This book is a beautifully written and deeply reported attempt to explain Israel to Israelis and to the world.
The author is candid about his own perspective -- a "left-wing journalist," an "anti-occupation peacenik," yet nonetheless one genuinely aspiring to be balanced and fair. His great grandfather Herbert Bentwich arrived in Israel in 1897, and at the beginning and end of the book the author retraces Bentwich's steps.
Pro-Israel American Jews such as myself will find this book troubling. It argues that the crux of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not the 1967 Six-Day War and the occupation that resulted, but rather the events of 1948. It recounts (though without footnotes, and in a chapter that may well be challenged by other historians) an episode in 1948 in which, the author says, David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin ordered the expulsion of 35,000 Palestinian Arabs from the city of Lydda.
For all his directness about what he calls "the tragedy of 1948," Shalit is proud of what he calls the "miracle" of Zionism, He writes about Israel's orange groves, its wineries, its high-tech industry, its absorption of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and from North Africa, Yemen, and Iraq, its music scene. He is critical of the Israeli peace movement for imagining that the threat to Israel's existence can be solved and peace achieved by withdrawing from the West bank and Gaza, and he is clear-eyed in describing the threats Israel faces from a nuclear-armed Iran and from the surrounding Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinian Arabs.
When prominent Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, Syrian, Iranian and Palestinian Arab journalists write books this critical about their own societies, and those books are published and sold freely in those societies, that will be a day when Israelis and their friends will know that peace is on the way. In the meantime, we can read Ari Shavit, and hope that the discomfort he sometimes makes us feel is not a sign of the confusion or weakness of which he warns, but rather the irreverence and freedom he celebrates and documents.
on December 20, 2013
I'm afraid I can't share the enthusiasm that most reviewers have for this book. The author is a terribly conflicted individual (with which I sympathize) and this book is just all over the map. It's hard to know where to begin with my review, but I'm going to break it down into three parts.
1. The Good:
I have to give Mr. Shavit credit where credit is due. He goes way out on a limb with his very descriptive tale of what happened to one Palestinian town in 1948. This isn't easy for any Jew or Israeli to do. Most Jewish authors will shy away from this subject. It's almost totally taboo to acknowledge such things. Authors such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe have been severely ostracized for writing very detailed accounts of this sordid side of Israeli history. Also, I believe that most Jews (at least American Jews) are terribly ignorant about this topic. This chapter will probably be read by many Jews and I do think that knowledge is the beginning of progress.
Shavit also shares some of his experiences in Gaza while he was in the IDF. I must admit that I was pretty shocked by the daily torture events that took place there. My own ignorance on this particular topic became very obvious to me. Many young stone throwers were undoubtedly turned into real terrorists after being subjected to the Israeli torture tactics. It isn't a pretty story, but it is an important story and I thank Shavit for sharing what he heard and saw while serving in the military.
2. The Bad:
I am not a big fan of Shavit's style of writing. There are endless stories about Jews coming to Israel and planting oranges, olives, pomegranates or whatever. This tale doesn't need to be told 29 times in order to make his point. Less would have been a lot more. Perhaps the editor is also at fault here, but these almost never-ending romantic stories were just too much for me. You'll have to take this criticism with a grain of salt, because most reviewers have said that they loved Shavit's writing style. That leaves me scratching my head, but to each his own.
At one point in his book, Shavit talks about how fast the Jewish growth rate was in Palestine after 1935. His numbers are grossly exaggerated. For you purists, this might be enough to make you not want to read this book. I think that would be a mistake. I would guess that Shavit just assumed his numbers to be correct and that he wasn't really trying to mislead anybody. Perhaps he learned these statistics in school and just assumed them to be correct. In any case, I think it's an unfortunate but relatively innocuous error.
I do have an issue with a serious omission from the book. I'll give Shavit credit for reporting what Ben Gurion said about the necessity of removing Arabs from Palestine, but he did not include the total Ben Gurion statement. Not only did Ben Gurion talk about having to remove the Arabs, but he said that this should be done "by coercion or force." I believe that's an important point which Shavit probably left out on purpose. Just as Americans look up to George Washington, Ben Gurion is a much revered figure among Israeli Jews. The fact that Ben Gurion would say such a thing and then say that he had no moral concerns about it is an important piece of this difficult Middle East puzzle.
I didn't need an entire chapter about the liberal nightlife in Israel. Yes, Israel is a pretty liberal society when it comes to heterosexual and homosexual attitudes. Reading stories about people having sex in nightclub bathrooms was an unnecessary chapter in this book. I sort of get why Shavit included this chapter since these liberal attitudes would not be found in any Arab country, but I still don't think it was particularly relevant or necessary information.
If the author was going to spend an entire chapter on Israel's nightlife, then he should have spent significantly more time going over the problems and discrimination faced by Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens. Shavit could have spent an entire chapter going over the discriminatory land laws in Israel and the underfunding of the Arab public schools. Sadly, there is quite a lot of relevant information on this topic that was totally ignored by the author. As such, this book is terribly incomplete.
Speaking of incomplete, this book is NOT a history book. To be fair, Shavit doesn't claim it is. However, too many reviewers have reviewed this book as if they now understand the complete history of Israel. That is absurd. If you want to read the history of Israel, then pick up one Benny Morris' books. This is the "Cliff Notes" version, at best.
3. The Morally Bankrupt:
And here is where Shavit completely frightens me. When going over the story about what Jews did to one Arab town in 1948, Shavit says some incredibly disgusting and disgraceful things. He doesn't want to stand with those "bleeding-heart Israelis" on this subject. He stands with the perpetrators because without their actions, there would probably be no Israel. Without their actions, he might not have even been born! I am terribly saddened by Shavit's comments. Is this what passes for liberalism in Israel? I was getting nauseous while reading his words. Why is his life more important than some Palestinian Arab's life? Does the end really justify the means? Are we really that callous? When did Shavit lose his moral compass? Did he ever have a moral compass?
As an American, I know that without slavery, my country would have never economically advanced so quickly. Perhaps we wouldn't have become the world's greatest superpower. Does that mean I should stand with the slaveowners? Should I look down my nose at those bleeding-heart liberal Americans who look at that element of our own history with shame? Should I stand with those who slaughtered Native Americans? Can't I love my country and still recognize that some incredibly terrible things were done by my ancestors?
In conclusion, I think this book does have something to offer. I believe that some of the information is powerful and relevant. It can be an important piece of one's education, but please don't let this be the book that shapes all your opinions on this topic.
on September 3, 2014
This is a history of the major issues facing Israel, told through anecdote, family stories, and interviews with the top players. Though not comprehensive, which left many gaps of incident and detail, it is truly excellent for its clarity of vision, impartiality, and frank acknowledgment of the irreconcilable contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of Israel. I was completely absorbed through the entire book and learned an immense amount from it.
The book begins with a description of the original Zionist vision, coming out of 19C nationalism and directed to the reunification of a long-abused people. Shavit's great-grandfather, a successful businessman in England, was among the founding fathers who first came to visit Palestine, when less than 10% of the population was Jewish. They and others bought up land and began to set up farms and eventually, quasi-communistic kibbutzes. It was to save Jews who faced violent pogroms in E Europe, or at least discrimination elsewhere, as well as to empower them. At the start, most Zionists believed that the Jews could live side by side with the Arabs. These chapters almost put me off the book, as they are written with a kind of wistful sentimentality and pride in the way the settlers began to re-shape the desert into productive farms. Fortunately, the pace picks up once they face conflict with the Arabs and, following WWII, set up the state of Israel.
It was the coverage of 1948 that most impressed me. Shavit is absolutely clear about the ambiguity and hypocrisy at the heart of the founding of the Israeli nation-state. On the one hand, he reveals that Ben Gurion and others had explicit plans to ethnically cleanse the areas designated for the Jews by the UN Mandate, which Arab leaders rejected as a colonial imposition by outside powers, providing the Zionists with pretext for action. Shavit then describes the tragedy that this entailed, essentially ejecting almost all Arabs - even friendlies - into refugee camps with murderous brutality and callous disregard for their rights. There are unbelievably frightening passages in which Shavit finds Jewish warriors who shed their humanity and indulged in the most righteous of hatred as their friends died, leading to massacres and the wholesale plundering of entire Arab cities. In a way, this is the oldest story in the world: in order to found a state, someone else (an "other") must pay the ultimate price of total expropriation. Shavit despises the way that many Israelis live in a chronic state of denial regarding these basic injustices.
On the other hand, Shavit is thankful that the ethnic cleansing occurred, because in his eyes, it was a necessary precondition to the founding of Israel and all that it built, including even his own birth. He is clear that he sees the legitimacy of the need of Jewish refugees first from Europe and later - in even larger numbers - from Moslem countries and then the USSR. They built a new society and an incredibly dynamic economy. However, as a result of 2 people wanting the same land and the immense concentration of Palestinian refugees, he acknowledges that peace was and will remain impossible for generations, perhaps beyond the lives of his children. This is as lucid an evocation of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma as I have seen and is worth the price of admission.
The rest of the book is about the problems that Israel faces - and they are legion. First, after the laborite consensus fell apart in the late 1970s, Israel's political system has become dysfunctional and unable to address problems beyond security concerns. This resulted from the resentment of non-European Israelis, the rise of fundamentalist sects (the only issue that receives inadequate treatment, in my view), and the sheer fatigue and moral corruption that come from a near-constant state of war. THese are largely problems from within. Second, the outside threat is very real and exceedingly complex, something that many critics of Israel ignore. Shavit addresses security in great detail. Third, he covers Israeli actions that he sees are self-destructive, such as the settlements (which he believes grievously undermines the legitimacy of the state with their colonial/imperialist character, inevitably eroding international support), but there are also economic issues and Arab Israeli rights. It adds up to a most daunting catalogue that makes him deeply pessimistic regarding Israel's prospects for survival.
Nonetheless, Shavit remains proud of Israel. He believes in the Zionist project and does not or cannot question is legitimacy or whether it is becoming obsolete. Jews, he says, have created a home where they can be creative masters of their own destiny.
Many critics of Shavit accuse him of hypocrisy or excessive ambiguity. He is described as a "liberal Zionist", which some believe is an unsustainable contradiction of terms. On the contrary, I see him as accepting all of it as a brute fact of history - no one is completely right or wrong, so you just have to get on with it and negotiate what you can while maintaining the strength to survive; Israel is both legitimate and illegitimate, if I read him correctly.
I warmly recommend this book as one of the most thoughtful, sad, frightening, and somehow uplifting that I have read in years.
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.
on June 8, 2015
I found this book to be a great narrative history of Israel. As a non-jew, I was most interested in how the country came into being. I was also surprised by the diversity of cultures that exist within Israel. I also appreciated his frank discussions on the problems Israel faces.
Towards the end of the book, the author tended to drift a little. He left a lot of issues hanging and, Other than taking tough action agains Iran, he did not provide any real solutions to the problems there-e.g., settlements are bad, but there is no discussion on how they might be resolved.
I was also impressed by the successes of the Israelis, who, like a lot of people, tend to succeed in spite of the government rather than because of it.
The few faults with it were far exceeded by its good points. Overall, I found the book was informative and well written.
on March 3, 2015
Don't hesitate to read this narrative which takes you on the Israel journey. The author is so conflicted and often contradicts himself but the beauty of his writing cannot be denied. His love for Israel shines through every page. The profiles of real people who made a difference in Israel's story are fascinating. So worthwhile to read.
on February 26, 2015
A very thought provoking and emotional telling (in the author's view) of the birth and growth of Israel. Gave me great insight regarding the founding of the Jewish State and the inability of the founding fathers to acknowledge any other existence but the survival of the Jewish people.
A must read for Jews of all ages - purchased a copy for my grandchildren.
on March 7, 2015
The most honest book about Israel I have ever read!! The author's heart is in Israel, however, he is brutally honest about the history of Zionism and its history in Israel. With his heart he tells of "My Promised Land".
I have spent a long time wondering about Israel and Jewish people. For one, I am constantly dumbfounded why America supports Israel without question. Why does my mom - who thinks everyone except her particular breed of Christian is going to hell - have such high support for Israel and the Jewish people? Why is there so much discrimination against Jews all over the world, even after the holocaust? What happened in the region, and how did those seemingly white people get out there?
And although I knew the textbook answers to some of these questions, and I've certainly heard the Jordanian and Palestinian sides of the story recently, I still had so many questions. This book has been a Godsend in answering my questions, giving me some peace that I have some understanding about both sides of the story from sane people. I love that this guy can bring himself to admit to some faults by the Jews, while you can see it pains him to say so. You can almost hear the defensiveness in his voice.
I tried reading some books about Israel before, but found I didn't yet have enough understanding about its history to understand those books. This one stands by itself and really helps the reader to get a grasp on such a crazy history and complex issues. I'd recommend it for anyone having a curiosity about the region or anyone who wants to hear a fairly unbiased account of this nation.
on January 16, 2016
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.