Having read Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” (2013) I feel like I have just descended from dizzying ride on a Zionist-Post-Zionist seesaw. As much as I was drawn in by the seductive lyrical prose and fascinating vignettes of life in the Land of Israel from the early twentieth century to the present, I was confused by Shavit’s constant disclaimer that, “I come to observe and not to judge,” repeated like a mantra throughout his book. (Methinks he does protest too much.) Yet, judge is exactly what he does, time and time again, all through the lens of his personal ideological beliefs.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading the moving descriptions of Zionism’s achievements, the “Triumph” of the title, for example, here is a lovely description of the early pioneers feelings as they cleared the land in the Yizrael Valley:
As the plows begin to do their work, the Jews return to their history and regain their masculinity. As they take the physical labour of tiling the earth, they transform themselves from object to subject, from victims to sovereigns.” (p. 35)
I was, however, deeply dismayed at some of the Post-Zionist rhetoric, the “Tragedy” of the title. Shavit blindly toes the Palestinian narrative without citing any historical sources. There are no footnotes, endnotes or list of works cited.
Shavit seems to have a schizophrenic Zionist personality. Whilst no country is perfect, what Israel’s homegrown detractors seem to forget is just how much Israel has achieved in the first sixty-five years of its existence. We have revived our language, made the desert bloom, rebuilt our homeland, ingathered our exiles, have the ability to defend our ourselves and protect Jews worldwide and we strive to make the world a better place for all of its inhabitants. Israel is more than just a, “nation like other nations.” We strive to be a, “light unto the nations.” Daniel Gordis succinctly summed it up when he stated that, in addition to striving for the benefit all of our own citizens,
This country has become a country, with all of its imperfections, that sees as part of its purpose as looking out for other people.”
Some of Shavit’s language is rather inflammatory. In the justifiably much critiqued chapter “Lyyda, 1948” he claims, “Zionism carries out a massacre” (p.108) and “Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda” (ibid). His implication is that Israel/Zionism could not live with Arab cities in its midst. He fails to contextualise the fact that Israel was in the midst of a war for its very survival following the Arab rejection of the UN partition plan and subsequent mass invasion of the nascent Jewish State by Arab regular armies and irregular forces. His highly emotional, inaccurate and historically unsubstantiated account will be a pleasure for Israel haters everywhere to read.
The plain fact is that there are plenty of Arab cities and towns in Israel (for example Nazareth and Abu Gosh). Often his narrative reads like crude anti-Israel propaganda. In the “Into the Valley, 1921” chapter concerning the establishment of Kibbutz Ein Harod Shavit once again claims that:
The Arabs of the Harod Valley still stand in the way of the Jewish liberation movement that needs to remove them from this valley.” (p. 44)
His “us or them” implication is simply NOT true. In fact, there are more Muslim, Christian and Druze than Jewish Israeli citizens in the Galilee today. Over twenty percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish.
The fact is that the vast majority, with some notable exceptions, of non-Jewish residents who were prepared to live with their Jewish neighbours in peace and reap all the benefits of Israeli citizenship were left unmolested and enjoy full democratic rights to this day. Israel’s Declaration of Independence unequivocally states that:
The State of Israel…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of race religion or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, culture; it will safeguard Holy Places of all religions…
We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
In this chapter Shavit uses the words “colonise” no less than eleven times! He anachronistically refers to “Palestinians,” a term that the Ottoman serfs themselves didn’t use at the time. His implication is that the Arabs were the indigenous inhabitants of the land and the Jews were the colonialist usurpers. His thesis could be read as:
The Jews colonised Palestine and displaced the indigenous population”
He totally ignores the fact that when the exiled Jews returned they legally purchased the land from absentee landlords. The Pioneers then created infrastructure and jobs, which in turn attracted Jewish and Arab immigration, which took advantage of improved economic conditions. (Source, “The David Project.”) As the British Colonial Secretary at the time, Winston Churchill, observed:
Far from being persecuted, the Arabs have crowded into the country and multiplied.”
In actual fact, without the historical revisionism, what transpired in the end of the nineteenth century onwards was the following:
Indigenous Jews returned, purchased and cultivated the land, and attracted mass Arab immigration.”
To paraphrase that great advocate for Israel, Alan Dershowitz, if the Jews were colonisers, whom were they colonising for? Did they come with Russian or Polish flags? No, they were escaping the dark centuries of exile. They were returning to their ancestral homeland to reconnect with their primeval source of energy. This was a generation that revived a dormant language, revived a dormant land, revived Jewish self-defence and revived Jewish honour and pride.
I think that the REAL issue that Ari Shavit, and many of his colleagues at “Haaretz,” in addition to many in the international community and our neighbouring countries have was laconically summed up by “Times of Israel” columninst Sarah Tuttle-Singer, who observed that:
A lot of people have a hard time with Jewish people being in a position of power. Including ourselves, apparently.”