My Promised Land by Ari Shavit…a book review by Alan Gold

February 16, 2014 by Alan Gold
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Even today, nation states are born out of a people’s hopes and aspirations.


Ari Shavit

Since 1990, thirty four (yes, 34!) new countries have been created. These include Amenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, and others in Europe; in other parts of the world, newly created countries include Namibia, North and South Yemen, Eritrea, Serbia, Kosovo and most recently South Sudan. Locally, there may be problems with claims of illegitimacy made by the Government of the country from which some of these nations have seceded, but in general, the United Nations and other world governments accord them the respect that their nation status merits.

Of course, there’s one relatively recent nation, created in the aftermath of the Second World War, whose legitimacy has been questioned from its inception by its neighbours, and increasingly by growing numbers of United Nations member states. Yes, you guessed…Israel.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-16-at-10.48.48-amYet after six major wars and sixty years of military engagements with armies and terrorist organizations, a nation based in law with a fiercely independent, an often highly critical media and an independent judiciary, Israel’s legitimacy is still being questioned. Despite 66 years of accepting and housing refugees, miraculous economic growth, becoming one of the world’s intellectual and professional powerhouses and offering olive branches which have been rejected out of hand, Israel is increasingly a pariah nation.

The problem began with an indigenous people who considered themselves as Jordanian or Syrian being encouraged to leave by their Arab brothers so that their armies could drive the Jews into the sea. The fact that around 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands, leaving with nothing, doesn’t seem to be worthy of consideration by those who are so passionate about Palestinian refugees. Perhaps because they were willing absorbed by the nation to which they fled.

The term ‘useful idiots’ was supposedly coined by Lenin to describe the sorts of people in the West who were ideological cheerleaders for early Communism, who knew few of the realities of Communism’s barbarity, and were little more than armchair ideologues.

The same term can be applied to today’s pro-Palestinian useful idiots, often of the left, often associated with Western liberal Universities, often parroting socio-political slogans invented for them by Palestinian propagandists, who are leading today’s battle to de-legitimize Israel and question its very right to exist. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is their latest weapon.

The move to delegitimize Israel began after the Six Day War, when people who lived in the West Bank, in Gaza and in refugee camps, were told that they were Palestinians. This ethnicity was created by Yasser Arafat who used race as a way of militating the refugees into victimhood.

For those not familiar with Israel’s history, this introduction sets the landscape for the first book I’ve read which is non-polemical, and actually deals intelligently and passionately with the century-old expression of Zionism.

Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land – The Truimph and Tragedy of Israel, is a brilliantly written explanation of the effects of Zionism from the perspective of an insider, somebody whose family has lived the Zionist dream from the very beginning. But in his book, you won’t find an apologia for Zionism. Rather, he writes about its triumphs, its benefits, but also the cost that other people were forced to suffer at the behest of those who viewed the recreation of biblical Israel as a way of ending Jewish exile.

Shavit’s family has been associated with Palestine/Israel since the end of the 19th Century. Indeed, his book begins in 1898 when his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich brought 21 British Jews from Port Said in Egypt to Jaffa. The mission was to report back to Theodore Herzl on the suitability of the state of the land for Jewish settlement.

Shavit writes in the style of the novelist, told through narrative arcs which leap around time and place. Each of his chapters is written against a landscape of place in time, much of it told from the point of view of the author himself and his ancestors.

It could be argued that Shavit is Israel’s archetypal political persona. He spent his childhood in the university city of Rehovot, served as an elite paratrooper and then joined Israel’s peace movement. During the Oslo Accords, he was head of the Association of Civil Rights and was the most prominent voice of Israel’s left. But when he was in his early 30’s he became disenchanted with the activists, but not because he supported territorial expansion or agreed with the West Bank settler movement. Instead, he saw the left wing activists of Israel as being blind to Palestinian terrorism, accepting it as a legitimate way of fighting Israel’s legitimacy.

Today, Shavit is a centrist, still believing that the settlements are wrong, understanding the value and necessity of Zionism while at the same time defining the cost of that necessity.

While Zionism contained within itself the denial of British Mandatory Arab self-determination, he argues forcefully that the Arabs who lived in the mandated area, even after Israel’s birth, never considered themselves a separate nation, but an extension of the Islamic umma.

It is through his family, from his great-grandfather onwards, that Shavit tells the story of Israel. We see, through his perspective, Israeli suppression Arab history, but also of Jewish diaspora culture and the Holocaust. This confronting look at Israeli history is explained by the author as a manifestation of the narrative which was created by Zionism; Jews were no longer subservient victimized ghetto dwellers, but were a new breed, brave, resilient, descendants of David, Solomon and Deborah, returning to their ancestral roots to reclaim their history, their birthplace, their motherland.

In doing so, Shavit tells us, the Zionists buried both the fruit orchards of the Palestinians and the Yeshivot of the shtetl; they ignored the reality of those natives who had recently lived there, and the actuality of the six million murdered Jews.

The nation was only nine years old when Shavit was born. Resource poor, it faced a massive influx of migrants, the largest in modern history, and the population of the land doubled in its first three years of existence. Yet despite privation, struggles, wars, and hostility on its borders, it’s most vexed battle was with its own conscience, of which Shavit was a key player.

Like many who were politically centrist, Shavit opposed the post-Six Day War move to settle the West Bank. His opposition wasn’t because of the potential of a peace process, but because occupation would damage Israel’s soul, and its global standing; it would turn it overnight from a victim of Arab aggression and intransigence into an imperialist. He says, “Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was totally wrong. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there.”

My Promised Land isn’t a polemical work. Rather, it is a profoundly dignified and intelligent perspective on Zionism, Israel and morality. It asks uncomfortable questions and delves deeply into the ethics, morality and principles of a nation state which has been at war with its neighbours, and itself, since the day of its creation. And unlike the ‘useful idiots’ who are blind to a story which has two sides, and who act as propagandists for the one side only, Ari Shavit enters this most complex and fraught landscape with his eyes fully open.

Alan Gold

Alan Gold

He condemns the Israeli peaceniks for not having the courage to look in any detail or understanding at the origins and cause of the Middle East conflict and ways in which it could be resolved. The idea that the conflict with the Arab neighbours and the Palestinian peoples could be ended by the simple act of withdrawal is, according to the author, simplistic. He says, “There was a magic belief that Israel was the supreme power that could end the conflict by ending the occupation. It ignored Arab aspirations and culture. It overlooked the millions of Palestinian refugees whose main concern was not occupation but a wish to return to their lands.”

This is a book which should be required reading for the anti-Israel camp followers. It might not change their minds, but it will at least teach them some history.


Alan Gold is an internationally published and translated writer. His latest novel is Bloodline, Book One of the Heritage Trilogy, which deals with 3000 years of Jewish history.



2 Responses to “My Promised Land by Ari Shavit…a book review by Alan Gold”
  1. I’m in the middle of reading My Promised Land, and am finding it absorbing and fascinating and moving. A probably one-eyed supporter of Israel I’ve never until now let myself read a history of the country that tells everybody’s story, in case I hear something I don’t want to know … but My Promised Land is so sober and calm and honest and intelligent it never raises my hackles.

    This is a brilliant review, which I will send to people who are bewildered about the (in my view incomprehensible) polarised response to My Promised Land. It will encourage people to read the book and that can only be a good thing.

    Thank you Alan Gold.

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    What a great review, because it makes me want to read the book, and gives a good idea of the content. Thanks, Alan Gold.

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