing its soul” books. I have a lot of resistance to subjecting myself to another, along with other priorities.
Shavit, of course, is not just another Israel-basher. Among left-wing Israeli commentators he’s distinguished by having admitted he was wrong about “peace” with Syria, relating to Binyamin Netanyahu as a human being instead of a demon, and being intensely concerned about the Iranian threat—that is, capable of acknowledging that Israel still faces threats that it did not create itself.
Some commentators I respect clearly like My Promised Land. However, a review by another of my esteemed authors and commentators, Ruth Wisse, makes me all the more leery of putting any time into the book.
“[E]verywhere in My Promised Land,” Wisse writes, “the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom.” And yet, “according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them.”
Israel, in other words, as a doomed country—as comeuppance for its own sins. Sounds all too familiar.
Perhaps, if I read the book myself, I would get a different impression of its import. It seems unlikely, though, in light of some quotations Wisse offers.
Such as some sentences of Shavit’s about a concert by the great violinist Jascha Heifetz at Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1926—that is, in prestate, pioneering Israel, twenty-two years before statehood. As Shavit imagines this event:
I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.
“…burn the valley’s Palestinians,” no less. Here you can see a map of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. The blue part was supposed to be Israel, the orange part Palestine (Jerusalem belongs to neither, an internationally administered city). Everything from Beersheba southward is desert; the Jews, whose connection to the land goes back over three thousand years and who have been assiduously building it up since the 1880s, get the Negev Desert, a strip along the coast, and eastern Galilee. The Palestinians get the rest.
As Ari Shavit knows, the Jews accepted this plan; the Palestinian and Arab side rejected it out of hand and instead launched a war to annihilate Israel. Shavit also knows that in 1994 Israel created the Palestinian Authority; that in 2000-01 it turned the historical clock back by offering the Palestinians a state that they—again—rejected; ditto for 2008; that meanwhile in 2005 Israel withdrew totally from Gaza; and that in 2009 Netanyahu, with his right-of-center background, pronounced himself in favor of a two-state solution.
Apparently, though, for Shavit, none of this is enough to expiate the primal sin he feels hovering over himself, over his country.
And then there’s this statement of Shavit’s, as quoted by David Brooks:
If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.
“Doom” again. Many reasons can be given for why, if the current, John Kerry-impelled Israeli-Palestinian talks do not—as most people expect—lead to an agreement, Israel will not be doomed as a result.
There is the fact that, since Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967, it has experienced remarkable demographic and economic growth. And on the moral side of the ledger, since 1967 Israel has become a much more vibrant, genuinely pluralist democracy compared to the previous one-party Mapai rule with its attendant nepotism and cronyism.
There is the fact that, as journalist David Rosenberg observed last week in Shavit’s paper Haaretz, the anti-Israeli boycott movement—despite a few symbolic successes—has basically been losing:
[Last] week four major port operators, including three European companies, bid to operate marine terminals in Israel. Israel was admitted to the European nuclear research consortium CERN as its first non-European full member. The Irish company Covidien offered to buy the Israeli medical device company Given Imaging. Apple bought PrimeSense, an Israeli high-tech startup. Carefusion, a San Diego company, bought 40% of Caesarea Medical Electronics.
Foreign direct investment in Israel stood at $9.4 billion in the first 10 months of the year, matching the total for all of 2012, and is likely to exceed 2011’s $10.8 billion.
Yes, West Bank “occupation” and all. Doesn’t sound like a “doomed” country.
And there is the fact that, amid the horrific bloodletting in Syria and Iraq, the strife and brutality in Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen, the savage persecution of Christians throughout the region, the poverty and corruption, one can fairly ask whether Israel—or anyone—has a moral obligation to create another Arab state; one, as Shavit acknowledges, capable of “endangering Israel’s security” to put it mildly.
These points seem so obvious that one surmises there is something other than “occupation of the West Bank” that is souring Shavit and other Israeli left-wingers on the Israeli endeavor. Perhaps a more primordial guilt over the reassertion of Jewish nationhood. Perhaps—one might say ironically—an aversion to enhanced Israeli democracy with its greater role for religious, Mizrahi, and Russian-immigrant Jews. Perhaps an inability to cope with Western elites’ disapproval of Israel, no matter how unwarranted and ill-informed.
In any case, that even a more thoughtful, nuanced left-winger like Shavit feels compelled to write about his country in terms of “tragedy” and “doom,” and that so many people are now getting this warped message, is really something to lament.
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