on 27 March 2014
It was a pleasure to read this well-written and insightful work, especially as it’s unencumbered by the footnotes and citations that usually accompany academic tomes. This is the book that anyone who understands anything about Israel or thinks they understand something about Israel or really knows nothing at all about Israel ought to read — or better still, ought to be required to read. Were I still an active academic, I would have the graduate students read this as a starting point for discussion.
One of the criteria that I’ve always used to gauge the quality of a speech, or talk, or lecture is if the speaker can stimulate you into thinking about issues related to the subject matter while, at the same time, you continue listening intently to what s/he is saying. If they manage that, then the talk has been worth hearing whereas if all you do is listen and applaud at the end, it’s hardly been worth the effort. And so it was while reading My Promised Land—right from the first paragraph.
For example, the book made me question the strategic wisdom of bringing about a situation in which such a large proportion of the Jewish people is concentrated in such a small geographical area. After all, the wonder of Jewish survival over the centuries has always been that even when disaster fell in one place there were always others somewhere else to hold the baton and keep running. But be that as it may. Reading the book brought out in me both positive and negative emotions. In some instances, the positive feelings were so strong that I had not realized I cared so much for Israel; in other cases, the emotions were so negative that I have reason to feel ashamed.
Chapters 2-4 is the story of Israel that many people like to hear. It was the most formative period of Zionism and the one that has left the deepest impact on the Jewish state — kibbutzim, Masada, the War of Independence, atrocities. In Chapter 6 presents the birth of the Israeli middle class and the dilemmas that faced the country, its planners and its decision-makers between 1948 and 1951. All considered, what Israel managed to do during these years and in those following is close to unbelievable. The author needed to restate the comparison presented of what the equivalent would be in 21st century America with a few more figures in European terms — just to drive the message home that the influx Israel had to deal with (notwithstanding the parallel exodus of Arabs) is in a different league to, say, German resettlement of Germans and its absorption of Turks, or France’s dealing with immigrants (French and Arab from North Africa and other parts of their empire), or, indeed Britain’s immigrants from the Caribbean and the Subcontinent. It was inevitable, given the relative immensity of the immigration and the rate at which it took place — not to mention the inexperience of dealing with all the issues involved and the cultural differences between the receivers and many of those they received that mistakes would be made and many would feel aggrieved. But neither the timing nor the size of the event was completely predictable and if it was predictable, the consequences were incompletely comprehended. As Shavit writes: “There was no time, and there was no peace of mind … statism and monolithic rule compelled the nation forward.” Yes, Zionism is/was about the future and about being modern; Jewishness is about the past and about retaining the status quo[s]; it’s as simple and as complex as that!
Chapter 7 deals with the decision to build a nuclear facility near Dimona. If Israel could produce a bomb 50 years ago and Netanyahu et al. know all about that affair, then they have every right to be worried about what the Iranians have done in the past decade. Dimona was a clandestine and pseudo-secret. Everybody knows, yet hardly anyone knows anything.
The following chapter deals with the “land fetish”, about creating settlements and more settlements and more settlements. Israeli “leftish” politicians are, in general ambivalent about settlement and settlements, especially so in those early days. It prompts questions of politicians and activists, especially the right-wing ones, asking them how they see the conflict ending. This requires logical thought and without ideological undertones and overtones. Do they really see another awful and bloody war in which Palestinians are dislodged further so that Jews can inhabit the whole of the Land of Israel? And if they do, then do they really think that next time the world still remain disinterested and uninvolved? And if they don't care what the world thinks, then why don't they care? Or do they really think they can live in close harmony with their neighbours? Are they living in cloud-cuckoo land?
The frustration of Israel’s Sephardi Jews emerges in reading the chapter based on an interview with Aryeh Deri, a former Minister of the Interior. Although this exasperation is understandable, it makes one think that some of the responsibility for the lower levels of education among the Sephardi population must fall on the shoulders of their leaders, i.e., that some of the discrimination they feel today is self-inflicted. Perhaps this is too harsh? In a similar vein, Chapter 13 was enlightening, too, but perhaps for reasons other than those intended. Is “a one-state democracy for both peoples”, a “bi-national state”, really feasible or is this just rhetoric, propaganda or polemics? Looking at how difficult it is to run a one-state democracy called Israel and look at how well (or otherwise) the different factions of the Palestinian national movement get on together to solve their differences, can one really believe that the Jews and Arabs (Israelis and Palestinians) could somehow manage to control their emotions and temper their differences within a unitary — or even a federal — state or a confederation? And is not the vision of the hundreds of thousands returning to Palestine from the diaspora not also a vision of cloud-cuckoo land? Or, maybe he’s right, in which case there will be no future for you or me or our children and grandchildren in this place. And, at this stage, I began to consider my worst-case scenario, one that haunts me day after day.
The Occupy Rothschild chapter also informs about the future of Israel but in a different way. On the one hand, the digital revolution was a blessing for a country endowed with astute entrepreneurs and a hardworking labour force enamoured of innovation. On the other hand, the success of Israeli start-ups (and other, more conventional) businesses has created a broad wealth gap. Others with perhaps similar aspirations but not the same success seem to think that what some have achieved becomes theirs, too, by right. The occupation of Rothschild Boulevard in the summer of 2012 highlighted this dilemma. Young people (and some older ones) were encouraged to be individualists in one sense or another yet at the same time, the communal spirit seems to have taken a back seat. But Israel can’t afford to lose too many of the successful ones by taxing them into becoming emigrants — and they are just the ones who can afford to get up and go. And goodness knows there are so many Israeli entrepreneurs and business people, artists, musicians already living abroad.
Shavit deals with Iran and other issues, too, in this book and ends on a generally positive note. It’s to his credit that although he holds strong political views—and he tells his readers what these are—that he doesn’t say to them that they should believe what he believes. He presents facts and asks you to digest them and make up your own mind. Yes, it’s journalism and not scientific research. It’s based on interviews with a non-random selection of people — but so what? It presents another perspective. If you question the facts or the viewpoints, you can always find alternative sources to supplement or oppose what is presented here. And if this is what this book does, then it will have succeeded.
On the whole, this is a wonderfully thought-provoking book. It has some deficiencies, though. There is virtually nothing about the Ashkenazi Haredim. Why don’t readers who know nothing or just a little about Israel receive an explanation about how so many able-bodied and presumably smart young men manage to stay out of the workforce and shirk other duties—and continue to get away with it! And why aren’t there interviews with some non-Israeli Palestinians?
However, these oversights don’t really diminish the value of this important book.