Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (Book Review #102 of 2015)


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

This book is the expression of Israeli pride in the tone of a guilty conscience.
It helps to know the author's biography, what little he shares, to get his point of view. Shavit grew up in the 1960s as the great grandchild of some of the first immigrant settlers at the turn of the 20th century, so he feels a connection to the original Zionist aspirations. He later became an IDF paratrooper before moving on to philosophy, progressive politics, and journalism as a reporter for the newspaper Haaretz. It also helps to have read something like Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews to get a more complete picture. Immediately following this book, I read (Palestinian) Izzeldin Abdulaish's I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity which gives a different perspective over much of the same time period. From Abdulaish you can see things that Shavit omits. I recommend reading both in tandem. Oren's Six Days of War added further context for me.  This book zooms in on the 20th century and adds details, commentary, and emotion that Johnson could never have honestly done.

The work opens with childhood memories of the 1967 war and its aftermath. Occupying Arab territories was seen as noble colonialism -- bringing water and electricity to backward areas and then leaving when there was peace. Only when he was on house-to-house raids with the IDF did he get a very different view and learn a different truth. The author relives the memories of his ancestors and other figures he interviews as he tells their story, effectively making their stories his own, or all Israelis'.

Shavit relives the 1897 landing in Jaffa of one of his great grandfathers along with other British Zionists. His grandfather was both religious and a follower of Theodr Herzl who helped found the movement by arguing that the only escape from constant persecution was a Jewish state. Zionism was also seen by Herzl as necessary to preserve Jews from eminent assimilation as progressive Western countries opened doors for Jews to have more rights.

Shavit's other great grandfather was Dr. Yofik, who I imagine he was probably acquainted with agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, whose Zionist story is chronicled in Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia.
There were maybe 500,000 Arabs and other peoples already living in Palestine at that time, but without property rights of land ownership, and largely in poverty. Shavit wonders if these people were even seen by the colonials, or if they were seen as just another Imperial British colonization project. Early Zionists didn't talk about conquering, they talked of rebuilding, farming, and being free. The irony is that as the Arab towns trading alongside the Jewish ones became more prosperous they were also later seen as more of a threat to the Zionist project.

The movement was largely secular as any religious sentiment was seen as jeopardizing the mission. The Jews had a homeland, they were returning home, and that was that. Long since forgotten to the Western mind, the Kishinev/Chi┼činau pogroms from 1903-1905, fueled by Russian antisemimism, were influential in convincing many Jews there was no future in Europe; Jews fled either to America or to Palestine.

Skip ahead to 1921 and you experience the building of the Meuhad/Ein Herod kibbutz by a group of young Jewish Socialists, determined to carve out a perfectly progressive commune in a valley with the spring of Gideon. This kibbutz would help spawn the wider movement as more Jews moved to Palestine to duplicate the project. The kibbutzim would eventually need to form armed forces to defend themselves against increasing Arab attacks and be the tip of the spear for the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948.

The kibbutz features an orange grove and experiments with Western technology. As more educated move from the West, all communities benefit from medicine and technology. By 1936 they have almost 10,000 inhabitants and are exporting over two million crates of citrus, numbers which would grow rapidly. But as Arab attacks grow more persistent and organized, the kibbutz has to build a standing army to defend its slice of this now-contested land. There are finally organized reprisals and revenge killings, a foretaste of things to come. By 1938 there are ideas of "transfers" of Arabs to "non-Jewish" territories. Throughout the 1930s there are Arab revolts against the British mandate and riots against the Jewish minority that is rapidly increasing despite British attempts to curb migration.

The formative moment in Jewish Israeli history comes when when Rommel's tanks move toward Africa in 1941 and Jewish settlers fear Hitler's clear annihilation strategy in Europe moving toward Palestine. Shavit recounts Commander Gutman's making would-be soldiers climb the clifs at Masada, the scene of massacre and mass suicide to end the Roman-Jewish War long ago. That act inspired the nation. "Within a few months the ethos of Masada becomes the formative ethos of the entire nation. Masada is now at the heart of the Zionist narrative, defining its now Palestine-born population." Here, they will make their stand.

Shavit tells the tragic story of the Ben Shemen Youth Village founded by Siegfried Lehmann in 1927 in the Lydda Valley and home to 600 students by 1946, largely orphans imported from Germany. Imagine being a German or Polish child who witnessed your whole family die in a death camp, and now you're going to be raised by strangers in a land far away; Shavit retells their stories of finding community quite vividly. Lehmann and his youth befriended local Arabs and worked together in community. After UN members toured the area in 1947, the UN offered partitioned land for both Jews and Arabs, a two-state solution, but the Arabs rejected this proposal. Egypt began bombing the night the UN declared Israel a state in 1948. The Arab Legion laid seige to this village and killed eleven youths, who were evacuated while the village became a military outpost in the valley. As Israeli forces captured territory, it eventually closed in on the town of Lydda, where many civilians were killed. During one panic, Israeli forces killed 250 Palestinians, opening fire on houses and a mosque in what Shavit calls a "massacre." 35,000 Arabs were then deported from the town.

"For decades, Jews succeeded in hiding from themselves the contradiction between their national movement and Lydda. For forty-five years, Zionism pretended to be the Atid factory and the olive groves and the Ben Shemen youth village living in peace with Lydda. Then, in three days in the cataclysmic summer of 1948, Lydda was no more."

In his post-mortem, Shavit interviews the Israeli brigade commander. War was inevitable since thriving Arab population centers in the area were an unacceptable obstacle to re-inhabiting Palestine. Arab attacks allowed Israelis to overreach in response. The erstwhile persecuted refugees now created long caravans of Arab refugees. The legendary commander Gutman sees the irony. "For one long moment, he who was their Nebuchadnezzar wished to be their Jeremiah."

It's not said by Shavit, but certainly PTSD plays some sort of role in the psyche of the Israelis carrying out atrocities. Having witnessed atrocities in the Nazi death camps and having felt the loss of their parents and loved ones their entire lives, certainly retribution against others who would exterminate them. Some may have felt the Arab attacks were not fair, they were offered a state in 1947, after all. I'm sure some argue that the Israelis were quite merciful, they let the majority of the population leave in peace and even gave them time to pack their bags. While many evangelical Christians in America interpret events in 1948 by to promises made by God to Israel millenia ago, never once in the book of Joshua or other aspects of Israelite history of brutal conquest in this land or religious memory invoked, other than the "gospel of Masada." Shavit rationalizes Lydda like this:

"Those events were a crucial phase of the Zionist revolution, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish state. Lydda is an integral and essential part of the 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...I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live. But, looking straight ahead at Lydda, I wonder if peace is possible."

Refugees from Europe poured in after WWII, especially after antisemitic pogroms in Poland. Reparations were few and far between, companies that profited off of Jewish slave labor did not offer much in return. (See Johnson's History of the Jews for more details on holocaust and post-holocaust activity.) After 1948, they began to pour in from Arab territories where they'd lived peacefully since the Babylonian and later Roman exiles and rather well since the British mandate. He interviews those who lived in places like Baghdad, where a thriving Jewish community was forced to leave.

The author writes of the struggle to assimilate. Jewish immigrants arrived destitute, speaking various languages, unable to find work, and they were wards of the generous welfare state and caused economic collapse. But foreign aid and the influx of human capital eventually helped Israel roar back in the 1950s. Millions of immigrants founded 20 new cities and "could pretend Palestine wasn't there." 700,000 Palestinians "lost their homes and they were not yet united as a people."

Shavit then chronicles construction of the top-secret nuclear reactor beginning in 1957, with French knowledge, hidden from repeated American attempts to discover whether it existed. He writes that this chapter was cleared with Israeli censors and I am surprised at the details he gives about the facility, which supposedly created the first nuclear device in 1967. A country of only 2.5 million had created the "most egalitarian socialst democracy" and a nuclear arsenal.

Then came June, 1967, which began with existential fear of extermination and ended with more land but greater doubts about the government and the military's abilities. Shavit writes that this internal crisis worsened in the 1973 Yom Kippur war when the military was caught by surprise. This was when people lost faith in a purely secular Israel and began to turn to Judaism. Shavit rants against this tide as undermining Zionism altogether.

The temple mount, for example is about evidence of ownership; it's about the "Kingdom of Israel," and this creates an untenable position. The international community does not accept Israel's claim to all the land it occupies and likely never will. They certainly do not want to become South Africa where everyone boycotts them. Israel has now built prisons and tortures, Shavit writes of systematic brutality akin to what was seen in Nazi Germany when soldiers just obey their orders.

Shavit tells the story of modern progressive Jews, those who desire peace out of a desire for normalcy. But he admits that peace is an idea not based on the reality of Arab opposition. Arabs will always see the territory, even that granted in 1948, as occupied.

He writes in amused fashion about millenials and homosexuals who now parade openly in "straight" Tel Aviv. To them, Israel can now afford to have fun and be free. He tells about the split between the

The greater problem that Israel faces is demographic. There is still the problem of "oriental" Jews from elsewhere in the Middle East who come in with less education and higher poverty rates. Ashkinazi Jews of white, European backgrounds look down on others as of second-class. By 1990, 50% of the population was "oriental," and this group is more conservative Orthodox.

Shavit interviews central banker (currently the US Federal Reserve Vice Chairman) Stanley Fischer who complains that as the Orthodox grow in political power they legislate more favor toward Orthodoxy. These people tend to be less entrepreneurial and avoid many fields of work, so a greater tax burden is being thrust on the more secular Ashkinazi. Redistribution is tilted toward that 50% and growing population which now lack incentives to produce.

One entrepreneuring Ashkinazi that Shavit interviews is the founder of Strauss Dairy Products, and $82 billion conglomerate which now has over half the market share of ice cream. When asked "What does Israel contribute or make possible for your business?" entrepreneurs respond "People, scientists, and work ethic." Shavit, like Fischer, is worried that this is going away.

But Israel faces the same problem as most of the Western world. The 1950s-1970s privatization led to growth and income, but eventually there came an increase in inequality and greater pressure on the middle class. Productivity growth is now a real concern in Israel.

In Chapter 16, Shavit confronts the "existential threat of a nuclear Iran," recounting how Israel formerly bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria. Writing from 2012, he wonders if the world has woken up in time (he hints that he has inside information and that Iran is indeed a threat).

The author concludes that the great migration to Israel is the Zionists' triumph. But fewer Jews abroad mean less influence and less Jewish memory outside Israel. Still, 46% of territory currently occupied by Israelis is Palestinian Arab, and their population is growing faster than the Jewish one. He seems open to the idea of returning to the pre-1967 borders if it would save the Zionist project. The existential threat from Arab neighbors seems lessened now that the Arab Spring has exposed internal divisions and weakened pan-Arab nationalism.

Shavit concludes that Israel offers "life on the edge, life lived lustfully" and basically expresses hope that the Orthodox Jew will eventually become less Orthodox and we'll have a new more secular Israeli identity that is secure from within and honest with itself. This seems wishful thinking, contrary to the demographic issues he has described, and critics have pointed out that Shavit is one of many who pine for the glory days of the secular 1950s with its roaring economy and can-do ambition. This work at once takes pride in those days while also expressing guilt at what those days were built upon. I give it 4 stars out of 5 as a great peek into the secular Jewish psyche but with some notable omissions and a bias for his own political views.

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