Author gives great insight into modern State of Israel

Author Ari ShavitWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12WHERE: Congregation Shaare Emeth, 11645 Ladue RoadHOW MUCH: $10; $5 for students with ID. Free with Jewish Book Festival Series Plus    ticket. MORE INFO: Call 314-442-3299. Event includes a presentation by Shavit, followed by an audience Q&A; and a book-signing. Copies of Shavit’s book, provided by Left Bank Books, will be available for purchase at the event.  Sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and Shaare Emeth, with support from The Litvag Family Fund.  


Readers of Haaretz in English may know Ari Shavit’s pointed analysis in his many newspaper columns. He often focuses on what is happening to Israel and Israelis, their sense of loss of the Zionist dream in its best interpretation.

More specifically, Shavit hones in on the profound changes in the attitudes of many Israelis since the Six Day War in 1967. That event turned the beleaguered tiny Middle Eastern country into a regional superpower ruling over 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and, for many years, those in Gaza. More recently, Shavit writes about that has happened to Israeli society since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the rise of a conservative counterbalance to Labor since voters turned the government over to Likud in 1977.

The author has the credentials to critique his native country. His family has lived there for a century, and his great grandfather, a wealthy British subject named Herbert Bentwich, was one of the early facilitators of European Jewish settlement in Palestine. When Shavit offers his comments or provides several pages of interviews with leading scholars, politicians, settlers and military officers, these deserve the attention he expects them to have.

Many books of the last few decades praise Israel and gloss over its faults. Others make excuses for it. Still others criticize it vehemently while ignoring its achievements in medical and pharmaceutical research, high technology and agriculture and its potential benefit for the Middle East.

Few books this reviewer has read have left the impression of “My Promised Land.” It is a comprehensive study of Israel’s intellectual roots and modern history. One can read it once, twice or more and gain insights each time. This is a book to own, whether you’re Jewish, Israeli or just deeply concerned about the future of the Middle East.

Some observations Shavit makes are so obvious, yet much of the world doesn’t even think about the point: “There is a sense of well-being here that the Jews have not had for nearly two thousand years.” That’s a really big deal, historically, but most people in the world don’t even consider the gravity of this development. 

And this: “Like the Christian knights [of the Crusades a thousand years ago] we depend on our high walls and sharp swords to keep ourselves alive in a region that wants us gone.”

If one follows the allusion to the Crusaders to its logical conclusion, the outcome is not promising for the Jewish people and their state. The Crusaders were overcome and defeated a thousand years ago after only a century in Jerusalem. Broken down castles that are tourist attractions comprise the traces of their existence in and around the Holy Land. What happens to Israel over 100 or 200 or more years? Will it too go the way of the Crusaders, as many Arab observers predict and hope?

Shavit traces the origins, contradictions and implementation of Zionism and notes this: “So far, Zionism has not been able to summon from within the forces that will save it from itself. It is up to its neck in the calamitous reality that it created in the West Bank.”

He looks at the impact on the Jewish people of the enduring conflict with the Arab states. He considers the plight of the “ ’48 Arabs” who stayed in Israel after the War of Independence and their descendants, the Israelis’ deliberate destruction of Arab villages and then the hardening of the hearts of many contemporary Israelis who have turned their backs a peace process that has not brought tangible benefits to their lives.

He quotes economist Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel: “We have four problems. Our education system has deteriorated, and it endangers our ability to sustain technological excellence. The employment rate among ultra-Orthodox men is only 45 percent. Most Arab women do not work. Fewer than twenty business groups control much of the local market and thus restrict competition.”

If Shavit has a flaw in his analysis, it is that he doesn’t note explicitly that Arab and Islamic countries that steadfastly oppose Israel’s existence – that have continually rejected the realization of a state primarily for Jews – have helped to create the conditions Israel now face. Quite understandably over the last 65 years, Israel’s Jewish residents have reacted to the rejection and violence in their various ways, whether liberal, conservative or moderate in what’s left of the political middle ground. Maybe those ways aren’t positive for Israel, but they are understandable.

Perhaps Shavit sees the approach, often taken, of blaming everything on Arab rejection as simply making excuses for problems he believes Israelis need to fix for the benefit of future generations.

“We Israelis face a Herculean mission,” he writes in the final chapter. “To live here we will have to redefine a nation and divide a land and come up with a new Jewish Israeli narrative. We will have to restore a rundown state and unify a shredded society and groom a trustworthy civilian leadership. After ending occupation, we’ll have to establish a new, firm, and legitimate iron wall on our post-occupation borders. Facing the regional tide of radical Islam, Israel will have to be an island of enlightenment.”

The frankness of Shavit’s observations, coupled with his excellent and thorough reporting, give this book its value for understanding Israel in its modern and future context.