The Ruminative Rabbi

The Digital Shtetl
of
Rabbi Dr. Martin S. Cohen

Reading Avi Shavit

So I finally finished reading Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, published earlier this year by Spiegel and Grau, and I have to say that, although I found parts of it upsetting to read and other parts beyond challenging, I ended up liking the book and I would like to encourage my readers to consider reading it too.  The author writes very well. And even when he is highlighting truths that we—that I—have spent the better part of my life trying to avoid thinking about, he is still engrossing and—almost despite himself—encouraging. That there is a future for the State of Israel is undeniable. But that it could be one founded not on fairy stories but on actual history and on-the-ground reality is a less widely held view. It is, nevertheless, the author’s. And now that I have read his book and digested it, including the gristle, it is mine as well.

All Shelter Rockers know, or should, that the hallmark of my preaching is my disinclination to proclaim from the bimah as truths things that I would be hesitant to say out loud in a court of law if I were under oath and had thus sworn only to tell the truth. It sounds like that would be a simple task—not lying, not fabricating, not dissembling, not stretching the facts to suit some point one is trying to make—but I can assure you that it is anything but simple. Nor is it the key to effective sermonizing, this disinclination ever to lie. Just the contrary is true, actually: I think I could be far more successful—at least in the elocutionary sense—if I were precisely prepared to declaim from the bimah as obvious facts things that everybody would like to think of as self-evident truths. That would be very pleasant! But it would not yield any truly salutary results, because, no matter how gorgeous the oratory, the castle would still be built on the ever-shifting sands of wishful thinking and hopeful fantasy. And, as any architect will tell you, a building is only as permanent as its foundation! Therefore, if you wish to build a house that will last for a long while, you need first to set into the ground a foundation upon which it can stand permanently…or at least for a very long time.  And the same is true of preaching: to speak forcefully and well from the bimah requires not only knowing a lot of interesting stuff, but laying a foundation of ideas and beliefs upon which to build one’s remarks that itself is solid and strong. The alternative, building a gorgeous sermon on ideas that one only wishes were true, is the ideational equivalent of building of a beautiful home on mud that only looks solid from afar. And neither would be a very good idea!

And it is precisely this attitude that Ari Shavit, a commentator on Israeli public television and a columnist for Haaretz (and also a former paratrooper in the IDF), brings to his writing. He is clearly disinclined to build on sand. He understands, perhaps even intuitively, that writing a book and giving a sermon are two variations on the same theme. Both are undertaken to put across a point of view, to convince, to bring others over to one’s personal point of view. Both are offered to a public that will, at least at first, not be able to see the foundation upon which one has built one’s structure, just as no one not possessed of x-ray vision can tell what kind of foundation is under a building just by looking at its facade from the street.  However, because Shavit is an honest man, he has declined to take advantage of that fact and instead to invite his readers not only into the story they can see easily from observing the scene in modern Israel but into the substructure, into the events, ideas, stories, and episodes that form the foundation upon which the modern state rests.

His is a personal story. His great-grandfather, a British Zionist, visited what was then Turkish Palestine in 1897 and understood, almost intuitively, that it was there that his family’s future lay.  But this is not specifically the story of Ari Shavit’s own family, or not solely that. By setting his chapters at thoughtfully chosen intervals between his great-grandfather’s visit and today—there are chapters covering the momentous events of 1948 and 1967, of course, but also chapters set in 1921, 1936, 1942, 1957, 1975, 1991, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2011, and this waning year, 2013—Shavit draws a picture that is neither heavy-handed nor weighted down unduly with statistics. This is not a university textbook on the history of the State of Israel, but one man’s effort to understand the different layers that together constitute the foundation upon which the state rests.  These layers, although related, are also distinct. And so Shavit discusses religion, philosophy, political history, sociology, and culture separately and together, trying to show how they are similar and dissimilar, related and yet (at least in some cases) totally distinct from each other, malign (in some cases) and beneficent (in others). Above all, he is sympathetic to the good he sees in others, including in people with whom he disagrees vehemently. This is not a book for people who necessary only want to feel good about Israel. But it is an honest book of real thoughts built on real facts, and it is will be well worth any reader’s time and emotional investment to consider.

Hardest of all for readers like myself will be the passages in which Shavit dissects the question of the Palestinians and their place in the story of modern Israel. Unwilling to look away from the excesses of wartime, yet also eager to set events in their actual context (as opposed to the one history itself has provided as an after-the-fact refuge from its upsetting details), the author adumbrates the various motivating factors that led to some of the most disquieting episodes in Israeli history.  Some reviewers have jumped on this or that detail in Shavit’s account, and particularly of his excruciating retelling of the events that led to the “departure” of Lydda’s Arab population from their homes in 1948, to prove that his book is biased and misleading. (If you are reading this electronically, you can get a good taste of that kind of response by clicking here to read Alex Safian’s posting on the CAMERA website. Or by clicking here to read Ruth Wisse’s far more lyrical, but just as defensive, comments on the Mosaic site.) But those reviewers are clearly missing Shavit’s point. I am not enough of a historian of modern Israel to know where the actual truth lies in terms of every single detail. But the point does not lie in the details—at least not in this specific instance—but in the larger issue of the legitimacy of Zionism itself that Shavit brings into focus.

He is, as noted, an honest man. He does not wish to live in a country built on a foundation of half-truths and fantasies. He is also a committed, deeply patriotic Israeli, born and bred in the country he has no desire not to end his days living in.  Israel is the country in which he has staked his claim in the world, in which he works, in the army of which he served for many years, and in which he has chosen to raise his family. He is, in a word, a completely engaged Israeli who feels just as tied to his homeland as the citizen of any country naturally would to his or her own nation.  And he is a man who wishes to explore things clearly and without falling back on a comforting mattress of fantasy and self-serving delusion. That is why this book is so important…and, ultimately, so successful: it is one man’s honest effort to explain who he is and how he understands his nation’s best chances for a successful, peaceful future.

The question of indigenity weighs heavily over the whole book as Shavit dissects, and ultimately discards as irrelevant, the endless debate about whether it is the Jews or the Arabs who are the “true” indigenes of the land. The Palestinians, after all, never tire of denouncing the early Zionists as imperialists eager to seize someone else’ nation without noticing or caring that it was already inhabited. According to this version of the narrative, the Zionist settlers were no different from the British marching into Kenya or India and unilaterally making those countries part of their empire, or the Belgians doing the same in the Congo or the French in Senegal or Algeria. Seen in this light, the Palestinians’ plight is no less weird than tragic: after all the nations that together constituted the British or Dutch or French Empires became independent, the Palestinians somehow didn’t…and are thus left as the last remaining victims of nineteenth century imperialism. The Zionist version of that story is not that different, only with the roles reversed. In this version of the story, Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people. It was there, to quote the (Israeli) Declaration of Independence, that the Jewish people was born, that its character was forged, that its national identity was first formed. That others came later to the land to seize it as they could while its “real” owners were moldering in the lands of their exile was never the problem of the Jewish people, and least of all now that there is an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel to which all may come and in which all members of the House of Israel are welcome to settle. The exile has ended. The exiled have returned to their native shores. That those who moved in while they were absent must now deal with a new reality is, according to this version of the story, their problem either successfully to deal with or to whine endlessly about without actually addressing.

But indigenity itself is a complicated concept.  The world is filled, after all, with countries that were built by immigrants who neither cared nor even really noticed that their new homelands were already inhabited. Included in that club are, among others, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and every single country in Central and South America.  And that list only considers countries established in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. If we go back further, the same could be said of other nations as well.  (The Hungarians only came to Hungary in the ninth century C.E., for example, and displaced the indigenous Slavs and Avars.) Once we go back far enough, the migration of peoples across entire continents makes the whole concept of the indigenity less meaningful than it might otherwise be, particularly in light of the biblical stories that make it clear that the Israelites came to Israel from outside the land and seized it from the Canaanites, who—at least to some extent—themselves (so the Bible in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy) had displaced the nations that had earlier inhabited the land. All this underlies much of what Shavit writes.

Reading this book is something akin to cleaning out a wound with astringent: it stings mightily when applied but, in the end, it is more important to keep a wound clean and free of infection than it is to spare oneself some sharp pain. I found Shavit’s writing sobering always and upsetting in parts…but also invigorating, both in terms of my faith in the future and my own native Zionism, and as encouraging as challenging. This is not a book for the fainthearted. But neither is living in the real world! I recommend My Promised Land without reservation and look forward to discussing its details with you all further in the coming months.

 

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  • 19 December 2013
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