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Ari Shavit's Promised Land

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Ari Shavit knows Zionism achieved great miracles; he also knows those miracles sometimes came at great cost.

His My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel details the astounding success of the Zionist dream in producing a vibrant, creative, and innovative democracy in an inhospitable land in a hostile region while not ignoring the dispossession of the Palestinians and the horror of a nearly 50-year occupation.

Shavit is a fourth-generation Israeli, a secular Jew, a believer in Zionism, and a columnist for the left-of center newspaper Haaretz. He writes lovingly of his native land, but this is no work of propaganda.

Israel’s story is Ari Shavit’s story, evident in the first chapter of his book, the first of 16 epochs he chooses to describe Israel’s creation and its triumph and tragedy. He begins in 1897 with his great-grandfather, a religious English Jew — a successful lawyer and eventual settler — who arrives in Palestine to survey the land the same year in which the first World Zionist Congress is held.

Shavit then takes the reader into the swamps drained by Zionist pioneers, onto a kibbutz as it was formed, to the orange groves of Rehovot, and to the creation of the Masada myth of the heroic Jew who never surrenders.

Shavit relates the birth of Israel through the horror of Lydda, an Arab city that sat astride the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “Lydda is our black box,” he says. To know of Lydda and the forced expulsion of its indigenous population is to know the contradictions inherent in Zionism, a movement created in the late 19th century by left-wing, socialist, and mostly secular Jews who knew Auschwitz lay in the future. They could not foresee the crematoria (who could?), but they understood Jews had no future in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe. The need to find a home for Europe’s embattled Jews obscured the reality of that home: There already was another people on the land. “From the beginning,” Shavit writes, “Zionism skated on thin ice.”

The failure to see the Palestinians made it easier to do what the Zionists deemed necessary in the 1948 war: Expel Arabs from choice lands. “The choice is stark,” Shavit says with self-honesty. “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

Yet even the horrors of the expulsion obscures a simple fact: Israel today is 20 percent Arab. Lydda represents a 20th century horror — what Arabs call “the Nakba,” the catastrophe — but Israel never replicated the standard behavior of Europe following the end of the Second World War, when the victors approved population transfers resulting in an ethnic reorganization of Eastern Europe. Nor did Israel witness the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Post-independence Israel saw the absorption, in several waves, of Jews from various regions, the Dimona project which gave tiny Israel its never admitted but widely known nuclear umbrella, the rise of the ultra-orthodox and their entry into politics, the replacing of the collectivist socialist dream of Zionism with a thriving, prosperous high-tech Israel, the peace process, and more epochs, all detailed in Shavit’s vivid and often anguished prose.

Anguished because Shavit understands Zionism’s successes and its costs. “I see it as my role,” Shavit told NPR recently, “to keep Zionism, to maintain the Jewish state, to protect Israel, to love Israel, and yet to realize that we have done wrong to others and to try to limit that moral damage that was done and to enable the two people[s] to live, eventually, in the future, in peace after they come to terms with their dramatic and traumatized pasts.”

The trauma continues with occupation of the territories. Shavit experienced first hand the moral corruption inherent in Israel as an occupying force. He realizes Israel must find a way to extricate itself from the territories.

Peace, Shavit knows, is not easy. Many Palestinians have not forgotten the trauma of 1948 and don’t accept a Jewish democratic Israel. Yet he understands that Israel can’t wait for the day when every Palestinian embraces the Jewish state. Security for Israel, and the continuation of the Zionist dream, demands that Israel find a way to separate from the West Bank, just as it did from Gaza.

Israel is a Jewish state, a nation occupying all of the Land of Israel, and a democracy. Shavit knows the truth of Thomas Friedman’s oft-state dictum: Israel can only be two of those three. If it decides to be Jewish and in all of the Land of Israel, it will cease to be democratic (the Arabs in Israel and the West Bank will be too large a voting bloc to be tolerated democratically). It can be democratic and occupy all of the Land of Israel, but then Israel will cease to be Jewish (for Jews will be out-numbered and out-voted by the Arabs of the West Bank and Israel). It can be Jewish and democratic, but then it must give up the West Bank.

Israel’s final tragedy is its inability — so far — to decide which two it wants to be.

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