Monday, December 30, 2013

Four Reviews of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land.”

Zionism, Between the Real and the Ideal. By Daniel Gordis. Dispatches From an Anxious State, December 6, 2013.

Their Tragic Land. By Ruth Wisse. Mosaic, December 2013.

Understanding Two Views of Modern Israel. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, December 20, 2013.

Israel for Me, Not for Thee. By Elli Fischer. Commentary, January 2014.


My Promised Land is not, in the end, a historical account; it is a polemic. Shavit, a self-proclaimed romantic, idealizes pre-1967 Israel and laments what he perceives to be contemporary Israel’s lack of resolve, commitment, and community. For him, the excesses perpetrated by and in the name of Zionism before 1967 were acceptable collateral damage. But subsequent events—ones that make him unhappy—are the result of ideological overreach that has perverted Zionism.
The second half of My Promised Land chronicles the “seven revolts” that transformed post-1967 Israel. These revolts not only change Shavit’s Israel beyond recognition; they undermine his moral justification for the state’s existence. In its first 50 years, Zionism “was very careful not to be associated with colonialism and tried not to cause unnecessary hardship,” he writes. “It made sure it was a democratic, progressive, and enlightened movement, collaborating with the world’s forces of progress.” Shavit accepts the contention that the creation of the State of Israel was an exercise in colonialism, and that Zionism’s original sin was so profound that Israel itself could be defended only if it kept itself in line with anti-colonialist ideals. “Without the communal aspect of kibbutz,” he writes of that failed experiment in radical egalitarianism, “socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and will be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement . . . moral camouflage of an aggressive national movement whose purpose is to obscure its colonialist, expansionist nature.”
This, he says, has proved “true and not true.” He is wrong. It is not true.
The identification of Zionism with colonialism is the key flaw of My Promised Land. To be sure, at times, the early Zionists made common cause with colonial powers—just as, when they felt it necessary, they went to war against colonial powers. In the decade before independence, they were at daggers drawn with the imperial British power governing the land they wished to inhabit. Shavit makes no mention at all of the 1939 White Paper issued by Great Britain that severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and led Zionism into open conflict with British colonial authorities; in his vague telling, Britain eventually exits the stage because “His Majesty’s government has had enough of the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews.” The Zionists sought to bring a uniquely powerless and stateless people to its homeland before it was too late—the very opposite of colonialism.
There have been socialist, feudalist, and even fascist Zionisms, yet Zionism is neither socialism nor feudalism nor fascism. Zionism is the concrete expression of the Jewish people’s ancient yearning to go home. Shavit misreads the Jewish return to the hilltops of Judea and Samaria as a colonialist exercise when it is, in fact, an assertion that these territories are the Jewish heartland and homeland. A Jew need not justify his claim to his land by means of assertions of his moral superiority. That another people claims the land is an issue that must be addressed, to be sure. But that makes the matter a dispute between two peoples with ancient claims to the entire land. It is not a dispute between Eastern natives and Western occupiers.
Similarly, Shavit’s understanding of Zionism is limited by his dismissal of the central role of the religion of the Jews. In his view, the bold assertion of religious identity in Israel—by religious Zionists through the settler movement and by Sephardim through the Shas party—has contributed to the demise of a unified and cohesive state. He takes comfort in the economic protests in the summer of 2011, which had a leftist tinge and which he therefore sees as a return to unity and hope: “Neither the settlement nor the peace nor the Oriental Shas movements,” he writes, “was ever able to gather so many Israelis with such enthusiasm and broad-based support.” Shavit finished his book before the death of Shas leader Ovadia Yosef, the non-agenarian scholar and political agitator. Nearly a million Israelis attended Rav Ovadia’s funeral, approximately twice the number involved in the tent protests.
Shavit and the secular, social-democratic Ashkenazic tribe that created the state in their image and dominated the first three decades of its existence must be allowed to lament the loss of their Israel. My Promised Land is an elegy for that Israel, and here’s hoping that it offers catharsis, in the tradition of the great tragedies. But a growing majority of Israelis, the descendants of the millions who arrived as refugees in Ben-Gurion’s socialist state who have reasserted suppressed identities and sought a new direction for the country, do not lament. They are happy to accept Israel for what it is and will be, and feel no need to apologize.