The Broken Promised Land

March 9, 2014 § Leave a comment


This is my reaction to Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land:  The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”.  The book describes the creation of Israel in sixteen chronological chapters beginning in 1897, when the first Zionist pioneers arrived and established a small colony and ending with a shrewd discussion of the present internal and external conflicts which dominate the headlines about Israel.  I will try to express my own opinions with  humility appropriate for a gentile non-believer whose previous knowledge of Israel’s history was based on the Exodus movie starring Paul Newman and Sal Mineo and the novel on which it was based.  Although I have a Jewish son-in-law and three treasured Jewish grand-children, I have no claim to “insider” status.  Shavit, a talented journalist, states plainly his own opinions but also includes those of others with whom he disagrees.  I think his book contains important information that will aid those trying to understand the present issues that threaten peace in the Middle East.

Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit is well known in Israel as a columnist for Harretz, a major newspaper as well as a TV commentator on Israeli politics and government policy.  This book also was, to me, convincing evidence that he is a gifted writer.  Every page is strewn with apt metaphors and graceful word-pictures that seem to flow effortlessly from his mind.  Here are some examples:

His great-grandfather was Herbert Bentwich,  a wealthy successful British copyright lawyer.  He was one of the earliest Zionist leaders who began the process of establishing what became Israel.  Here are a couple of sentences from Shavit’s description of Bentwich’s first trip to Palestine.  “. . . as the flat-bottomed steamer Oxus carves the black water of the Mediterranean, Bentwich is still an innocent.  My great-grandfather does not wish to take a country and to establish a state; he wishes to face God.”  And later:  “He arrives on April 16 at the mouth of the ancient port of Jaffa.  I watch him as he awakens at 5:00 a.m. in his first-class compartment.   I watch him as he walks up the stairs to the oxus’s wooden deck in a light suit and a cork hat.  I watch him as he looks from the deck.  The sun is about to rise over the archways and turrets of Jaffa. And the land my great-grandfather sees is just as he hoped it would appear:  illuminated by the gentle dawn and shrouded by the frail light of promise.”

Throughout the book, Shavit shifts back and forth from third-person narrative to first person participant.  At least half of the book consists of transcripts of his interviews.  He gained access to the principal actors in each of the historical segments that comprise the chapters in his book.  The other half is Shavit’s informed commentary on the background and context surrounding the men he interviewed.

Here is a taste of his chapter entitled, “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition, 2000”.  “They call themselves the Nation.  The Dance Nation.  At 3:00 a.m. on most Thursday nights, Allenby 58 [a Tel Aviv club occupying a former movie theater] is at its peak. . . . And when the lights cut the dark hall with pulsating rays of pink and white, and the floor is full, and the stairways are crowded, and the top balconies are heaving, it seems that there is something here that is more than nightlife, something more than one more hot night in one more hot city at the dawn of the new millennium.”

I know that those with more sophisticated taste may find Shavit too richly flavored but I was captivated.

The Zionist Beginning

In the first few chapters of the book Shavit traces the establishment of the first Jewish colonial outposts, settlements and industries in Palestine.  The Zionist organization began in the late 1800’s as an effort to re-establish a Jewish nation in a part of North Africa then controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  Shavit portrays early Zionism as a secular socialist movement financed and led by Ashkenazim from Europe and Britain.  He follows the travels of a small group of Zionist-sponsored Brits, led by his great-grandfather.  As they explore Palestine, he portrays their perceptions so encapsulated by their cultural expectations that they fail to consider, or even to see, the dozens of primitive Arab villages that dot the land.  To the Zionists, this is the land of the Jews, to which they will return after centuries of  Diaspora.

Much of the land is purchased from  wealthy Arab landowners but, again, no serious thought is given to  thousands of Arab farmers and villagers, descendents of families who  occupied the land for centuries.

At first, this is not a problem.  The first Jewish immigrants  live peacefully with their Arab neighbors.  They use technology and engineering  to drain swamps, re-surface the land, irrigate it and convert deserts into flourishing groves of fruit trees.  Primitive villages become comfortable bustling towns  The indigenous Arabs are hired to work the new farms and they benefit from a healthier and more prosperous environment.

There’s No Place Like Home

Robert Frost wrote, ““Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  The Zionists established Frost’s aphorism as the unique immigration policy for their colony in Palestine.  The Jews faced two conflicting imperatives:  On the one hand, their culture was endangered by assimilation in Europe and the United States.  Intermarriage and the advantages of simply abandoning Jewish identity threatened extinction of Judaism.   In Eastern Europe Jewish shtetls were targeted by pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitic oppression.  On the other hand, the managers of the small North African colony, operating with limited resources and no formal support from any nation, would be sorely taxed to accommodate limitless waves of immigrants.  Also, sudden expansion of Jewish immigration would disturb the peaceful acceptance by the Arab population and the Arab countries surrounding the slim sliver of land between Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Shavit describes with obvious pride the way the Jews responded to these challenges.  They developed a young, committed and well trained military force.  He describes how it was inspired by the historical story of Masada, a mountain fortress where a small group of Jewish defenders chose suicide rather than surrender to a Roman army.  He devotes a chapter to the hurried construction of a huge complex of apartments to house arriving boatloads of immigrants.

These were the glory days of democratic socialism and secular political power.  The leaders were Ashkenazim  from Europe.  Farms were created and run by kibbutz organizations.  Shavit acknowledges that this sudden expansion of immigration overwhelmed and, in some instances, destroyed Arab village life and forced Arab families to flee to neighboring countries.  He offers no defense for this except to deny the efforts of some to equate it with the brutality of  Nazi expansion into Austria and Poland.  He writes, and I agree, that the Jews’ motives and methods were not analogous to the Nazis.  The Jews never embraced the kind of vicious philosophy that was at the Nazi core.  The clash between Zionist immigration and the indigenous Arab population was probably inevitable.  The Jews did not hate  Arabs but they could not let anything thwart what they perceived as their historical claim to their “promised land” and the preservation of Judaism.

The Wars – The Glory and the Shame

In the 1930’s and 40’s, Jews and Arabs fought guerrilla wars with each other  and with the British, who had succeeded the Ottomans as Palestine’s empirical overseer.  Jewish  terrorist organizations carried out violent bombing attacks on civilians, Arab and British.  The British and Arabs retaliated with similar brutality.  As stated earlier, the Masada-inspired military organization  was created and became the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, after the British withdrew from Palestine and the Nation of Israel was established in May, 1948.

The Arab countries surrounding Israel declared war when the Israel nation was formed.  The war was brilliantly led by Israeli generals, including Moshe Dayan.  The Israelis  swiftly defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and  Lebanon, a humiliation  that insured a neighborhood surrounding the new nation suffused with hatred and a festering desire for revenge.

This victory, however, was stained by incidents of harsh brutality, incidents recorded with unflinchingly vivid descriptions by Shavit, who writes about them with obvious regret and sorrow.  He describes the savage interrogations of Arab prisoners by an Israeli military man whom he does not name except to refer to him as “Bulldozer”.  He describes the deliberate killing of Arab civilians.  He devotes an entire chapter to the atrocity in Lydda, a medium sized Arab city located on the West Bank about 40 miles southeast of the Mediterranean port of Jaffa.

After Lydda surrenders to Israeli forces, negotiations commence between Israeli leaders and Arab civilian representatives.  A large number of Arabs take refuge in a mosque.  An Israeli armored vehicle enters the city and is fired upon.  It then fires a missile into the m0sque, killing the occupants.  The Israeli military then rounds up the remaining Arab population and forcibly evacuates them from Lydda in a long march of refugee men, women and children out of Israel into Jordan.  There is little water or food.  Stragglers are urged onward by Israeli soldiers firing over their heads.  Shavit ends this painful chapter, “I see the column marching east.  So many years have past, and yet the column is still marching east.  For columns like the column of Lydda never stop marching.”

The 1967 “Six Day War” was another decisive victory for the Israeli military.  A series of skirmishes between Israel, Syria and Egypt culminated in an Egyptian invasion of the Sinai desert and blocking the Straits of Tiran, a narrow passage that enabled Israel shipping access to the Red Sea.  Israel responded by destroying the air forces of four Arab states, driving the Egyptian army out of the Sinai.  The war ended with Israel expanding its territory into the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was another victory for Israel.  But this time, the Israelis were caught by surprise.  They came closer to disaster than in any previous conflict.  Their self confidence was shaken.  They strengthened their resolve to guard against future threats.

The Settlements – Barrier to Peace

Ari Shavit describes the origin of the settlements that now house 400,000 Israelis living illegally on the West Bank between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  A military outpost stationed in the West Bank to guard against a surprise attack on Israel was surreptitiously converted into a housing complex inhabited by a group of Orthodox Jews who regarded the West Bank as part of the land promised to Israel by God.  The settlement grew out of a mass movement within Israel to confront the weak Labor government with demands that Israel expand into the biblical lands set aside for the Jews.  When the government did not sanction, but did not take any action to force the withdrawal of the first settlement, the political forces supporting the settlements grew stronger.  In a short time, the West Bank became a permanent part of Israel.

Shavit does not conceal his belief that this development was and is a serious error.  His pessimism about the future of Israel is based, in large part, on this development.  He sees no likelihood that a “Two State Solution” will come to pass because he does not believe it is possible without dismantling the settlements.  And he sees no possibility that the Israeli government will find the courage or the ability to accomplish that.

The Bomb

One of the most interesting segments of Shavit’s book regards the remarkable achievement represented by Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  He has done some skillful research about how this was done.  He describes the results with care not to reveal classified material obtained from Israeli sources.  He interviewed one of those who helped establish the complex at Dimona, where the nuclear capability was created by adding Jewish brain power to material and knowledge acquired from external sources, primarily from the French.  The transcription of the interview is like a striptease dance.  Each dancer reveals almost everything necessary to guess the rest.  Israel has never formally declared their possession of a nuclear weapon but it is one of the worst kept secrets.  One jolting disclosure comes when the scientist being interviewed states that he is sure that Iran already has a nuclear weapon, regardless of Obma’s insistence that he will never allow it.  He, the scientist, does not state the basis for his belief, but he doesn’t sound like a man given to careless statements.

The Difference Between Perception and the Truth

As I read this book, packed with information and history new to me, I realized how carefully fashioned my perception of Israel was.  Without being unduly boastful, I claim to take an interest in public affairs, politics and history.   When I finished Shavit’s book, I realized that,  while I had not been lied to about Israel for the past fifty or sixty years, there was a lot of information that I believe was willfully omitted from the news sources I relied on.

I used the Internet to look at the New York Times in July of 1948, when the events in Lydda were occurring.  The July 12, 1948 edition of the Times had a lengthy report on the Israeli war.  The headline was, “Arabs Encircled at Vital Highway, Surrender Lydda”.    It included the following paragraph:  “Mopping up operations were still going on tonight, with armored car (sic) of both sides darting  back and forth, with mortor fire crashing about. . .  The Arabs were left little choice of direction in their withdrawal.  They had to flee eastward and over camel trails. . . .”  I looked both before and after this story, but found no hint at the wholesale slaughter of civilians or the brutality of the “Lydda column” portrayed by Shavit.  The implication of the Times story that the “Arabs” were military forces was plainly misleading.  The ones on those “camel trails” were civilian refugees expelled from their homes.

Protesters in Arab countries celebrate every summer what they call “Akba Day”.  “Akba” is the Arab word for the expulsion of Arabs by the Israelis following the May, 1948 wars.  The October 16, 2012 New York Times  contains a remarkable story containing video and interview transcripts of both Arabs and Israelis who were in Lydda in July, 1948.  Both describe the horror and express profound sadness still present in their memories after more than  sixty years.


I had several reactions to Shavit’s book, some of them required a few days of reflection before they surfaced.  At first, when I read of the atrocities and the terrorist attacks on civilians, the torturing of prisoners, I was appalled.  Later, I finally realized what really bothered me:  The more apt analogy is the American expansion into the West.  The progression from peaceful co-existence with the indigenous Indians, to fitful and unsuccessful efforts at negotiated peace arrangements, to brutal genocide that destroyed all but a few remnants of Indian culture and population – there are striking parallels, but with significant differences.  The forced removal of five Indian tribes from their homelands in the eastern part of the United States to reservations in Oklahoma in the 1830’s, now known as the “Trail of Tears”, is only one episode in the destructive record of our country’s history with Indian tribes.

The difference is that, while Israel removed the Arabs who obstructed the occupation of their “promised land”, they did not destroy them as we destroyed the Indian nations.  They were not guilty of genocide.  Their collective conscience and their culture precluded it.  They created enemies with long memories who now surround them.  And we now have an unqualified commitment to defend Israel from the consequences of that sequence of choices.  And we face that obligation as the Middle East appears to be on the threshold of an arms race involving nuclear weapons.  Shavit’s book is well written and packed with useful and interesting information, but it describes a future fraught with peril.


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