As the Jewish diaspora become increasingly disenchanted with Israel’s behaviour, Ari Shavit recounts his country’s history from a deeply personal perspective, striving to rationalise its frequently vicious actions, writes Joseph Dana
Despite appearances to suggest otherwise, a major shift in the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well under way. Specifically, Israel is watching traditional allies in the West dry up due to a profound recasting of the country’s behaviour toward the Palestinians. Years of status quo, ongoing Israeli occupation, a stalemate in the peace process and threats of a regional war with Iran have opened new avenues in the debate over Israel’s merits.
The democratisation of information via social media platforms and daily blogs is aiding this process. For decades, the conflict has been draped in purely security-related terms. A rights-based discourse now informs perspectives on all those under Israeli control from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
While the country’s leadership remains steadfast in its bullish determination to control the Palestinian West Bank and shows no signs of willingness to reformulate its democratic institutions to promote a more equitable system of governance for all Israeli citizens, more and more Israeli intellectuals are resigning themselves to the fact that facile defences of Israel’s right to exist simply won’t cut it anymore. A sense of urgency pervades these intellectual debates. Many feel as though they are losing control over the tightly choreographed portrayal of Israel.
In his recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, American journalist Peter Beinart argues that more and more American Jews don’t support Israel the way they once did because they have grown disenchanted with conflict and occupation. The Jewish community is focusing on its own existence in the United States at a time when Palestinian voices are becoming more commonplace in American discourse about the region. In short, Israel is losing its traditional base of support in America.
Beinart argues that Palestinian rights activists coalescing around calls to boycott Israel as a means of forcing change to the status quo are starting to drive the discourse. His remedy is simple: mimic their rhetoric with initiatives such as a Zionist boycott that targets Israeli settlements instead of institutions inside sovereign Israeli borders. Despite the fact that Israel has impossibly confused the line where the settlement enterprise begins and ends, Beinart’s calls reflect the desperation of pro-Israeli intellectuals to maintain control.
Beinart is not alone. Israel’s liberal intellectuals are also taking action, but they are not trying to mimic the tactics of rights activists. They are going back to methods that have served their cause for nearly 70 years, stories of Israel’s triumph in the face of adversity. My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit is the most concentrated effort to date of this phenomenon.
With exceptional detail, Shavit recounts Israel’s modern history from a deeply personal perspective. He begins with the story of his ancestors living aristocratic lives in the United Kingdom and their slow but passionate embrace of the Zionist project. From there, he goes through Israel’s founding, through all of the country’s wars, touches on the Iranian threat and ultimately ends with his family on the English Riviera. In every episode, Shavit rationalises Israel’s actions, no matter how vicious they have been. It takes him a long time to arrive at this ultimate conclusion – Israel is a flawed but, as he sees it, noble country.
At a time when the debate about Israel is shifting in the West, one is left wondering if a more apologetic tone for Israel’s past transgressions would win more support, especially by a writer who comes from the upper echelon of Israeli society. Yet, such a claim would reveal ignorance about the inner workings of Israel’s intellectual establishment.
Now, to say that Ari Shavit is an establishment journalist would be an understatement. He has used his position as a senior columnist at the Israeli daily Haaretz to rationalise every Israeli action taken in the name of self-defence. As debate raged about whether to send Israeli ground troops into southern Lebanon during the 2006 war with Hizbollah, Shavit penned an opinion piece in favour of aggressive action, which Haaretz ran above the fold on the front page. The next day, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, sent in the troops. It was a disaster for Israel’s military and Shavit quickly changed his tone about the course of the war.
Likewise, Shavit initially wrote favourably about Israel’s Gaza invasion in 2009, only to change his tune when the depth of destruction was too difficult to ignore. Perhaps his most grandiose rationalisation of the assault was that Israel should finish the operation but build a hospital for the victims. It is always easier to rationalise violent behaviour after the fact than speak truth to power in the middle of war. Given his schizophrenic and facile rationalisations of Israel’s use of military force against Palestinians, he has become increasingly sidelined in the Israeli debate. It is not so much that Israelis don’t agree with his calculations, they have simply stopped requiring his rationalisations. Therefore, it is no surprise that he has turned his sights on the United States with his new memoir, which has not yet been published in Hebrew.
The book’s main goal is a lengthy demonstration of the dynamism that characterises Israel’s Jewish society. Shavit weaves first-person interviews with a variety of Israelis, from Arab Jews who moved to the country essentially against their will to the upper crust of Israel’s intellectual society. But don’t expect to find many Palestinian voices. While Shavit is clearly trying to recast Israeli history in a way that will be more palatable for the changing discourse, he is not yet willing or able to interview Palestinians about their feelings on the triumph and tragedy of the Israeli state.
To be sure, Shavit’s boldest chapters concern the founding of the country in 1948. In a chapter about the Palestinian town of Lydda, which was emptied of its original inhabitants in 1948 and is now called Lod, Shavit describes the process of ethnic cleansing in no uncertain terms. The foreign reader might be surprised to read an Israeli describe the events in Lydda in such clear terms, but Shavit is not breaking new ground here.
In fact, Israelis have been debating 1948 for many years, thanks to the research of a group of Israeli historians in the late 1980s that used official state documents to unravel Israel’s founding myths. Today, it is not uncommon to read first-hand testimonies from Israeli soldiers in mainstream Israeli newspapers about what happened in the town during the founding of the country. For an American audience, however, Shavit’s honest recollections of 1948 will be viewed as brave redemptive steps by a concerned Israeli.
As the subtitle of the volume demonstrates, Shavit is willing to engage with this history only insofar as it can be compared with the many successes of the Israeli state. This dynamic gets him into trouble. Perhaps unknowingly, his descriptions of Israeli triumph underline just what a disaster the country has been for some Jews who have been involved with the project, not just Palestinians.
This problem is perfectly demonstrated in Shavit’s descriptions of the population transfer Israel oversaw in the 1950s. Thousands of Jewish refugees from around the world flooded the country. While the refugees of European descent tended to fare well and even thrive in the new state, those Arab Jews (who Shavit refers to as Oriental-Israelis) suffered.
In great detail, he recounts the plight of Iraqi and Moroccan Jewish families as they watched their world crumble after the creation of Israel. With fortunes and prestige lost, these people were forced to immigrate to Israel, where they were quickly placed in desolate immigrant camps on the outskirts of nascent Israeli urban centres.
For these unfortunate souls affected by Zionism, their story is one of “a sudden fall from paradise to humiliation and deprivation”, but by the time Shavit is born in the late 1950s, he reports that “the state of Israel is a triumph”. Not only does this statement conflict with Shavit’s own reporting, it reflects perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. Shavit can never escape from the cocoon of his elite privilege in Israeli society. He can’t redeem Israel because he ultimately doesn’t understand Israeli society from the perspective of Russian, Arab or Ethiopian Jewish immigrants who experience daily racism in Israeli society.
Yet, My Promised Land is an attempt at redemption. Shavit understands that world opinion is turning against Israel and so few will care about elite Israeli society’s anger at the occupation and the way Israeli history has unfolded. That is why Shavit attempts to retell the fictional story of Israel that Americans love to hear; the story of Israel as a small but energetic country that, despite all odds, remains a dynamic place.
It is a story of an Israel that Shavit himself would like to live in, but understands through his observations as a journalist that it simply doesn’t exist.
Despite the attention to detail, Shavit’s Israel is a figment of his imagination and, My Promised Land is ultimately a long rationalisation for Israel’s next war in Gaza, Lebanon or Tehran.
Joseph Dana is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and a regular contributor to The National.