Truth without context: The trouble with “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit

(From An Essay on Criticism, by Alexander Pope, 1709)

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Last  weekend I had a chance to peruse the “Best Books of 2013” lists in The Economist and The New York Times. Though there were not many concordant choices between the two lists, they did coincide regarding the selection of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. In fact, the coveted #1 spot on The Economist’s list went to Shavit’s book. Let me start by stating that I did not find any inaccuracies in Shavit’s work. As someone who is very familiar with the history he covers, however, I can also say there were no new revelations in this volume. I must also admit that the book is compelling and well written. All that being said, I must add that this is a book I would never have written– and a book I do not think Shavit should have released (at least, not in the way it has been presented.)

I say all this as someone who shares most of Shavit’s political views– if anything I may be slightly to the left of him. His article, “A Missed Funeral and the True Meaning of Zionism reflects everything I believe.

To the best of my knowledge, his depiction of the events in Lydda in 1948 are historically accurate and the experiences he had guarding a Gaza prison camp closely mirrors my own during army reserve duty on the Strip more than 30 years ago. The power of Shavit’s book became even clearer to me after a recent article by Daniel Gordis appeared. Gordis is a scholar I respect and admire. But I have felt in recent years that he’s become too much of a cheerleader for our government. Yet, after reading Shavit’s book, Gordis wrote that, “being forced to confront the reality of the Jewish state is always a deeply painful process.”

Despite the book’s clear and various merits, I have three problems with it. First, as an historian, I have a hard time with history relayed solely through stories. Even a middle-school student knows that to write historic accounts without providing footnotes or sources is unacceptable.

Second, and more problematic, while Shavit tries to provide context for the narratives he presents, the context he provides is exceptionally limited. This problem begins early in the book when he tells the story of his Great-Grandfather, Hebert Bentwich’s journey through Palestine, Shavit puts the account into historical context by writing:

“Then, suddenly, these devoted sons of Europe notice that Europe won’t have them. Europe thinks they smell. Overnight there is a new strange look in Mother Europe’s Eye.”

That is how he accounts for the rise of early Zionism. Shavit makes no reference to the Dreyfus trial– spare a brief reference later in the book.

His main reference to the Holocaust, where he does mention Dreyfus, is limited to a line in his chapter on Rechovot, relating to how the settlers felt:

“At the end of July 1935, Alfred Dreyfus dies. In mid-September 1935, Nazi Germany enforces the racist laws of Nuremberg. From a Zionist point of view there is a link between the two events. Dreyfus was the French Jewish army officer whose persecution made Herzl fear the nightmare that awaited the Jews of twentieth-century Europe. The racist laws of Nuremberg prove Herzl right. It is impossible to imagine that within a decade, millions of Jews would be gassed to death, yet in the summer of 1935 the Jews of Berlin are experiencing something they had not experienced in a hundred years—pogroms. The news reaching Rechovot in late summer leaves no room for doubt: the great avalanche had begun. European Jewry is about to be decimated.”

Shavit returns to the Holocaust briefly in the middle of his section on Masada. There he describes the impact of the Holocaust on Zionist thinkers, such as Yosef Tabenkin and Berl Katznelson.  To be fair, he also briefly returns to the story of Holocaust when telling the life stories of Professor Ze’ev Sternhell and author Aharon Appelfeld. However, this point in the book is less focused on historic context, and more about telling the story of these individuals

I could go on (and I do, in a this complete review.)  Breathtaking, however, is what has been left out of this popular, acclaimed narrative of Israel. For example: The U.N. Commission on Palestine; the decision of the Arabs to oppose the plan, followed by their decision to start a war, is almost a passing reference in his story on Lydda. The refusal to resettle the refugees after 1949; the Hamas bombing after the Rabin assassination; the second Intifada; the rocket fire from both Lebanon and Gaza all omitted- or mentioned in passing– the curious list of critical omissions goes on and on.

In my opinion, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is an excellent book for Daniel Gordis, or anyone who knows our basic history. It is a terrible and potentially dangerous book for the world to read and embrace, without the historic context that many of Shavit’s stories demand in order to be fully understood.

This brings me to the third, and my core complaint and it goes beyond just Shavit’s treatment of history. There are two possible reasons why this book was designed in this way and why the book was first published in English rather than in Hebrew. First, perhaps it was purely a commercial consideration (i.e., Shavit and his agents determined what would sell and what would receive good reviews). If that is the case,  Kol Hakavod  (congratulations) for hitting the nail on the head). They struck it just right– producing a book on Israel that is at once highly critical yet authored by an Israeli who clearly loves Israel and is committed to its future (albeit, a sentiment that only comes to light in the concluding portions of the book). An alternative explanation for publishing this book is that Shavit has joined a long list of people who believe the only way to bring about change in political policy here is by exerting external pressure. A friend recently confided to me her belief that, “Our only hope of ending the occupation is American or European pressure”. It’s part of the ‘J Street line’. I disagree with this perspective 100%. The only way to end the occupation and change what happens in this country is to transform the views and priorities of Israelis. Turning the world against us, just bolsters the belief that the whole world is against us– which further strengthens and emboldens the right and does nothing to support the left’s aspirations.

Ari Shavit’s book is eloquent and engaging. As a work of history, which, of course, it makes no claims to be, — but which most readers will think it is — it is an alarming book. As a political discourse, this book misses the audience who should be its prime target– the Israeli voting public, and not the global elite who are the majority of the book’s current readership. “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” should be required reading for every Israeli high school student. Unfortunately, they will not likely be the ones examining and internalizing Shavit’s message.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne and has a weekly newsletter on substack called Israel Update
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