My Promised Land

imagesMy Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Ari Shavit
2013 / 464 pages
rating – ?   – memoir/history

Later:  Considering the title, I took this book to be a memoir, not a history or official anything. I took it to be thoroughly biased to Shavit’s point of view and agenda. This is part of why I originally gave it a rating of 9.5 and still might go back to that.

**   I have edited the rating because I see where there is much controversy about this book.  It was written for an American audience and many Israelis apparently take issue with the thrust.  Because I am an American (and not even Jewish) I do not know that much about the subject.  I rated it high because I felt like I learned a lot about the current situation and how it arose.  I saw that it was obviously an Israeli point of view (only) as opposed to Arab or even balanced.  But it may be that Shavit has also only used sources which support his ideas.  And therein lies the issue – what is his idea?  What is his reason for writing it – to convince the US to continue supporting Israel?  I sense that it might be very pro-Zionist to the point of fatalism – “We may have made mistakes but we’re here now, so what? We need support or the big bad Arabs will get us.”

My first impression was a serious dislike to the pro-Zionist attitude, but I thought that changed.  Apparently it didn’t quite.  ??? More later – after a group discussion at: the Yahoo All-nonfiction Group 

original review:

With My Promised Land it seems Shavit has set himself the elusive, complex and extraordinarily difficult goal of answering some rather existential questions about Israel, a seriously threatened country which is, at the same time, occupying another people and their land. Shabit is looking for answers to such questions as “Why is Israel? What is Israel? Will Israel?” within the context of its history as filtered by his own personal life and journalistic experience. In some ways it is very disappointing because to me (with limited knowledge and less experience) much of the thrust is still basically pro-Zionist. On the other hand, I think it may be a very realistic portrayal from an Israeli point of view – quite patriotic but still pinpoints the times and place(s) where Israel went awry and the thinking which got them there.

**Note – if you read this, get past the glorification in chapters 1 through 4 and read especially chapters 5 and 11. Overall the book is excellent but the it took some time for me to appreciate it because Shavit’s chronological perspective is so very well done – and I’m not sure I agree with him on the beginnings – don’t really know.

In Chapter 1 he shares his vision of his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an English Jew, disembarking at Jappa – starting a new life with his family. In 1900, Bentwich faced the same problems American Jewery is facing today:

“…how to maintain a Jewish identity in an open world, how to preserve a Judaism not shielded by the walls of a ghetto, how to prevent the dispersion of the Jews into the liberty and prosperity of the modern West.”

The narrative is brilliant, switching from present tense for a base in the story at a given time, to past tense for prior to that time and occasionally future for after that time. Then he switches the present tense for the next segment of the story again going to past and future for info before and after this new time. It’s fascinating to read while also being beautifully and naturally executed.

In the first chapters Shavit introduces the reader to some very early immigrant settlers who brought Western and European culture, ideas and technology along with them including, possibly, some of the worst ideas of the lot, superiority and colonialism. And for most of these folks, settling in the barren northern areas was mostly a very positive experience.

Then the author goes on to describe the later but equally ambitious, hard working, and idealistic settlers peacefully making homes and businesses in the valleys and plains, creating little utopias of economic prosperity and improving conditions for all. Only a very occasional note of possible 19th century European colonialist thinking creeps in. A few Arabs might have been a wee tad unhappy, especially as more and more oppressed European Jews immigrated to that “empty” land, but isn’t life better for everyone? Shabit goes to great length to show how the Jews were so good to their Arab “serfs,” truly this was, in the beginning, “a secular, humanist utopia.” (Not unlike what the Afrikaners had found in South Africa a century or so prior?)

Some of these heroic immigrant Jews were very wealthy and bought up large tracts of land while others received backing from the Rothschilds, a tidbit about which precious little is said in this book.

By Chapter 5 I’m disgusted. If this is Liberal thinking then there is no hope. The Zionists’ motives and early efforts are portrayed as almost totally honorable and heroic – “benign.” Certainly no one went there with the goal of making big money; it was always for noble reasons or personal safety. He highlights the “elite” with attention given to their usually very difficult lives prior to coming to Israel.

The reactions of the Arabs are depicted as being brutal and barbaric, almost nonsensical. While Zionist heros are possibly idealistic, at worst, the nationalistic Arab leaders are only “perceived” to be patriotic – at best. (Is this like the old Indian uprisings were called massacres but when Americans won they were battles.)

To the few who actually foresaw a struggle the solution was always to move the Arabs and others out so the Jewish population could live in peace. After all, it’s just a little country and all they want is peace. Right?

A brief aside: While teaching I found two boys fighting over a toy. I asked what was going on. One boy said “I had it first!” The other boy said “He won’t let go!” I think that’s the problem here and Shavitz shows us that there would have been no problem if the Palestinians had just let go. LOL

Mercifully, it’s Chapter 5 which opens Israel to enormous criticism. Taking over small northern villages is one thing, but simply obliterating the entire city of Lydda because it was in the wrong place is another. It is, says Shavit, the “black box” of Israel and his depiction shows why – all the bad things to follow came out of that black box of Lydda.

Chapter 6 is more about Holocaust victims and the difficulties many of them and other immigrants had. (This is chronological, but it seems Shavit uses it to bring the reader’s attention back to the suffering of the Jews.)

Chapter 7 is about Israel’s attaining the atomic bomb – the rationale, the opposition. Israel, throughout this whole period was becoming a nation of warriors.

And then comes the necessity of the occupied settlements in Chapter 8 and detention camps in Chapter 9. Not pretty, not heroic, not inspiring, but brutal and oppressive, the comparison to the Nazi camps is not denied and it’s hard to read stuff – it was probably hard for Shavit to write, although from what I understand he’s been doing this for many years.

But now in the face of the horror described in the preceding chapters Shavit falls back on old rationalizations, excuses – see what the Palestinians have made us do? Just because we (the Israelis) occupied some territory the Palestinians turned us into monstrous prison guards. (It’s all their fault.)

As the chapters roll on the story becomes more revealing of Israel as it is today with the difficulties between the parties and issues – hawks and doves, Liberals and Conservatives, secular and orthodox Jews snd, somewhat different, the ultra-orthodox Jews*, Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews, the PLO and the peace process, Palestinian and other refugees. This is great reading – Shavit is open about who he is and what he believes, but it seems each faction he touches on, no matter how different the views, is treated with respect.

Chapter 12 is about the nightclub scene, sex, drugs, and a new generation in
2000. Chapter 13 includes a sample of the Muslim-Israeli experience. Chapter 14 introduces the reality of today, the politics, the wars and strikes and turmoil, including Iran and their potential war capabilities. Chapter 15 includes an uprising by the middle class who seem to be getting squeezed out along with another romantic Jewish success story. And Chapter 16 is more information about the reality of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and how it may be too late to avoid war.

Finally, Chapter 17 is a summing up, looking both backwards and forwards.
In this chapter he reiterates the dilemma of maintaining a Jewish identity in an open world – the tragedy it would seem is that we no longer live in a world where that identity can be preserved and the connections to the 21st century maintained. It’s not a bright and happy ending, but it feels real.

For a different slant on the same book see this review from the Jerusalem Post


This Guardian Review of both Shavit’s book and Ilan Pappe’s “The Idea of Israel” in The Guardian:



5 Responses to My Promised Land

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Wow, this is an impressive review, Bekah, you’ve tackled one of the most vexed questions in contemporary geopolitics and I thank you for it. It sounds like a book I should try to read, for the same reasons as you have.


  2. Thank you, but there is a great deal of controversy about the book. Many people, many Israelis I guess, do not like it a bit. It was apparently written for Americans with the attitude of fatalism and “we made mistakes but now what?” I don’t know – I may have missed something.


  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh sure, I gathered that from your review. But whatever the book’s flaws, if it starts a conversation that’s good.


    • I’m fairly sure it will get a discussion – heh. I just bought The Idea of Israel by Ilan Pappe, also new on the market which takes a very different view – anti-Zionist, I think.


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