My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel Info

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE
OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
AND THE ECONOMIST

Winner of the Natan Book
Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book
Award


An authoritative and deeply personal narrative
history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential
journalists writing about the Middle East today


 
Not since Thomas L. Friedman’s groundbreaking
From Beirut to Jerusalem has a book captured the essence and the
beating heart of the Middle East as keenly and dynamically as My
Promised Land
. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures,
Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Ari Shavit draws on
interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well
as his own family’s story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the
Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the
sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of
profound historical dimension.
 
We meet Shavit’s
great-grandfather, a British Zionist who in 1897 visited the Holy Land
on a Thomas Cook tour and understood that it was the way of the future
for his people; the idealist young farmer who bought land from his Arab
neighbor in the 1920s to grow the Jaffa oranges that would create
Palestine’s booming economy; the visionary youth group leader who,
in the 1940s, transformed Masada from the neglected ruins of an
extremist sect into a powerful symbol for Zionism; the Palestinian who
as a young man in 1948 was driven with his family from his home during
the expulsion from Lydda; the immigrant orphans of Europe’s
Holocaust, who took on menial work and focused on raising their children
to become the leaders of the new state; the pragmatic engineer who was
instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s,
in the only interview he ever gave; the zealous religious Zionists who
started the settler movement in the 1970s; the dot-com entrepreneurs and
young men and women behind Tel-Aviv’s booming club scene; and
today’s architects of Israel’s foreign policy with Iran,
whose nuclear threat looms ominously over the tiny country.
As
it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli
condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important
questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? Can Israel
survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that
Israel is currently facing, My Promised Land uses the defining
events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a
landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose
identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global
political landscape.
Praise for My Promised
Land

“This book will sweep you up in its narrative
force and not let go of you until it is done. [Shavit’s]
accomplishment is so unlikely, so total . . . that it makes you believe
anything is possible, even, God help us, peace in the Middle
East.”—Simon Schama, Financial Times

 
“[A] must-read book.”—Thomas L.
Friedman, The New York Times

 

“Important and powerful . . . the least tendentious book about
Israel I have ever read.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New
York Times Book Review

 
“Spellbinding . . .
Shavit’s prophetic voice carries lessons that all sides need to
hear.”—The Economist
 

“One of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel
in years.”—The Wall Street Journal

Average Ratings and Reviews
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4.34

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Ratings and Reviews From Market


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Reviews for My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel:

4

Sep 17, 2014

Where you’re standing makes a big difference in how you feel about Ari Shavit’s book. I started My Promised Land five months ago, during the tenuous cease-fire following last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. What struck me most forcefully, then, was the willful blindness of Zionist pioneers such as Shavit’s great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who came to Palestine from Britain in the 1890s full of hope, intent on creating a sanctuary for Europe’s Jews regardless of the Where you’re standing makes a big difference in how you feel about Ari Shavit’s book. I started My Promised Land five months ago, during the tenuous cease-fire following last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. What struck me most forcefully, then, was the willful blindness of Zionist pioneers such as Shavit’s great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who came to Palestine from Britain in the 1890s full of hope, intent on creating a sanctuary for Europe’s Jews regardless of the consequences for the land’s existing inhabitants.

Despite the idealism, hard work, and heroism that characterized the founding generation—the Kibbutz-builders, the orange-growers, the ardent young people dancing by firelight in the desert—it all came down to displacement. Shavit was telling the story of how the blindness of Israel’s founding generation played out through statehood and beyond, through the many wars and the rare peaceful lulls when the nation grew and prospered. The “erasure” (his word) of Palestinian villages such as Lydda, the forced emigration of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the settlers’ fanaticism, the racism and injustice at the core of the “revolution” (his word) that forged a sovereign state where only Jews (and predominantly Ashkenazim) enjoy full rights and myriad opportunities for education and economic advancement: this seemed to be the story he was telling.

I knew that story all too well. As a liberal-minded American Jew and as a modern French historian interested in the postwar era, I’ve thought long and hard about Israel’s place in the world, from the anti-Semitism that sparked the Zionist vision, the nationalism that shaped it, the social engineering characteristic of left-wing utopian ideologies that defined its spirit for decades, to the Holocaust trauma so often employed by its defenders (among them my teachers in religious school) as sufficient justification for anything Israel did.

In an essay I published during the second intifada (which happened to come out right after 9/11), I laid bare the contradictions I felt in commenting publicly, as a Jew, on Israel’s actions. I’ve subsequently written on the Tunisian Jewish writer Albert Memmi’s troubling about-face regarding French decolonization and on the moral cost of France’s Dirty War in Algeria. I’ve advocated for peace and justice for both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict for most of my adult life, although I’ve despaired in recent years, I will admit.

My Promised Land wasn’t challenging my views, and that’s probably why I set it aside, halfway through. Sure, Shavit told the story nicely, but I’d rather use my serious reading time to prod myself, or to learn something new. If I had finished the book in September, I probably would have been disappointed by the ending, because Shavit winds up doing an about-face of his own. “We probably had to come,” he writes. “And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable.” It takes blindness and fanaticism to create a miracle and sustain it against the various crises Israel has confronted and continues to endure, he argues, the external threats to its very existence, the internal disunity, inequality, and corruption that undermine the state’s moral foundation. Not to mention the terrorist threat posed by Islamic radicals both within and outside of Israel’s borders.

Ah, I would have said to myself in September. I’ve heard that complaint before. French critics of the war their government was waging against Algerian terrorists in the 1950s worried more about their nation’s soul, it often seemed, than about the actual suffering of the Algerians. And how about that nostalgia for the boy and girl pioneers, the plucky orange growers, the self-abnegating kibbutzniks? Shavit exposes the denial that even “bleeding-heart Israeli liberals” (his words) resort to for what it is, the disingenuousness of expressing outrage at the injustices faced by present-day Palestinians while failing to address the consequences of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, (the catastrophe, or Nakba, as Palestinians call it). He himself will not deny the “brutal deed” (his term), but nor will he beat his breast in anguish to salve his conscience. Without the Nakba, after all, he would not exist.

Last Tuesday I was on my way to Puerto Rico for a vacation and there was My Promised Land, beckoning from the home screen of my Kindle. I resumed reading it on the plane, kept with it this time, even taking it along to the beach. When the Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred, I found myself reacting to Shavit’s story in an entirely different way. He is no apologist for Israel’s past, although he admires the miracle of his nation’s founding, “the élan vital of a young nation fighting adamantly while believing that its will to live would overcome the death surrounding it.” (I told you he writes well.) He is dismayed by present-day Israeli society, seeing the hedonism and materialism of the elite, and of the young in particular, as a betrayal of Zionist values. A failure of will. Almost despite himself, he admires the vitality and ingenuity of the modern capitalist state. After all, “Zionism was about regenerating Jewish vitality,” he grudgingly admits.

What gripped me, though, was Shavit’s pessimism about the future. The chickens are coming home to roost.
As I look out at the land Herbert Bentwich left behind in the end of April 1897, I wonder how long we can maintain our miraculous survival story. One more generation? Two? Three? Eventually the hand holding the sword itself must loosen its grip. Eventually the sword itself will rust. No nation can face the world surrounding it for over a hundred years with a jutting spear.Sitting on the beach in Puerto Rico while French authorities hunted for the murderers, with the news full of reports about Muslim anger at the West, Shavit’s final question hit a nerve. “How long can we sustain this lunacy?” ...more
4

May 13, 2014

To begin my review of My Promised Land, I decided to talk some cognitive psychology:

It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 87

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather To begin my review of My Promised Land, I decided to talk some cognitive psychology:

It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 87

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become a kernel of a causal narrative. ...

Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of people's actions and intentions. You are always ready to interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits--causes that you can readily match to effects. ... The halo effect helps keep explanatory narratives simple and coherent by exaggerating the consistency of evaluations: good people do only good things and bad people do only bad. ...

Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. T,F&S, pp. 199-201

I've started with quotes from the Nobel laureate and 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman since people have so many and often such diametrically opposed stories about Israel. The psychology points out how that can be.

When it comes to Israel, people are polarized. On the whole if we have a story we are comfortable with, we resist messing with it. On the whole people seek to confirm what we already believe. But Ari Shavit's book doesn't fit well within a simplistic story. There's just too much, too many stories, too many points of view, to do that. That's the main value of this book. Moreover the people and places come across vividly.

Ari Shavit is a left-of-center Israeli journalist for Haaretz who's telling his family story intertwined with a multiplicity of other Israeli stories. His great-grandfather, "a romantic, a Jew, and a Victorian gentleman," toured Palestine in 1897 and then emigrated from England, followed by most of his family. That story is followed by personalities and situations from before the world wars all the way up to the present day and Obama and Iran.

I think the book comes across even-handed. But that's probably because I lean to the Left as Shavit does. Similarly, he greatly pleases Leon Wieseltier. Elliott Abrams, perhaps predictably, less so. I wish I could link to his article in the spring 2014 issue of Jewish Review of Books, but it's locked. He thinks Shavit occasionally indulges in over-confessing, beyond what the facts support, I mean, and then adopts a tragic-hero posture about that. Abrams did raise some new facts. For example, not all the Arabs had been on the land for generations, as the story goes. Some had come recently from other parts of the Middle East, for instance, when the Jewish immigrants got the citrus-growing industry started and had good jobs and improved living standards to offer. Quoting the revisionist Israeli historian Benny Morris, Abrams also thought Shavit over-simplified the Lydda episode during the 1948 war of independence--the excerpt published in the Oct. 21, 2013 New Yorker. Shavit portrays those events as a premeditated expulsion and killings, and he then places that episode at the heart of Israel's existential status, while for Morris they were part of what was, at the time, a civil war, with outside aid for the Palestinians (presumably) coming from their Arab brothers. It was three years after the Holocaust, and a war for survival for the Israelis that would have been a "vast slaughter" had they lost.

What did I learn that was new? This was the first time I heard the peasants on the land referred to as "serfs." And I think that's right. There were wealthy Ottoman owners, their estates, and their serfs. I did not know that the Jews in Israel are majority Sephardi, that is, Jews from Arab lands. That means not "white." That'll mess with some narratives. I heard the term "White Ashkenazi Supporters of Peace" (WASPs!) used for the first time. I learned a lot about Israel's nuclear status--all that stuff that's not acknowledged. I learned about the past bombing of the nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria. Did I really need to know that much about the night life? I got a better picture of history and mood. I got a lot of confrontation with the term "Oriental" as applied to the Sephardi. In fact, I know it was a past convention to think of the Middle East as "East" and "Oriental," and "Orientalism" as the study of the people of the Middle East--which is a whole other colonialist story in its own right. Oh, and I got a better feel for why Israel can't just correct its settlement problem, any more than the opponent Arab countries can simply pick up and change certain proclivities.

I wasn't really "in the mood" to read this book. I did it for the book club. Since I wasn't in the mood I put off getting the book and ended up with a forced read through the (for me) bleak Kindle terrain. The book wasn't hard to read. It went fast; there was just a lot of it. Abrams pointed out that Ari Shavit has been called "Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Forever" for his tendency to characterize every year as the critical year, the 11th hour, or the last chance. I noticed, too, that just about every young woman who shows up in this book is "a beauty."

Despite all the glowing reviews I knew it wasn't a 5-star book. You learn but it is not revolutionary or life-changing. It's good journalism.

Back to my opening comments--those who tend toward the pro-Israel are going to look askance at some of the confessional material and tone. But it's not quite as across the board as it may seem from my brief allusions. Those who tend in the other direction may be dismissive of Shavit's loving his country and not condemning it out of hand. I've already seen some letters-to-the-editor of that nature.

As for me, it's amazing to see how precise and analytic we can be of the next person or group, while having, to borrow a phrase, a log in our own eye. My latest learning about polemic is that its focus is most laser-like on what is similar. Israel/Jews are now similar to all these other countries so the job of polemic is to create distinction and make that similarity invisible. Can you believe that the Jews of the late 19th century believed they were hated because they were stateless, and that their situation would normalize once they had one?

Ari Shavit looked at just about every point of view you can imagine, but he didn't have anything to say--didn't analyze--those who are looking at Israel, other than seeming to accept it, I think, as a judgment. I mean, he could say that, yes, Israel has regional power, and then he could step outside that view and say that, given the population numbers and territory, the surrounding Arab countries hold the power trump card. I wish he'd looked back at the lookers, the judges, and analyzed them, as he did just about everything else!

Well, I'm running out of steam, and may have been working with a dearth of steam from the outset, anyway.

Since there were a couple of links I couldn't include (missing links?--ha!), here are a couple. Shavit's peace proposal from The New Republic. Well, maybe I'll stop with that for now.

And one more psychological reference from Kahneman: knowing one's own biases can contribute to peace in interpersonal relationships. Why not in the world at large? ...more
5

Sep 09, 2015

Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of
existential crisis.
Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries,
and letters, as well as his own family story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the
Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both
personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.

It's clear Shavit, a secular leftist, loves his country, but is Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of
existential crisis.
Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries,
and letters, as well as his own family story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the
Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both
personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.

It's clear Shavit, a secular leftist, loves his country, but is conflicted about the founding of Israel and the conflicts. He's a strong believer in a two-state solution. He pretty much ignores
the Biblical promise of the land to the people of Israel.
There is chapter in the book in which Shavit describes the expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda ...
( now Lod), in 1948. He shows great sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs.
There are moving parts of the book -- especially when Young Holocaust survivors made a new life with himself in Israel.
Kibbutz builders, Orange growers, Young people dancing in the desert, came together from
their displacement.
Then there is a chapter in the book -- titled 'The New Yorker',... which seems to be the
most anti-Israel section in the book.
Shavit's aim was to be 'fair' ....but 'The New Yorker' chapter was a little depressing. It 'seems' it's only a matter of time until Israel will no longer be 'A Promised Land'.
I feel it's the right thing to do: to split the land- (yet, I have my own memories and history Israel with Kibbutz life, family in Israel, etc .... and have emotional attachments).
The problems are complex......gut -wrenching rendering of a very distressing road traveled by both parties.
Ari Shavit did an excellent job with this book... capturing the essence and beating heartbeat of the Middle East.

Well worth reading! ...more
5

Sep 20, 2013

This is by far the best book of non-ficion I've read this year, and certainly the one that brought me closest to understanding Israel, and along with it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What made this book different from all of the other books I've read about this subject so far is that unlike most other authors Shavit focuses on the micro rather than the macro. It tells the story of Israel and the Zionist utopian project that was the beginning of what we now know as Israel, by providing very This is by far the best book of non-ficion I've read this year, and certainly the one that brought me closest to understanding Israel, and along with it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What made this book different from all of the other books I've read about this subject so far is that unlike most other authors Shavit focuses on the micro rather than the macro. It tells the story of Israel and the Zionist utopian project that was the beginning of what we now know as Israel, by providing very little handy political facts. No chapter on the Yom Kippur War or on any of the other wars or Camp Davids that in most books about Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would define the face of the country portrayed. Instead Shavit zooms in. On people, on certain events and places. He makes the macro comprehensible by focusing in on the micro. And he does so with a deep passion for Israel and its people, and at the same time an astonishing ability to capture the state of moral ambiguity that Israel has been living in since day one.
...more
4

Sep 16, 2015


Excellent and comprehensive narrative that helps you understand the history of the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the background behind the conflict with the Palestinian people.
I am far from being an expert but after reading this fantastic non-fiction book, I am much more well-informed. Highly recommended if you're interested in the topic.
5

Sep 26, 2014

Old review Missing in Action ...
but there are many excellent reviews.

3

Feb 17, 2014

A problem of humanity is "specialness".

The problem for Jews, historically, has not been that they have thought themselves special, what group doesn't? It was that non-Jews thought of Jews as special in a negative way - as targets for abuse. Christianity made a habit of this and National Socialism made it a top priority.

Zionism created a mirror image: Jews would now be privileged instead of abused, but specialness would remain. In Zionist eyes, having been targets, Jews were now entitled to A problem of humanity is "specialness".

The problem for Jews, historically, has not been that they have thought themselves special, what group doesn't? It was that non-Jews thought of Jews as special in a negative way - as targets for abuse. Christianity made a habit of this and National Socialism made it a top priority.

Zionism created a mirror image: Jews would now be privileged instead of abused, but specialness would remain. In Zionist eyes, having been targets, Jews were now entitled to target others (the Arabs of Palestine) without restraint. Injustice justified a new injustice.

Israel is a solidification of this. It is a standing injustice with no apology. In fact, it is so righteous in the eyes of Zionism, that Israel feels nothing strange about demanding that those they oppress be required to legitimize their oppression by declaring the State of the Jews, Israel, has the "right to exist". For a slave to tell the master that slavery is right relieves the master of any moral responsibility. This relief is so great for the master, that he could well be tempted to beat the admission out of the slave.

This is the dilemma of Zionism. It seeks to slam the scales of justice down in the opposite direction, so that Jews have the upper hand in one place from now on, but then wants this imbalance acknowledged as true justice. It can never be and the sense that this is so gnaws at Israel, an itch that can't be scratched.

The one and only solution to the problem that Zionism has created for itself - Jewish supremacy - is the grant of full equality to the natives in Palestine.

The entire world is being painfully weaned from the idea of any group being privileged over any other. Israel stands defiantly blocking the road of this progress. The roadblock has no future and that makes manning it ever more desperate, searching for more extreme measures like atomic weapons, 30 foot concrete walls, the defiant settling of occupied land, a thumb in the eye of the United Nations, shrill charges of antisemitism when Israel is criticized, the endless holding up of the holocaust, like a crucifix held before a threatening werewolf.

Self-righteousness has hit the ceiling when the oppressor claims to be the victim.

The future of Judaism is clear, as has happened already in the United States - it will be just another group, special to its members of course, but not marked out for abuse by others, or placed up upon a pedestal for privilege.



It is only recently that a crack in the propaganda of Israel (hasbara) has appeared with the recognition of the facts of the Nakba, the catastrophe for the Palestinians of the creation of the State of Israel and the years leading up to it.

My Promised Land is an attempt to overcome this "Story of Israel", of the kind propagated by the movie Exodus, pure propaganda that has been regular fare for Americans (and Israelis) for decades, with some concessions to fact. Ari Shavit tells us about some nasty stuff that Israelis have done, so that he can establish credibility, but it's a gloss that doesn't come off to this reader. This book is still largely the same old story of heroics and transformation, of the servile Jew become the manly sun-bronzed warrior, with some hand-wringing that the old spirit of the kibbutz is dead.

Justice stands on it's own with each of us. You and I must make decisions on what we will do concerning others. To be just we must look away from the mystical view so entrenched from our upbringing. Ari Shavit is as earnest as can be, but Rationalizing Robbery would be a better title for this book.

Americans, who enjoy full freedom and equality, can, provided they are Jewish, move to Israel and be granted the right to take land from the natives, under the pretext that there were people practicing Judaism there 2000 years ago.

To have New Yorkers, with full rights as Americans, claiming Palestinian land as a Jewish right, would be farcical if it were not such an outrage: those that have it all in a distant land come to help themselves from those who have nothing.

The message of Ari Shavit's book is simple: we did some bad stuff but it was worth it. It's hard to get though it without gagging and, to be honest, I skipped a couple of chapters because I got tired of the "it was a nasty job but I had to do it" kind of testimony from veterans of the Nakba, the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing that has Arabs rotting in squalid 65 year old refugee camps as I write, while Israelis shop in malls and bathe on the beaches that once were open to all.

The ultimate absurdity is that Israel is somehow necessary for the protection of Jews worldwide. The United States has long proven to be the true promised land, not just for Jews but for all groups of people. Americans should wake up and shrug off the hypocritical "special relationship" with Israel that is a betrayal of liberty and justice for all.

The only reason to read My Promised Land is to get an idea of what the view of a moderate from inside the bubble is like - most don't try to be as even-handed as Ari Shavit.

Skip this book and read Max Blumenthal's outstanding factual look at modern Israel: Goliath.

...more
1

May 17, 2015

A fairy tale that claims to report historical facts
The biggest problem with this book is author’s credibility. Although the book purports to report historical facts, it fails even the basic tests for a historical book. Let me give a few examples:
1. The book does not have a SINGLE REFERENCE to established historical publications to substantiate the presented facts. The section “Source Notes” either contains the notes of the kind “person X told me that”, or “I wrote this in Haaretz” on such and such date”
2. The description of the events in Lydda is based on gross historical distortions, as shown in many publications. You may, for example, refer to this article “What Happened at Lydda” http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/07/what-happened-at-lydda/ and the follow-up discussion that contains opinions of the well-knows historians of that period, including Efraim Karsh and Benny Morris. To the best of my knowledge, Shavit never provided a comprehensive response to his critics.
3. The book was published in English, and apparently translations to a number of other languages are coming. It is strange that one language, Hebrew, is missing in this list. One would expect that the book would be published in Hebrew as soon as possible, thus to be available to the audience that witnessed many of the events that the book describes. Perhaps, the reason for that “omission” is that the Hebrew edition would undergo a serious analysis and critique by those who lived through the events in the book. As a result of that, all the glorious reviews and prizes given to the book would be discredited, and, most importantly, sales of the book in English (and the author’s royalties) would be severely impacted.
So, if you want to read some fairy tales about history of Israel, find another book, that clearly says that it is a fairy tale. Just do not treat this one as a true history.
1

June 19, 2015

This book is what gives propaganda its worst name.
As one who identifies herself with the Israeli Left; as an Israeli bourn and bread; as one who grew up reading Ha-Aretz newspaper, I was horrified to read Shavit’s distortion of Israel’s history, in order to fit it to his ideological template.
There are plenty of reasons to be critical of Israel with the truth. We don’t need his half-truths. We don’t need what he selects to cite or chooses to omit from the organic turn of events in the history of modern Israel. This book is what gives propaganda its worst name.
5

February 20, 2016

Extraordinary
Told mainly through a series of vignettes and interviews, this fine book builds toward one overarching conclusion, namely that Israel, as it currently stands (politically, socially and demographically), is a country living on borrowed time.

It is, at once, the idealistic, romantic story of Israel's 19th century beginnings, which ever so quickly folds into the initial conflicts with Palestinian neighbors, followed by conflicts ever more intense with each succeeding decade, and leading ultimately to the situation today in which a prosperous and powerful country of 6 million people is surrounded by 3 or 4 hundred million Arabs who, for the most part, wish they weren't there.

The author, Ari Shavit, a proud Israeli citizen, sees his country as a land careening toward disaster unless and until it threads the needle out of the vortex in which it now finds itself. In a certain sense, this is a 'Waiting for Godot' story in which it appears that no solution is anywhere in sight. For there is, for certain, a poison cup in this land from which both sides drunk deeply.

So profoundly distressing and so dangerous is the current situation that, at least to me, the only possible present path forward would seem to be a long series of moderating mini-steps that might, over time, ever so gradually dissipate the fear and hostility that today governs the multiple 'players and parties' who inhabit this troubled land.
5

May 13, 2013

I received an ARC of My Promised Land by Ari Shavit from Random House Publishing Group in return for which I agreed to write a review. The opinions expressed in my review are my own.

It was obvious to me from the very beginning of this fascinating and informative book that for Ari Shavit writing this history of those who developed and continue to nourish the state of Israel was a labor of love. The whole atmosphere of this reading experience was one of devotion to telling Israel's story from the I received an ARC of My Promised Land by Ari Shavit from Random House Publishing Group in return for which I agreed to write a review. The opinions expressed in my review are my own.

It was obvious to me from the very beginning of this fascinating and informative book that for Ari Shavit writing this history of those who developed and continue to nourish the state of Israel was a labor of love. The whole atmosphere of this reading experience was one of devotion to telling Israel's story from the beginning of the state to the present time as well as hopes for the future. It was done as factually as possible by telling the story directly from as many people who were able to share what they experienced in the context of the time frame in which these events occurred. For each of the participants, in sharing their personal experience, the passion, courage, and attitude to never give up on the formation of the Israeli state is a constant. The dedication to forming a state as well as providing it with the continued devotion to having it remain relevant and viable as an entity to be reckoned with globally is an inspiration and testament to the strength of the human spirit.

As Shavit puts it, "Israel is a nation-state founded in the heart of the Arab world... A wide circle of 350 million Arabs surrounds the Zionist state and threatens its very existence." An inner circle of 10 million Palestinians also poses a threat to Israel's ability to survive. Given those numbers, Israel doesn't appear to have much going for it. Unless, of course, the sheer will power to exist as a free society is taken into account. Israel is continued proof that people with one specific goal in mind, the right and necessity to have and keep a homeland, is motivation enough to succeed no matter what the cost.

The subtitle to My Promised Land is 'The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel'. Shavit begins his story with the arrival in Jaffa of 30 passengers from London, England, among whom is is his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich. It is Bentwich who believes that Jews must settle in their ancient homeland. Shavit follows the route his great-grandfather took upon arrival in Jaffa, and he continues throughout the book to visit all the areas in which early settlers were faced with challenge after challenge in learning how to live productively in places that were essentially undeveloped. He tells how these settlers learned to work the land. If technology did not exist to support their activity, they invented it themselves. The dedication of those people was awe inspiring. They had to be creative, practical, and find sources of income to support these new ideas in agriculture which led to more development in other areas of setting up a life style. Those early years were full of back breaking labor, but no matter what the challenge someone always came through with answers. The result was the development of the orange industry in Jaffa which distributed the fruit throughout Europe.

There are many success stories throughout Israel's history many of which I was unaware. What stands out most about the story of the Jews who came to settle the Israeli state is those who survived the Holocaust. Before Shavit details that, he writes about Masada. For me, that is one of the most heart breaking, and yet inspiring, events in history. I was familiar with the Masada story, but I did not know about the events in the 20th century that led to the revisiting of Masada as a historical shrine. I found Shavit's retelling of the Masada story to be riveting.

There are times when Shavit makes very clear his opinions on certain events in Israel's history, particularly those decisions with which he does not agree. He holds strong opinions about Israel's development of nuclear weapons as well as the continuing struggle over Israel's Occupation of disputed Palestinian territory. I do not agree with some of the conclusions Shavit draws on those two subjects in particular. The Israeli people have been persecuted for thousands of years, and there was a well thought out plan to annihilate the entire Jewish population from the face of the earth. In view of that history, I believe Israel has every right to do what it needs to do to protect itself. There was no voice of reason dominant enough to stop the murder of over 6 million people. There were no effective "peaceniks" speaking out nor taking the measures necessary to stop the murder of so many innocent people. For me, that's a lesson learned. If Israel doesn't stick up for its own, no one else is going to do it for them. I think it's easy to sit back and take a moralistic attitude; it's much more difficult to live each day knowing the Arab world does not follow that same lofty position.

With that said, I still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of Israel along with the dedication of the men and women who brought a dream of statehood to fruition. Shavit does an excellent job of presenting all sides of the issues Israel faced in the past and what they will have to face in the future if they want to remain a viable global entity. I wish I could give this book a rating higher than 5 Stars. It's worth at least a 10. ...more
3

Mar 21, 2014

Updated review: Just took off two stars after reading this article. Shame on you, Ari Shavit.

I still think it's a great book, but there's no way I'm giving five stars to a work that includes intellectually dishonest reporting. And if the seminal chapter on Lydda, often excerpted as proof of Israel's wrongdoings, was misleading, what might that mean about some of the other book's claims?

Earlier, more glowing review:

If you're searching for one word to capture the essence of Israel, that word Updated review: Just took off two stars after reading this article. Shame on you, Ari Shavit.

I still think it's a great book, but there's no way I'm giving five stars to a work that includes intellectually dishonest reporting. And if the seminal chapter on Lydda, often excerpted as proof of Israel's wrongdoings, was misleading, what might that mean about some of the other book's claims?

Earlier, more glowing review:

If you're searching for one word to capture the essence of Israel, that word might be complex. I lived in Israel for six years, and it's a land of strong, loud opinions and multiple conflicting perspectives. It's hard to capture all of that in a book, much less a readable and engaging one that's not too cumbersome yet not simplistic. I'll leave it to smarter, better-informed people than I to judge whether Ari Shavit has fully achieved that in this book. I'll simply say he comes close, close enough for me to give the book five stars.

Shavit makes a wise choice when he uses microhistory to examine Israel at different points of time, from different perspectives, with different goals in mind. It makes for readable and engaging narratives that educate the reader. Each of these narratives, while seeming to focus on one or a few individuals, shed light on the whole and offer insight into important segments of Israeli history and society.

Shavit begins with his great-grandfather, a devout British Jew who journeys to Palestine in 1897. Bentwich, Shavit's great-grandfather, embraces Herzl's vision of a Jewish state in Israel with idealistic fervor and tunnel vision, wholly absorbed in this great white hope for Jewish continuity and blind to the fact that people already live in Palestine.

Shavit then takes us into a 1920s kibbutz, where devoted pioneers settle the land at great personal sacrifice. We visit an orange grove in the 1930s, owned by a successful Jew who represents a further step on the road of Jews investing in Palestine, developing self-confidence, and becoming a threat to their Arab neighbors. We join a Jewish leader in the early 1940s as he hikes with a group to Masada, asserting his ownership of the land and his identification with those who died resisting those who wanted to wrest that ownership from them. The picture darkens as Shavit takes us to 1948 Lydda, where the War of Independence displaces Arab civilians from their longtime homes.

Moving into the 1950s, we encounter post-Holocaust Jews who have suffered horrifically and found refuge in the new state of Israel. No group, Arab or Jew, has a monopoly on displacement and suffering, Shavit seems to be telling us here. Shavit then takes us into the late 1960s, where he explores the issue of Israel's developing nuclear power and what this means in terms of Israel's relationship with its many enemies. We get the perspective of fervent settlers beginning in the mid-1970s, individuals who believe it is incumbent upon them to build communities in the occupied territories in order to preserve Israel's existence. Skipping ahead into the early 1990s, we visit an army prison camp where Palestinian inmates interact with their ambivalent Israeli guards. We then learn the story of the Oslo accords, what they were supposed to achieve and how they failed.

Shavit introduces us to Aryeh Deri, a Sephardic politician who gives us a window into some of Israel's internal turmoil. He takes us into the club scene of the early 2000s, where young Israelis rebel against the traditional austerity and idealism and existential fear and embrace hedonism as a kind of life-affirming denial. Shavit then introduces us to the Palestinian perspective of the mid-2000s. We also learn about increasing capitalistic aspirations and demands for social justice among Israeli young adults. We learn about the crisis posed by Iran, and how and why it was ignored for too long.

Shavit pulls all of these stories, interviews, and perspectives together in his final chapters. He describes Israel as having experienced a total of seven revolts: the settlers' revolt against political restraint, the peace revolt against the existential reality of Israel, the liberal-judicial revolt against the all-powerful state, the Sephardic revolt against Eurocentric discrimination, the Haredi revolt against secularism, the hedonist-individualistic revolt against Zionistic ideological conformity, and the Palestinian revolt against Jewish nationalism.

While each of these revolts was justified and sought rights for an oppressed minority, Shavit says, their cumulative effect was divisive and destructive. The early Ben Gurion state, with its kibbutz-socialist mentality and omnipotent government, got the state through its early existential threats and forged the way for it to become a real country. But this state also neglected the individual rights of a wide range of groups, resulting in the fissures we have today. Sadly, today's government lacks the strength to reunite Israeli's multifaceted society.

Shavit describes the various threats to Israel, from within and without, as seven concentric circles. The outermost, he says, is the Islamic circle. Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries, many of which are becoming increasingly radical and hostile to the Westernized democracy in their midst. Inside that circle is the Arab circle. Arab nationalism is on the rise, creating political unrest and turmoil. Inside that circle is the Palestinian circle, a group of people who feels dispossessed by the Jewish state they never wanted. So you've got religious, political, and personal forces coming together to threaten Israel's existence.

But there are also threats from within Israeli society. There are the Arab citizens to whom Israel has not figured out how to relate. There is the loss of the utopian kibbutz idealism that drove earlier Israelis to build and defend their land. There is the difficulty maintaining a democratic stance with growing minorities who don't share democratic values. And ultimately, there is the loss of identity and culture among Israelis. Israelis no longer know who they really are, Shavit states. Shavit also acknowledges his pro-peace leanings, which are evident in the book, while recognizing the realistic challenges to peace.

While no book can fully capture the complexities and fractures of Israeli society, or offer a truly balanced perspective on Israel's volatile conflicts, Shavit comes pretty close in this readable work. Highly recommended for those with an interest in the topic. ...more
2

Dec 29, 2014

This is not an ideological review. I chose this book not due to any special interest in Israel, but for my world books challenge. For those keeping score at home, my book from Palestine got 2 stars as well. I suspect this is not a coincidence, and that both books’ inflated averages result from ideological/emotional ratings interfering with honest evaluations of their merits.

My Promised Land is a long opinion piece, including a partial history of Israel and a smattering of memoir. Shavit makes This is not an ideological review. I chose this book not due to any special interest in Israel, but for my world books challenge. For those keeping score at home, my book from Palestine got 2 stars as well. I suspect this is not a coincidence, and that both books’ inflated averages result from ideological/emotional ratings interfering with honest evaluations of their merits.

My Promised Land is a long opinion piece, including a partial history of Israel and a smattering of memoir. Shavit makes no bones about his political views – he’s a liberal Israeli journalist and one-time peace activist – and much of the book consists of his wrestling with the fact that Israel has done and continues to do some awful things, and yet it is his homeland, a country with impressive accomplishments and which he loves very much. His ultimate conclusion is that he’s willing to accept the wrongs Israel committed in order to come into existence (i.e. the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948), though he condemns the occupation beginning in 1967. It is balanced enough that he’s drawn criticism from both directions – some reviewers blasting him as an Israeli apologist, others as anti-Israel – and while I don’t necessarily agree with him, I do appreciate his wrestling with these issues, when most people would rather not think about the wrongs our own countries have committed. Toward the end Shavit also expresses a great deal of concern about Israel’s future, faced with both internal and external challenges.

Unfortunately, overall I found this book to be repetitive, long-winded and sentimental. One of Shavit’s favorite subjects is the contrast between the tough, suntanned Israeli farmers and warriors and their ancestors, the passive, servile European Jews – yes, these are his descriptions, and he brings them up frequently. Several chapters go into detail about the cultivation projects that apparently transformed the Jewish psyche, and just when you think that’s finished, he’s back with another immigrant story along the same line.

So the history sections were hit or miss for me, but mostly miss. My favorite chapter was “Housing Estate, 1957,” which details the life stories of several newcomers during that decade and the impressive measures Israel took to house and absorb a massive wave of immigrants. Yet that was probably the only chapter I enjoyed. Several chapters go into detail on rather eccentric topics: for example, a youth leaders’ camping trip to Masada in 1942, or the hardcore nightlife of the early 2000s. Other chapters would make sense in a history book, but this is a personal work that doesn’t claim to be comprehensive history, and having chosen this rather than a textbook, I wasn’t looking for every detail about who signed what agreement with whom regarding the Israeli nuclear program, for instance.

Meanwhile, some major topics are mentioned only in passing, such as the wave of Russian immigration in the 1990s, or the lack of assimilation of the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom don’t work but rather receive subsidies for religious study. There’s an odd chapter about a Sephardic leader, in which Shavit asserts repeatedly that the Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin are “oppressed” and “downtrodden” without ever explaining in what way – he does tell us they comprise half the population and that they aren’t discriminated against in housing or employment, but by some unclear means their culture is being destroyed? I could have done with more explanation of that, and fewer passages about lemon and orange groves, or sex in nightclub bathrooms.

At any rate, Shavit makes some odd choices about what material to cover, perhaps determined by whom he was able to interview. He does include interviews with many prominent Israelis, some of them protagonists in important chapters in the country’s history. The book does not show quite the breadth he claims in the acknowledgments (“Jews and Arabs, men and women”) – Shavit includes interviews with many Israeli men, a handful of Israeli women, and three Palestinian men. It’s telling that even this author, a prominent liberal journalist, barely knows any Palestinians; how many Palestinians must a typical Israeli know, and vice versa? But Shavit does a good job of including (Jewish) voices with which he disagrees, giving them space to talk and not vilifying opposing viewpoints.

(As a side note, Shavit is a bizarre interviewer, at times lecturing his subjects and including his lectures verbatim in the book, other times asking questions like, “So what is the crux of your story? And what is the crux of the Oriental Israeli story? Do the two really converge?”)

But in the end, this book simply failed to hold my interest over its 400+ pages, and seemed far too long for the amount of material presented. Perhaps worthwhile for those with a strong interest in Israel, but I would advise casual readers to steer clear. ...more
5

Aug 13, 2013

What are readers to make of Ari Shavit’s beautifully rendered and often profound (and often profoundly depressing) new book? It isn’t exactly a history, though it considers a number of key moments in the history of Israel. Nor is it memoir, though Shavit folds his and his family’s experience seamlessly into the broader narrative. Creative non-fiction? That feels like a copout. Labels might not matter to some, but I settled in the end on a creative analytical meditation on the miraculous rise, What are readers to make of Ari Shavit’s beautifully rendered and often profound (and often profoundly depressing) new book? It isn’t exactly a history, though it considers a number of key moments in the history of Israel. Nor is it memoir, though Shavit folds his and his family’s experience seamlessly into the broader narrative. Creative non-fiction? That feels like a copout. Labels might not matter to some, but I settled in the end on a creative analytical meditation on the miraculous rise, strengths, and challenges of modern Israel. One thing is certain: hate it or love it, no reader will likely finish Shavit’s discussion without substantial food for thought.

Writing on a topic that often breeds over simplification and over-confident statements made with excessive surety, Shavit stands out for a refreshing willingness to admit to complexity. He begins by honestly stating his own positions as an "anti-occupation peacenik" and a “left wing journalist.” At the same time he eschews, indeed castigates, the current fashion of imagining Israel as the source of all the Middle East’s (and even all the world’s!) ills. Instead he writes with honest admiration about the miracle of Israel’s birth, survival, and success. And as he points out, miracle is very much the right word. Against overwhelming odds, a people dispersed for 2000 years did reunite in their ancient homeland and create a vibrant democracy. Yet no state is perfect. Shavit remains cognoscente of Israel’s weaknesses and what it took for the state to survive.

For Shavit, Israel’s birth in warfare required hard choices, not the least of which was the uprooting of hostile Arab populations. Nation building is never a clean business. Nation building in wartime is still more so. The 20th Century can be written as a history of “population exchanges” as nation states cemented their authority. Nor does he mince words:

“One thing is clear to me: the brigade commander and military governor were right to get angry at the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda [an Arab town that sat on the crucial Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway and the source of attacks on that arterial road, and the population of which was expelled] but condemn the fruit of their deeds. I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper [sadistic individuals who behaved unethically]. On the contrary, if need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it weren’t for them the State of Israel would never have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been born. They did the dirty work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.”

The same story might likewise be told across the world. It is the nation state’s dirty secret. Yet no one argues for turning back the clock, at least not anywhere else but Israel (and in Israel, only for one side). No one argues for the non-natives of North America to decamp. And, if that sounds too much like a story from the murky distant past, consider Europe. Tens and tens of millions of Greeks, Turks, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians and others dispelled across national boundaries over the last century as these states rose. Yes, these were tragic tales, but the world marched on.

In the case of the refugees created by 1948, Shavit actually pays insufficient attention to the hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews expelled from their home country who settled in Israel, save to point out that “the number of Jewish refugees Israel absorbs surpass the number of Palestinian refugees it expels.” A remarkable fact considering the vast size and wealth of the Arab world, which allowed (indeed, forced) Arab refugees to live for generations in refugee camps, even as Israel engaged in the difficult, expensive, and even dangerous process of absorption. Shavit does mention the Arab nations’ complicity in creating a smoldering ever expanding population of refugees. Still, he does not consider the guilt of the broader community of nations in their creation of the world’s only community specific international refugee agency, and perhaps history’s only organization whose mission was to maintain and grow the size of a refugee population.

Yet while Shavit recognizes many of the painful contradictions and choices that when into Israel’s founding, some he seems unable to accept even as he makes them plain to his reader. Like many, Shavit sees the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of 1967. Despite discussing various ways to deal with the legacy of 1948, he returns time and again to 1967. Yet the story he tells forces more painful realizations. Anti-Jewish violence far predates the establishment of Israel, as he offers a too brief summation of the terror and violence committed against Jews under the British Mandate. In a trope that echoes across time, he describes how the Zionist leadership often condemns Jewish retaliatory violence even as Arab leaders lionize those who murder Jewish civilians, women, and even children.

The roots of the conflict thus go back even earlier than ’48. Consider for example Shavit’s interview with an Israeli-Arab lawyer, a man educated in Israeli universities, who he admires and believes could well have taken another path and been elected to the Knesset or appointed to the Israeli Supreme Court. For this educated Israeli-Arab, the idea of Jewish history in Israel is “pure fiction.” Thus the Jewish state is, for him, devoid of any legitimacy. When he looks to the future he looks forward to a world where: “We [the Arabs] will be masters, and you [Jews] will be our servants.” What border agreement will settle a dispute seen in this sort of cultural terms? Shavit worries over Israelis feeling “triumphant,” but one must wonder where are the Arabs writers who engage in this author’s deep honest introspection over the choices made by the Arab nations?

Shavit’s book is not without flaws. He can be arrogant, even self-righteous. Some of his interviews seem more of an opportunity to monologue for a paragraph in the form of a question which he follows with a terse one sentence answer. Yet none of that takes away from the fundamental strength of his analysis or the deep pathos he feels for the Jewish State. He struggles with his desire for a “normal” state, even as he celebrates Israel’s accomplishments and suffers for its failures. Ultimately, sympathetic, ethically questioning, and feeling no shortage of angst, Shavit’s book speaks volumes of the Jewish experience in general and the Israeli experience in particular.
...more
4

April 22, 2016

The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
For anyone interested in Israel and the Mideast, this is a fascinating book. Particularly interesting are the chapters on Zionism in the '30's, the War of Independence in 1948, and the Israeli nuclear program. It is unprecendented in my opinion to hear the Palestinian point of view fairly presented in a book that is overall pro-Israel. Reading it one comes to a better understanding of the depths of the grievances of the Palestinians and why peace is so hard to achieve. The bottom line is, unlike other "settled" countries which had huge expanses of land and small indigenous populations like the U.S., Canada, and Australia, Palestine was small and had a significant Arab population. Constructing the Jewish state led to significant displacement of these peoples but without this displacement there would be no Jewish state. Can't we all just get along? Reading this book one must conclude unfortunately that isn't going to happen anytime soon. The only criticism is that at times the author, who is overall a very good writer, is at times simply too wordy and repetitive.
1

May 17, 2015

Selective history without sources
Extremely one sided. This is not the way to get a balanced view of history. Yes, this was war and innocent people were killed but to accuse soldiers of murder is a serious accusation and needs to be back up with sources, which Shavit does not provide. Also, he doesn't provide important facts surround the incidents at Lydda.

The overall commander of the operation in Lydda, Moshe Kelman, met with the town's leaders to discuss surrender terms, beginning with Simon Garfeh, the Greek Orthodox Archimandrite of Lydda. Garfeh gave the following account, as recorded by historian Dan Kurzman:
"I am the Archimandrite of Lydda," he announced. "I hope you have come in peace."
"If it is the desire of the people of this town to live with us in peace," Kelman assured him, we shall be very happy." They may open their shops and resume normal life. Can you arrange for the surrender?"
"I shall try," the prelate answered ... "I shall ask the leaders of the Moslem and Christian communities to meet with us immediately in my apartment upstairs."
He then instructed an aide to run to the Big Mosque to fetch the Moslem leaders, and sent another to his own church to bring the Christian leaders taking refuge there.
About an hour later, a dozen Arab notables were sitting in Garfeh's living room sipping coffee and chatting with the clergyman, Kelman, and other Israeli officers. Finally, Kelman, putting down his coffee, addressed them:
"Gentlemen, the city has been conquered, and we want your cooperation. We suggest that you find the citizens who have been operating the utilities so that your people can have water and electricity without delay. But first you must accept our terms for peace: Surrender of all fighting personnel and of all arms within twenty-four hours. If these conditions are not met, we shall have to take action."
"We agree," one of the Arabs said with quiet resignation. "May the residents stay here if they wish?"
"Yes, they may," Kelman replied, "if they live here peacefully." (Genesis 1948, Dan Kurzman, p. 514)
Shockingly, Shavit gives no hint of this. Why would Shavit and his editors omit the crucial fact that Lydda had surrendered, and had agreed to disarm and live in peace, and that the Israelis had agreed to let them stay? Why would Shavit and the renowned New Yorker "fact checkers" ignore Kurzman's crucial interviews?

http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=122&x_article=2572
4

Nov 19, 2013

Shavit begins what he hopes is an international dialogue with this book. Such a dialogue has been long in coming. Perhaps the time is ripe. He can see that the Israeli position in the Middle East is dangerous and endangered. He uses interviews to illustrate various events that have shaped the nation and its now shifting worldview.

Shavit shows us how both the right and the left in Israel today have flaws in their grasp of where Israel is in relation to the Palestinians, the Arab world, indeed, Shavit begins what he hopes is an international dialogue with this book. Such a dialogue has been long in coming. Perhaps the time is ripe. He can see that the Israeli position in the Middle East is dangerous and endangered. He uses interviews to illustrate various events that have shaped the nation and its now shifting worldview.

Shavit shows us how both the right and the left in Israel today have flaws in their grasp of where Israel is in relation to the Palestinians, the Arab world, indeed, even America. He is blunt, bruising, argumentative but illuminating as he cuts away at justifications of former and would-be leaders. The underpinnings of their stance are revealed in this way.

We know where Shavit stands:
”…the choice is clear: either reject Zionism because of (the expulsion of Palestinians from) Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda. One thing is clear to me: the brigade commander and the military governor were right to get angry at the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed. I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” (p. 131)
The following passage was one of the most revealing and enlightening to me for it gave me a perspective I had not considered: ”Israel of the 1950s was a state on steroids: more and more people, more and more cities, more and more villages, more and more of everything. But although development was rampant, social gaps were narrow. The government was committed to full employment. There was a genuine effort to provide every person with housing, work, education, and health care. The newborn state was one of the most egalitarian democracies in the world. The Israel of the 1950s was a just social democracy. But it was also a nation of practicality that combined modernity, nationalism, and development in an aggressive manner. There was no time, and there was no peace of mind, and therefore there was no human sensitivity. As the state became everything, the individual was marginalized. As it marched toward the future, Israel erased the past. There was no place for the previous landscape, no place for previous identities. Everything was done en masse. Everything was imposed from above. There was an artificial quality to everything. Zionism was not an organic process anymore but a futuristic coup. For its outstanding economic, social, and engineering achievements, the new Israel paid a dear moral price. There was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process, or laissez-faire. There was no equality for the Palestinian minority and no compassion for the Palestinian refugees. There was little respect for the Jewish Diaspora and little empathy for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ben Gurion’s statism and monolithic rule compelled the nation forward.”(p. 151)
Shavit seems to mourn, to regret, that the folks who were instrumental in setting up and continuing the success of the Israeli state seemed not to know what they were doing in terms of outcomes. The folks he is talking about were big, big in every way: in society, in influence, in action, and that they should have taken more care to think how their actions would affect the present and the future of Israel (and I would add, the world). But they were only men. Only human. They did the best they could at what they were best at. Most of us would be proud to have that written on our gravestones. But we now have to ask ourselves, “is this the best we can do?” The legacy of these folks is unacceptable today.

Shavit begins with the historical underpinnings of the state of Israel, but by the end he admits the “binding historical narrative has fallen apart.” One almost wishes it were possible to begin again, starting back when land was actually purchased rather than stolen. Shavit acknowledges it is difficult to ignore the truth of displaced Palestinians. “What I see and hear here is an entire population of ours…imprisoning am entire population of theirs. This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure.” Whatever else Israel has succeeded in accomplishing must be paired with this bald fact.

But many in Israel are willing to live with this. Even Shavit claims it gives his people the edge (“quick, vital, creative”) that living under the “looming shadow of a smoking volcano” brings. Some “harbor in their heart a great belief in a great war, which will be their only salvation.” Well. (pause) Do I need to add that this does not seem much of a solution?

It was difficult for me to finish reading this book. My emotions roiled as I read the bulk of Shavit’s narrative, and at some point I exclaimed, “thank god for Shavit,” for he is willing to struggle with hard truths and face them like a leader. But I felt I was finished before I got to Shavit’s concluding chapter.

This exhaustive (and exhausting) catalog of personal histories, slights and wrongs, achievements and successes, thoughts and second thoughts about who really deserves to be in Israel and Palestine culminated in me wanting to say “just do it.” Now that everyone has had their say and we understand all…just fix it.

The contrast between Israel’s self-congratulation on one hand (we have so much talent, wealth, ambition, vision) and the despair on the other (we have no friends, and so many enemies, we must actually bomb sovereign states to feel safe) is stark. But the state of Israel may be facing what every nation appears to be facing these days: a more divided electorate that hews to less moderate viewpoints, growing ever more radical and less tolerant by the year. While it is possible for me to feel empathy for individuals, it is difficult for me to feel sorry for a nation.

I did read the end of Shavit’s book. He is not optimistic. We all have reason for despair, but real leadership refuses to acknowledge the same boundaries that constrain the rest of us. It seems clear that we all want someone else to do the hard work of compromise and “leading” for us, and we wait for someone else to appear…when we really should all be thinking now, in this age of global warning and divided nations: What have we wrought?
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5

Feb 10, 2014

If you care about Israel and its people, or if you’re simply concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, you owe it to yourself to read Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Fair warning, though: you won’t come away from reading this book feeling optimistic about Israel’s future. Though the author ends on a high note, celebrating the emergence of new, middle-class political forces in the 2013 Israeli elections, he dwells at such length on the strategic cul-de-sac that the country has If you care about Israel and its people, or if you’re simply concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, you owe it to yourself to read Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Fair warning, though: you won’t come away from reading this book feeling optimistic about Israel’s future. Though the author ends on a high note, celebrating the emergence of new, middle-class political forces in the 2013 Israeli elections, he dwells at such length on the strategic cul-de-sac that the country has dug for itself that, on balance, you’ll worry.

If there is a single message in My Promised Land, it’s this: “As the second decade of the twenty-first century has begun to unfold, five different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future; the concern that Israel’s regional strategic hegemony is being challenged; the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state in eroding; the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal-democratic foundation crumbling; and the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social disintegration.” Not a pretty picture, is it?

It would be difficult to find anyone better informed or better positioned to write this wide-ranging assessment of Zionist history, Israel’s internal politics, and the country’s strategic position in the region than Ari Shavit. A long-time columnist for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, and a contributor to The New Yorker, Shavit is a fourth-generation Israeli, a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Zionist project. And you can’t read My Promised Land without reaching the conclusion that Shavit personally knows just about everyone who is anyone in Israel and has interviewed the rest of them for his column.

The book interweaves memoir with commentary and interviews with travelogue, yielding both a sketchy but useful history of emergence of the Jewish state and an assessment of its present-day reality and prospects for the future. Shavit writes with verve and conviction — conviction, for sure, as he argues passionately with many of his interview subjects. His deep feelings about his subject are unmistakable: he writes about his emotional attachment to the land, his grief over the expulsion of the Palestinian people and their unequal treatment in Israel today, his disgust with the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, and his despair over the occupation of the West Bank. Shavit is, in short, a quintessential Israeli who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

My Promised Land is the second important book I’ve read about Israel in recent years. The other was a novel, The Debba, by Avner Mandelman. Though framed as a murder mystery, the novel is, more properly, an inquiry into the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two books are well worth reading together. ...more
4

Feb 10, 2014

Ari Shavit tries to be fair to everyone. The first third of the book is heartbreaking as he reminds us of the horrors of the holocaust and the centuries of antisemitism that drove the Jewish people to want a homeland of their own while telling an honest story of the displaced Palestinians who lost their homes to the forces of history. He knows Palestinian history and acknowledges their displacement, and he knows Jewish history and acknowledges it in a very personal way, using his own family Ari Shavit tries to be fair to everyone. The first third of the book is heartbreaking as he reminds us of the horrors of the holocaust and the centuries of antisemitism that drove the Jewish people to want a homeland of their own while telling an honest story of the displaced Palestinians who lost their homes to the forces of history. He knows Palestinian history and acknowledges their displacement, and he knows Jewish history and acknowledges it in a very personal way, using his own family story as a framework. He tries to keep his head up and his eyes open, especially to better be able to see the true situation of the Palestinians. I learned a lot from his open and straightforward history.
The second third of the book was hard for me to read as he highlights the contradictions of modern Israel, a Jewish state founded by non religious Jews now threatened demographically by a non Jewish occupied population. He outlines seven threats to the existence of the country, starting with the surrounding and inhospitable Islamic world and ending with the Israeli people's own loss of identity in the modern world. The threats and contradictions are daunting, confusing and scary. He interviews leftists and settlers, Generals and ordinary citizens. He walks the fields with a Palestinian friend and listens to his story, his anger and emotion. After reading all this, you have to think, this cannot go on.
Finally, he tries to bring it all together, leaving room for some hope. Amazingly, he does so, in spite of it all, and I am left with a feeling of possibility for the future. None-the-less, modern Israel is a country living on the edge, living surrounded by threats, living in the moment and trying to live up to its own history, but living!
Ari Shavit's Promised Land is not a fairy tale or an apology, it is an attempt to put it all in perspective, honestly, without an agenda. An enemy of Israel will find much in the book to agree with and much to hate about Israel, and a lover of Israel will find much to admire and much to cringe at. I recommend the book for both. ...more
5

Jan 19, 2014

An amazing book presenting the triumph and tragedy of Israel, as promised in the book's subtitle.

The human experience.
The beautiful along with the ugly.
the good along with the bad.
the sexiness along with the uncouth.

I loved the fact that there was no whitewashing. The moral ambiguity along with the love of the land shines through in every page.

I grew up with mixed feelings about the state of Israel. I didn't come from a rabidly anti Zionist home, yet the stuff we were taught in school gave me An amazing book presenting the triumph and tragedy of Israel, as promised in the book's subtitle.

The human experience.
The beautiful along with the ugly.
the good along with the bad.
the sexiness along with the uncouth.

I loved the fact that there was no whitewashing. The moral ambiguity along with the love of the land shines through in every page.

I grew up with mixed feelings about the state of Israel. I didn't come from a rabidly anti Zionist home, yet the stuff we were taught in school gave me uncertain vibes. As I grew older I was leaning towards zionism in a stronger way, yet toward the right. As time went on and my ideological identity further developed, I wasn't so sure that the right was what I identified with anymore. Reading this book somehow clarified so many things for me, in an abstract way. Helped me formulate my thoughts. Although I'm not sure I share the political view of the author, I also don't feel like I need to have a political opinion on Israel. I'm just glad that I can love the land in my own way.

Truly a book worth reading. ...more
1

June 8, 2015

Another Euro-Centric Fairytale
This book was written through the perspective of a European Israeli. This is problematic considering the demographic of Israel. The majority of Israelis happen to be Mizrahi and Sephardi, yet they are constantly put in the background instead of the forefront in regards to Israel's story. This is completely euro-centric and racist. We Mizrahim were exiled out of the lands we dwelled in for some 3,000 years, whereas the Ashkenazim were only in European lands for 1,000-1,500 years. I find that this constant lack of knowledge in regards to the Mizrahi community and history is detrimental in educating and resolving the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The history of the birth of Israel should be reiterated, and the Mizrahim should be placed in the forefront, not as small characters in the background. Our history should not be used for propaganda against Israel, but it should be used and considered in order to understand the factional circumstances regarding the birth of Israel.

For the people who gave this book 5 stars, read this essay. You might actually learn something! For the people who gave the piece 4, 3, 2, and 1 stars. Read this essay.
This piece will make you ten times smarter about Israeli society, culture, and of course, the real Israelis.

(Also I would recommend his book, The Aleppo Codex.)

http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/06/mizrahi-nation/
4

Jan 02, 2014

Ari Shavit has written this landmark work with passion, courage, and vision. It is intensely personal. It is also a stunning overview of the rise of the modern state of Israel within the context of 20th century Jewish history. My Promised Land is like a letter, sent through time and space, to Jewish brethren round the world. It beseeches us all to open our eyes to the grim realities that beset our beloved state of Israel. The book reflects the author's sense of mission and purpose, and it Ari Shavit has written this landmark work with passion, courage, and vision. It is intensely personal. It is also a stunning overview of the rise of the modern state of Israel within the context of 20th century Jewish history. My Promised Land is like a letter, sent through time and space, to Jewish brethren round the world. It beseeches us all to open our eyes to the grim realities that beset our beloved state of Israel. The book reflects the author's sense of mission and purpose, and it testifies to the moral and existential conundrum that besets concerned Israelis and Zionists the world over.

Ari Shavit wrote My Promised Land after interviewing countless Israelis, both Jewish and Arab. They were government officials, policy-makers, writers, scientists, military and intelligence officers, entrepeneurs. The result is a controversial book that both sparks and transcends debate. Written with conviction, and erudition, the book describes and often takes issue with Israeli policies, Israeli social and political movements, and with individual voices in the conversation regarding Israel’s future. It offers firm, historical contextualization. It dares to ask whether Israel can and will continue to exist, given the many forces against it—from within and without. The author emphatically and enthusiastically affirms his love for his homeland. He is grateful to the faithful who gave their lives to ensure the state’s continued viability, but he wonders how deeply that Zionist faith now resides in the generation that must bear arms to protect the nation. After covering Israel’s political and social history, he asks: where are we going?

Shavit begins his book with the story of his great-grandfather, the Rt. Honorable Herbert Bentwich, born in 1856 and raised in London by parents who had fled Russia. Sent to the best schools, he became a lawyer. He was among the gifted and highly regarded solicitors of his day. He was blue-eyed, commanding, and loyal to the crown. Unlike many of his enlightened Jewish peers, he remained an orthodox Jew. He and his wife had eleven children.

Shavit writes:

Had I met Herbert Bentwich, I probably wouldn’t have liked him. If I were his son, I am sure I would have rebelled against him. His world—royalist, religious, patriarchal, and imperial—is eras away from my world. But as I study him from a distance—more than a century of distance—I cannot deny the similarities between us. I am surprised to find how much I identify with my eccentric great-grandfather.

Leading a group of 21 pilgrims, Shavit’s great-grandfather sailed to Palestine in 1897. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, put great stock in their journey. Like Moses sending Joshua to the land of Canaan (my analogy), Herzl expected a positive report from Bentwich, one that would describe the land and its inhabitants, and one that would confirm the land’s “prospects for colonizing,” as Shavit puts it. Herzl wanted the report presented at the first Zionist Congress, to be held in Basel. But Bentwich’s interest in Palestine was “romantic,” not political. Bentwich journeyed to find God, not a future Jewish state. His report to Herzl was positive. Upon returning from his initial journey, he invited Herzl to his patrician London dining club, where Herzl’s charisma captivated all who heard him. Ultimately, Bentwich and his family relocated to Palestine.

When Shavit writes of Israel’s 1948 war of independence, he is astonished at the nascent state’s miraculous triumph. “Against all odds,” he writes, Israel’s brave 80,000 Jews defeated the armies of 600,000 Arabs. That the tiny but determined entity, newly called Israel, could win against such enmity, is staggering. But, he goes on, the odds are shifting. The Arab majority of the middle east is growing. The menace to Israel is being harnessed with patience and resolution. Israel’s Dimona facility—its nuclear capability—has served as a deterrent to large-scale war, but with the Iranian nuclear capacity at hand, the future is, at best, uncertain. Yes, one finds glimmers of peace, here and there, and voices of reconciliation. But those glimmers and voices are quickly dimmed.

Shavit lauds Israel’s early pioneers. They transformed the image of Jew from victim to brawny, self-assured man of the hour. The new Jew was self-reliant, ready to take action. The change was astonishing. The technological advances that transformed the land into a picture postcard of the green thumb were (and are) staggering. The Jewish Israeli was a figure of moral, physical, intellectual, and psychological strength.

But Shavit never forgets the Arab side of the story, too. What to Jews was triumph, the Arabs dubbed “nakba,” or catastrophe. The expulsions and massacres of Arab villagers—in Lydda and Deir Yassin, for example—must not be ignored. He pays heed to the legitimate grievances of Arabs living in Israel. While most live far better in Israel than they would in neighboring Arab countries, they are, compared with most Israelis, second class citizens. Resentment grows.

Shavit writes much of the book in present tense, giving a sense of immediacy, even urgency, to the narrative. The book is often punctuated with personal memories, but it is not a memoir. Nor does Mr. Shavit allow his personal biases to dictate the realities he presents. This book is the how and why of the Zionist cause; an enterprise that bound Jews together for millennia. In the face of Nazi Germany, the Zionist cause became an imperative. “In 1935, Zionist justice is an absolute universal justice that cannot be refuted,” writes Shavit. The establishment of a state of refuge was essential to the existence, vitality, and future of the Jewish people. For centuries, the Jewish people had invoked Zion in their daily prayers. In the 20th Century, whether or not a Jew began the day with prayers, whether or not he believed in God, safe haven was essential to life.

In his endnotes, Shavit writes: “My Promised Land is not an academic work of history. Rather, it is a personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel, recounting the larger Israel saga by telling several dozen specific Israeli stories that are significant and poignant.”

According to the New York Times, My Promised Land was written in English with an American readership in mind. It is an important book. Plaudits abound. Among them:

“This is the epic history that Israel deserves—beautifully written, dramatically rendered, full of moral complexity.” –Franklin Foer, editor, The New Republic.

“A beautiful, mesmerizing, morally serious, and vexing book.” –Jeffrey Goldberg

“…one of the most important books about Israel and Zionism that I have ever read.” –Daniel Gordis

Be warned. However riveting, this book can be as depressing as it is thought-provoking.
...more
2

January 16, 2016

Pompous, wordy, boring and factually incorrect
This is a bombastic and pompous book about which too much ink has been pointlessly spilled. Shavit's style is repetitive, meandering and boring. Decent editing could have created a more readable book which would be half the size. His supposed major insight is that Israelis live in denial of the expulsion of the Palestinians that was needed to establish their nation. What else is new? He beats his breast endlessly about the Palestinian catastrophe, to no seeming effect. He falsely accuses the peace movement of not realizing the importance of dealing with the Palestinian "right of return". But sophisticated peace advocates always understood that establishment of a Palestinian state went hand-in-hand with relinquishment of such a right. His paranoia about Iran and its nuclear potential shows an obsessive side. He contends that "Since 1945, the international community has managed to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in an impressive way (pg 366)". Yet 200 pages earlier he proudly describes how Israel subverted this "impressive control" at Dimona (not to mention the lack of control shown by proliferation in China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). His powers of observation and description are limited: one would think every single young person in Israel is either "beautiful" or "attractive". Inexcusably for a major journalist in a book of such prominence there are factual errors: "in the latter part of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to Great Britain" (page 385) (the total Jewish population of the UK is 290,000 and few settled after 1980); "While the non-Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora are aging, the Jews of Israel are mating and multiplying (pg 387)" (the fertility of non-orthodox Jews in Israel is 2.09 the same as the US and exactly at replacement level - their population is not "multiplying" (although they are doubtless "mating" - a minor example of Shavit's wordiness), the reason Israel has a high fertility rate is because of high Orthodox fertility (an incredible 6.0 - 7.0) and Arab fertility (4.0); the major Zionist figure and electricity pioneer who build Reading power station was Pinchas Rutenberg not "Rotenberg" (a fundamentally different name) (pg 413). Shavit buys into the pseudo-historical biblical narrative of ancient Israel (thus Gezer was "a Hebrew city in the tenth-century BC" (pg 392) - the archaeology shows only Caananite and Philistine remains and there is no secure evidence outside the bible of a "Hebrew" presence). Finally, the contemporary critical issue of the role of the haredim (ultra-orthodox) in Israel's society and future viability is barely dealt with (the word "haredi" is not in the index). On the positive side, the earlier chapters contain much interesting material about the period up to 1960 - but even this is long-winded and unfocused.
5

November 21, 2015

Disturbing alternate view
This was a difficult book for me to read or review as it contains material seldom supplied in the usual sources available to me. However, I think it very important to reconsider the direction of a country so necessary for the survival of Jews, and a country that calls itself the only democracy in the Middle East.
I read many facts in this book that I was totally unaware of, yet somewhere deep inside I had always questioned the total animosity existing in this tiny country. I felt the tension when visiting several times, despite loving the area and what I thought it stood for.
It is not an easy read, and I wanted to go back over a number of sections in order to better understand what had taken place earlier, but I'm not that familiar yet with finding things on my Kindle, so eventually, I may re-read this book in regular book form!
I strongly recommend reading this book, written by the grandson of one of the early founders, in order to see and try to understand that in order to remain a viable country, perhaps it is important to open more dialogue, both within the Israeli community and if at all possible, with the surrounding countries. Or I worry this miracle country will no longer be "My Promised Land"!
1

June 17, 2015

Inaccurate facts lead to biased conclusions
The hypothesis of this writer from the Israeli left wing is that Zionists committed atrocities just as Arabs did during the 1948 war. But while Savit claims to "confess" a Zionist massacre at a small mosque in Lydda, the facts have been manipulated by Shavit to make his point seem true when it is not. There has been extensive analysis proving Shavit manipulated the facts to suit his own pro-Zionist AND pro-Arab perspective. http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/07/what-happened-at-lydda. Shavit uses the term Palestinian to describe the Arabs, when they did not use that term at the time, and when the term Palestinian at the time was equally applied to Jews living in Palestine. He neglects to focus on the fact that the battle for Lydda was only due to Arab rejection of the partition of the country, as the UN mandated, and that the outnumbered Jews were fighting several regular armies of Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and more. He calls the Zionists colonialists but neglects to use the same term for the invading Arab armies and for the Arab population, a huge percentage of which emigrated to Palestine due to the economic prosperity brought by the Zionists and the British. Read the referenced Mosaic article and do not bother with this biased book.

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