Book Review // Interview | Serge Schmemann
Ari Shavit: An Insider’s Guide to Zionism
Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, will not be of much practical help for peacemakers or policy makers. He does not resolve who has the greater right to Jerusalem, what should happen to refugees, what plots of land should change hands or who will patrol the Jordan Valley. Yet I believe that this book is the one peacemakers and policy makers have to read—precisely because the book is not about politics or diplomacy, but about the memories and narratives that have to be sorted out for any peace settlement to make sense.
“Israel was a narrative before it became a state,” Shavit tells me. “But as it became stronger as a state it lost the narrative.” The book, he said, is his personal version of that narrative: “It is not about my insights or ideas, or my ideology or politics. The point of the book is to bring Israel back to the human level, to see it as a human drama, and to look at the big picture. That was my mission statement.”
The prognosis, the prescriptions, may come in a later book, he said in our two telephone conversations. Or they may not, I think to myself, and this is no criticism of Shavit. He is a journalist, not a politician or diplomat. His mission is to reconnect people (especially Americans) with how things really are and how they came to be that way. Besides, the actual details of the eventual peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians are not the mystery; how to get there is the challenge. And for that, you need first to strip away the passions, the politics and the propaganda.
“At this stage of Israeli history, when Israel is so strong and self-confident, seeing things as they are is not only a moral need but a political need,” says Shavit. “Look, I oppose occupation and the settlements, but one of my deeper themes is that it’s not only about occupation and settlements, but about the failure of both people to see each other, to acknowledge each other.
“If we reach out and try to achieve some sort of emotional breakthrough on the human level, if we acknowledge the Palestinians’ tragedy while being firm and tough in demanding that they see that we belong to the land, that we have returned to land that is ours, then the somewhat sterile political process will be enriched.
“I’m not a flower child. I see reality as it is: Politics is politics, strategy is strategy, but parallel to that we need an emotional, human track. Then we can begin a process that leads to deep reconciliation, and not some technical legal accord signed in some Scandinavian capital.”
This is a task for journalists, not historians or politicians, he says—although he did not always think of himself as a journalist. But with time he realized that “I can’t be an Israeli and not a journalist.” The country is so small, and the story so important, so fast-paced, that it is the journalists who can put things in perspective who are critical for Israel. “People tell me I should run for office,” he notes wryly. “I answer that a journalist in Israel makes more difference than a member of the Knesset.”
I was the bureau chief in Jerusalem for The New York Times in the late 1990s, and I can certainly testify that Israel places a huge burden on the reporter. There is no place else with such a concentration of history, so many conflicting religious and national myths. No one, not Jew, Arab, Christian or other, leaves this land unmoved or indifferent to its fate.
Shavit, then a Haaretz reporter, was one of my guides when I was there. The articles I remember best were his profiles—long interviews whose intent was not to trip up some notable but to reveal the person in depth. My Promised Land is an extension of his skill, a series of in-depth stories that trace Israeli history, starting with Shavit’s own Zionist ancestors in England and continuing through major incidents, people, achievements and trends. Each takes on a vibrant life through personal testimonies, interviews and archives.
“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear,” are the opening words of Shavit’s introduction, prefacing recollections of the wars and terror attacks he, like every Israeli, has known since childhood. “For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation,” he declares two pages later, and he writes of his service in occupied cities, service that led him to become a peacenik.
Shavit is very much a character in his book, because he personifies the “normalcy” that the Zionist pioneers aspired to: He is an Israeli who loves his country, believes in it, fought for it, and for these reasons he can look at his country with both acute pride and great pain. His purpose is never to play “gotcha” or to score points; it is to reveal to the world the unvarnished, remarkable and dark reality that is “the triumph and tragedy of Israel,” in the irony of the title and the paired wording of the book’s subtitle, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
There are the remarkable stories of the Holocaust survivors who make a new life in Israel and the mom-and-pop dairy operation that grows into a multinational industry. He describes the rise and fall of the brilliant politician Aryeh Deri, whose Shas party gave voice to the deep resentment of Sephardic Israelis against the secular Ashkenazi elite, who dispersed Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants upon their arrival in a misguided attempt at assimilation that in reality condemned them to poverty. They were also widely treated with contempt because most of them had lived peaceably among Arabs and Muslims, and had not suffered the Holocaust like Israel’s European Jews. And there are the atrocities, most painfully and poignantly told in the brutal expulsion of Arabs in 1948 from Lydda, then a prosperous town of 19,000 on the strategic intersection of the main roads through Palestine, which in Shavit’s telling becomes the “other side” of the Zionist story: “And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” The stories are all personal: Shavit visits the places and talks to the actors or their progeny, Israeli and Palestinian. He is always there himself, deeply patriotic and proud of his people, yet haunted by memories of his own military service in Gaza, listening to the screams of young Palestinians being broken by interrogators.
Certainly the cruel measures of early Israelis against Palestinian hamlets cannot be equated to the breathtaking scale of the Holocaust. But Shavit’s purpose is never to impose a moral relativism: It is to remind us of the real narrative of the Jewish state amid all the “roadmaps,” “frameworks,” recriminations and boycotts.
That, says Cindy Spiegel, the editor at the Spiegel & Grau publishing house who acquired the book, is why she was keen to publish it, because a lot of American Jews with strong personal ties to Israel—she among them—were becoming increasingly troubled by Israeli occupation and settlement policies.
“When Ari’s proposal came, it seemed to me that here was an Israeli who loved his country but could articulate issues in a way that American Jews could not. In America they would be regarded as not loyal to Israel,” she said. “Ari, who is a respected columnist at Haaretz, was the perfect person to do it. I loved the way he inserted himself into the book; I loved the way he retold Israeli history.”
Shavit acknowledges that the book was written very much with Americans in mind. The Hebrew edition will be out in Israel later this year, and the reaction there is likely to be markedly different from its reception in the United States, where the book appeared on The New York Times best-seller list.
I spoke to Shavit by phone as he traveled from American campus to campus addressing youth groups. “My passion and commitment is to try to bring the message of the book to young college students, to young American Jews and non-Jews,” he tells me. “It’s Israel’s obligation to reach out to young, progressive Americans—something I’m afraid my government is not doing. This is one of the most important battles for the Jewish future.”
The state of Israel and the Jewish diaspora in America, Shavit says, are the truly remarkable Jewish achievements of the past 65 years. “Both are now challenged. For too long there has been too strong an alliance between Tea Party America and Tea Party Israel. I want to contribute whatever I can to forge a new alliance between non-Tea Party America and non-Tea Party Israel. We need to do this to guarantee a Jewish future here and there.”
Will it happen?
“I’m cautiously optimistic about people, but pessimistic about the Israeli political system and leadership,” he says. “But I urge Americans to think of America ten years ago, when most thought the country had come under the control of conservative evangelists, and now we have Obama’s America. I think with the right leadership, in Israel and internationally, you’d be surprised by the readiness of a majority to move forward.”
Serge Schmemann is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times and a former Times bureau chief in Jerusalem.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Spiegel & Grau
2014, pp. 445, $28