A Country On The Edge
Wed, 11/13/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
In “My Promised Land,” peace activist Ari Shavit questions some founding myths that have defined Israel over the decades.
In “My Promised Land,” peace activist Ari Shavit questions some founding myths that have defined Israel over the decades.

Peace activist Ari Shavit a direct descendent of Herbert Bentwich, one of Britain’s leading Jews and Zionist leaders? Shavit, a Bentwich?

There are those who, upon reading the moving and disturbing “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” (Random House/Spiegel & Grau) would brood, “Herbert is turning over in his grave.” Bentwich, as recounted by Shavit at the beginning of “My Promised Land,” first visited Palestine in 1897 as the head of a Zionist delegation, and his glowing report to Theodor Herzl gave hope to a movement yet to be born. But to note that Palestine was in fact already populated, as Bentwich dared to do, was received as “scandalous heresy” by his fellow Zionists.

Well, count me out of that argument. Shavit contends that the movement’s denial of Palestinians’ existence meant that first Zionism, and subsequently the State of Israel, were established on a rotten, unstable foundation. The thesis and tone of “My Promised Land” is thus set and clear from its opening pages.

Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz identified with the “peace camp” in Israel, has, in “My Promised Land,” written a book both entertaining and wrenching. Shavit’s thesis — a cri de coeur, truly — is the most basic question: “What is Israel?” With increased internal division and polarization, with a liberal-democratic foundation crumbling, with a series of governments unable (or unwilling) to address social disintegration and the West Bank dilemma, “Zionism is confronted with its core contradictions.” Shavit loves his homeland and celebrates its blessings; many Israelis (including Shavit), however, “have lost their unshaken faith in its future.” 

Shavit’s vehicle for articulating his existential questions is a collection of biographies, dramatizations and vignettes — and some serious history — which collectively tell the story of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine) and the state. Connecting the dots is Shavit’s forte; a seemingly random series of events and personalities comes together in a cogent narrative. Shavit analyzes the issues Israel is addressing, and the threats to its polity, by invoking moments from the past in order to understand the present — and perhaps to extrapolate to the future. 

Thus, Herbert Bentwich’s amazing odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Palestine; the refugee from Germany who built, from nothing, the Strauss-Elite dairy behemoth (and gave the world the “Milki,” in my family the snack of choice!); the Scottish-Jewish youth leader whose ideology was yediat ha-Aretz — knowledge of the Land of Israel — who glommed on to Masada as the iconic symbol of the Yishuv; the romantic visionary who made kibbutz Ein Harod into a reality; the young farmer who in the 1920s bought an orange grove from his Arab neighbor, and created the “Jaffa” orange, a contributing factor in the development of a booming economy in Palestine; the engineer who developed Israel’s nuclear program. Shavit’s access to witnesses, experts and those most directly affected by Bentwich, famous and unknown, seems limitless; their dramatizations tell the story.

But the story is not irenic, aimed at peace or reconciliation. In a heart-rending chapter on the Lydda massacre — a controversial moment in the 1947-’49 War of Independence — Shavit offers a basic moral argument for the sins of omission and of commission over many years on the part of the Zionists of the Yishuv and the State of Israel. Capping a discussion that is representative of all of “My Promised Land,” Shavit asks, in effect, Should I turn my back on all of Zionism? No — what was done in Lydda and elsewhere was necessary for me, my kids, and all of Israel to have a life. The ends justify the means, he is saying, and sometimes the means are pretty awful.

Whatever the justification, at Lydda and elsewhere, Israel betrayed its best and truest self. To Shavit, “Lydda” is a metaphor for everything that went wrong with the shaping of Israel. 

Shavit is a master storyteller — but storyteller Shavit is not historian Shavit; he often trips over historical paper clips. The strengths and flaws of the “My Promised Land” are exemplified in the breathtakingly moving chapter on the founding of Kibbutz Ein Harod, the iconic early Mapai (later the Labor Party) kibbutz; and, in Shavit’s dramatic portrait of anarchist/Bolshevik/socialist Yitzhak Tabenkin, one of the great pioneer leaders of the Yishuv.

Shavit’s narrative of Ein Harod as exemplar of, and paradigm for, the ethos of the developing Yishuv, is compelling — but he misses an important part of the point. In the Yishuv and the early years of the state, it was all about ideology, and ideological conflict led to the genesis of structures that became central institutions of the Yishuv. There were conflicting visions of socialism in the early Yishuv. There was Yitzhak Tabenkin’s vision of a “Kibbutz Ha-Me’uchad” — a “united” kibbutz movement in which the entire land of Israel would be one radical-socialist community, in effect one “kibbutz”; and there was the Hashomer Hatzair Marxist vision of individual communal settlements.

What emerged from these conflicting visions were Tabenkin’s Achdut Ha-Avodah party, combining radical socialism with territorial maximalism; and the network of Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim, which, together with the socialist Mapai (Labor) — Ben-Gurion’s party — were responsible for contouring many of the institutions of the Yishuv, and not only in agriculture. This point, not mere nuance, is missing in a book whose thesis is grounded in post-ideology distress.

Further, in his otherwise cogent discussion of the post-1967 West-Bank settlements, Shavit falls into the conventional-wisdom trap door. The settler movement did not begin with the religious Gush Emunim, which, in 1973, with its radical nationalist agenda, hijacked a centrist Mizrachi/National Religious Party. The first settlements, which appeared shortly after the Six-Day War, came out of the aforementioned Achdut Ha-Avodah, the Marxist and territorial-maximalist party. Indeed, there were settlements before there was a “settler movement.”

Where are we in 2013? Not in 1953. The Hashomer Hatzair and Mizrachi that we knew in the 1950s no longer exist. Achad Ha’am, Ber Borochov, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Meir Bar-Ilan were our buddies then. We sang Israel, we danced Israel, we argued Israel. But Zionism is unrecognizable to many, perhaps most, of today’s Jewish youth.

Shavit’s retelling of history jars us out of our familiar retrospections, reminds us (and we do need reminders) that there are historical reasons why Israel is a country on the edge. The age of innocence in Ari Shavit’s native land is long gone. “My Promised Land” will thus be profoundly disturbing to many, but the book will be required reading for both the left and the right.

Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author or editor of four books on Jewish history and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, CUNY Graduate Center.