My Promised Land

A dehumanizing portrait of Palestinians from an Israeli Liberal.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. By Ari Shavit. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2013. 464 pp

Since the collapse of the Oslo peace process in the year 2000, a number of factors have converged to shift Israel’s ideological center of gravity sharply to the right. This shift is best appreciated in the metamorphosis of the country’s “moderates.” Benjamin Netanyahu, a diehard opponent of Palestinian self-determination, now occupies the “pragmatic center” of Israeli politics. Likewise, when it comes to what passes for mainstream dissent, the peacenik anguish of literary intellectuals like Amos Oz and David Grossman has given way to the thinly veiled apologetics of Ari Shavit, a self-styled anti-occupation liberal who gleefully cheered Israel’s 2008–09 bombardment of the Gaza Strip. A veteran correspondent and columnist for Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper, Shavit has penned a seductive defense of the Zionist enterprise that advances a number of highly reactionary propositions under the guise of “centrist” thinking.

As its title suggests, My Promised Land is not a work of academic history but “a personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel.” Based on interviews conducted over the course of Shavit’s journalistic career, its “characters” range from nameless citrus cultivators to high-ranking figures in Israel’s political, military, and scientific establishments. A scion of the country’s Ashkenazi aristocracy, Shavit weaves family history into his narrative, lending it a compelling insider intimacy. But the Jewish-Israeli human stories, poetically rendered, are regrettably laced with the author’s tendentious accounts of Middle Eastern history, as well as a set of schizophrenic political jeremiads that combine extreme neoconservative hawkishness on Iran’s nuclear program with anti-occupation moralizing. The most troubling aspect of My Promised Land, however, is Shavit’s subtle but pervasive dehumanization of Palestinians through rhetorical acts of commission and omission.

Wending his way though Israel’s bloodstained origin story, Shavit imbues his Jewish protagonists—soldiers, survivors, farmers, pioneers—with a robust, multidimensional psychology. They love, they hate. They experience guilt and compassion and existential fear. For the most part, their moral shortcomings are duly weighed against their noble intentions, their troubled consciences, and their instinctive desire for self-preservation in a hostile world. Empathy is, of course, a cherished quality in conflict reporting. Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree is perhaps the best example of a journalistic account that employs emotional portraiture to enhance our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But unlike Tolan, Shavit denies equal treatment to his Palestinian characters, to the extent they can be said to exist at all. When “Arabs” appear in My Promised Land, they most often appear as malarial peasants, anonymous killers, anti-Semitic mobs, bullet-scarred cadavers, or vanquished refugee columns.

In his most celebrated chapter, Shavit depicts the “cleansing” of the Palestinian city of Lydda at the hands of Jewish militants during the war of 1948. This is Shavit’s big reveal, his courageous liberal challenge to previous popular Zionist accounts that denied or sanitized Zionism’s role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. To his credit, he does not censor or downplay what recent Israeli historiography has established beyond a reasonable doubt: that Jewish forces precipitated the departure of 750,000 Palestinians using massacres and direct expulsions, transforming Arab Palestine into a Jewish-majority country. He paints the battle scene unflinchingly:

Some 3rd Regiment soldiers spray the wounded in the mosque with gunfire. Others toss grenades into neighboring houses. Still others mount machine guns in the streets and shoot at anything that moves. After half an hour of revenge, there are scores of corpses in the streets, seventy corpses in the mosque. The corpses from the mosque are buried at night in a deep hole dug by some nearby Arabs, and a tractor is brought in before morning to cover the hole.

Nor does Shavit hesitate to describe the monstrous psychology of war. A Jewish soldier nicknamed Bulldozer “hunts down the Arabs seeking refuge between the old stone houses of the ancient city. He feels delight in hunting. Delight in killing. The almost sexual pleasure of laying men down.” But unlike his Palestinian counterparts, Bulldozer is fundamentally human, a product of his brutal environment. Earlier in the paragraph we are told that he “finds himself nearly alone as an armed Arab mob storms the building he is in. The mob shouts ‘Slaughter the Jews.’… He feels the cold shudder of approaching death.” A paragraph later we learn of Bulldozer’s emotional state as he discovers his comrades’ lifeless bodies: “Once again, he feels fear. He has a sudden, rare moment of understanding of what these few months of war have done to him, what a nightmare he is living.”

A sensitive portrayal, and certainly not unusual for the genre. But what of the anonymous “Arabs” Shavit has chanting “Slaughter the Jews?” Have they no backstory, no complex inner life? A recurring feature of My Promised Land is that Palestinian violence is presented without emotional context or psychological underpinnings (to say nothing of legitimate political grievances). It occurs randomly, senselessly. Its perpetrators are rarely individuated persons. The bloodthirsty mob is the primary vehicle of Palestinian political expression.

In describing the genesis of the 1936 Arab Revolt, Shavit neglects to mention decades of thwarted political activism undertaken by Palestinians in opposition to the Balfour Declaration and its codification in the British Mandate, which denied political self-determination to Palestine’s Arab population in deference to Zionist aims. Nor is much said about the unprecedented non-violent civil resistance that characterized the initial phase of the revolt, before it was crushed by the British administration. Instead, Shavit describes an irrational eruption of animal brutality:

[A] rumor swept through Jaffa that four Arabs had been murdered in neighboring Tel Aviv. Hundreds of Arabs thronged the streets… they gathered on street corners, waiting for prey. They stoned Jewish buses, Jewish taxis, and Jewish automobiles. They chased innocent Jews passing by. Chaim Pashigoda, twenty-three, a law clerk, was on his way to the registrar’s office in Jaffa. Armed with stones, hammers, and knives, a Palestinian crowd attacked and murdered him.

This is a typical passage. Inexplicable bouts of Arab murderousness and anti-Semitism propel Shavit’s account of Zionist history at every turn.

In Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land, a book-length critique of My Promised Land, forensic scholar Norman Finkelstein includes a table that juxtaposes Shavit’s various descriptions of Palestinians and Jews. What it reveals is the systematicity with which he associates Palestinians with filth, disease, and cultural and technological backwardness. By contrast, Shavit goes to excessive lengths to underscore his Jewish characters’ taste for European high culture, to the degree that it constitutes something of a leitmotif. Jewish-Israeli contributions to agronomy and medicine, among other civilization-enhancing values, are repeatedly underscored.

Given their pervasiveness, one cannot escape the feeling that these dehumanizing tropes serve a strategic function in the book’s overarching polemic. And indeed, the reader’s acceptance of Shavit’s most provocative contention—that the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was not only tragic but also morally justified on the grounds that it brought the State of Israel into existence—is emotionally and rhetorically premised on this prior matrix of orientalist characterizations. As Finkelstein puts it: “The tacit message is that Palestinians, if left to their own devices, would have produced just another destitute, dreary, and despotic Arab state, while the world would have been deprived of Israel’s high-tech industries, cutting-edge inventions, and flourishing cultural landscape.”

The undisguised racism of My Promised Land is unfortunate, not least because the book contains several chapters that are legitimately fascinating and offer keen historical insights. For instance, the account of Shmaryahu Gutman’s quasi-mystical “Masada journey”—a grueling, ritualistic night-trek to the legendary mountain fortress of Masada that steeled the resolve of a generation of Haganah fighters—is an object lesson in nationalist mythmaking. Other examples are Shavit’s sympathetic portrait of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox powerbroker Aryeh Deri, and his compact history of the Dimona nuclear reactor project. Amputated from the poisonous body of My Promised Land, these chapters could make for instructive additions to course syllabi. For that reason, the book is worth cautiously perusing, particularly in conjunction with Finkelstein’s slim volume. But those interested in an honest portrayal of Zionism, Israel, and the conflict with the Palestinians should look elsewhere.

Matthew Berkman is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2009 to 2011, he served as a research associate for the U.S./Middle East Project in New York.