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My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of…
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My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

by Ari Shavit

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It's all there in the subtitle -- the existence of Israel is a triumphant resurgence of a devastated people, but is based on a great wrong done to another people. That is a tragic situation indeed. Mr. Shavit's book is beautifully written and very moving; his love for his country shines through despite his disagreement with many of his country's policies. It is also enormously informative: I learned a great deal about the past and present of Israel that I did not know. The changes within Israel -- political, social, and demographic -- have been far greater than I realized, and are intertwined with the Palestinian problem in many complicated ways. This book helps me understand the Israeli perspective, but it also makes it clear just how complex Israel's problems are at present. ( )
  annbury | Jan 1, 2016 |
This is a beautifully written anecdotal history of the modern state of Israel. The book is a series of stories about various Jews through time, starting in 1897 with the journey of the author's great grandfather from England to Israel. It continues with stories of the early Aliyot, the War of Independence, the wars of the young state, the development of the Dimona project, and on to modern Israel.

It's not intended to be a comprehensive history; in some ways it's more like a memoir, or a family history. The perspective is from the political Left, and I'm told this is a popular book within J Street in America, with which I sympathize.

I thought the book ran a bit long, but it ends with some well-written and heartfelt musings on the problems facing Israel today and how different those problems are from those of the past. ( )
  DanTarlin | Aug 5, 2015 |
Ari Shavit's master opus about the history and future of Israel from a very personal perspective. Whether you agree with his political views or not, the author raises essential questions for the future of Israel. ( )
  alancaro | Apr 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Ari Shavit is a prominent reporter for Haaretz. Shavit is politically left, and an advocate of Israeli peace with Arabs, particularly the end of the occupation of Palestinian lands and the reigning-in of Israeli settlements. This is to say that Shavit is not without his biases. Still, Shavit's panoramic history of Israel, My Promised Land, is a remarkably balanced and powerful vision of Israel's history and future.

Shavit takes the reader through the history of Israel by honing in on one or two events per decade per chapter. Shavit begins with the journey to Palestine, 1897, of his great-grandfather, an English Jew and gentleman who was sympathetic to the need for a Jewish state. Thus Shavit's story is inexorably entwined with Israel. Shavit moves forward at a steady clip, jumping from decade to decade, capturing the remarkable development of the Jewish settlements and, eventually, the Israeli state. His chapter on the establishment of the first kibbutz is particularly well done.

The pace of the book begins to drag a bit as Shavit catches up to recent decades, particularly the beginning of the settlement movement in the 1970s. This is somewhat paradoxical, since these developments are the most relevant to our understanding of recent Middle Eastern history. Still, readers will find here insight that will add nuance to the snippets they here on the evening news. An interview with one of Shavit's Palestinian friends is particularly interesting.

A remarkably well written, heroically scoped memoir/history recommended to readers who are willing to be open-minded and balanced in their approach to Israel and the Middle East. ( )
1 vote LancasterWays | Apr 3, 2015 |
Ari Shavit is a well known, left-leaning Israeli journalist and a columnist for Haaretz (Israel's oldest daily newspaper). This book is an apologia for his home land, but also an unsparing cri de coeur addressed to his fellow Israelis to make it better. Shavit relates the history of Israel from early Zionist days in the late 19th century to the present through examples of archetypical individuals. Although he personalizes the narrative, he also discusses the gnarly political and philosophical issues raised by the actions of, and even the very existence of, the Jewish state.

Shavit is torn between his love of his native land and the immense difficulty (as he sees it) of solving the problem of what to do about the millions of Muslim Arabs who live within or near its boundaries and who will not recognize its legitimacy. The problem is truly intractable: the Jews need a safe refuge from the persecution they have suffered since the Roman conquest in the first century C.E.; and the Arabs have a pretty legitimate claim to the land they inhabited almost exclusively for about 1300 years.

The early Zionists are typified by the author’s great-grandfather, the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a prosperous English Jew. In 1897, Bentwich perceived that Judaism in Europe was in trouble in two ways. First, in Eastern Europe, Jews were the object of vicious pogroms that threatened their physical safety. Second, in Western Europe, Jews were assimilating with the rest of society and were attenuating, if not actually losing, their Jewish faith. In any event, Bentwich was wealthy enough to pull up stakes and establish his family in Palestine.

Shavit describes Bentwich as arriving in Palestine and seeing an empty country. In Shavit’s words, the Arabs living there “are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman,” who as a “white man of the Victorian era, cannot see nonwhites as equals.” Shavit’s great-grandfather “does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see.” And in this respect, he was typical of the early Zionists. [Cf. also Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John B. Judis.] Shavit says that among the early Zionists only Israel Zangwill had a clear view of the Arab population of Palestine, and Zangwill asserted that the Zionists must “drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Prior to 1948, few Zionists would have admitted to agreeing with Zangwill. At the same time, few of them would have looked on their Arab neighbors as equals. Shavit describes the early Zionists as living in a state of denial about the Arabs. He states:

"An obstinate disregard [of the Arabs] was crucial for the success of Zionism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a lack of awareness was crucial for the success of Israel in its first decade of existence. If Israel had acknowledged what had happened [to the Arabs] it would not have survived. If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed. Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the… nation into which I was born.”

Many of Israel’s current problems can be traced to the after-effects of its overwhelming victory in the 1967 War. Shavit says, “The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris, and messianic delusions of grandeur.” Accordingly, it undertook a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project,” i.e., the settlement of the Arab-occupied West Bank [Judea and Samaria, to many Israelis]. The settlements have entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled:

"The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality.”

Shavit himself is very troubled by some of the tactics employed by his countrymen in controlling the Arabs, or as he says, “imprisoning an entire population.” Nevertheless, he cannot bring himself to protest too vigorously because of his belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. He observes:

"This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure. And I am a part of it all. I comply.”

Shavit is deeply pessimistic. He fervently desires peace and justice, but his Arab neighbors are some of the most xenophobic and religiously intolerant people on the planet. To Shavit, the fundamental flaw of the Israeli Left was that:

"…it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible. But the history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible. The correct moral position of the Left was compromised by an incorrect empirical assumption.”

Moreover, he sees the problem for Israel is even deeper and thornier than a resolution of the settlements in the West Bank. The problem goes back to the founding of the country in 1948:

"What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They [the Arabs] will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life. [Arabs and Jews] cannot really see each other and recognize each other and make peace.”

Uncomfortable as he is with the justice of the situation, Shavit quotes Moshe Dayan’s assessment in 1956 as “the most sincere words ever spoken about the conflict”:

"…without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Shavit rightfully lauds the energy and achievements of his countrymen. He contrasts the thriving Israeli society and economy with its torpid and resentful Arab neighbors. He notes that for the past 40 years Israel’s possession of atomic weapons has helped make it safe from invasion by hostile Arab regimes, but he fears that nuclear monopoly may not be permanent.

Shavit is not always consistent in his assessment of the possibility of peace with the Arabs. Although early in the book he sees no real possibility of a solution, he is highly critical of the current Israeli government for not attempting more creative approaches out of its predicament. He fears that Israel’s secular Jewish majority will become a minority vis-à-vis Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not serve in the military and who tend not to be economically productive. He says:

"Secular Israelis are the ones working, producing, and paying taxes. Once they are outnumbered, Israel will be a backward nation that will not be able to meet the challenges of the third millennium….Fewer and fewer Israelis run faster and faster to carry along the Israelis who don’t run at all. A flawed political system guarantees the special interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the mega-rich. But the productive middle class has been abandoned by the state. That’s why this exhausted middle class is growing bitter. It feels the nation has betrayed it. It sees the Israel it loves disintegrating.”

Shavit is consistent, however, in describing his country’s treatment of the Arabs:

"The State of Israel . . . has not yet found a way to integrate properly one-fifth of its population. The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights, and did not accord them real equality….To this day there is no definition of the commitments of the Jewish democratic state to its Arab minority.”

Shavit’s concluding paragraphs are wonderfully written. They summarize the tensions inherent in Israel’s precarious position in the world. They express his affection for his country, which he embraces enthusiastically, warts and all. A few of his pithier observations follow:

"We probably had to come. And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable….There will be no utopia here. Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be, nor will it be Europe-away-from-Europe….This free society is creative and passionate and frenzied….We respect no past and no future and no authority. We are irreverent. We are deeply anarchic.”

"There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here. Not soon. There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here. Not in this generation….So what we really have in this land is an ongoing adventure. An odyssey. The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.”

Evaluation: I have quoted the author more extensively than is usual in book reviews. This is because he writes so passionately and so well. I greatly appreciated his analysis and his candor. This book has a message that is important for Americans, particularly American policymakers. By better understanding its history and current situation, we can be a loyal friend to Israel even though we recognize its shortcomings. And as a true friend, we should not simply rubber stamp the policies of a government that has [in Shavit’s words] “turned Israel into a semi-pariah state.” But we must also recognize the temperament of the Israeli people, who will not tolerate being dictated to by a country with its own interests, not Israel’s, at heart. Accordingly, we would do well to find common ground with the westernized secular middle class to which Shavit belongs, and gently prod their government in directions that serve our mutual interests. ( )
  nbmars | Mar 22, 2015 |
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A groundbreaking, ambitious, and authoritative examination of Israel by one of the most influential columnists writing about the Middle East today

My Promised Land tells the story of Israel as it has never been told before. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Through revealing stories of significant events and of ordinary individuals—pioneers, immigrants, entrepreneurs, scientists, army generals, peaceniks, settlers, and Palestinians—Israeli journalist Ari Shavit illuminates many of the pivotal moments of the Zionist century that led Israel to where it is today. We meet the youth group leader who recognized the potential of Masada as a powerful symbol for Zionism; the young farmer who bought an orange grove from his Arab neighbor in the 1920s, and with the Jaffa orange helped to create a booming economy in Palestine; the engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program; the religious Zionists who started the settler movement. Over an illustrious career that has spanned almost thirty years, Shavit has had rare access to people from across the Israeli political, economic, and social spectrum, and in this ambitious work he tells a riveting story that is both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.

As it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? And can Israel survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that Israel is currently facing, both internal and external, My Promised Land uses the defining events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global political landscape.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385521707, Hardcover)

A groundbreaking, ambitious, and authoritative examination of Israel by one of the most influential columnists writing about the Middle East today

My Promised Land tells the story of Israel as it has never been told before. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Through revealing stories of significant events and of ordinary individuals—pioneers, immigrants, entrepreneurs, scientists, army generals, peaceniks, settlers, and Palestinians—Israeli journalist Ari Shavit illuminates many of the pivotal moments of the Zionist century that led Israel to where it is today. We meet the youth group leader who recognized the potential of Masada as a powerful symbol for Zionism; the young farmer who bought an orange grove from his Arab neighbor in the 1920s, and with the Jaffa orange helped to create a booming economy in Palestine; the engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program; the religious Zionists who started the settler movement. Over an illustrious career that has spanned almost thirty years, Shavit has had rare access to people from across the Israeli political, economic, and social spectrum, and in this ambitious work he tells a riveting story that is both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.

As it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? And can Israel survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that Israel is currently facing, both internal and external, My Promised Land uses the defining events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global political landscape.

Praise for My Promised Land
 
“With the heart of a storyteller and the mind of a historian, Ari Shavit has written a powerful and compelling book about the making of modern Israel. No country is more emotionally connected to the United States, and no country’s fate matters more to many Americans. And yet, until Shavit’s My Promised Land, it has been growing more difficult to sense the character of Israel through all the caricatures. This book is vital reading for Americans who care about the future, not only of the United States but of the world.”—Jon Meacham
 
“A beautiful, mesmerizing, morally serious, and vexing book. I’ve been waiting most of my adult life for an Israeli to plumb the deepest mysteries of his country’s existence and share his discoveries, and Ari Shavit does so brilliantly, writing simultaneously like a poet and a prophet. My Promised Land is a remarkable achievement.”—Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent, The Atlantic

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:43 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Presents an examination of Israel that traces the events that led the country to its current state of conflict through the stories of everyday citizens to illuminate the importance of lesser-known historical events.

» see all 2 descriptions

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