Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ is eye-opening look at Israel

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

Rabbi Seth D Gordon

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” may be the most important book that I have read in a very long time.  It is a thoughtful, uplifting and depressing, wonderful and disturbing, and provocative book on Israel.  It is great, not because it confirms my point of view, but because it does not, because it is both informative and transformative.  I will never again think about Israel as I had just weeks ago.   

The title delivers what it promises.  “My Promised Land:  The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is personal.  Shavit begins with his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a well-to-do British Jew, who cherished his life in Britain, yet emigrated to a then rugged and primitive Palestine.  An associate of Theodore Herzl, Bentwich left for Palestine to explore the possibility of a Jewish national home and to write a formal report for the Zionist Congress.  Shavit leads us through the decades, and we meet the people and places he has known from his varied experiences.  A columnist for Israel’s newspaper, “Haaretz,” Shavit interviews some of Israel’s most important leaders – military experts, Palestinians, and financially successful Israelis to illuminate most of the critical issues that Israel had faced and still faces.  He is emotional and intellectual, passionate and analytical.  He loves Israel and because he loves it, he critiques it hard.  In this sense it is “his” Promised Land, and he shares it with us because it is ours too.

The subtitle is no less instructive. Shavit presents a chronological narrative that is in some ways a history book, but not a conventional (and often perceived as “boring”) history book replete with dates and places, one series of events and time-frames running into the next.  Rather, each of his 17 chapters has a central vignette from which Shavit expands, probes, includes his interviews, and steps back to analyze.  He presents Israel’s great national and personal triumphs:  maintaining existence in the face of hostile enemies, remarkable economic growth, success in settling mass amounts of refugees, and more.  Yet he pulls no punches with Israel’s failures:  blindness toward the Palestinians, inadequate dealing with internal social issues, and military and political failures of leadership are all part of the tragedy. The book is real, powerfully real.

Shavit’s vignettes guide us through the incredible growth of Israel’s orange groves (Jaffa oranges were on the table of the Queen of England!). It is one of several stories of Industrious, studious, European immigrants, unfamiliar with agriculture, who in a short time developed the Israeli orange industry that rivaled in quantity exports from Spain and California.  But we also learn of displaced Palestinians.  Shavit lists the mid-1930s violent Arab attacks against individual Jews and Jewish settlements, and also details Jewish murders of Arabs and of manipulative, brutal expulsions of Arab villagers and the destruction of their homes.  We learn how and why Masada became the symbol of Israel’s military and its culture, and about its pitfalls.  Shavit describes what it was like to be in Israel as the Nazis were exterminating European Jews and, with the Mufti’s collaboration, threatening the very existence of would-be Israel. 

We learn about the incredible 1950s, when, following Independence, Israel had to build a nation and settle immigrants, especially Jews from Arab lands, equal to its previous population. Shavit focuses on the consequences of the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, of triumph and despair, of settlements and attempts for peace.  We learn about Israel’s nuclear facility, about the debate whether to build a nuclear bomb, and its role today.  Again, Shavit helps illustrate these times through personal interviews of the people who were among the most instrumental in them.  And we learn about the subsequent generations, including Israel youth of today.  Shavit has opened my eyes; I have learned things that make me even more proud of modern Israel’s founders and things that have made me less proud, even ashamed. 

That is not to say that I agree with every conclusion that Shavit draws; but the depth of his knowledge and his reflective, acute analysis make me conscious that I need to be extremely careful.  So, rather than hurling disagreements, I have questions and concerns; I prefer probing questions to hasty and comfortable conclusions.  There will always be time for conclusions, and the wise know that even conclusions are provisional, for there is always more to learn.  And I have a major concern about what I think is a major omission and a major flaw.  But it is not yet time, and this review is not the place time to raise them.  It is much more important that the book be read, carefully and deliberately, and discussed intelligently.

Shavit, I will add, is from Israel’s Left.  He was a peace advocate, is adamantly opposed to occupation and settlements, is not religious, and favors egalitarianism – yet he offers thoughtful critiques and depth on these issues. Secondly, Shavit spoke at Shaare Emeth in Creve Coeur in December as the last stop on his American book tour.  Prompted by the accolades for his book, I attended. He was an eloquent speaker and is a superb writer.   

Finally, the book was so emotionally and intellectually stimulating that I found myself unable to read more than a chapter or two a day. I had to take time to digest all that I had consumed.   It is important, I think, to let his words sink in, to enable them to be the basis of new levels of understanding, whether his conclusions prove to be true or flawed, whether we agree or disagree in part or in toto.  In my view, the purpose of great writing is to be a part of a process, not to be the only and last word.  My copy now has my considerable highlighting and periodic pen notes in the margins.  They will be a part of my teachings about Israel from my pulpit and in my classrooms.

The book challenges the naiveties of both those on the Right and those on the Left and yet may confirm, more intelligently and more deeply, the conclusions that each side has drawn.  Shavit’s gift will not only challenge simplistic answers, but I believe will be required reading for any intelligent discussion about Israel. 

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation of Creve Coeur and is an educator with Central Agency for Jewish Education. For more information on his CAJE courses, contact Cyndee Levy at 314-442-3754 or [email protected].