David Became Goliath: A Review of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”

Book Review: My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (2013)

On July 5th, provoked by the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the reciprocal killing of a young Palestinian, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel responded with air strikes and, briefly, a ground invasion. Hostilities continue.

It is very easy for American Christians to side with Israel in the fight with Hamas. Many American Christians ascribe religious significance to the modern, secular state of Israel. The improbable reestablishment of Israel in 1948, they say, must have been the sovereign will of God, and so must its continuing survival. God is looking out for His people.

Another reason is that Israel is a small Jewish country surrounded by tens of millions of Arab Muslims. Americans love an underdog who punches above his weight, and with its highly-trained military and “Iron Dome” missile defense system, Israel is certainly that. After five weeks of fighting in Gaza, Palestinian casualties have topped 2,000. A full quarter of the Palestinian casualties have been children, another eighth have been women. Most of the sixty-seven Israeli casualties have been soldiers. The conflict is so one-sided that Israel is in danger of losing its underdog status in American media coverage. People have begun to ask, if Israel is basically a Western democratic nation on Eastern shores, why are they killing so many children? It’s a fair question.

However, none of the incidentals of the most recent fighting will help us answer this question. To do that, we would need to examine the origins of the conflict, in the fiery birth of the modern Jewish state. But we would need to more than just read Wikipedia articles on the 1948 and 1967 wars–we would need to read a book like Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Through personal history, Shavit tells the story of the successful Zionist project to fill Arab Palestine with waves of Jews fleeing persecution and stagnation in Europe.

Ari Shavit is an Israeli journalist for Haaretz, and as a modern secular Jew, heir to the secular Zionist project. His book, My Promised Land, is a stunning personal history of Zionism and of Jewish resettlement in the Holy Land.

But wait, what is a ‘Zionist?’ Before I read Shavit’s book, I thought all Jews were Zionists. I thought the resettlement of Israel was the culmination of a centuries-long Jewish dream, motivated by a deep desire to fulfill Biblical prophecies of returning to the land. But no. Zionism was the brainchild of a group of secular Jews in the 1870s–Jews who didn’t believe in God, much less in Biblical prophecy. They were inspired by Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jew, and his tract “Der Judenstaat”–The Jewish State. There had not been a Jewish state for millennia, and many Jews were inspired by the prospect of a place where Jews could be safe, free, and above all, Jewish. They began to settle in Palestine, creating communal farms known as kibbutzim, and traded peacefully with their Arab neighbors. They were secular, enlightened, and socialist. Later, as religious Jews joined secular Jews in the Holy Land, the Zionist project created a bridge between them, uniting them as Israelis even as they grew apart from their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

But back to Shavit. My Promised Land is not an exhaustive history. There are no detailed explanations of the Balfour Declaration that brought the Jewish Mandate of Palestine into being in 1917, or the 1948 war in which a young Israel defeated its Arab neighbors, earning the right to exist. Rather, Shavit traces the ambiguities of modern Zionism through portraits of places and persons. He draws the ill-fated Arab city of Lydda and the Jewish kibbutz of Ein Harod with equal care and affection, and there are sections of real pathos as he describes the horror of neighbors, Arab and Jewish, rising against each other. These Jews who massacred Arab children and the Palestinians who blew up Jewish trains–their descendants are fighting in Gaza.

After Shavit describes the teamwork and optimism of the young European Jews who settled at the communal farm of Ein Harod in the 1920s, and traded with their Arab neighbors, he ends the chapter with a chilling reminder that peaceful coexistence could not last.

In three years’ time, the firstborns of Ein Harod will crouch for days in the first cement-built dairy, hiding from the gunfire of Arab neighbors…In twenty years’ time, Ein Harod—and the forces it gave birth to—will have real military might. In twenty-two years, that military might will attack the villages of Nuris, Zarin, and Komay. It will drive all Palestinian inhabitants out of the valley. (p. 46-47)

In each chapter, Shavit deals with a different place, time, and a different cast of characters. He interviews Jewish commandos who mercilessly drove Palestinians from their thousand-year old villages, and he interviews the Palestinian survivors of such pogroms. He talks about his own time as a conscript prison guard in a Palestinian internment camp by the sea. He talks about the energy, vitality, and modernity of Tel Aviv, the zephyr city of secular Judaism. Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish religion, makes only a few appearances. By my count, Shavit interviews only one believing Jew, a xenophobic politician. That’s one thing I understand much better after reading Shavit: the word Jew does not necessarily denote an adherent of Judaism.

There are a few passages that stand out as exceptional. Reading them changed the way I think about Jews, Palestinians, the Jewish state. How did the Jewish people, once David, become Goliath? In this passage, Shavit tells of serving as a guard in an internment camp during the Israeli occupation of Gaza. As another conflict rages in Gaza between Israel and Hamas today, these words are prescient.

I look down at the tents and the fences and the barbed wire. For the last time I try to comprehend the inner logic of the place, the necessity that, so to speak, created it. And I summon up all our just claims, all our mitigating circumstances: Aren’t we refugees too? Aren’t we, too, victims of violence? And if we are to survive in the Middle East, we must be strong. When attacked, we must respond. The IDF and the Shin Bet [Israeli Defence Forces and Israeli Security Service] are all that protect us from total chaos. Only the willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.

But it doesn’t work here. In the Gaza Beach Detention Camp it cannot work. Because there are places and there are situations that are clear-cut. And this is such a place. This is such a situation. There are no complexities here, no mitigating circumstances. This is what the Palestinians have brought upon us by means of uprising: they deprived us of the illusion of bearable occupation. They have told us that if we are to occupy Gaza, we must have a Gaza Beach prison. And if we are to have such a prison, we must betray ourselves. We must betray everything we were to be and everything we are to be. So the question now is not land for peace. The question is land for decency. Land for our humanity. Land for our very soul. (p. 235)

Later, as Shavit traces his disillusionment with the long process to create peace between Israel and Palestine, he reaches a deep, uncomfortable truth. For all his chutzpah about Israeli might, Shavit has moments of deep reflection where he cuts to the core of the Jewish paradox. His watchphrase is know thyself, and he has determined to know the history of Jewish destiny in a way that will strengthen him to face it. An example:

I worked out a theory. The theory assumed we lived in a tragedy: an almost eternal struggle between two peoples sharing a homeland and fighting over it. For seventy years we Jews had the stamina needed to withstand this tragedy. We were vital enough to be jolly and optimistic while enduring an ongoing conflict. But as fatigue wore us down, we began to deny the tragedy. We wanted to believe there was no tragic decree at the heart of our existence. So we had to pretend that it was not by tragic circumstances that our fate was decided, but by our own deeds. The territories we conquered in 1967 gave us an excellent pretext for this much-needed pretense, as it allowed us to concentrate on an internal conflict of our own making. The Right said, “If only we annex the West Bank, we’ll be safe and sound.” The Left said, “If only we hand over the West Bank, we’ll have peace.” The Right said, “Our dead died because of the Left’s illusions,” while the Left said, “Our dead died because of the Right’s fantasies.” Rather than face a tragic reality imposed on us from without, we chose to create a simplistic narrative of Right against Left. It’s not the Arabs’ fault, it’s the Jews’. It’s not the Middle East, it’s the Israeli government. It’s not the fundamental Israeli condition but some specific mistake made by some specific Israeli politician. In an ingenious way, we turned the tragedy in which we live into a morality play. We created a virtual reality that enables us to blame ourselves rather than face the cruel reality we are trapped in. (p. 253-254)

Even more poignantly, Shavit quotes Israeli politician Moshe Dayan, at the 1956 funeral of a young Jewish soldier, Roy Rotenberg, killed by radical Muslims:

It is not among the Arabs of Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roy’s blood. How did we shut out eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation?

Let us today take stock of ourselves. We are a generation of settlement and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short. (p. 267)

In the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel plays a better game—it’s undeniable. Their missiles are faster, deadlier, and more accurate than shoulder-fired Hamas rockets. Their “Iron Dome” missile defense system has kept Israeli civilian casualties low. But these things cut both ways. Devastating Israeli air strikes have killed an unconscionable amount of Palestinian civilians. Hamas is a terrorist organization so radical and violent that even Israel’s traditional enemy, Egypt, supports Israel in this conflict. But it’s still a massive PR disaster for the nation of Israel. If they’re killing terrorists, not just families and children, the media have kept quiet about it. A few weeks ago, their missiles struck a UN school in Gaza city, injuring hundreds.

How do you choose a side in a fight like this? It seems easy, on the face of it. One of the belligerents seems like a modern Western nation, a liberal democracy, full of white people who believe in the Bible, who are supplied by American arms companies. The other is a terrorist organization made up of poor, armed brown people. For many Americans, that puts them in the same category as al Qaeda.

But in this fight, I choose the side of the civilians of Gaza. Even before this most recent conflict, it was a hard sentence to live in Palestine. Radical elements in the population, with an uncomfortably just list of grievances, carried out horrible attacks on Israeli civilians, leading to a withdrawal of Israeli economic activity from Gaza and the West Bank (the two partitioned parts of what was once Arab Palestine). Thus, these places are effectively refugee camps for an entire nation. I sympathize with the Arab mothers and fathers who have seen their sons and daughters killed. By the same token, the Israeli citizens who are terrorized daily by Hamas rockets don’t deserve such a fate.

I would like to conclude this essay with an answer. The Jews are right! The Palestinians are right! Someone has to be right! But no, I don’t think that’s the case. Just like Ari Shavit’s “virtual reality”, it may seem like there are only two options, and one of them is right. But as Shavit painfully concludes, the Left and the Right, the Palestinians and Jews, are not right or wrong. If they were, then the way forward would be relatively clear. But the situation, the fundamental condition, is not a morality play. It’s a tragedy—a Greek one, set in the Levantine desert.

I don’t mean to reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a play. But that is the tragic and inescapable destiny of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, which reminds me of Oedipus and Jocasta. They cannot escape from the conflicts of the past, and most of all, they cannot escape each other. They are two peoples, separated by a common homeland. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land tells a story that is tragic, but deeply human. It may be impossible for Jews and Palestinians to live in peace together, but like Ari Shavit I will keep hoping. Impossible things happen in Palestine.

My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (Spiegel & Graü, 2013) – 8/10


One thought on “David Became Goliath: A Review of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”

  1. Interesting conclusion which, I have to say, was unexpected. I thought it was going in the direction of “Israel is completely wrong. Palestine is in the right, because it has been wronged.”

    Also, reading this, I am reminded that you are a good writer. I don’t often have an opportunity to read what you write. I know a lot of this is determined by the content of what you are writing, but you are very journalistic in style. Less so, conversational. You write like you are writing for a newspaper, but personal pronouns and convictions are thrown in there. It is a good mix, especially for a piece like this.

    I don’t really understand the context of the quotes. I don’t get where Shavit is coming from or what he thinks about it. Only at the end, do you give me any clue. It sounds like he is a valuable resource because he lives in that world, but the quotes seem oddly neutral and analytic for someone living in that context. How does he keep the perspective of someone outside looking in? Does he?

    You approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here more from a political angle than a religious one. I appreciate that. Not just political in the American definition. Political in the hellenic sense, too (thus, the Greek tragedy). This is a situation involving the relationships between people and how they get along living with each other. It seems easy to see it more as a tragedy than a moral call when you see the conflict politically.

    But what happens if we take a step back and we do see it religiously?

    Religiously, I think, Israel is just about as interesting for Christians as Britain and India. It is a nation needing to be brought into the fold (not of America, but of the church). An older gentleman provocatively said that the Muslims are closer to Christ than the Jews are. I asked him what he meant. He said that the Muslims at least recognize Jesus as a prophet, while the Jews (generally) hate Jesus the Christ or don’t think much of him (or they are secular Jews). Muslims are more likely to convert than Jews (that was his next point; I disagree).

    I can conceive of secular Jews and I can even conceive of secular Arabs, but I cannot conceive of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as anything but a religious conflict. Hamas is explicitly religious. The Jews are explicitly traditional (even if they are secular at heart, they are religious traditionally; does that make sense? Have you read Chaim Potok?). The anger between the two groups is about land and about the loss of homeland, but for both of these groups, there is no religion without their homeland and no homeland without their religion.

    As for a judgment call that takes all of this into account, I think morally, the creation of Israel was completely immoral and the Palestinians deserve their land back.

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