Dan Ornstein

The promise of My Promised Land

A wistful reading of Ari Shavit's book, which starkly presents Israel's existential faultlines and its intoxicating appeal

As I prepare for my upcoming biennial synagogue mission to Israel, I am reading a fair amount of literature about Israel, her history, and her existential crises, including Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Israel. A senior columnist at Haaretz, Shavit has created a searing yet balanced narrative about modern Israel by weaving superbly written stories of his personal history as an Israeli with well crafted accounts of specific people, movements, and communities that capture the state’s complexity. His profound grasp of Jewish and Israeli history is matched only by his supreme journalistic skills. Shavit tells Israel’s story as his story in a way that I as a writer and a Jew found riveting and devastating. He refuses to engage in the pretense of non-biased and detached reporting about his country; at the same time, he turns his relentlessly critical eye upon Israel’s tortured relationship with the Palestinians, as well as the ideological dynamics of Zionism, the lasting brutal legacy of the Holocaust, Israel’s internal class and religious strife, and the Arabs’ hatred of Jewish national aspirations that have shaped the state for better or worse since well before 1948.

In thorough, thoughtful interviews, Shavit focuses upon what has gone wrong between Jews and Palestinians, and the high price both peoples will pay for not moving past our stuck national narratives. He also points to where Israeli political leadership lost its ability after the wars of 1967 and 1973 to make the hard decisions that would have unified an increasingly stratified and balkanized Israeli society. Finally he places all of these realities in the larger context of Israeli nuclear pursuits, Arab rejectionism and the dangerous emergence of a muscular Islamic extremism, most notably that of the soon-to-be nuclear Iran. Yet this is not a doomsday book. Rather, Shavit carefully assesses how Israel, a world economic and military power and a model democracy, can regain its full capacity to face the past century’s worth of challenges that persist in this new century. Most important, he admirably demonstrates how, with all Her faults, Israel is a truly amazing national project.

My Promised Land has its deficits, among them its failure to more fully examine and critique Palestinian perspectives, particularly Palestinian anti-Semitism and its violent expression. Shavit is an intrepid reporter and interviewer. He doggedly pursues his major premise that blindness to the presence of native Palestinians was a necessary evil, without which the early Zionist leadership could not have created a home for the Jews, yet which left the tragedy of occupation, expulsions, and a couple of massacres in its wake. But other than passing references to Palestinian violence and terrorism and a chapter devoted to interviews with three prominent Israeli Palestinians who reject the two state solution, Shavit largely fails to interview and question actual Palestinians, who are part of the equation of Israel’s future, as he readily admits. It would have made sense for him to hear them more extensively, expose their attitudes for better or worse, and question their thinking as well.

Further – and this is less a critique and more a troubled reflection – Shavit’s very engaged but sober analyses seem to drift into a gushing romanticism about Israeli Jewish life as he closes the book:

The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge. The adrenaline rush of living dangerously, living lustfully, living to the extreme. If a Vesuvius- like volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this is what it will petrify: a living people…People who danced the dance of life to the very end.

I read this and similar arguments by Israelis about the “life on the edge” vitality of Israel, and I fearfully wonder how Israelis can live in such a state of perpetual, earth-shattering existential anxiety. Is there never a time when a walk through a Tel Aviv mall is nothing more than that? Would most Israelis just trying to get through the day agree with Shavit’s assessment? That is when I recall why I first fell in love with the Jewish state; why to this day I remain uncomfortable with the American Jewish life I have chosen, as committed to it as I am. America loves us Jews so much, it may be loving us into the gentle sleep of death. In this respect, Ari Shavit is not wrong. Israel’s rich, complicated dynamics from within and its enemies from without give it no rest, so it has learned to thrive on being perpetually awake. My Promised Land compellingly argues that whatever Israel lost in the process of state building that She needs to reclaim, those of us who choose to remain on Her margins are the greater losers.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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